“Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

I heard these questions posed today in the context of a discussion about how to “think before you speak.”  (Not my greatest strength.)  I was so struck by them that I’ve decided to adopt them as a mantra to try and repeat…every time…before opening my mouth to insert my foot again.

With the highest hopes,

Curious Dia of the Cannot-Keep-Their-Mouths-Shut Clan.

389px-Faras_Saint_Anne_(detail)

St. Anne

Respect Can See Through Walls

x-ray

(Photo from an interesting blog post on the possible development of real magic glasses–or Google glasses as they’re currently known.)

There’s a skill required in hospice work–the ability to hang one’s own opinions and views on a hook outside the door, the better to help the dying person and their loved one anchor into their own values and beliefs.

The name of this skill is respect.

When I began working with hospice I didn’t have it.  Did. Not. Have it.  In fact, I had its antithesis…a big, fat mouth.  I’ve always loved my own opinions a lot, so leaving them hanging on a hook outside the door was kind of painful for me.  And scary.  And hard.

A couple of transgressions was all it took though.  There’s nothing like watching the stupid, pointless harm an unwanted opinion inflicts on a person who’s already vulnerable and reeling, to make one try just a wee bit harder the next time.

Fortunately, it turned out I love not feeling like shit more than I love my own opinions.

(Barely.)

Then I noticed something unexpected happening each time I managed a modicum of genuine respect– whenever I stuck my arm down through the muck, grabbed my better self, and dragged her up for air.

It changed my eyes somehow, like I’d slipped on x-ray glasses and could see through things.  The person I was looking at would transform.

There’s a common misconception that dying people become “not themselves anymore.”  That just because they can no longer wipe or feed themselves, they turn into something that nobody should remember.  Or if they grow confused and forgetful then their very self–the person they became over an entire lifetime of becoming–ceases to exist.

But that’s so not true, something my new x-ray eyes revealed.

Respecting them helped my eyes see through all the things I used to identify as who a person is…their ability to think and accomplish, to choose and control.  Through their magically shrinking bodies and even their poop and pee (which was no small feat for me)…to where they still existed, underneath it all.

I discovered that even when they’d lost just about everything else the fighters kept on fighting, the controllers still tried to micro-manage, the takers were still demanding, and the dignified kept hitting walls because so much of the dying process just isn’t.

Generous people were still mostly concerned about those being left behind, grateful people were a real pleasure to work with because they could find value in just about anything (double-ditto for the humble) and I once watched a woman of deep faith continue to sing little songs about Jesus past the point when she could remember her own name.

It finally hit me that while we can and will lose control over everything…EVERYTHING…else, none of us ever stops being who we are.  We can’t.  Anymore than water can stop being wet.

And then, as my respecting skill improved, I started seeing something else that appeared to be deeper still.

There were these odd little moments when I’d glance up from adjusting a pillow or changing a diaper or wiping a chin to find this unraveling human being gazing into my eyes with a receptive stillness, a grace, that made me feel like I was like looking into…I don’t even know what.  Another dimension?  A place so tender and vulnerable and luminous it made me ache.

The funny thing is these moments could happen with any patient–fighter, controller, taker, generous, grateful, or humble.  It really didn’t matter.  While there were more of those moments with some than others, after a while even the most difficult people I worked with let their shields peel back to reveal that shining, beautiful place inside them.

Over time I learned that the more of my opinions I could leave outside the door, the more of these moments I experienced, and I suspect the reasons for this were two-fold.  First, because I just learned what to look for.  And second, the more respectful I was, the safer they felt revealing it to me.

Now I know what you must be thinking…did she transfer this skill to her life outside of hospice, too?

The answer is not so much.  I’ve found it’s harder to do in the regular world because it’s not practical to leave my opinions and attitudes, my values and beliefs, hanging on a hook outside my entire life.  That’s like cutting the rudder off my ship.  I need those things to navigate all the choices life presents.

I assume there must be another level to this skill that I don’t get yet, one where I can be fully present as me while still supporting others to be fully present as themselves.  A way to respect and harness both at the same time no matter how different they are.

I’m pretty sure if I could master that level I’d walk around in a state of wonder every day.

I’d love input.  Has anyone else ever experienced this kind of x-ray vision or…even better…gone to the next level?  If so what does it look like and how does it work?  I’m really curious.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

The differing legacies of good deaths and bad ones, and an extra bonus of grace.

Good deaths have a ripple effect that go out for a long, long way, for a long, long time and, unfortunately, so do bad deaths.

I just stumbled across a blog post titled rapture? (not what you think) on Wild Celtic Rose where she describes a personal experience with each kind of death, and she manages to convey the lasting legacy of each far more eloquently than I’ve ever been able to do.  I highly recommend a read if you get a couple free minutes sometime.  (It’s not that long and you may cry from the beauty at the end.  I sure did.)

She also brushes lightly over a couple of other interesting (and loaded) topics.

The first involves the subject of respecting another person’s right to die the way they choose (and one possible cost of not respecting said right.)

The second involves the legal right we all have to forego any treatment and die if that’s what we prefer.

And the third involves that elusive, fragile, and exquisite grace that usually surfaces when faith is respected across a divide in beliefs.  She captures the spirit of this so beautifully when she says (talking about the good death):

“Sometimes we look at other beliefs with skepticism at best.

I can say that the honest, giving, loving, non-judgmental way in which Craig and Nina lived their lives is as “Christ like” as I have ever seen.

I honestly don’t know if there is a heaven or not.

Even though we are of different faiths, I thoroughly believe that if there is one, that Craig is there and he will be joined by Nina and the rest of his family.”

A beautiful expression of how we can still love and be moved by another’s faith without necessarily sharing their beliefs.

I really, really hope you have a rapturous, awakening, living-it-like-it-was your-last kind of moment sometime this week.  We should all be that lucky.

Love,

Dia

Guinea Pig Rescue and the (Historic) War On Women

Meet Hashbrown and E. Benedict.

These are the newest additions to the family of Foxed In and, believe it or not, both their little lives have already been touched by tragedy.  Little Hashbrown, pictured on the left, was recently purchased from a well-known chain of pet stores along with poor little Nacho who is not pictured because he died suddenly and horribly a scant three days later.  I’ll let you go over to Foxed In yourself for a hint of the sad, bad news about pet mill horror that exists in the retail world.

But in the meantime, being left with a bewildered and lonely little piglet (guinea pigs are evidently “super social animals and pretty much need to be in pairs”) Foxed In then located E. Benedict, pictured on the right, with the help of an absolutely fabulous (wait for it, wait for it…) guinea pig rescue/adoption group that the vet who did the (wait for it, wait for it…) autopsy on Nacho recommended.  Seriously.  Foxed In requested an autopsy.

I find that sort of humbling actually.  Evidently, this is a woman who doesn’t discount life simply for the sake of size.  Perhaps something for us all to consider.

On a humorous little side note, Foxed In calls E. Benedict a “walking toupee.”

I think I can see it.

On another topic, I began my hospice work as a volunteer but quickly realized that it was the nurse’s aids who got to spend the most time with patients.  (i.e. my own ulterior motive.)  I therefore dutifully trotted down to the university and enrolled in a class to get my certification and become a C.N.A.

The evening classes were held at the old Idaho State Penitentiary, which is now shut down and maintained as an historical monument. I took a tour of the place once, which was pretty fascinating in a horrible kind of way, but I noticed that it entirely ignored the history of the women prisoners who were also once incarcerated there.

The Idaho women’s prison is a small building constructed outside the walls of the men’s prison and, while it’s not a part of the formal tour, there is an exhibit in the main hall explaining some of the criminal history of Idaho’s gentler sex.

Strolling around the room I was initially surprised to learn just how many women were locked up for killing their husbands. (For those interested, poison was the method of choice by a clear majority.) But it all started to make more sense as I read about some of the laws governing women back in the late 1800′s/early 1900′s.

To varying extents depending on the decade, women were not allowed to own property and had no legal right to either their children or any wages they might earn.  Everything they “owned” legally belonged to their husbands.  This complicated the divorce option for a woman whose husband chose to contest it.  If she wanted to leave the marriage he could keep everything she owned as well as prevent her from seeing her own children, not to mention confiscate her wages until the divorce was finalized, making savings impossible.  So unless a woman had a family or friends to turn to, the likeliest outcome was that she would wind up on the street, probably forced into prostitution.

Evidently, this law was not as binding for women from the upper class who retained some property rights under specific circumstances.  But for women from the middle and lower classes, the law in effect made them the property of their husbands with rights equivalent to…say…a chest of drawers..

Add to this the law commonly known as the “rule of thumb”…which defined the acceptable size of a stick that a man could legally use to beat his wife and children with as being no bigger than his thumb…and perhaps these guilty women might be forgiven for believing that murder was their only alternative.

Clearly, the underlying purpose of these laws was to bind a woman to her husband in a way that would establish his dominance and prevent her from leaving him.  (It might be wise for other men with this agenda to note that the plan backfired significantly in some cases.)

I wonder what happened to all the other Idaho women trapped in the kind of abusive marriages that laws like these actually helped to create? How many others wound up poisoning their husbands and getting away with it?  How many decided instead to escape with nothing, only to wind up in prostitution or starving or dead?  And how many simply gave up and stayed in the marriage, dying a slower, black and blue kind of stick-death?

I look at what the Idaho legislature is doing these days where its laws governing women are concerned, and I can’t help but notice a similarity between today’s governing mindset and the one at work during this earlier, abysmal period of our state history.  Yesterday’s elected officials were finally forced to abandon their sticks only to have today’s politicians embracing  some of the stick’s newer, high-tech equivalents like ultrasound machines and health care exclusions.  Laws concerning almost every aspect of a woman’s reproductive capacity are multiplying at an alarming rate (it’s amazing how obsessed our predominantly male legislature is with the subject.)…

(24 hours later…)

Blah, blah, blah.  Believe it or not I wasted three precious hours of my life yesterday on a following rant about Idaho politics.  It was such useless kvetching that finally even I couldn’t stand it anymore.

How do you spell d-e-l-e-t-e?

Let me just finish by saying this.  Women?  Respect yourself, remember how much less we once had and, if all else fails, poison the fucker.  (Kidding!!@#!!!)  Call your elected representatives and picket Congress for a century.  That’s what our foremothers did and they got us property rights and freedom from sticks.  Let’s learn by example and not drop the torch.

A brief tribute for two women to whom we owe much: Elizabeth Cady-Stanton and Susan B. Anthony 

(Photo credit of American Memory)

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

So.  Rather than ranting about politics, I’d rather spend my last paragraph observing that the above-mentioned guinea pig rescue/adoption people believe in the dignity and beauty of life so much that they’re willing to fight for it even in the most ridiculous of little pet-creatures.  And that gives me more hope than just about anything.

I think one of these kind of people is worth a thousand…no…a million politicians.

copyright 2012 Dia Osborn

Dead Bodies Need Love, Too

…only I think more for our sake than theirs. 

In the last week I had two different friends tell me stories about the death of a close family member and the extraordinary experience they had with the body afterwards.  In both cases the body was handled in a way that’s unusual by American standards, yet both women told me (with deep conviction) that it made all the difference in helping them cope with the loss.

The first is a friend who’s older brother died last year of a sudden heart attack in his early sixties.  He lived and died in a different kind of community in the midwest where a lot of people practice a spiritual discipline with deep roots in the Indian Vedic tradition. Naturally, his cremation was attended with some of the chanting and ritual derived from that part of the world.  It involved an open casket viewing in a small room within the crematorium following the funeral itself.

The ceremony was beautiful, heart wrenching, and mesmerizing to watch.  My friend had a small video that was given to family members, and she shared it with me.

Only the most intimate friends and family members were allowed to attend.  Once everyone was seated a woman, who’d evidently spent a number of years in India learning how to do it, gave a brief explanation of the ceremony and then began singing what had to be one of the most beautiful, soothing, dynamic songs I’ve ever heard.  The words were in Sanskrit so I couldn’t understand any of it, but the melody, repetition, and deep resonance of the woman’s voice was like being cradled in strong arms.

All of the (many, many, many) flowers from the funeral had been brought into the room and two women were busy in a corner stripping all the petals and placing them into a basket near the head of the casket.  As the main woman sang that unearthly song, everyone in the room stood up and began to file past the body in a circle, picking up a handful of petals out of the basket each time they passed and sprinkling them over him as they whispered their final good-byes.  

At first I was just struck by the surprising beauty of the whole idea.  But then, as I watched his white face…his entire body…. vanishing beneath the deepening layers of soft, tender flower petals, I got it.  How much kinder and gentler this was, how much truer to both the profound love and profound loss of the people in that room, to bury him in flowers rather than dirt.  It took my breath away.

His mother nearly collapsed her first time around, under the unbearable weight of her grief.  But it seemed to get easier for her after that.  My friend told me that more than anyone else, the ceremony helped her mother come to grips with the loss.  Neither Friend nor any of her other family members actually lived in that community.  They’d all dropped their lives to travel from across the country, stunned and stricken.  Friend confided that initially she, herself, was reluctant to view his body, to see him like that.  She wanted to remember him as he was.  But then somehow as she watched him disappear beneath the flowers, the pain and shock of his death was transformed into something else.  Something more manageable.  Closure, she said, and her eyes looked unutterably grateful and sad.

Eventually, they all went down to the furnace and, together, rolled his body in.  But by then they were ready to let him go…which I realized was the ceremony’s intended gift.

My other friend’s loss happened at the other extreme.  She lost her elderly mother after a decade of slow, horrendous decline.  In fact, her slide had taken so long that when she finally…finally!…began actively dying it was hard to get her doctor to believe it.  In the end she was only transferred over to hospice care a scant three days before she died and this made my other friend sad.  She would have liked the extra time necessary for everyone to gather and say their good-byes, to turn their familial head downward toward the birthing canal, preparing for their transition into the next world without her.

Then she told me how they didn’t call the funeral home right away, to come and collect her mother’s body afterwards.  Instead they kept her at home for a night so she and her daughter could sleep beside the bed, one on each side, loving it through the first long, dark hours of its new state.  They called in the morning and watched her taken away in the brighter light of day.  My friend shared that, by then, she was ready to let her go and I recognized that closure thing again.  That elusive, emotional line we all have to track down inside ourselves and cross before we get to begin our ascent back up the other side.

In both these stories I was struck by the double loss we experience with the death of a loved one…how we lose both their them-ness AND their body…and how important it can be to separate the two and honor them both.  Not only as a final gesture of respect for our departed, but for our own healing as well.

first photograph: Cherry Blossom at Washington Memorial by porbital

second photograph: A Study in Pink by Maggie Smith

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

A Blip From The Book and A Love Story That Feeds The Earth

I’m participating in a tele-writing workshop which runs through the middle of January so I’m transferring most of my writing attention over to the book for the next six weeks.  (A badly needed redirection I might add.  As most of you probably know, blogging can get a little addictive.)

What I thought I’d do to keep up here is post bits and pieces of whatever I’m currently working on for the book as well as (of course) any other odd and unrelated beauties I stumble over during one of my inevitable distracted periods.  Today, I have one of each:

Here’s a passage from the book that talks about what I went through after the first time I told someone they were dying:

“But even though that’s what I would have preferred, there was no time left for it.  To question slowly requires time, but what if Elsa wanted to know before it was too late?  What if she wanted me to tell her?  What if she said that to me because she saw me as a person who would be straight with her and deliver the news, bad as it was?  Someone who would help her understand what was happening and alleviate her growing confusion?  Help her back to the core and strength of who she was; a woman who preferred the truth.  Who preferred straight dealing.  Who didn’t want anyone to protect or pity her.  A woman who needed someone to respect her strength and treat her like a competent human being rather than an invalid.

There were other times, other days, when I offered slow questions.  Like the day I asked her if she knew that I worked for hospice, or the day I asked if she believed in an afterlife.  Those questions were my bait, asked with the hope of luring her into a conversation about what was happening to her, but on those days she clearly didn’t want to know.  She shrugged them off and changed the subject, letting me know she wasn’t willing to discuss it. 

And I respected that.  I wasn’t attached to her believing that she was dying.  I had no problem with her passing away in the midst of denial if that’s what she preferred.  I was a little uncomfortable when she talked about all the things she’d do when she got better, uncomfortable pretending…but not much.  If that’s what she felt like she needed then I was O.K. with it. 

After all, it was about her.  Not me.

But then that moment came and it blindsided me, when she finally wondered.  When she looked at her belly and stroked her long-fingered hands softly along the sides and said in that small, bewildered voice, “I don’t know why I’m not getting better this time.”  And for one brief, fraught moment she was clearly lost.  Vulnerable.  As if she’d thought she was traveling through familiar terrain and suddenly looked up to find herself in strange surroundings.  Pausing. Suddenly uncertain.  Puzzling softly.

“It’s never lasted this long before.”

It was a fork in the road.  A split second when she could have gone either way, back into denial or forward into truth.  For a heartbeat, a blink, a breath she was open.  Lined up.  In range.  Positioned to receive a message should one happen to come and in that brief moment the responsibility for making a choice of whether to send that message or not fell on my shoulders.

Fuck.

In the moment it seemed so simple…because I would have wanted the truth if it was me, because she had just told me how she preferred straight dealing, because that was how we had been with each other all along…I chose to tell her that it looked like it was her time to go.  That she was dying.  And because it was my choice, my responsibility, and my burden, I was required to look into her eyes and see what it means to strike a mortal blow.  To snuff out hope.  To feel her hand suddenly slip from mine and watch her fall silently away into a dark abyss, her eyes stricken, locked on mine as she grew smaller and smaller.

Is that my penance here?  Is that the asking price for dabbling around the brink of infinity?  Is it a stern reminder that I need to tread more carefully?  That grace is love, yes, but also incomprehensibly vast and unknown and terrifying?  Somewhere in the back of Elsa’s eyes I saw something looking back out at me and warning:  Be careful, Dia.  Always be careful with one another.

Was I wrong to say anything?  Should I have withheld the information and kept my mouth shut?  I don’t know.  I don’t know.

I don’t know.”

Breathe…don’t forget to breathe.

And then here is an oddly beautiful thing I found and just had to share.  It’s a video by Louis Schwartzberg called Wings of Life that “is inspired by the vanishing of one of nature’s primary pollinators, the honeybee.”  It’s absolutely breathtaking…slow motion cinematography of brief and tiny lives…and I highly recommend watching it if you’re feeling any heaviness after reading the above blip.  It’s really just all part of the same Life, y’know?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The Difference Between Email Forwards and Blog Forwards

Snopes.com

In my pre-blog life I was a serial email forwarder, an affliction which had a few stages to it.  (Did anyone else go through these or was it just me?)

1)  There was that heady flush of realization as I started receiving my first forwards. Whoa! Did you see all the information and creativity just floating around out there?!  Stuff that I’d no idea existed and no access to before my first email account.  At this point I knew…I just knewI had to pass it all along.

2)  Followed by the scary warning email phase.  (Predators in mall parking lots, governments publishing cell phone numbers to marketers, flashing headlights gang initiations…oh my!!)  I passed these on because I cared dammit.  I cared!

3)  Hard on the heels of this came the righteous discovery of Snopes and other urban myth websites (for which everyone on my contacts list was deeply grateful.)

4)  After which I turned to the jokes and inspiration lists…with one caveat.  I would not, not, forward chain emails.  The “send this to ten people and something amazing (or terrible) will happen” type.  These things are totally passive aggressive and, really, I must draw the line at guilt.

5)  Then came Videos.

6)  After which I reached the Links stage, the final phase.  This was the point at which I’d grown from a forwarding sapling to a mature tree, achieving maximum speed and efficiency.  I discovered I could litter the inbox of everyone I knew with simple URLs, like seeds, that they could then open and read for themselves.  (Or not.  Usually not.)

I was completely out of hand and knew I needed intervention.  So when a professional contact suggested I start a blog, the idea fell on fertile ground.  (I guess this is also the creation story of how The Odd and Unmentionable came into being…The Odd Book of Genesis.)  And it worked.  I had a new focus and my forwarding days came to an abrupt and blessed end.

But wait.  Did they?  Have I really stopped passing along ideas, humor, creativity, and information or have I now reached the most respectable (and respectful) phase of this impulse?

As I was preparing today’s post I realized I’m still forwarding other people’s ideas and creativity in various blog posts, only now I’m 1) doing it with full acknowledgement and links back to the source, and 2) placing it into the public arena where the horse can drink at will (rather than bombarding anyone foolish enough to trust me with their email address.)

I guess that ole’ desire to share just won’t be denied.  Nor should it be of course.  I shudder to imagine a world where we were all gagged and no longer able to trade insights.  That would be hell.

So, for today’s forward, here’s a moving and provocative piece I found blog-forwarded over at Rangewriter.  (Linda covers a broad range of topics.  The common thread to all her posts is the consistently thoughtful, beautiful writing.  Wander her blog if you get a chance.)

Because her post was perfect just the way it was, I lifted the whole post…with her permission…and re-posted (i.e. forwarded) it here.  So, from Bronnie to Bill to Linda to me to you:

Bronnie Ware’s Essay (from Rangewriter)

I came across the following essay on A Dying Man’s Daily Journal. (Quick editor’s note:  Another amazing blog.  Worth checking out.)  He had reposted it from an email he recieved. It is so perfect and so central to what I believe, that I want to share it and pass the word. Thank you, Bill.

By Bronnie Ware

For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.

People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learned never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them. When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence. By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying. It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying. Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.

“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.”
-Frederick Koenig

Thanks to everyone involved in this chain of insights, especially those who were dying.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Funeral Processions and Other Reminders We Don’t Want

Funeral Procession by Ellis Wilson (1950), Aaron Douglas Collection, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University

Yesterday afternoon, while driving home from the dry cleaners, I was stopped at a major intersection by the longest funeral procession I’ve ever seen crossing in front of me.  Fortunately for everyone involved, I arrived just in time to see the hearse leading the procession go by so I understood what was happening and relaxed into the wait.  But I’m afraid that if I hadn’t seen it, being in my usual hurry, I probably would have missed all the other, subtler cues and, since I needed to turn right into the very lane all the mourners were using, would have done something stupid like trying to cut in.

It’s been so long since I’ve seen a funeral cavalcade that I’ve apparently grown fuzzy on the signs and protocols.  I mean sure, I drove in one during my hospice years, but that’s different.  I knew perfectly well why all the cars were lined up and all I had to do was follow the one in front of me.  But encountering one randomly out on the road required a little more awareness on my part; first, an ability to recognize the nature of the event, and second, a correct response.  Without the hearse, I’m pretty sure I would have failed at both.

Once upon a time I used to know that the cars in a funeral procession all have their headlights on, even during the afternoon on a bright sunny day.  (Check.)  And that funeral attendees generally dress up in crisp, dark colored, Sunday-best clothing, even in the middle of the week.  (Check.)  And that all other vehicles not in the procession are supposed to stop and wait until the the last car has passed, no matter what color the light is. (Check.) And if I somehow missed all these other clues, then the motorcycle cop sitting in the middle of the intersection aggressively waving his arm at me should have dispelled any remaining confusion.  (I wasn’t going to go.  I was just inching.)

It must have taken a full three or four minutes for the full procession to pass by, and as I sat there and witnessed the rolling continuum of face after silent, somber face looking forward in their car without smiling or chat, I unexpectedly started to feel the loss of this clearly beloved life myself.  All of a sudden it hit me; a life was now gone.  A LIFE. GONE.

Poof.

And suddenly, there in the middle of my buzzing, mundane, household errands (that noisy rabble of small concerns that are forever hijacking my life) a breath of something ancient and cold blew across my neck…and blessedly woke me up again.

I was glad and grateful for it.

It’s so easy to fall asleep and forget how brief this opportunity is that I have.  To be alive.  With others.  With fingers to touch theirs faces and lips, and a voice to sing with, or whisper, or cry out in pain.  With eyes drenched in moonlight, ears drowning in music, flavors exploding all over my tongue, and a nose wrinkling over a whiff of some faint stink that thankfully passes as quickly as it came.

These are miracles…miracles!…so how in the world do they get eclipsed by a stupid hour of busy tasks I won’t even remember by nightfall, much less at the end of my life?  It’s just weird, how easy it is to take the raw wonder of being alive for granted.  And scary, how forgetting it runs the risk of stranding me in a sad and shallow life.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Later on while thinking about the whole thing, the question hit me.  Why is it that I haven’t seen a funeral procession in so long?  What happened to them all?  Are they really fewer and farther in between?  Is it a tradition that’s fallen from favor?  Here are a few possibilities that sprang to mind:

1)  The rise of cremations and scattering of ashes has become a popular alternative to burial in a cemetery.

2)  Memorial services (as an alternative to the traditional funeral, procession, and graveside ceremony) take less time, offer greater scheduling flexibility, and also pair easily with a cremation choice.

3)  Then there’s the fact that police escorts for funeral processions are being scaled back as municipalities find themselves strapped for cash.

These are all likely reasons to be sure, but I can’t help wondering if there’s something more insidious going on, too.  Over the decades, as a culture, we’ve taken to disguising and hiding the trappings of death as we transfer our attention to the increasing hope of medical cures.

For instance, in spite of the rise in hospice care, the majority of people still die in hospitals.  But think for a moment, how many times have you actually seen a body in there?  Ever wonder why?  It turns out there’s a special fleet of gurneys that hospitals across the nation employ, cleverly designed with a secret compartment where the dead can be tucked away from public view.  Then, when they’re removed from the hospital morgue to funeral homes, they’re generally transferred through low traffic areas and back doors.

So instead of people having to step respectfully aside–momentarily hushed and awed–as a still, sheet-draped form rolls down the hallway in quiet dignity, everyone can instead hurry along uninterrupted, brushing past a seemingly empty cart hiding all evidence that one of the greatest mysteries in existence has just occurred.

Could it be that funeral processions are disappearing for the same reason?  To eliminate unpleasant reminders?  And is this wise?  Do we really want to transform our world into a place where there’s nothing left anymore to wake us up?

I realize that a big part of the reason for hiding death is to spare us the experience of fear, dread, and helplessness that facing it entails.  But really, does anyone think that strategy is working?  It doesn’t seem like we’re less scared.  In fact, it looks like our fear is mounting which, when you think about it, is the more logical outcome.  People are always more frightened by what they can’t see than what they can. Once freed from the tedious burden of hard facts, a fearful imagination usually launches into the stratosphere, heading straight for the heart of the worst possible scenario.  Honestly, I think hiding the fact that people are still dying, thereby stripping us of any chance at familiarity, is actually making things even worse and scaring the bejeezus out of us.

Maybe we’d be better served by slowing down a little, taking a deep breath, and gently lifting the sheet again for a closer look.  Yes, that would be sadder, scarier, and harder to do.

Definitely.

But it would also be braver and more dignified.  Which is who we really are anyway, so why not just do that?

In closing, for those of you who, like me, may be a little sketchy on the correct protocol for funeral processions, here are a few links that might help:

Funeral Procession Traffic Laws

Should You Stop For Funeral Processions?

Right-of-Way of Funeral Processions

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

When NOT To Tell Someone They’re Dying

People who work in end-of-life care feel pretty strongly about telling people the truth.  If someone is dying and they want to know, then they damn well deserve to be told.

Why? Because wrapping up a life requires time to tie up the practical details, deliver final messages, bid farewells, and savor all the myriad “last times:”

Last birthday or bike ride, vacation or dance.

Last scent of fresh rain.

Last kiss of a beloved.

Last pang.

Last breath.

These moments are essential.  Validating.  Sacred.  They’re like rare, sparkling jewels scattered through a gathering dusk, and their aching sweetness is life multiplying itself a thousandfold as it picks up speed.

Yes, definitely–receiving the news that we’re going to die is a blow like no other, and trust me, delivering the message sucks, too.  But the alternative…to strip a person of their opportunity to gaze around in final wonder, to direct them instead to keep their head down and keep running, running, running on some exhausting, futile wheel of cure-seeking or worse, allowing them to die bewildered, panicked, or lost…is to strip them of life’s final and greatest miracle.

It’s selfish.

Now.  Having said all that, there’s one situation where it’s advisable not to inform someone they’re dying, even if they say they want to know.  It’s when they’re suffering from short term memory loss.  Whether the damage sources from dementia, brain injury, alcoholism, or pharmaceutical side-effect doesn’t really matter.  The effect is still the same.  Each time they hear it, it’s like hearing it for the first time all over again.

Personally, I think people in this situation should still be told initially, even though they’ll probably forget.  But telling them repeatedly would be kind of cruel.

Nobody needs that.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

(The graphic above is by scottchan and, like many of the photos I use here, I found it on the terrific open source website: FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

Learning How Not To Be Violent

With the vandalism and violence of so many (primarily) young men in London, I’ve naturally been thinking about our youth in general; how we’re supposed to teach them to behave in a civilized way, and what it looks like when we fail.

It made me think of a small incident I overheard last week.  There are three small children who live next door and, since they’re home-schooled, I often hear them playing in their backyard during “recess” while I’m working in the garden.  The youngest is three years old (with the shriek of a banshee) and, listening to an exchange she had with an older sister, it forcibly struck me,

1) just how not-civilized we are to start with, and

2) how grueling it is to train us to try and cooperate and respect the rules instead.

Only not in the way you’d first expect.

Third Child has reached the stage where she understands the basic rules of cooperation: Thou shalt not hit or call names or take anything by force, Thou shalt talk instead of scream, and Thou shalt use your words to try and work it out with your sisters before tattle-taling to mommy.  So when her older sister tried to pull a fast one and tell her that, no, no, no, you pick up the dog poop, Third Child understood that she had to raise her verbal fists and talk about it before resorting to other options.

Noooooo!!  We have to take turns!  We’re supposed to take turns!

I know…and it’s your turn.  (With age comes cunning.)

No it’s not!  It’s your turn! (Youth was not gullible.)  We have to take turns!  You have to take turns!!

Okay.  I’ll do it later.  (Age doubled back to try and throw her off the scent.)

No!  Nooooo!!  It’s your turn!!  You have to do it now!!  We have to take turns!!  We have to take TURNS!!!

By this time, Third Child had reached the limits of a three-year old’s self-control and her volume was climbing accordingly.  Older sister, realizing that mommy was likely to hear, finally capitulated and went off grumbling to pick up the poop while Third Child breathed raggedly for a minute or so, trying to de-escalate her emotions.

By this time I’d stopped what I was doing on the other side of the fence and was just standing there, fascinated and floored.  Third Child’s performance was absolutely amazing to me.  The discipline and effort she displayed in her attempt to deal with the problem in a civilized fashion (the above version is actually abbreviated–in reality she must have repeated We have to take turns! twenty or thirty times before she finally started to lose it) was really, truly impressive.

And, not to take away from Third Child’s achievement in any way, but I also instantly recognized the amount of mind-numbing, soul-sucking time, patience, and repetition required on her parents’ part, to get her to the point where she finally internalized the rule she kept repeating. Children don’t learn something as complex as what it means to be civilized from just telling them to do it once.  Either do adolescents or adults for that matter.  It’s the kind of thing we all need to hear over and over again, to observe by example in the behavior of others around us over and over again, to practice for ourselves–making lots of initial mistakes while being patiently corrected–over and over again, before it can finally be internalized as a first response.

And even after all that, it still needs to be continually reinforced or we’ll eventually slide back into the powerful impulses of our more primitive selves.

I look at the lawless, uncontrolled, destruction and violence of the last few days and can’t help but wonder how this happened?  Clearly, the young men participating aren’t behaving in a civilized way, but why not?  Where did the grueling training required for them to learn how to do so not materialize?  Didn’t they have someone to teach them when they were small?  Or didn’t they have enough role models showing them what it looks like along the way?  Or didn’t they have anyone who cared enough to patiently correct them, over and over again, when they inevitably made mistakes along the way?

In other words, in a civilized society, how in the world did so many of our young citizens reach manhood without learning the fundamental tenets of what it means to be civilized?

I firmly believe that those who have done harm should be held accountable for what they’ve done.  Justice and fairness are essential components of successful cooperation.  But I also think that, as a society, it’s possible we’ve all been negligent, and we should also hold ourselves accountable for that.  It looks like the majority of the damage has been done by disadvantaged young men, with few or no opportunities available to better their condition, and I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone when I mention that the hopelessness and anger of grinding poverty has always had a de-civilizing, de-stabilizing effect.

I also can’t help but notice that, worldwide, it’s been the most vulnerable populations bearing the vastly disproportionate burden of the downturn.  Which begs the question; are the rest of us playing the role of the older sister here?  Are we shirking our duties and trying to make the least powerful among us pick up all the poop?

I don’t know what the answers are to these questions…they’re far too many and too complex for simple explanations.  But I do know this: Each of us can, ourselves, strive to behave in a more civilized manner towards others.  Even if they’re not.  Those of us who did learn the rules of civilized behavior can stand in as the desperately needed role models for others who didn’t, or for those who have just temporarily forgotten and need a reminder.

Third Child actually stood in as a role model for her older sister, with great success.  Maybe we can all try to be more like her in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  We can refrain from hitting, calling names, or using force, we can try talking instead of yelling and, if there’s a problem, we can try to communicate directly instead of just blaming, belittling, or otherwise lashing out.

Violence has a capacity to spread, but then so does respect.  Acting with discipline and emotional restraint in the face of injustice is always hard, but if a three-year old can do it, surely…surely…the rest of us can at least try.

Learning How To Get Along

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

Telling The Truth Isn’t Just Hard, Sometimes It’s Deadly

La Vérité (“Truth”) by Jules Joseph Lefebvre

This is a must-see for all of us writing to inform or educate.  The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has just released the 2011 Impunity Index (Getting Away With Murder) and it’s both a disturbing and enlightening read.  Evidently they publish this every year (this is the first year I’ve seen it) and it highlights the countries in the world that are most dangerous for journalists based on how many of their murders remain unsolved.    There’s a world map at the top which you can scroll over to see where the cited nations rank.

We all know that speaking up when others want you to keep your mouth shut is frightening and hard.  You can easily become the target for a whole lot of anger (trust me on this one if you don’t already know yourself) but imagine living in a part of the world where you could actually be gunned down in a parking lot in front of your child for telling the truth, and where the person who murdered you wouldn’t even be prosecuted much less punished.  I was really surprised to learn that Brazil (#12) and India (#13), two of the BRIC countries and rising economic powerhouses wielding a growing amount of political clout, were on the list.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that Russia (#9) is improving, and not surprised to see that  Mexico’s (#8) situation is deteriorating.

Actually, everyone should care a lot about this, not just writers and journalists.  Why?

CPJ research shows that deadly, unpunished violence against journalists often leads to vast self-censorship in the rest of the press corps. From Somalia to Mexico, CPJ has found that journalists avoid sensitive topics, leave the profession, or flee their homeland to escape violent retribution.

Censorship and corruption go hand in hand.  You never have one without the other.  Ever.  He who controls the flow of information, controls everything.  Which is precisely why journalists who report on their activities are now the number one target of drug cartels in Mexico.  And the result is predictable.  The remaining journalists have drastically curtailed their coverage…self-censoring in order to survive…and the cartels have been subsequently strengthened by the expanding cloak of silence.  As things gets worse down there, we’re hearing less and less of the details and it’s already starting to spill over the borders into this country.

Freedom of speech is not just about being able to express ourselves on blogs and Twitter and Facebook, although those things are important, too.  At it’s core it’s about protecting our communities and nations, our fundamental freedoms and human rights, from those who would corrupt them.  Media bashing has been something of a blood sport for the last few years, but that’s probably an attitude we should rethink.  Corruption is popping up everywhere in the world right now, including right here at home, and we need all our journalists and the agencies that support them if we intend to keep our freedoms.

Things to do?  Thank a journalist.  Support CPJ.  But probably the most important thing of all?  Practice speaking up ourselves when it’s hard….challenge a bully or respectfully offer a different point of view in a heated conversation…and then try to listen when others do the same.  The most important truth in the world is utterly useless if we all close our ears and refuse to listen.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

 

Autism, Vaccines, and My Beef With (Some) Scientists

I love science so I subscribe to Scientific American.  It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking, extraordinary read which usually fills me with a lot of hope for the future.  So I look forward to it every month.

However, in the latest issue of Scientific American, Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote an article entitled Trust Me, I’m a Scientist where, after referencing the current storm raging around vaccines and autism, he ponders why-oh-why “so many people choose not to believe what scientists say.”   He goes on to posit two possible explanations:

1)  The ever-popular (and sadly accurate) speculation about the poor quality of science education in the U.S. which he downplays, and then his own theory;

2)  People are emotionally prone to accept inaccurate beliefs, a position he argues for during the rest of the article.  (He is a psychologist.)

Needless to say the dreaded “I” word eventually surfaced…IRRATIONAL…the one which, however true as a strict definition, scientists also use for character assassination against someone coming from a non-scientific perspective.

And as usual, as soon as I read the word my blood pressure shot up about twenty points and I had to put the magazine down while I struggled to calm the bristling, snapping, fiercely irrational dog in me that scientists keep poking through the fence with these fucking  sticks.  I don’t think they understand how patronizing it feels–or how counterproductive it is–when they airily reduce and dismiss the rich, complex, nourishing, ancient and essential emotional/instinctual lives we all share as irrational.   They might as well just call us naked, dirty, jungle people who eat with their spears.

image from Wikipedia

I mean, really.  It’s so much harder to help people once you’ve antagonized them.

Now just so we’re clear here, I don’t for one second doubt the sincerity of the brilliant, decent, dedicated scientists who are working to find causes and cures for autism.   I, personally, am really grateful they’re trying and I believe them when they say please, please, please people, we’ve looked long and hard, and we really and truly cannot find a link between autism and vaccines.  It sounds to me like they mean it and so I weight that information accordingly.

But on the other hand, not finding a link and proving there is no link are two completely different things.  The first finding leaves wiggle room and your average parent’s instincts are likely to sniff that out and mistrust it.  Instincts don’t like uncertainty.  For them uncertainty is like a patch of tall grass where predators could still be hiding, even though the scientists periodically go in and beat the brush.  It’s nothing personal against scientists, it’s just that…well…it’s tall grass.

So, a possible suggestion for scientists here:  Acknowledge that wiggle room is wiggle room, and try not to patronize a parent who knows it and is already growling and circling their child.  If you do they’re not going to listen to you and it won’t be because you’re a scientist.

And a possible suggestion to parents who are thinking of not vaccinating their children at all:  Please don’t get so focused on this one patch of tall grass that you completely forget about the other tall patches behind you.  A few of those ones definitely harbor predators and you need to have some kind of plan in place for fighting them off, too.  Whooping cough, diptheria, polio, etc. are all still crouching nearby, eying your child and lashing their tails.  And even if their populations are relatively low right now, low is not the same as extinct.  Low means they could still breed their way into a comeback given the chance so, whatever plan of action you eventually settle on, be sure you build some kind of defense strategy that protects your child (and the adult they eventually become) against these other diseases, too.  While they may seem less familiar today than autism, they’re certainly not less dangerous.

I once helped care for a woman who lived for over fifty years with the personal devastation caused by one of the last, major polio outbreaks in this country.  She was quadriplegic and still, over a half-century later, in constant, low grade pain.  The stories she told me of “how it used to be before the vaccine was discovered” made my hair stand on end, and through her eyes I finally got the chance to see what an absolute horror the scourge of polio really, really, was, and what a blessing the polio vaccine has been for all of us born after it’s discovery.   She thanked God everyday for that vaccine, and for the fact that her grandchildren would never have to endure what she did.

Vaccines are not an evil.  To the contrary, they’re a miracle and a gift.  But they’re also not without risks which means, miracle or no, they still need to be utilized carefully and wisely.

So back to Dr. Willingham’s question about why “so many people choose not to believe what scientists say…”  (Man, there are just so many things wrong with that question.  Like…what?  Scientists own the ultimate truth and we’re all somehow obligated to believe everything they tell us?  Or that there’s something wrong (irrational!) with us non-scientists if we question their conclusions?  Boy howdy, that phrasing smacks of an arrogance that’s totally setting my inner dog off again.  Damn.)   Frankly, I think his conclusion that “people are emotionally prone to accept inaccurate beliefs” (another phrase brimming with innuendo) borders on being dismissive and condescending.  

I know this much; people are definitely emotionally prone to mistrust those who disrespect them.  And as long as skeptical parents feel that scientists like Dr. Willingham are talking down to them, I just don’t see them becoming a lot more receptive to the science itself.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Shark Whisperer

I just stumbled across this three minute, somewhat-unnerving-yet-deeply-moving video of Christina Zenato, a woman diver, interacting with sharks down in the Bahamas.  Frankly, I didn’t believe this kind of gentle relationship was even possible and yet here it is anyway.  Sometimes it feels so good to be wrong.

Disclaimer:  Evidently she’s a pro, so I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home. 


What fascinated me most was what happened in my brain while I watched.  I swear I could feel it rewiring.  Some deep and unquestioned prejudice against sharks took a hit here.  Big time.

(Which was strange, because I thought I was already fairly enlightened in my attitude toward sharks.  The hubster feels a deep affinity for them and his love for them has rubbed off on me over time, so it was surprising to discover these deep underlying layers of stereotype still lurking in the shadowy recesses of my mind.)

Initially, I admit I thought this woman was an idiot, especially when she started feeding them by hand.  But by the end I realized she has a much fuller understanding of sharks than I do, based on actual, nourishing, beautiful and real life interactions with them.   Something I totally lack…which is probably why my bias has thrived.

Prejudice is funny that way, isn’t it?  It feeds on unfamiliarity.  It doesn’t tend to fare as well when faced with living, breathing, sentient beings.

(Stray thought: Believing in stereotypes is like eating cheap carbs.  They’re like white bread, candy, and soda pop for the mind, not very healthy but what a rush!   Relationships with living, flesh and blood creatures, on the other hand, are more like whole grains; harder and slower to digest but far more nourishing in the long run.)

Once again I’m reminded that all creatures tend to respond positively to understanding, patience, respect, and intelligent handling.  I don’t know why I keep falling back into the default belief that some creatures (including some humans) are impervious to kindness and love…that monsters are real.  That kind of early conditioning is hard to shake I guess.

The video is only a couple minutes long.  If you get the chance I highly recommend it.  It’s soothing and inspiring.

About the technique she employs at the end of the video:  “Practicing a little known technique of rubbing and manipulating her fingers across the ampullae of Lorenzini, the visible dots [electro-receptive sensory organs] all around a shark’s head and face, she induces a tonic immobility. To the observer, this looks like a shark falling asleep right in her lap.”  

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

“They’re Here…” Wolves Near Boise.

Gray Wolf

Well then.  Here’s an interesting development.  The news broke day before yesterday that two wolves took down a cow about a mile west of where I regularly take Dane up hiking in the hills.  Suddenly, the highly controversial subject of wolf reintroduction and management here in Idaho has come remarkably close to home.  (Our home.  About five miles to be exact.)

Residents of Eagle are a little uneasy right now, with some of those living north of town bringing in their horses and other livestock for protection.  The department responsible for dealing with problem wolves in Idaho is USDA Wildlife Services and so far, in spite of numerous flyovers, they haven’t been able to locate the two wolves believed to be responsible for killing the cow.

Which then begs the question:  Do I want to take Dane up there for his afternoon romp today?

Actually, I’m not really asking myself that.  Of course I’ll take him.  I’ve been hiking up in the mountains for years now, in all kinds of places where cougars, bears, and wolves  live.  Is there some risk?  Absolutely.  I’m not a big fan of denial as a risk management tool.  Do I mentally discount the horror of getting mauled and possibly killed and eaten by a wild animal?  Not at all.  While I’m a tree-hugger of sorts, I’ve never been the kind that romanticizes wild animals as either noble or cuddly.   I have a very healthy fear of big claws, strong jaws, and sharp teeth.

wolf skull (note the teeth)

In all likelihood if there was an attack, they’d probably go after Dane.  Wolves are traditionally timid around human beings so those kinds of attacks are extremely rare, but they attack dogs.  There’s definitely a greater risk for him than there is for me.  However, these two wolves are most likely juveniles striking out to find new territory and juveniles tend to be far less predictable than adults.  Cougar attacks on humans, which used to be relatively rare, have been growing in the last couple of decades as humans encroach further into wilderness areas, and the majority of the attacks are by juveniles.   So, while Dane’s risk is greater, I by no means get a free pass.

So here we are, suddenly standing on the shifting front line of the controversy, confronting the complex challenge of species reintroduction on a very, very personal level.  Me?  I love wolves.  But then the majority of people do.  Even the people who oppose their reintroduction admire and respect them.  They’re magnificent, beautiful, wild, and inspiring animals permanently woven into our history, mythology, and group unconscious.  The thought of a world without them is unsettling and unutterably sad.   Having said all that though, I don’t want Dane or I to be dead either.

And therein lies the paradox we’re all confronting, not just with wolves but with much of the ancient world we’ve inherited and are now changing on a massive scale.  I have no idea what the solutions to these kinds of problems will be, nor do I have any idea what the world will wind up looking like someday.  Right now I’m just concerned with getting my dog and I through our next excursion.  Today it’s my turn to figure out how to straddle this place where the past and future collide.

I think, at a time like this, it’s important to consider the big picture.  The truth is, Dane and I both live in a world every day with far greater risks than a wild animal attack.  (i.e. getting T-boned at an intersection, sickened from ecoli contamination in our food supply, or euthanized for attacking the neighborhood cats among other things.)  With all the risks that wilderness and wild things hold, civilization is no picnic either.  In fact, I think my chances are probably better facing a wolf in the foothills than a drunken slob hurtling down the interstate in a two-ton SUV.

But for now, Dane and I need to get going because I really don’t want to be hiking up there when it starts to get dark.  So I’ll  just throw on my boots, grab my bear spray, and we’re out of here. Dane and the valley (back behind) where the cow was killed.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

Buoyancy, A Curious Japanese Ritual, and Admitting Confusion

IMDb

Today I hurt.  In pursuit of my timid triathlon quest I lifted weights yesterday, so today it’s harder to lift anything else.  And once I finished the round of weights, I went down to the pool to swim laps for the first time in over a decade and made an awkward discovery.  Most people probably already know this but it turns out fat is really buoyant.  I mean really. There are about sixty pounds or so standing in between me and my old fighting weight and, gauging from the way my body responded to the water yesterday, I think most of it is in my butt.  I may as well have had a life-preserver strapped to it.  Or an inflatable boat.  No matter how deep I dove or how hard I kicked to stay down there, my rear-end inevitably led back up to the surface like a drowning person seeking air.  It was embarrassing.  The self-delusion I’ve clung to over the years took a critical (necessary?) hit and now I’m forced to admit there is nothing, nothing, sleek left about my body.

The poor dear.  I owe her big time.

And now on to what I really wanted to talk about in this post.  There was a powerful insight I had while watching the Japanese  film “Departures” a couple of weeks ago but the problem is, I’m still not exactly sure what it was.  (Actually, I feel kind of like a quote I found once in a whole oats forum: The answers we found only served to raise a whole new set of questions.  We’re as confused as ever, but we believe we’re now confused on a higher level and about more important things.) Please bear with me here while I struggle to explain this.  For starters, there are a few things I do know about the insight.  For instance, it was a big one.  It felt like it might explain a lot of what I’ve been trying to communicate about dying in this blog.  It’s also continued to eat at me because I suspect understanding this one insight could go a long way toward easing the excess terror a lot of people feel about dying these days.

But what is it exactly?  Well, to explain that I need to describe three of the scenes that triggered the insight.  But Spoiler Alert:  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, these scenes will give a major part of the plot away.

Ready to go ahead anyway?  Okay.  Here we go.

The first is a scene where the main character, Daigo (who’s taken employment as someone who reverently prepares the bodies of the dead for cremation) meets an old childhood friend on the street.  The friend has his family with him and Daigo stops to greet them.  But the friend gruffly sends his wife and child on up the street without introducing them, telling Daigo that he knows he’s working with the dead and therefore wants nothing to do with him.  He ends the encounter saying something like  “get yourself a decent job” before walking away.

The second scene involves the death of this old friend’s elderly mother.  Daigo is asked to perform the “encoffining” ceremony for her; an exquisite, formalized, Japanese ritual of bathing and dressing the deceased in front of the watching family.  By the time this scene arrives in the movie, we’ve already witnessed the profound and often healing influence this ceremony has on the families, so we’re expectant that something similar is about to happen to Daigo’s friend.

And we’re not disappointed.  True to form, as he watches Daigo not only restore the dignity to his mother’s body that death stripped from it, but also elevate it to an almost transcendent state of beauty, the friend’s perception of  Daigo’s work transforms.  We all watch as the childhood friend finally “gets it.”  He’s moved.  He weeps, and he thanks Daigo for the gift he’s given his whole family.

Then, in the third scene, Daigo visits the recently deceased body of the father who abandoned him in early childhood.  He stands in a strange room gazing down at a body he doesn’t recognize and with which, other than anger, he feels no emotional ties.  Suddenly, two men hurry into the room hauling a cheap coffin.  They set it down, seize the shoulders and feet of the body, and start to heave it into the box.

We’re all shocked.  This time there is no beautiful, reverent ceremony.   No respect for the family standing in observance.  No restoration of dignity to the body or anything else for that matter.  Quite the opposite.  The actions of the two men only deepen the natural horror that always goes with the violent severance of life.  They treat the body as a “thing.”  As so much trash or waste to be collected, dumped, and burned.  Far from providing healing, this callousness threatens to increase Daigo’s trauma.

Needless to say he’s outraged and this heat transforms his wound.  He stops the men mid-transfer, and drives them away.  Then he kneels down beside the body to perform the ceremony of encoffining, and in so doing finally finds the healing for himself that he’s provided for so many other families.

These scenes were aching, beautiful, and real for me.  I recognized the peculiar transformation of healing that can come through deep pain, because I often saw the same thing in my work with hospice.

And…suddenly…I’m realizing I’ve misunderstood what the source of that healing really is.  All this time, I’ve thought it was caused by the power of the dying process itself, but it’s not.  It’s more than that.

Dying generates an enormous, surging wave of energy that sweeps through the lives of everyone involved.  It’s like a tsunami of upheaval, destruction, and change; physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially.  The sheer magnitude of the energy involved inevitably wrenches and devastates to some degree, even with a relatively benign death.  The natural, physical violence involved as a body dies dictates that.  Dying as an energy is a lot like nuclear power or the roiling energy of the sun.  It’s an elemental force of nature.

I’ve mistakenly assumed that the positive transformations portrayed in the movie, the kind I often saw in my hospice work, were built into the dying process itself.  But now I’m thinking not so much.  The energy of dying is neutral.  It doesn’t care how we feel about it.  It doesn’t care whether it traumatizes us or not.  It doesn’t care if we face it with courage and respect, or run away from it horrified and screaming.  Healing us is not its job, anymore than it’s the sun’s job to make sure our houses are warm.  The power dying generates has the potential to heal, of course, but it probably won’t unless we learn how to harness  and direct it.

In Departures, Daigo shows us one way to harness it; with respect, willingness, humility, compassion, and tremendous courage.

The movie puts a concrete face on the beauty, dignity, grace, and healing that can accompany dying and death, something that I’ve been trying to describe in this blog for a while.  (With questionable success.)   And the movie does so without romanticizing or hiding the gruesome, gritty realities that are also involved.  There are a couple of graphic scenes (skillfully deployed with humor) which add something critically important.  The truth is that dying and death are primarily energies of destruction.  Yes, they’re still crucial to the world if there’s going to be enough room and resources left for all the new life yet to come, but that fact doesn’t tend to make the graphic nature of it all easier.  It’s important to learn the tools we can use to manage the graphic elements involved, things like humor, reverence, and building a bigger context.

There’s a deep paradox embedded in our nation’s perspective about dying.  On the one hand, our national eyes look at it through a scientific medical paradigm through which we’ve increasingly grown to see dying as a failure and a waste.  Now, I don’t in any way mean to dismiss the profound gifts that medical advances have brought to our lives or suggest that we should ever return to a world without them.  However, it’s important to understand that the lens of technology we’ve adopted has created a growing distortion in our expectations about death.  In attempting to reduce it from a universal force of nature to the level of a technological glitch, we’ve objectified dying in much the same way that the two men in the third scene objectified the body of Daigo’s father.  These days, in both medical research and public awareness, we increasingly see death as a mess and a waste, and we tend to treat it with a corresponding aggressiveness, disrespect, and callousness as we attempt to conquer and eliminate it.

But something else entirely is taking place on the individual level.  While our societal consciousness reels in a kind of perpetual horror of dying, I’ve met so many individuals whose lives have been touched in a beautiful, dignified way by the death of someone they loved, usually because of the help and guidance they received from a hospice or other agency that (in direct opposition to the scientific medical view) perceived dying as an incredibly valuable time of life.  These people I met had been through hell, no question.  But they’d also learned how to see what was happening through eyes of respect.  During their difficult journeys they were allowed and encouraged to unleash the fullest extent of their love, even in the face of unalterable and permanent separation.  To varying degrees, they had each tasted what it was like to rage, to long, to grieve, to laugh, to tremble, to hope, to ache, to collapse, and then to survive and come through a deep, irreparable loss within a circle of respect and safety, holding the hands of others who didn’t minimize, dismiss, or pull back from their experience.

This paradox between a technological perspective and a reverent one is, on a deep level, tearing us apart.  Our scientific determination to conquer death is engaged in a ferocious battle with our deep human desire to die a peaceful one and, even though we know deep down that we can’t have both, we still throw all our considerable resources at the first goal, and then bitterly fight over what policies to set that can guarantee the second.

It’s made us a little schizophrenic.

I don’t pretend to know what the solution to the conflict will be.  That’s something that only time, growth, and group wisdom can reveal.

But I do know what’s helping me climb out of the clash.  In a lot of ways I felt like my job with hospice was similar to Daigo’s, only I did mine with the living.  I bathed and dressed and prepared them, too, with as much reverence and respect as I could muster, and I did my best, minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day, to restore the people who were dying and the people who loved them to a sense of their own dignity, courage, and strength.   I know it was something I never would have learned how to do without the help of my mentors…the experienced hospice staff who taught me…and I also know that I really want to figure out some way to pass their gift to me downstream.

Which is why I recommend this movie so highly.  Because I think it can help.  If you ever get a chance, give it a look.  Departures.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn