THE GIFT OF RECEIVING. . .

Last week I had a minor surgical procedure done under general anesthesia. When I was in the pre-op room getting prepped—in the midst of stainless steel, bright lights, beeping machines, and bustling nurses—I had what I can only call a holy moment: a spontaneous, unexpected shift in my mind, an opening of my heart.

Hospitals are not usually regarded as sacred sites, but I was reminded of a conversation I had on a group pilgrimage to southeastern China with Khentrul Lodro Thaye Rinpoche. As we sat together on a bus one day, lumbering along a rocky mountain road, I asked him: “I’ve heard that going on a pilgrimage to holy places brings many blessings. What does that mean, exactly? How does one know?”

“Blessings are a shift in the mind,” he replied. “Sometimes the shift is subtle, and sometimes, when the conditions are right and come together, the shift is spontaneous and immediate.”

It was like that. 

The morning of surgery I woke early, before light. Lying there under my warm covers in the stillness before dawn, I felt unusually calm. I mentally set an intention to be fully present, to bring an open heart and curiosity to each person I encountered in the hospital that day.

After I checked in at the admittance desk, I was escorted into a pre-op room by a young buoyant nurse in green scrubs named Claire. She kindly instructed me to disrobe and put on a patient’s gown. I’d never seen such a thing. It was huge and cumbersome, like being wrapped up in an unwieldy tent with many convoluted layers. I wrestled it on and climbed into bed. Her eyes twinkled. “You’re going to like this,” she said as she connected the hose in her hand to an adaptor in the gown. “And, it even has a remote!” she added. Immediately, hot air flooded the layers of material, bathing me in such a delicious warmth that I felt like I had been enveloped in a soft, protective womb. It was heavenly. I sighed and closed my eyes, letting the warmth seduce me. She then put her gentle hand on my forehead and said softly, “We’re going to take good care of you.”

I relaxed completely, trusting that, and right there, in that moment, I had an embodied experience of fully receiving the kindness and grace of another, of having it fill me to the brim so completely that it had nowhere else to go but to spill out to everyone around me. It was pure love, pure joy.

As I waited to be taken into the operating room, I was so relaxed I felt giddy. I had worked as an operating room nurse in the ’60s and ’70s, so I knew this culture. I was comfortable in that environment; these were my people. The nurses enjoyed popping into my room. We chatted and laughed. I listened to their stories, commiserated with their burnout, encouraged them when they shared their struggles and expressed their aspirations. The anesthesiologist came in—a young, hip guy with sexy eyes and a booming laugh. “Hey,” I said to him. “Did you see that documentary, The Rescue? How ‘bout that anesthesiologist!”

“Oh my God, I did!” he replied. “It changed the trajectory of my professional career. I kept thinking. . . ‘What would I have done? What drugs would I have used? Would I have had his courage?’ It was pretty gutsy of him to sedate those soccer players.“

We chatted on until he looked up at the clock. “Yikes, I still have to ask you some medical questions. We’ve got to get this show on the road. Say. . . you seem pretty chill, but would you like me to give you some happy juice before they take you into the OR?”

I laughed. “Absolutely. I’ll take anything you want to give me!” 

“Right on! You’re in good hands. I’ll take excellent care of you.”

Later, in the recovery room when I was fully awake, I continued to ride the wave. The recovery room nurse asked, “I can give you a snack. What would you like?”

“I’m starving. I’ll take one of everything you have!” I replied.

“Great,” she laughed, as she piled chocolate pudding, yogurt, crackers, and apple juice onto the bedside table.

It has now been six days since my surgery. I know that something changed for me. Something broke through there. I wasn’t looking for it; it just happened. There has been a shift within me from an unexamined view that a willingness to receive undermines a commitment to offer or to serve. I’ve held this mistaken understanding my whole life, yet it often goes hand in hand with how we hold what it means to be selfless or good.

I was taught that it is “better to give than to receive,” and as someone who has taken a bodhisattva vow, I have tried to live my life in accordance with that view. However, this “receiving” piece has been missing for me. In fact, I have wrestled with it, pushed against it. Somehow I felt unworthy to receive. A therapist once said to me, “Does your cat question whether she’s worthy or deserving enough to receive your pets? No. She absorbs it all, madly purrs, and loves you back in return.”

I am aware that when I close off to and dismiss acts of kindness and generosity, I am left with a heart that feels impoverished and diminished—focused only on myself. Allowing myself to be fully filled by kindness in the hospital room that day nourished me to give in kind to others—with delight, wholeheartedly, joyfully. Receiving is not separate from giving. And the more we are able to offer to others, even in the humblest of ways, the more resourced they become and the more able they are to give to others in return. It is a continuum. I got it.

Goodness. . . Who knew that when I went in for a surgical procedure that morning I would come away with a gift. 

TONGLEN IN THE ER. . .

patient-and-nurse-3

The curtain was drawn, but I could hear him moaning in the bed next to me. Soft, plaintive moans. His cough was deep and raspy. A grey-haired doctor came into the room, stethoscope draped around his neck. “Matt, your Covid test was negative, but you do have viral pneumonia. We’re going to give you some prednisone and some Toradol for your rib pain. It’s like an injectable ibuprofen. I’ll come back to check on you soon.”

I was in a chair on the other side of the curtain. I had spent the entire day in a jam-packed ER with hordes of other patients and had taken note of this young man out of the corner of my eye as we trudged from one waiting area to the next like dutiful sheep, waiting to be seen. It was not a good time to be in the hospital, what with the Covid surge and all, and spending nine hours in an emergency room wouldn’t have been my choice, but my blood pressure had gone rogue and I was sent here from Urgent Care. 

Sitting there, waiting for my lab work to come back, I listened to his shallow, erratic breathing next to me. Suddenly, a loud, high-pitched, squeaky voice blasted the room through the loudspeaker over my head, a voice like Minnie Mouse babbling into a microphone. It ceased as suddenly as it had started as if a needle had been abruptly yanked off a victrola. Oops. Someone forgot to turn off the microphone at the nurses’ station. We both burst out laughing. “Matt, what are you doing over there? Watching Disney cartoons on your phone?” I heard him chuckle. “By the way,” I added, “you’re going to love those drugs. Take it from me; that’s a miracle-feel-good-fast combo. You’ll be better in no time.

He pulled the curtain back, turned to his side, and peered at me over his mask. His eyes looked weary; his brow was furrowed. “Really? That would be so dope. I’ve been pretty wretched for a week.”

I gently held his gaze. Breathing in, wishing I could shoulder his load. Breathing out, offering him whatever he needs. Giving and receiving. In. Out. In. Out. Emergency rooms and hospitals are always fertile ground for doing Tonglen practice. Instead of leaning into “woe is me,” there are ample opportunities to focus on the despair of others as they overflow the beds and corridors.

“You know, this has been a pretty shitty two and a half years for me,” he confessed. “My grandparents, my mother, father, and twelve other members of my family have died. Cancer took every last one of them. When my parents were sick, I took care of them. Did everything for them. I would sing Amazing Grace over and over again when they were dying; it seemed to bring them comfort. Sometimes, even now, it’s like I hear that song playing everywhere, but it’s probably all in my head because when I ask, nobody else seems to hear it. Now there’s just me and my two sisters left. They’re my only kin. They look up to me, you know, and I’m trying to hold it together for them. I’m the first one in our family that’s ever graduated from high school and had a real job; I’m a night manager in a grocery store. I’ve tried hard, but all my life I’ve been unlucky. Flat out, no luck. That’s just the way it’s been.” 

He continued to talk like a dam had burst, spilling pent-up sorrows all over the bed. I noticed him clutching onto some small plastic cylinders hanging from a chain around his neck. “Some of my mom and dad’s ashes are in here,” he volunteered when he saw me staring at them. “I keep ‘em close to my heart. Say. . . listen to me going on and on about myself. I hope your blood pressure and headache get better.”  

There was something so tender, so kind about this man, I felt an ache in my heart. “Matt, you are a very, very good human being. You are special, and I think your luck is going to change.”

“No one has ever told me I was special in my entire life. Or that I was good. Never. Thank you. Thank you for saying that. Do you seriously think my life could get better?”

“I do. I really do. Expand your vision. Keep it wide open as you go about your day. Watch to see what possibilities might be coming in from the side or are right in front of you but you haven’t been able to see them yet. I definitely think your luck is going to change.”

The doctor and nurse came back into the room right then to send him home. As he packed up and left, he paused at the door to say goodbye, making the shape of a heart at his chest. I gave him a thumbs-up as he went on his way. 

Breathing in, I wish to relieve his burdens. Breathing out, I offer him all the grace and good fortune I have experienced in my life. . . 

ANOTHER TALE FROM BUS # 13. . . GRETA

She boarded the bus and swung into a front seat, directly across from me. She was young, maybe in her twenties. Her curly hair was cut short, and she wore a green sundress and black, high-top sneakers. She clutched a small, knitted bag on her lap. At the end of a leash, gripped in her hand, was a large, brown, shaggy-haired dog, who sat on the floor next to her, resting its head on her knee. There was a large swelling protruding from its left cheek.

I smiled through my mask. “What’s your dog’s name?” I asked.

She responded quickly, in sign language. I shrugged my shoulders, my palms up. “I’m so sorry. I don’t understand.” Reaching into her bag, she drew out a piece of paper and pencil and started scribbling. Turning the paper towards me, I read GRETA.

 “Hello, Greta. What a beautiful doggie you are.”

Above her mask, the women looked at me with penetrating blue eyes. Her brow furrowed. She cocked her head, hesitant at first. Then she leaned forward in her seat, nodding as if she had come to a decision. I nodded back and continued smiling. 

Reaching back into her bag, she grabbed another piece of crumpled paper and began to madly scribble again, shifting her gaze back and forth from me to the paper. I was coming to my stop and reached up to pull the cord. As the bus slowed down, she clutched the paper in front of my face with two hands. It said: MY DOG JUST GOT DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER. PLEASE PRAY FOR HER.

I stood up and clasped my two hands together. “Oh, I will!” I assured her. “I absolutely will pray for Greta. I promise!” I stepped off the bus and looked back at her. She had turned around and put her palm on the window. With the other hand, she held up the note. I put my hand over hers and we locked eyes. I touched my heart and gave her a thumbs up as the bus began to pull away. I made a mental note to add Greta to my nightly prayer list.

My bus ride to work only takes five minutes, but I continue to be amazed, that even in such brief moments, when I can be present, tune in to others, and listen to receive, not to just respond, people feel that. They feel safe, and sometimes, like with Greta’s mom, they will fiercely and tenderly place their vulnerability into your hands. 

SOURDOUGH STARTER IN THE TIME OF COVID ~ AN OFFERING

bread 2In mid-March, as the number of positive cases and deaths from Covid-19 continued to rise, our governor put our state on lockdown. Life came to a near-standstill. Confined to my home, I spent hours at the computer, bearing witness to the devastation and massive loss of life caused by this virus as it rampaged without mercy through local communities and across the globe.  I watched doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers step up to the front lines, putting their lives and the lives of their families in danger to care for the people stricken by this disease.

They’re your people! You should be working alongside them. 

These thoughts pushed at me, penetrated my dreams. I had been a nurse for fifty years, and even though I’m retired, my deep impulse is still to turn into the danger, to respond without hesitation to a crisis. It’s what nurses do; it’s in our DNA.

But now I’m a 76-year-old woman with a bad back. My responsibility in this pandemic is not to put on my scrubs but to stay home. I get it. I’m in the elder, high-risk category, and by sheltering in place, I am less likely to put my life and others in jeopardy, causing an unnecessary burden on our health care system. But it felt inadequate. 

What to do? How could I support my community from the confines of my home? 

It came to me. . . Sourdough starter! 

I’ve been baking my own bread for years, and since the quarantine, more and more people are learning to bake bread as well. It’s become a thing, and it’s hard to do because there is no yeast in the stores. Well, who needs yeast when you have a sourdough starter. 

I put a notice on our Nextdoor Neighbor website: Giving away sourdough starter. Message me if you are interested. It took less than five minutes; the requests started to flood in! 

For the next two weeks, scheduling arrivals every hour, hordes of masked people poured into my backyard garden. First, they picked up their bag of goodies—a jar of sourdough starter; printed sheets with instructions on how to care for it as well as recipes and other informational tidbits; a baggie containing organic flour for the first feeding; and a sample double-edged razor blade to score the bread before it goes into the oven. Then, they listened as I stood on my patio and gave them the transmission.

This starter has lineage; it’s been passed down from person to person for 100 years. It’s alive and depends on the wild yeast and bacteria from the air, the flour, and especially your bare hands. Do not use spoons or your Kitchen Aid! Your relationship with this starter will be intimate. The bread you will make from it is simple and hardy, made with pure ingredients. It will sustain and ground you. It needs minimal attention, but it does need your trust. It requires time and your faith that it knows what it is doing. You don’t knead this dough in a traditional way; you stretch and fold it upon itselfthen leave it. Stretch and foldthen leave it. Like that… Now, go forth. Be safe. Wash your hands. And bake!

Clutching their goodie bags, they departed—happy, little, prospective, sourdough bread bakers. I felt like a neighborhood drug dealer!

It was suggested by some that I should consider going into the sourdough starter business. That never crossed my mind. This was not a monetary transaction; it was an offering, a small thing I could safely do for my community in the middle of a pandemic. 

And, as with most offerings, what goes around comes around. The rewards I received in return were bountiful: connection, warm engagement, a feeling of solidarity among neighbors—not to mention fresh cookies, bouquets of garden flowers, more jars, toilet paper, and even a cherished bottle of Lysol spray!

People shared their stories. . . 

This starter was a birthday present for my 20-year-old son. Here is a picture of his first loaf. He said it was the best gift ever. 

My family is thrilled with this bread. Already I have received requests to share my starter with others. I’m mailing some to my cousin in Michigan. 

I was inspired to get a mill to grind my own flour. I will bring you some.

I’m baking so much bread now, I have enough to give away. 

My heart needed this moment of exchange. Neighbors helping neighbors.

This is a scary time. There’s no map for how to navigate it. I’m relying on science and data, but I am also leaning into our common humanity as my compass: kindness, generosity, respect, good-will, the basic goodness in people. My faith in this anchors me. And because I care about my neighbors, I wear a mask; I keep my distance; I smile with my eyes; say hello, and. . . give away sourdough starter!

 

 

TALES FROM BUS # 13. . . Meet Jackie

metro busEvery day when I go to work, I take the #13 bus. It’s a brief ride, but long enough to accommodate what I have loosely come to call my “five-minute bus practice.” Instead of looking at my phone or the scenery out the window, I sit quietly and tune in to the passengers. 

Breathing in ~ I try to imagine their lives, aspiring to lighten the burdens they might be carrying. Breathing out ~ I mentally offer them warmth, safety, ease, shelter, food, a cup of coffee, a jug of wine—whatever they need. It’s an ancient practice called Tonglen—giving and receiving. It rides the breath and helps to keep me present, with my heart open, especially during times when I witness the struggles of others and don’t know how to help, or find I want to turn away and check out. 

Some of the people I see on the #13 are regular commuters, slipping on and off at the same stops every day; many of them have sadly seen better days, and a few seem to live in a reality I am unfamiliar with, having conversations with beings unseen by me. Each of these passengers has a story, no doubt a fascinating one. And over time, I have discovered that sometimes—even though I am a total stranger—when I am receptive and give them my full attention, they will open up and give me a little glimpse into their lives. 

Meet Jackie. . . 

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I was standing at the bus stop, my hands stuffed in my pockets. It was a cold night. I had just gotten off work and was heading home. A woman shuffled up to the stop, nodded, and then dropped down onto the metal stool. She wore a grey hoodie sweatshirt that hung low over her well-worn blue jeans and had wisps of red hair peeking out from a blue, knitted cap. She seemed to be missing her upper teeth. 

I smiled. “Good evening.”

She looked me up and down. “Well, good evening to you,” she replied. “God damn, this getting old is the shits, but I guess it beats the alternative.”

“Ain’t that the truth!” I agreed, holding her gaze.

“Hey. . . I’m not afraid of dying,” she clarified. “Don’t think for one minute I’m scared to meet my maker. In fact, when I get to heaven—honey, I’ve been celibate for a while—but when I go through them pearly gates, I’m praying heaven’s gonna be a place where I can have lots of sex. I tell you; nothing beats having an orgasm! Better than drugs any day—that shit will mess with you—but a good orgasm. . . well, that’s my idea of heaven.” 

She stood up and, seeing as how I was a captive audience, began to pace in front of me, gesticulating wildly to make a point with every turn of her story. “Now, I wasn’t a whore or anything. I had my principles. I had to like the guy. I didn’t care if he was a looker, but he had to be sweet and treat me right. Ya know what I’m saying? Ooh, the memories! Honey, let me tell you… the pleasure was brief, but right in that moment, this ugly, hard world would fade away and BAM, everything was perfect, for a little while. Damn, how I miss orgasms!”

The bus pulled up, interrupting the flow of her recollections. I got on, paid my fare, and sat down. She parked herself in the seat across the aisle from me. Leaning over, she whispered. “Don’t you ever forget what we were talking about back there. God wants us to have euphoria in our lives. I believe that with all my heart. Say. . . are you from that church?”

“I’m not,” I replied. 

“Are you sure? Cause if you’re not from that church, why are you being nice to me? Tell me that? I’ve been blabbing your ears off, and not once have you judged me or turned away. . . Thank you. You are a fine, decent woman. Say, my name’s Jackie,” she said, reaching over and sticking out her hand. 

“I’m Candace,” I said, taking her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Maybe we’ll meet again someday. I’d like that.”

She grinned. “This is turning out to be a fine day. Normally, I have to sleep outside, but I ran into a friend downtown who’s letting me stay under her roof tonight where it will be warm. Hot shower, here I come!” She gave me a big wink and then laughed. “It may not be as good as an orgasm, but I’ll take it!  

“Well, this is my stop,” I said as I reached up to pull the cord.

“God bless you, Candace.”

“God bless you, too, Jackie. I hope your dream comes true, before you get to heaven.” 

I saw her wave through the window as I turned to begin my walk home. I gave her a thumbs up and went on my way.

As Rachel Naomi Remen said. . . When we are truly seen and heard, that is a holy moment.                                                                             

TALES FROM BUS # 13. . . Buddhas on the bus

metro busI’ve been spending time on the city transit lately, using my Senior Pass to ride the #13 bus to work. Besides saving money and sparing me the daily hustle of finding a parking place on the street, it gives me an opportunity to connect with fascinating people, folks that I don’t normally encounter on a day-to-day basis as I scurry from place to place, shut up in my car, windows rolled up, eyes fixed on the road ahead.

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There was Betty. She sat catty-corner from me, wearing a bulky, leopard-print coat. A flaming pink, wooly hat on her head partially covered a mass of red curls that spilled out onto her shoulders. Yellow and orange striped socks and purple converse sneakers completed her ensemble. A couple of large bags rested on her ample lap.

She made eye contact with me and leaned over, whispering conspiratorially, “I have treasures in here you could never imagine.” She winked as she patted her overstuffed sacks. I smiled and winked back. “You know,” she continued, “I’m an amazing person, and I’ve decided to run for Mayor. Seriously. I want to do something important with my life. Help people and make a difference in this world!”

“Right on,” I replied. “I’d vote for you! We could use good women in public office.”

She mused, “I might even run for President. Why not. ‘Go big,’ my Mama used to tell me!”

“Absolutely! We definitely need a female president right now. You’d get my vote.”

We chatted a while longer while she reached into her bags to show me her loot. Suddenly, she interrupted our conversation and reached up to pull the cord. “Well, this is my stop. It’s been a pleasure,” she said, as she gathered up her belongings. Walking to the back door, she turned around and looked back. “Don’t forget me. My name is Betty. Who knows… you might read about me one day.” She laughed as she made her way down the stairs.

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There was the stranger who got off at my bus stop one snowy, dark evening with his BMX bike. When the light turned green, I watched as he pushed it across the busy thoroughfare to the other side. I started to slowly follow, head down, clutching my walking sticks as I gingerly made my way across the slick, icy road.

“Madam!” A loud voice pierced the night.

I looked up to see him standing in front of me. He had walked back, and with a dramatic flair, he stuck out his arm. “Allow me, my lady.” I took his proffered elbow, and he proceeded to escort me across the road—whereupon he bowed, tipped his hat, wished me a good evening, and then quietly continued on his way.

“Thank you,” I shouted after him as I watched him disappear into the night.

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Frank and the Buddha.jpgAnd then there was Frank. I boarded my bus and took a side seat near the front. I sat down and leaned back to rest. It had been a long day. I looked across the aisle and saw what appeared at first to be an apparition. Sitting directly opposite me was a man, mumbling to himself while steadying a tall, golden Buddha statue perched on the floor next to him. 

“That’s quite an impressive Buddha you got there,” I said, smiling.

He smiled back. “Yeah, well you see… I first tried fifteen, then went for four, and back to eleven, and that didn’t work, so I changed up and decided on thirty…” He paused. “Yep, that’s right. It was thirty that did it. I won a whopping $1500 at the casino, and I got this here Buddha on sale for $250. I’m going to put the rest away in the bank.” He continued. “Basically, I’m a Taoist, but I think Buddha is super cool. I especially liked this one because he has flaws, like me. He’s made of wood, and there are some big chunks missing in the back, but I kind of like it. Seems more real that way. I can relate. What do you think?”

“Well, he’s a beauty all right. I think having your own Buddha could be a game-changer.”

An elderly woman, who’d been listening to this exchange, joined in, giving him a thumbs up. “Damn straight. Your luck is about to change. Yes sir, that’s what I think!”

He leaned over and offered his hand. “I’m Frank. You can take my picture if you want?”

Shaking his hand, I introduced myself. “I’m Candace. I’d love to take a photo of you and your Buddha.”

I left the bus at the next stop and walked home, a smile on my face, my heart warm on this frigid day,.

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These brief, but poignant moments on my short bus ride remind me that when I slow down, pause, and take time to notice, my life gets bigger. It’s enriched by diversity, by relating to the magnificence of humanity in all its shapes and colors. My companions on Bus #13 have much to teach me about the world, and I am better for it. 

LIKE SAND IN AN OYSTER SHELL. . .

I recently came upon this story  one that I had written five years ago. And now, I live in Washington, where, curiously, my life has come back full-circle to my earth-mother days. I bake bread, grow food, feed the birds, and live surrounded by family and grandchildren. Yet, when summoned, I am still a hospice nurse, a midwife, sitting at the bedsides of loved ones, accompanying them as they pass from this life.   Pearls, indeed. . .

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The world is your oyster still life

Sorting through a box of old photos last night, pictures I have not looked at for decades, I was surprised to uncover evidence of a past life so far removed from where I am now that the memory of it came back like a shock and left me unsettled.

My movement during those years had been very physical. My body was lean, and I could feel the strength in it as I moved across the land and throughout my world. It was a time of boundless, passionate energy that was focused on outer activities. Years were spent driving around the county helping to midwife new life into the world. Raising kids. Burying myself in the rich, musty loam of the farm, growing food to eat and sell at the market. Grinding wheat for baking bread in the wood-fired brick oven. Traveling the world teaching. Sharing birth stories to inspire others, reminding them that they are perfect and powerful and know how to push life from their bodies. I was an earth mother. Life was full and it was juicy. And it was also impermanent.

A death, a fire, a divorce. . . Seismic life-shifts that cracked my frame. Paralyzing sorrow and heartbreak followed — the kind that brings you to your knees and forces deep inquiry into the Big Questions.

I was a mess. Eventually, my journey led me to the path of the Buddha. Taming my wild mind, opening my heart, cultivating compassion, and living my life in service to others became my compass. It pointed me in a direction that felt true and made sense.

But after fifteen years of living and working at a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center, I became restless. I wanted to work with death and dying, something that had been at the top of my bucket list for years. I was sixty-seven years old and had been away from active nursing for many years. It was an insane idea — absolute craziness. But I took the leap, and a door opened. I walked through that door, and three years ago I moved to a coastal community to become a hospice nurse.

So. . . this is where I am now. I am not lean, and my body is not strong. I do not live a physical life. I do not resemble those old photos. I am quiet and contemplative. My inner landscape is rich. People tell me that I am calm and competent, but that is not always my felt experience. Sometimes, I feel anxious. I have doubt. I worry that I do not know enough to do a good job. I am being stretched, riding an edge that is not comfortable. I dance every day with the reality of change and transition. It is difficult, and it is also magnificent. Imagine. I have a job where I can be tender and touch people. Sometimes I cry with them. It is intimate, skillful work, and I love it.

I do not fully understand why I am where I am other than it feels like I am in alignment with my soul’s journey, and I trust that. And during the times when it is rough and gritty — like sand in an oyster shell — I wonder. . . Perhaps someday, over time, a pearl will appear. 

 

ROADS NOT TAKEN. . .

IMG_2278As I stood by the lake, it felt familiar—like visiting an old friend. The mirror-like surface of the water reflected the billowy white clouds and the stark ridgeline of the mountain that rose up sharply from the water’s edge. A breeze stirred, sending tiny ripples across the water. The aspens along the shore began to quiver; their delicate leaves that danced at the end of fragile stems shimmered in the dimming light. I stood quietly, drinking in the the stillness. It felt like medicine.

This was my first trip to the Yukon. Long ago, when I was young and strong, I used to dream of such places, of a life that was not soft and conventional. I would imagine homesteading on the shores of a remote lake, living by my wits and physical might; homeschooling my daughter; hiking supplies in on my back; hunting and foraging for food; experiencing the splendor of the northern lights, the break up of the ice in the spring.
   

In 1973, I pinky-sealed a deal with my husband. If I put him through his last two years of college, we’d move to the wilderness. He promised we’d point our truck north to Alaska when he had that degree in his hand. But instead—without my vote—he decided to sign up with the Forest Service to work in a mosquito-filled valley town in California. I went from my vision of mountain lakes to living in the middle of rice paddies.  

That wasn’t the first time I thought we were headed down one road only to find ourselves going about-face in the opposite direction. In 1968, hubby and I had completed Peace Corps training to go to Afghanistan. Our destination was Kandahar; I would be a nurse working with local health workers under primitive conditions, he would go on surveying expeditions. We had learned to speak Farsi; I was raring to go. But suddenly—twenty-four hours before we were to board the plane—he unilaterally decided we should bail… His reasons were all very vague. Something about not wanting to be part of a corrupt bureaucracy, though I learned later that his “go/no-go” decision process was always a crapshoot when he had to walk his talk.

These abrupt turns in the road were not easy for me. Both times, it was like my locomotive had suddenly fallen off the tracks, bringing me to a dead halt, while the wheels kept spinning in the air for a long time, going nowhere. As with any shock, it took a while to get upright and find my way again.

Those particular changes in course happened because I deferred to another’s decision for reasons that puzzle me now but seemed appropriate at the time. And even though there were many times when I boldly stepped through doors when they opened, not hesitating to take a leap, there have also been occasions when I myself have gotten scared and backed down from something, been unable to take the next step because I feared the unknown, had doubts, lost confidence, lacked faith, or just couldn’t summon the energy.

Sometimes it was impermanence—divorce, a death, a house fire—or illness, a change of heart that altered the trajectory of my life, sending me down roads I would not have imagined or chosen for myself. Once, it was a simple coin toss. I was with hubby at the airport in Port Moresby, New Guinea with two duffel bags full of all our worldly possessions. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments: heads we’d go to New Zealand, tails we’d go to Spain. Imagine the freedom of that! We’d been in the tropics for a year, and when the nickel came up tails, we headed to Europe in the middle of their winter and promptly got sick. One week later we were back to the US. I’ve often thought how differently our path might have unfolded had we landed in New Zealand in the warmth of their summer months.

Drinking in the beauty of that Yukon lake four decades later, I took a moment and bowed to that young woman who once yearned to live in the wilderness. I honored not only her spirit but also the spirit of who I have become. I have aged with grace. My life is simple and cozy. Circumstances have changed; I fully embrace the ease and convenience of indoor toilets, electricity, running water, warmth, grocery stores. I am content. And who knows…maybe that road not taken spared me from becoming dinner for a grizzly bear!

 

AN HOMAGE TO AGING HANDS. . .

my handsWhen I look at my hands they don’t let me forget that I am aging. The skin is thin and adorned with liver spots and wrinkles. The veins stand up tall and proud. They were never my best feature, beauty-wise, but they have always been capable hands and have served me well for many decades. I wear a star sapphire ring that belonged to my mother, and it reminds me that I come from a lineage of women who have strong hands and know how to use them. We come from good Serbian peasant stock.

Years ago I was a midwife at a birth that was attended by a young girl of seven. She watched intently as her baby brother was born. Later at the first post-partum visit, she handed me a picture she had drawn about her experience. I looked at it, puzzled. “It’s a picture of your hands,” she patiently explained. “They are so smart and know just what to do.”

I hear that women can go through an entire pregnancy now without a human hand ever touching their bellies, just an ultrasound transducer schlepping over their gel-covered abdomen every prenatal visit, impersonally recording data about their babies.

A dear young friend of mine had her baby in an Asian country some years ago, and when I inquired once about how many centimeters her belly was measuring, she said she had no idea; no one had ever measured her. When she asked at the next visit for them to do just that, they gave her a look of incredulity. Seriously. That is so old school now and very inaccurate. Really? Since when? Assessing the size and position of a baby in utero using one’s bare hands and a measuring tape has worked for hundreds of years, not to mention the fact that women love to have their bellies touched.

The further away I get from the source, the more out of touch I feel. When I garden I want gloveless hands in the dirt, making direct contact with the plants, taking their pulse. I love the sensual feel of earthy bread dough, feeling its life force and suppleness beneath my fleshy palms and fingers. I’ll choose bare hands over spoons any day when mixing most things, especially heaping bowls of potato salad. I do best when very little comes between me and my immediate experience, and when I can get away with it, I eat without utensils!

A western, female Buddhist teacher counseled me once: “What you think you need, is what you should be giving!” So sometimes when I am wishing for a sympathetic soul to come forward and address the pain and stiffness in my shoulders and neck, I’ll go to someone nearby and ask if they would like a little massage. And as their tension dissipates under these strong, capable hands of mine, and I hear their audible moans of relief, I actually do feel better.

It turns out that grandchildren don’t mind these aging hands. They like to affectionately caress them and squeeze the thin skin between their fingers when they curl up for a snuggle, like having a familiar, comfy blankie to rub on. . .

REFLECTIONS ON THE PASSING OF A DEAR FRIEND. . .

BIRTH AND DEATH AND IN BETWEEN

long island soundI sat on a bench outside her house, staring at the liquid gray sea that was tightly framed by heavy, dark clouds. It looked cold and lonely. Gulls flew overhead, their plaintive cries echoing the sorrow in my heart. My friend had passed away the day before. It all felt wrong and it also felt perfect. I began to sob. Emotions that had been carefully tucked away for a week now demanded expression. I felt the ripping pain of loss and grief because I love her and will miss her, as will so many others whose lives she so lovingly touched. I also rejoiced because I was deeply moved and inspired by how graciously she lived and how auspiciously she died. I thought… she has shown us how to do this. Pay heed.

She embodied the compassionate teachings of the Buddha throughout her life – in her work and in her relationships…

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