Teaching Stories and Working with Dying Bodies: Context Helps A Lot

“Let me light my lamp,”

says the star,

“And never debate if it will help to

remove the darkness.”

– Rabindranath Tagore

It’s here my friends.  Autumn.  Not the calendar date which arrived weeks ago, but autumn in the trenches, where I’m scrambling to strip-harvest the last of the tender vegetables, get the cold frames covered, and dig out all the wood stove accoutrements from the garage.  Last night was our first frost and I woke up this morning reluctant to slip out from under the down comforter to a chilly house.

It was time…finally time…for the first fire.

We heat primarily with a wood stove and…let me just say before anyone gets their panties all in a bunch…we use a high-efficiency, EPA certified stove, that gets maximum energy capture with minimum greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions.  We also live in the mountain west where pine beetles are killing off wide swathes of our forests, so our fuel consists of dead trees that would otherwise provide fuel for catastrophic forest fires spewing greenhouse gases and particular matter into the sky.  We have a back up furnace for burn bans, use only clean, seasoned wood, keep our stove and chimney clean, and burn hot fires.

While it’s not a perfect source of energy we believe, used responsibly, it’s one of the wiser choices for our neck of the woods.

It’s also a high maintenance way to heat a home which wouldn’t work for a lot of people but it’s satisfying for us.  It’s like a dance that spans the entire year.  Splitting wood in the spring, cleaning the stove in summer, stoking fires through fall and winter, and collecting ash for the garden once spring returns.  We work our way through the seasons of cold and dark, waking and sleeping to the ebb and flow of temperatures in each load.  It’s like a slow waltz with wood, axe, oxygen, and match as partners.

It’s also a lot cheaper than our ancient electric furnace.  Très bien.

Staring at the crackling fire this morning I flashed back to a story I heard long, long ago.  It was a teaching story which has helped me a lot over time, as any good teaching story should.  Thirty or so years ago I met an elderly monk one night, at a time when I was in a lot of pain.  I was pushing my dinner aimlessly around my plate in the college cafeteria when he just he showed up.  (It was not a Catholic school and had no proximity to a monastery.  Kinda spooky.)  We wound up talking in the library into the wee hours of the morning and, even though we covered a broad range of topics that night, I only remember two things:

1)  When we stood up and hugged good-bye I rubbed his back with my hand like I would a friend and afterwards, when I realized what I’d done, was aghast.   It’s not that Father Monk looked in any way offended but while I had no idea then, and still don’t today, what is the proper etiquette for hugging a monk, I assume you’re not supposed to fondle them.

And 2) he told me the story of the Log and the Flame.

I had just told him about an experience of heightened awareness I’d been having since I was a small child, one I was having increasing difficulty integrating into my everyday life.  The experience itself had always been luminous and joyful, but as I’d gotten older the contrast afterwards was becoming a problem.  Once the experience ended, the regular, daily world looked pretty bleak by comparison and I’d fall into a depression that could last for days.

Integration of any kind of extreme reality presents a challenge.  I’ve often heard people describe the shock and disorientation they felt when traveling for the first time between a wealthy country and one where grinding poverty is endemic.  The gap between the two worlds is huge and can raise a storm of new thoughts and emotions that need time and effort to wrestle to the mat.  The same dynamic exists when someone wins the lottery, or visits the dying for the first time, or enters a prison, or any other environment that lies at the opposite end of a spectrum.

This holds true for extremes of internal experience as well as external.  When I was a child the feeling of wonder and belonging that the heightened awareness gave me was easy, because I was already living in the imaginative, magical universe of childhood.  But as I entered adolescence the contrast grew more stark and by the time I went to college the wide swings of emotion involved (feeling loved and luminous one moment, then stranded, dark, and alone the next) were getting hard to deal with.

I couldn’t figure out how to rope and ride that particular whirlwind.  I needed some guidance.

Father Monk was the right man for the job.  As soon as he heard my description of the experience he nodded in understanding, then proceeded to talk about the wild swings I was having in Christian terms of purification.  It sounded kind of like a colon cleanse only spiritual.  Then he told me the story of the Log and the Flame.

When the log is first laid on the flames, he said, the two are separate and distinct, but then the fire begins to catch the bark and wood.  As it spreads and encircles it, the log starts to sizzle and hiss and then, as the fire penetrates deeper, the wood blackens and moans, cracks and crumbles.  It’s a difficult process for the log to go through but eventually, the wood glows red and then dissolves as it’s transformed into the flame itself.

I gotta tell you here…I liked it.  Not only as a constructive context for framing the struggle I was having, but as a truly dynamite teaching story as well.  Turns out it works in all kinds of situations because, as archetypes go, fire is pretty universal.  Back then Father Monk’s story helped me sort out and harness what was good in the experience I was having, as well as clearly identify the challenge involved so I could develop some tools to manage that part of the swing.

But I also remembered the story years later when I was working with hospice, and it gave me a whole new perspective on what was happening to the bodies that were basically disintegrating beneath my hands.

Watching a body separate from the life it’s been housing takes some getting used to.  It really does.  As graphic processes go, dying has to be up there with the best of them.  The sights, sounds, textures, and odors involved require some aggressive acclimation and nobody is fine with them at first.  Nobody.

But once I grew familiar with the symptoms and my gag reflex subsided, I relaxed and found myself surrendering into the journey these people were taking.  On a few occasions, while standing by their bedsides and gently, oh-so-gently, bathing their shrinking, wasting bodies, I even had that experience of heightened awareness again, where it felt like I was falling into some great stillness that cradled the room.  It reminded me of standing up in the mountains at night bathed in starlight and silence, the Milky Way brilliant and arcing across the sky.  Everything just suddenly felt so big.

And as I slowly touched and turned them, wetting and wringing the washcloth before laying it’s warmth over another patch of quivering skin, tenderly washing away the sweat and sloughing skin, the fecal matter or encrusted blood, I would notice it again.  How they seemed to be faintly glowing there in front of me, like there was something radiant just under their skin that made them look translucent, and every time it took my breath away.

It reminded me of the story of the Log and the Flame.  Only in this case it was like these people were the logs and the flame was something inside them, illuminating them as their bodies slowly dissolved.  It was extraordinary to watch and, while I have absolutely no idea what was causing the phenomenon, I found the beauty in it reassuring.  It helped me care for them better, turning my sadness from something heavy and dragging into something sweeter, more poignant, and clean.  I tumbled head over heels in love with them, each time.  Fell in love with their beautiful, crumbling bodies that were busily transforming into something else.

I think that’s the hallmark of a great teaching story.  It provides a bigger context to help explain not only the beauty, but the darker, harsher aspects of life that are always taking place, too.   It offers a map, a guide, to help navigate through events that can otherwise be confusing, overwhelming, or destructive.   The Log and the Flame was that kind of teaching story for me, one that’s continued to help across decades, and I wanted to take a moment, with a first-fire crackling merrily in the background, to look across some thirty-odd years and thank you again Father Monk, for such a great gift.  You have no idea how much it’s helped.


copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

5 responses

  1. Dia, I absolutely love how you ease your reader into the meat of your story. You begin with the harbinger of fall, that first fire. Then you deftly merge that tangible fire into the metaphorical fires of life and death. Your compassion is like a soothing balm but your articulation of your personal experiences is sheer magic.

  2. Thanks so much Linda! It’s really great to know that some of the abstract stuff I’m writing about is translating well. I’m never sure if I’m wandering off the edge of the map where I’m gonna lose everybody. Welcome home!

    • Dia, I would be the one to get lost. I tend to be sort of tied to the tangible. I don’t recognize or articulate emotions well at all. But your writing takes me places I would never go alone. Thank you.

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