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. 

 

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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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MY SPECIAL DAY. . .

Rustic setting with spring flowers and homemade breadCelebrating my birthday has always been a big deal to me, and how I have done that has gone through many incarnations over the course of my long life. When I was a child my birthday took on a particular significance: It was a day of amnesty, a “cease-fire,” a reprieve from being scolded… or worse. It was my special day, and I remember each year feeling giddy with anticipation. I looked forward to it even more than Christmas. I got to choose the dinner menu (fried chicken and mashed potatoes) and the dessert (Betty Crocker’s Chocolate Cake). I felt quite la-di-da. Parties, however, were problematic. You ran the risk that the cease-fire would get called off. Once—when I turned thirteen and had my first boy/girl-afternoon-dance party—it didn’t end well. My father had had one too many libations by 2:00 and ripped the record player out of the wall, sending my friends packing. “No kid of mine is going to listen to Elvis Presley. He’s a goddam pervert. Jesus Christ, someone should cut his hair!” Having a party was always a crap shoot.

When I grew up, I still wanted my birthday to be my “special day.” I couldn’t drop my expectations, and this was a big, fat setup for disappointment—again and again. There were times when I waited… not saying anything, certain that any minute someone would surprise me with a cake, or maybe breakfast in bed, a flower, perhaps a card… and nada. When no one noticed, it broke my heart.

It took years, but then I finally woke up: I took charge of “my day.” No longer did I leave it to chance. Never again would I be vulnerable to disappointment! I planned weeks in advance about how I wanted to spend my day, what I wanted to do and who I wanted to do it with.

And over time… what I discovered was that my “special day” started to become less about me and more about the people I loved; less about what I needed and more about contentment for everything I already had. Instead, I wanted to give presents to others or cook for them on my birthday.

As I age, I feel my edges soften. The clock is ticking. I don’t have time to cling to what no longer has meaning in my life. As someone said, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no!” Each morning when I wake up and find myself still breathing, I rejoice. I might have another day. I am filled with gratitude for the bounty in my life. I am infused with joy more often than not. Every day is starting to feel like my birthday!

I turned seventy-three on my most recent one. I felt full to spilling over—spending hours on the phone with old friends and family, receiving congratulatory texts, emails, and the usual birthday wishes on Facebook. In the evening I went with my daughter to a performance of the Playback theater in our local community. The topic was Growing food, Eating Food, Sharing Food. I shared my story of coming full circle: from having once been a farmer who grew pumpkins for the kids in the county and nourished my family with the food I grew and the bread I baked—to planting no food for twenty-two years—to now feeding my family once again with the harvest from my huge backyard garden and fresh, homemade bread. When I was done telling my tale, the actors “played it back” to me. It was an enactment of my life before my eyes, a coming home to an essential piece in me that I had put on hold for a long time. The evening culminated with a concert from my granddaughter of her favorite songs from the film Moana. It was a glorious day.

 

MINI-PLEASURES . . .

I went to see a new doctor today, an ENT specialist. A month ago, when I saw my dentist for my checkup, he saw a white lesion where my tonsils used to be and thought vintage flowers, coffee, bookI should have it looked at. So, there I was, patiently sitting in the exam room with my mug of steaming hot coffee, absorbed in a good book (which I always remember to bring for times like this when I may need to wait).
The doctor quietly slipped in the door. I was so engrossed in my story I didn’t notice him for a minute. He cleared his throat, and I looked up. I lay my book on the chair next to me. “Good morning,” I said, as I reached out my hand to greet him.
He was a distinguished looking gentleman, perhaps in his sixties; he wore horn-rimmed glasses. It was a beautiful morning and the sun was streaming through the window, illuminating his face in a soft golden light.
“Good morning,” he responded, as he shook my hand. He looked at me for an uncommonly long minute, then cocked his head. His eyes were twinkling. He turned to stare out the window, then looked back.
“Are you a gardener?”
“Uh… yes I am,” I replied, “Why do you ask?”
“Well, looking at you just now, it came to me that it all went together somehow: coffee, a book, gardening. . .” His smile was warm.
“Yes, absolutely. They do go together!” We both chuckled and then proceeded to chat about vegetables. Eventually, he proceeded with his exam.
“I don’t see anything there now,” he said. “Must have been schmutz.”
“I’m good with that. Schmutz. That was exactly my diagnosis. I wasn’t worried.”
We grinned and shook hands. “Have a great, rest-of-your-day,” he said as I departed.
It was no more than a fifteen-minute visit, but in that brief interlude, we touched. He saw me. I am exactly who he thought he saw. And he knew that I knew that. And he felt seen, knowing that I knew that. It was a “moment.” A simple but exquisite moment. Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., says in Kitchen Table Wisdom: “The places where we are seen and heard are holy places. They remind us of our value as human beings.”
This is what a friend of mine calls “mini-pleasures,” those times during the day when we pause and show up for the little things, wherever we are. Some are deeply human moments, like this, where people come together momentarily—like birds on a telephone wire—touch in, and then go on their way, feeling fuller, plumped up with good juju. Other times, it may be the flight of a hawk, the dew on a leaf, a grocer’s kind words to an elderly woman fumbling in her wallet for change, or the miracle of a spider’s web that makes us pay attention and rejoice.
As a hospice nurse, I have been at the bedsides of dying people who have lamented: “My life is over and I missed it.” It’s a heartbreaker. Yet, how many times throughout the day are we unconscious, missing what is right before us, waiting for life to be more, holding out for something bigger?
So, thank you, Dr. R. I don’t have throat cancer, and you made my day.

 

 

 

 

THE BODY NEVER FORGETS . . .

INo More Secretst was the early 80s. My colleague walked into the office at our women’s health care clinic where I was finishing the last of my charting. “I’ve decided to set up a domestic violence hotline,” she announced. “The phone will go in our clinic. I’ve wanted to get this going for a long time. The need is huge,” she added. “There’s a list of people who want to be volunteers. The training will be in two weeks. By the way. . . it would be good if you went to it.”

I stared at her. Hard. I felt my pulse racing. . . “NO! Absolutely not. I don’t want any part of that hotline or the training, and I certainly don’t want a phone in our clinic! What are you thinking? Innocent pregnant women come here. It won’t be safe. What if an angry man finds out and comes beating on our door.” I suddenly felt nauseous.

“No? What do you mean—no?  Our clinic will just be a physical location for the phone; the calls get forwarded to the volunteer’s number. This is not a big deal. What’s scary and really dangerous is having women and children being hurt and there being no one available they can reach out to for help.”

I took some deep breaths. She had a point. But. . . why does this feel like a big deal, and why does my chest hurt? Maybe I’m having a heart attack.
“Okay,” I finally allowed.”But, I don’t want to be involved. This whole idea gives me the heebie-jeebies.
“You don’t need to do anything,” she assured me, “but, it would be helpful if you at least did the training so you would know how to respond. You know—just in case.”

So there I was, two weeks later, in a conference room with other women, listening to an expert speak at length about domestic violence and child abuse. She shared heart-breaking stories. She went on and on and on . . .

I broke into a sweat and gripped the table. I think I’m going to pass out. I began to shake; tears streamed down my face. My colleague looked at me. “You’re white as a sheet. Come with me.” She took my hands and pulled me into the hallway. “What on earth happened in there?” she asked.
I found it difficult to breathe. “That woman is talking about my family!” I finally sputtered.
“What do you mean?”
“Just what I said: That woman is talking about my family. She just described my entire childhood like she had been peering through a window watching me grow up, documenting every detail. And. . . she said what happened to me as a child was wrong! And not only wrong but criminal! Like, against the law. I had no idea. I thought it was normal to suffer. No one spoke about it—ever. These were our family secrets, and we held them tightly in a code of silence: what happened behind closed doors, stayed there, and then you forgot about it. That’s how it was.

I felt like I had been hit by a logging truck. I’m over forty years old. I’m an intelligent, competent, professional, high-functioning adult. How could I not have known this?

My body knew, though. It never forgot. No wonder I was scared.