A-Coming or A-Going

An important thing I learned while working with hospice was that the dying didn’t need me hauling any more heavy emotions into the room.  At all.  They had plenty enough of their own to deal with, not to mention all those generated by the loved ones surrounding them, and while all those emotions were natural and perfectly appropriate, they were weighty.  Very.  In fact, if they were barometric pressure, the skies would be swollen, threatening, and dark.  Nobody needed me tossing some of the more typical reactions to dying…sadness, pity, horror?…into the mix, too.

What they did need was help.  Calm and guidance were good and cheerfulness was like a cherry on top.

It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it what it looks like, the kind of emotional buoyancy that helps most in the homes of the dying.  It’s not that I behaved like a game show host or anything.  It wasn’t a cheerfulness born out of summer carnivals and silly pranks, first love and hot pants.

Although I did usually fall in love with them, these people who were allowing me into their lives at a time when they were fragile and reeling, and the loving of them made me happy.  I also cared about what was happening to them, deeply.  I knew they were suffering and I wanted to do whatever possible to ease the journey they were on, to lessen their fear.

But mostly I was cheerful because I felt really, really lucky to be there at all.

It’s not easy to gain access to the dying, a fact that most people don’t realize because they don’t want access.  But if they did they’d soon find there are more barriers in place around the dying than at almost any other stage of life.  Part of this is due to a tendency on the part of overwhelmed loved ones to circle the wagons against anyone who’s not absolutely necessary.  Another part is due to the fact that dying people just don’t get out much.  But mostly access is challenging because our society quarantines the dying in powerful, unconscious, and insidious ways, not only making it harder for them to be seen (and thereby remind us of things we don’t want to be reminded of), but also making it more difficult for those of us who want to, to find and reach them.

I felt profoundly lucky to reach them, every time, to be allowed into the chamber from which they were preparing to take their departure.  I discovered a host of amazing people cradled and waiting in an equally amazing, intermediate world.

I often felt like I’d stumbled into some secret society where the mystery of the ages was finally revealed.  And I had a ring side seat.  It reminded me of the two magical days when I spread my legs and watched a trembling, wide-eyed babe slip into the world.  Only opposite.  Because at both ends of the spectrum the same magical portal appears, briefly opening to allow life’s safe passage between this dimension and some other.  And I was equally spellbound whether that life was a-coming or a-going.

To me, it seemed miraculous either way.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Searching for a Positive Thought

Question:  Do I have a positive thought in my head today?

Hmmmmm…..

Mmmmmmm…….

Ummmmmm……

Nope.

Something is munching on my just-emerged seedlings in the new garden plot.  All of them.  Anything young, tender, and vulnerable is getting eaten alive and the pace is accelerating.  Two nights ago it was a nibble on a single cucumber shoot.  Last night they took out two chards, half the marigolds, and they seem to be eating the black bean shoots before they can get their little, green heads above ground.  At this rate I might lose everything tonight.

Of course, I could always go out there and do something about it.  I could cut more plastic rings to keep the freaking, tiny terrorists away from my plants.  Or break out the diatomaceous earth and sprinkle it around the stalks to slice the bodies of whoever’s-doing-this to pieces as they crawl toward my babies.  But that would be intelligent and productive.

No, no.  Better to just sit here paralyzed in front of the computer instead, wasting time and life surfing all the bad, bad news and worrying, worrying, worrying.

It appears that, just like the pace of seedling munching in my garden, the pace of bad news out there is accelerating.  Sovereign debt crises.  Persistent unemployment.  Gargantuan budget deficits.  Deepening recession.  Floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, geopolitical conflicts, domestic discontent, drag-on wars.   Gulf oil spill.  Gulf oil spill getting worse.  Gulf oil spill getting catastrophic.

I mean, really, I want to stay abreast of the news.  I do.  I aspire to be an informed citizen.  But where-oh-where is the balance between staying informed and protecting one’s mental health?  The other day when I told our neighbor about a funnel cloud that blew through the valley the previous afternoon, she said she didn’t know anything about it.  My jaw dropped.

“Didn’t you see it on the news?” I asked her.

“Oh, we don’t watch the news anymore,” she answered and smiled.  She looked serene.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, wondering when the last time was that I smiled like that.  When did I last feel that kind of simple peace?

Oh yeah.  It was when I was working out in the garden, that magical place where troubles tend to first crumple, then disappear altogether.  It’s like getting a lobotomy, only reversible.   I can temporarily forget everything by sticking my hands in the dirt, pulling weeds, building compost, or just kneeling there in the grass lulled by the bees buzzing.

It’s a perfect place where birds sing, rain falls, and flowers bloom.  A place where new life is always beginning, over and over again.

Like Disneyland, where the horses only poop in the service area and all the ducks are male so they never mate in front of small children…

Okay.  Maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe it’s more real than that.  In fact, when I think about it, there are terrorists in my garden world, too.  Little No-See-Ums who try to stop all that new life by devouring anything and everything young and tender.  But in all fairness I can’t really fault them for it.  They’re just hungry and trying to live, too.

However, I can try and stop them.  I can give my beautiful, beloved little seedlings some protection and the opportunity to grow…

…and mature…

…so that I can eventually eat them instead.  (Who’s the terrorist now, eh?)

Silly, silly humans with our trans ocean oil rigs that are too deep to fix, our financial engineering that is too complicated to understand, our banks that are too big to fail, and all our other magnificent, wondrous innovations that may well be too brilliant to work.  We can be so absurd!

Which is perhaps not the most positive thought in the world but it does make me laugh.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Observing the One Year Anniversary

Tomorrow will be one year to the day since we lost her.  June 10, 2009.  Karling Evelyn Shaver Wheelock Kolter died peacefully, surrounded by family that all loved her.

Now they all miss her, too.

As I sit here and hail back to the events of that day, I thought I’d post the notification letter I sent out a week later so you could hail back as well.

This is in memory of Mom.

June 17, 2009

To all those who’ve been holding my mother and all of us in your loving attention:

Our entire family was deeply touched at the outpouring of love and support that came in response to my last email…I can’t tell you how much it’s helped.  The stories so many of you shared about the way in which Karling touched your lives were profoundly moving.  We knew, of course, how much she had influenced our own lives.  We suspected she had influenced a great many more but we honestly didn’t realize just how many or how much.  Thank you for the education.

For those of you who have not yet heard, Karling died a week ago yesterday of colon cancer.  It seemed sudden to us all, primarily because her symptoms didn’t seem severe enough to indicate an illness that serious until a few weeks before the end.  She actually died a serene, peaceful death in a beautiful hospice facility in Las Vegas surrounded by gardens and fountains, a central courtyard garden and an aviary full of the birds she so dearly loved.  It was soothing to be in a place of peace and calm, surrounded by people who view dying as a profoundly valuable time of life.  The entire family made it to her bedside in the end—her husband Jim of course, all ten kids with their various spouses, her brother, sister, and a dear nephew, a smattering of grandchildren and great grandchildren and a few close friends.  We were a boisterous, emotional bunch but the hospice staff welcomed that, too.

She was largely unconscious for the last four days, resting for the most part in a state of deepening silence–we think she was probably just waiting for the last of us to arrive from the far flung parts of the world where some of us reside.  There was a strange thing happening to her body, too, as she lay there.  At first we thought that perhaps it was just our imagination but every day she began to look younger and younger–her wrinkles and age spots simply disappearing.  Her skin grew increasingly soft, supple, and clear, taking on a translucent quality that appeared almost radiant, and at the very last her face looked more like that of a young girl in her twenties than the seventy two year old woman she actually was.  It was really quite extraordinary and made us sometimes laugh out loud and wonder.  During this time she also seemed to be making the rounds.  It’s amazing how many of us either felt her around us, dreamed about her talking to us, or actually heard her laughter or voice at different times.  (These kinds of experiences continued to a lesser degree in the days immediately following her death, which has really helped as we try to navigate the transition into a world without her arms, her voice, her smile, and all the other myriad, everyday gifts of physical presence.)

India 1969

Through an extraordinary set of seemingly random and disconnected events, most of us wound up assembling in her room minutes before she was to take her last breath.  Various family members read scripture passages or said prayers from a variety of spiritual traditions, which seemed absolutely perfect.  She had helped to foster a deep love of spiritual life in each one of us, always embracing Grace in whatever form it happened to present itself—it seemed right that it presented itself in multiple forms at the end.  For myself, I had a kind of vision as she seemed to be leaving her body that both surprised and comforted me.  It was as though I could see her–feel her–filling up the room, filling up the facility, getting bigger and bigger as she spread out over the city, over the country, finally blanketing the entire world like a gauzy layer of blue and rose tinged atmosphere.  The expansion made me think of descriptions I’d read of supernovas and I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that her physical body had managed to last as long as it did–trying to contain something that huge for all these years.

She died a good death–just as she lived a good life–and I’m deeply grateful for the final lessons and insights she gave us even in her passing.  She was always, always a great teacher.

UC Santa Cruz, 1989, Bachelor of Arts

…with grandchild

And now, for some of us, the winding journey of bereavement and adjustment begins.  For myself I find that it’s constantly changing.  Sometimes I remember and ache, sometimes I remember and laugh, and sometimes I forget for a little while and enjoy a brief respite, dreaming that the world is still the way it always was.  I realize this passage is going to take time and some parts will just hurt, but it feels like it will all still be okay. This is my first time with a significant loss and I still have much to learn.  But I suspect that as pain goes, the kind that comes from loving without limit through the wounding of great loss is probably about as good as it gets.  Certainly, my mother is the one who taught me the courage and wisdom of loving that much.  Strangely enough, I wouldn’t trade this sweet, sweet ache of loving her for all the gaiety and happiness in the world.

Lastly, I’d like to thank you all for loving her, holding her in your hearts, and valuing her through her final passage.  And thank you, too for surrounding us all with your kind thoughts and gentle concern.  I can’t begin to describe how the waves of prayer and support and beautiful, loving attention coming from all over the world really, physically helped and sustained us in our final efforts to care for her during her transition.  We all felt it.  It was like being spun in a cocoon of light and grace and strength with her at its core.

Jai Guru Dev

Dia

Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho, 2006

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

…Do As The Mainers Do.

In our last episode I’d just witnessed the dying throes of a lobster being boiled alive for dinner.  My appetite had taken a big hit and I was now facing the prospect of having to sit down and dine.  I was in trouble.


Well, I’d just learned I knew nothing about how to cook a lobster.  It was now time to discover that I knew even less about eating one.  For any other novices out there, a quick word of warning:  This is not…I repeat not…a task for the squeamish. One must butcher the carcass oneself, right there on the plate.

Fortunately, I had experienced mentors by my side, guiding me throughout the meal.  The coaching was excellent and I was rarely at a loss, no matter which part of lobster anatomy confronted me.  So did I eventually overcome my queasiness and enjoy the meal?

Regrettably, not really.

Some parts of the experience are a little blurry for me now but I remember enough.  Like the sensation of ripping off the legs, one by one, and sucking all the meat I could out of the delicate, shell tubing.  I can still hear the cracking sound as I tore the tail off the carcass and carefully, per instruction, pushed the pink flesh out of the big end of that larger shell tube with my finger.  I vividly remember the spoonful or so of some soft, green, texturally questionable substance which our hostess encouraged me to eat as a particular delicacy.  She called it tomalley and assured me that it was a favorite of hers, so I gave it a try.  It was sweet in an overly ripe, already partially digested kind of way and secretly I wondered if she was fucking with me.  Frankly, it looked like lobster pre-poop, the kind of stuff that collects in the lower intestine just before it’s expelled, but I was just being paranoid.  I looked it up later online and discovered it consists of the liver and pancreas.  Throughout the meal I had a bowl of melted butter available in which to dip the meat, but my stomach took exception to the addition of a slimy, oil coating on foreign matter it was already struggling to keep down.  Butter was out.

And oh yeah.  I think, in my determination to not waste any of it, I may have eaten some cartilage.  This was towards the end of the meal when my conscientious consumption sparked concern.  I remember chewing on something stringy and tough until our hostess leaned over, eyebrows raised, and murmured y’know, most people don’t eat that part.

No.  I can’t say I enjoyed it.  In fact, not only was that the last  lobster I ate, it was the last seafood of any kind.  Which, believe me, is no small feat for a tourist traveling along the Maine coast in October.  Seafood is a big part of what people come for and it figures large in most menus.  Fortunately, during the next leg of our trip up in the staggering beauty of Acadia National Park, we found an outrageously tasty, local place called Chow Maine where we ate for five days in a row until it was time to finally fly home.

Looking back now I have regrets.  I’m sorry I let my queasiness get the better of me and wield the influence it did over the the trip.  I wish I’d gotten over it so I could have eaten more of the fabulous seafood cuisine that Maine has to offer.  It’s hard to understand how my reaction to a single incident could last that long but I’m not sure how one is supposed to overcome that level of digestive revolt.  Nausea is not a sensation that lends itself to compromise.

But in spite of the fact that it affected my appetite the way it did still, I’m glad and grateful for my experience with the lobster.  I’m satisfied that I seized the opportunity to finally participate in the killing/butchering part of the food cycle.

Over the years I’ve eaten my fair share of poultry, fish, and beef.  I’ve willingly participated in the death of all the fellow creatures that a meat diet requires, but always and only as an end consumer.  I’ve been happy there was someone else to handle the gut wrenching violence required to turn a living, feeling, innocent, helpless animal into something dead and edible, because that division of labor makes it easier to maintain the illusion that my hands are still clean.

But still, there are costs growing in the system that gnaw at me.  I can’t help but wonder if it might not be better to participate in the whole process a little more, mainly for the sake of the animals out there that are not only dying, but also increasingly being forced to live under some horrifying and inhumane conditions.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about lobsters here.  Lobsters live (admittedly shortened) natural lobster lives in their natural lobster world before they’re finally caught and cooked.  They spend their lives aggressively eating whatever species of neighbor they can, occasionally each other, and I suspect they’d eat me, too, if I ever fell off a boat and sunk to the bottom.  More power to ’em.  I don’t want to be a hypocrite.  I’m willing to participate in the system if that ever falls to my lot.  I don’t object to the food chain itself.

The part of the food system that I’m referring to is industrial agriculture  (dubbed factory farming.)  Because in that system, the lives the animals are forced to live are an unmitigated nightmare.  Here’s just one example of an egg farm in California but there are countless others, all equally difficult to watch.  I can’t help but feel that my own unwillingness to take responsibility is part of the problem.  As long as I can have nameless, faceless people out there, killing nameless, faceless animals in some other galaxy far, far away, then I can continue to pretend like our meat really comes neatly packaged, skinned and weighed from grocery stores.  Styrofoam trays are the wombs from which pork chops and ground beef emerge.  Chicken breasts and steaks grow on trees, and you can tell if they’re not ripe yet because they’re still frozen in the middle.

No.  There’s something inherently dishonest…cowardly…about hiding behind a shopping cart and a checkbook like that, something disrespectful to the creatures and lives that are being sacrificed for my nourishment and sustenance.  They’re dying for godsakes.  The least I can do is try and ensure that they live a good life beforehand and die a humane death when the time comes.  I can stand witness to their suffering, care about it, say I’m sorry, and give sincere thanks before I bite a big chunk out of them.

I know if I was being eaten, I’d vastly prefer it was by someone who appreciated the costs on my side.

That’s what I tried to do in Maine.  For the lobsters.  It was harder than I thought it would be, a lot harder, but I think, with time and experience, it would get easier.  (Although even after research, I’m still not sure how I would kill the next one.  There’s a lot of controversy about which method is most humane.)

Of course back here in Idaho, my learning curve won’t involve lobsters.  Maybe I’ll learn how to hunt instead.  Or maybe someday I’ll raise a cow for butchering.  But until then I think I’ll start with the chickens I intend to raise for eggs, learn how to swiftly and cleanly break their necks once they’re past their laying prime.  Stand up, be a mensch, and do the sacred deed myself, then mourn and honor my beautiful girls as they deserve to be mourned, before we gratefully feast on their final gift to our family.

I just need to make damn sure that they live really great, happy, deeply beloved lives until then.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn