A New Standard of Absurd

I sent leftover pizza to work with the hubster today, forgetting that he has a company lunch to attend.  He just called and when I mentioned it, he laughed and said, Oh don’t worry about it.  The pizza will keep.  It’ll last for months.  Years.  It has a shelf life of a thousand years…no…ten thousand years.  The stuff is like radioactive waste. And then we laughed because the thought was just so absurd.

The hubster’s sense of humor is always escalating like that.   His jokes climb stairs, scale cliffs, then sprout wings and fly.  He loves stretching farther and higher for the most ridiculous comparison he can find and, I admit, the more ludicrous it gets the harder I laugh.

Then, out of the blue, I remembered all the photographs I’ve seen on the internet recording the daily decomposition (or lack thereof) of a McDonald’s hamburger.

And all of a sudden I wondered:  Will McDonald’s hamburgers eventually take over from radioactive waste as the new comic standard against which all decomp-resistant materials can be measured?  Instead of It has the shelf life of radioactive waste will we say: It has the shelf life of a McDonald’s hamburger?

(Evidently fifteen years and counting on this one.)

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

The Jewish Do Not Leave Their Dead Bodies Alone

(children intuitively understand)

One of the great sorrows when my mother died was leaving her body alone in the hospice facility after she died.  Indeed, for my sister it went beyond sorrow into trauma.  The problem was that her death was unexpected and she hadn’t done any advanced planning for the disposition of her remains.  All any of us really knew was that she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered in a bay that she loved.

None of us (ten kids frantically assembling from all over the world) had a clue what to do.  We didn’t know the laws governing human remains and it was a shock to find out 1) how much paperwork is involved and 2) how much time it takes to complete it.  To our dismay we discovered that due to the lack of advance planning it would take a full week before she could be legally cremated.  None of us was in a position to wait that long…it had been hard enough just to get there in time…but more importantly, even if we could have stayed, there wasn’t really any way to stay with her body.  Cremation facilities don’t provide waiting rooms next to their refrigerators.

Turns out our culture isn’t very family-friendly where its bodies are concerned.

So instead my sister and I closed the door, gathered warm water and cloths, and bathed her body ourselves there in the room where she died, loving, tender, and stricken as we said our final goodbyes.  Then we reluctantly walked out of the bedroom and facility, climbed into a car, and drove away.

It was awful.  Leaving her all alone like that, vulnerable and helpless with no one to protect her.  It felt like we’d abandoned her to strangers and I’ll always have deep regrets about it.  But lacking any kind of long history and established customs for that kind of thing we just weren’t prepared to do it any differently.

Which is why I was fascinated to run across a beautiful, poignant article in the New York Times titled Keeping Them Company At The End.  It’s written by Joy Levitt, a rabbi with congregations in New Jersey and New York, and in it she tells the story of sitting with a woman and the body of her dead husband until the doctor could get to the house and pronounce.

It caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  One, she refers to a kind of awareness that I often hear described by people working with hospice; the recognition of “what an unusual and extraordinary privilege it was to be in that bedroom.” And she also does a wonderful job of capturing the illuminated quality of love which so often permeates the room around the time of dying.  But what started me reminiscing about my mother’s death in particular was her description of the Jewish tradition of guarding the bodies of their dead.

“Jews do not leave dead bodies alone. Communities appoint people called “shomrim” — protectors — to watch over the deceased from the time of death until the funeral. It is considered a “mitzvah” — a commanded act — and a holy thing to do, but its origins probably date to a time when there weren’t adequate ways to protect bodies from rodents (or perhaps evil spirits) during the night.”

What a great tradition.  It made me wish I was Jewish for a minute.   Not surprisingly, the white-Protestant-repressed-denial-of-death background I come from doesn’t have much to offer in this area.

I was just looking around online and found some of the following resources for anyone interested in a non-traditional approach to care of the body and funerals.

Home Funerals (lots of great links in this one)

A Family Undertaking (trailer for a really, really beautiful and inspiring documentary.  I watched this a while back and just loved it.)

Final Passages website

And to find out information on the actual laws governing disposition of human remains in my state, I did a search for Idaho laws governing disposition of human remains and found the existing legislationI imagine some variation of that would work for most states.

And by the way, if any of you have a minute, I’d love to hear about experiences you’ve had or resources you’ve found, too.  Thanks!

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Surprise Raptor Visits

Here’s odd.

Yesterday, I was sitting, temporarily distracted, at my desk, gazing out the sliding glass door into the garden while chatting with the hubster on the phone.  All of a sudden the finches and Oregon Juncos scattered wildly off the hanging bird feeder as a red-tailed hawk swooped down and landed on top of it.

Now, just so you know, this kind of thing doesn’t usually happen around here.  We live in a tract home near the center of a small town.  We have a ‘burban back yard that, yes, has lots of trees but, no, doesn’t qualify by any stretch of the imagination as raptor habitat.  So having a big ole’ hawk fly in, land, and pose a scant ten feet away was rare and momentous.  For me, oh great adorer of all things wild, it was akin to an angel sighting.  I was struck.  Moved.  Awed.

And then it flew away again.  The warp in the time/space continuum righted itself, and the world returned to normal.

But then this morning I got an email from some friends who live outside the next small town over:

“…We’re inside out of the cold and I hear a scratching sound that sounds like a cat scratching on the wall….I turn around looking behind me and at that time Nola say’s “oh my god It’s an Eagle” We look through the glass door and sure enough it’s a huge Golden Eagle standing on the railing working it’s claws…..It turns it’s upper body takes a real good look at us and like slow motion bends it’s legs straight down and just launches straight up expands it’s massive wings catching some air and glides away..Didn’t even flap it’s wings…it was incredible.  Pure deep golden brown.. Looked extremely healthy…..we are still smiling…”

And now I’m struck, moved, and awed all over again.  (And a little jealous.  THEY got an eagle.)  I wonder what’s going on?  We’re having some strange weather right now, way too warm with lots of rain that’s melting all the mountain snow prematurely.  Low areas are flooding and I’ve seen numerous hawks flying over the hills where I walk Dane the Mangy Rescue Mutt every day.   Usually, they don’t return until spring.  Has the unseasonal warmth tricked them?  The scientific part of my mind is intrigued.

But there’s this older thing down inside me, too, perhaps in my brain stem (involuntary body control) or amygdala (emotions and memory) that greets these wild creatures as messengers.  When this old thing stirs and rises, it often feels like something uncoiling in my stomach.  There are certain kinds of stimuli that tend do activate it, like hearing a hawk cry echo off the hills, or when a dry puff of wind brushes loose hair across my neck, or when something rustles in the dark, or when I sense a potential pattern  in the smattering of random events that populate my day.  It’s an involuntary, physiological response that I’ve had since I was a child, one that I’ve always just accepted and carried around with me in my pocket like a knife or a compass.  It’s a valued tool and  I like it.  I listen because it tells me things about the world that I need to know, things my busy conscious mind doesn’t usually notice.  It whispers stories about big things and old ways, warns me when I’m in danger, tells me when I need to pay attention because something important is happening.

It uncoiled yesterday when the hawk came, then again this morning when I heard about the eagle, whispering something about wild things calling.  It filled me with a deep sense of longing.  I think I’ll take Dane and head back up into the hills now, climb the ridge to the top of Widowmaker where I’m finally alone with nothing but mountain ranges stretching across the horizons.  I need to climb today, up into the wind and sage brush and sun and silence, where I can shake off the world, take my mind, and throw it far away up into the sky.  Let it soar for a while.

The red-tailed hawk told me so.

image from Wikipedia

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

“Love For No Reason” Book Launch Today

The book my wife-in-law, Carol Kline, just spent the last two years of her life writing with Marci Shimoff is finally launching today!  It’s after 11:00 and even though I’m sneezing, coughing, blowing all kinds of disgusting stuff out of my nose, and should be dragging my suffering carcass off to bed, I HAD to write a quick CONGRATULATIONS CAROL!!!!!!  You totally rock, girl!

(BTW, yes.  She’s the wife of my ex-husband.  She’s also the co-mother of our children and…after all the years of blood, sweat and tears it took to raise the Wild Things…a dear, DEAR friend.)

I just got an email from her and Love For No Reason is currently sitting at #9 on the Amazon best seller list and #3 on the New York Times!!  (Marci worked her butt off on the marketing end of things and she’s a powerhouse.  NOT to be denied!  Wow.)  Carol gave me an advanced copy for Christmas a few weeks ago, so when I say that the book is a great and worthwhile read, I speak from first hand experience. It’s all about cultivating a state of unconditional love in oneself that can stand against virtually anything the world throws at you.  It’s simple but incredibly profound, and just reading it gave me a badly needed lift. 

I can’t believe how far away I’ve gotten away from even thinking about trying to live with some degree of unconditional love.  I used to strive for it regularly through meditation and all kinds of spiritual practice but over the last five years have fallen off the wagon into some lazy habits.  It was something of a shock when I did the initial exercise in the book and discovered I am now almost nil for “love for no reason,” living mostly in “love for good reasons”, but still harboring a (very difficult to look at) amount of “love for bad reasons” too.  It was kind of a wake up call.

It feels great to immerse in some knowledge again that’s cultivating the highest.

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading more about it, go here:  http://www.TheLoveBook.com.  It has links to both Amazon and Barnes and Noble there if you’re seized by an urge that just can’t be denied.

And just one more time for the road: GOOD ON YOU CAROL!  We’re all so proud of you for pulling yet another one out of your hat.  Great job!


Update:  I forgot.  Here’s Carol’s biography.  I’m just SO proud of her!

Carol Kline is the co-author with Marci Shimoff of Love for No Reason: 7 Steps to Creating a Life of Unconditional Love and Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out. She also co-authored five books–with over 5 million sold–in the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul® series, including Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul and Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover’s Soul, and the #1 New York Times best-selling Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul 2. She is also the coauthor of The Ultimate Dog Lover and The Ultimate Cat Lover. In 2006, she co-wrote You’ve Got to Read this Book: 55 People Tell the Story of the Book that Changed Their Life with Jack Canfield and Gay Hendricks.

A freelance writer/editor for over thirty years, Carol, who has a B.A. in literature, specializes in narrative non-fiction and self-help. Carol is also a speaker, self-esteem facilitator, and animal welfare advocate. In addition, she has taught stress-management systems to the general public since 1975. At present, she is at work on several writing projects on a variety of topics.

Christmas Trees and Death Panels: How Fear Sets A Snare (Republished)

As the Advanced Care  Planning Consultation legislation goes down in flames for the second time, I thought I’d revisit this post from August where I wrote about one of the biggest reasons it went down the first time.  It seemed like it was still pertinent so I’m posting it again.   

(This post was originally published on August 20, 2010.)

Like many people, the Christmas tree scene in the original 1972 Poseidon Adventure movie made a deep impression on me.  I was only fourteen when the movie was first released so I was impressionable.  Given.  But even so the scene is a classic.

It’s Christmas (New Years?) Eve on a luxury ocean liner out in the middle of the ocean and the crew and passengers are celebrating in the ballroom under the branches of a towering and heavily decorated Christmas tree.  As per disaster movie formulae, a tsunami formed by an earthquake off the coast of Crete comes rolling across the ocean and hits the ship broadside, capsizing it and tossing the above mentioned assemblage all over the slowly inverting ballroom.  Once the Poseidon settles in it’s new, upside down position, the Christmas tree is lying on it’s side on the ceiling-turned-floor.

Enter: Gene Hackman, a renegade missionary.  He swiftly marshals a group of men to raise the tree again for use as a ladder to access a service door at the bottom-now-top of the room.

We’ve seen a lot of random chaos and horror up to this point but Fear as a saboteur has been suspiciously quiet.  That changes once the Christmas tree option is presented.  Fear immediately recognizes a golden opportunity and steps in to set the first, big snare of the movie:

The survivors each have to make a choice.

Reverend Gene, on the one hand, tells everyone to climb the Christmas tree and head for the hull of the ship, because that’s the only logical place where rescuers could ever access survivors.  Reverend Gene represents original thinking and a challenge to the status quo.

But the ship’s purser disagrees and tells them no, no, no, they must all stay put in the ballroom and wait for someone to find and rescue them there because the ballroom is where rescuers will search.  The purser (read official man in a uniform) represents standard thinking and the status quo, something fatally attractive to anyone with a strong herd mentality.

It was painfully clear to all of us in the theater that the Rev was right and everyone needed to climb.  Fast.  We knew that those who couldn’t rise above convention and think outside the box were gonna die, die, die, horribly and soon.  We knew this because the whole scene was built around a basic rule of human behavior; terror tends to drive thinking out of the cerebral cortex (rational, logical, problem solving) and into the amygdala (instincts, habit, and fear).  Anytime we’re confronted with a new and terrifying situation, if we can’t master our emotions and analyze circumstances objectively then we revert to old mental ruts and knee jerk reactions.

We follow the herd because by god there’s safety in numbers.  Right?

In this case, not so much.  Fear springs the snare, paralyzing just about everyone there.  The majority of people listen to the purser and decide to stay put.  Only a handful climb the tree and, once the chosen few are safely ensconced up in the only possible escape route, explosions sound in the belly of the ship, windows and skylights shatter in the ballroom, the Christmas tree topples back down to the floor, and deep, ocean waters surge in, drowning every last screaming, thrashing person who made the mistake of defaulting to what felt, instinctively, like the safest bet.

Working in the hospice field, one grows familiar with fear and its many, (many, many, many, many, many) snares.  A fear of dying can often drive us to make unwise care and treatment decisions.  From what I can tell, a lot of this comes from the profound lack of education and understanding that exists in this country around the dying process.  The fierce denial we’ve embraced as a society doesn’t leave much room for the cerebral cortex to think about the subject at all, which means that most of the default choices people make at the end remain firmly embedded in the instinctual part of the brain.  How could it be any different?  There are few instincts more powerful than the one to survive and, if we don’t have some extraordinary and compelling reasons not to, we’ll naturally choose to continue treatments beyond (sometimes far beyond) the point where our doctors, or even we ourselves, think we should.

Yet at the same time, most of us don’t want to die wrapped up in tubing and drugged into a stupor, or with flash paddles sending electric jolts into our heart while our family looks on in traumatized shock.  But it happens all the time anyway.  Why?

There are a host of complex factors that contribute to the problem but ultimately one underlying cause rules them all:

We persistently and adamantly refuse to talk about dying.

We play right into one of Fear’s greatest snares.  Fear loves the fact that we won’t talk about dying because that prevents the cerebral cortex from getting anywhere near our decision making.  How can we possibly evaluate what’s been going wrong, learn anything new, or change anything for the better, without some calm, compassionate, respectful, thoughtful discussion about what’s going on?  We can’t.  Our fearful silence gives the old habits and instincts free rein and we default, over and over again, to the same flawed choices.  That’s how, even if it’s the last thing we ever wanted, we still so often wind up cocooned in IV lines without so much as a spare patch of skin for our loved ones to kiss or hold.

This reluctance and failure to talk about dying is the norm in individual cases.  But it happens on the national level as well, and a prime example of it  just played out during the recent health care reform debate.

Remember the small provision in the health care bill (section 1233 of HR 3200) entitled Advanced Care  Planning Consultation? (Otherwise dubbed, in a bewildering but imaginative twist, as  Death Panels.) Amazingly, it constituted only three pages out of roughly 2000, yet it wound up hijacking the debate.  Why?  Because it asked us to start talking about the dying process.  More specifically, our own dying process.  It boldly and openly addressed the current, gaping need that exists for each of us to have a conversation with the doctor who’s treating us about how we want that treatment to look.

But in so doing this tiny provision struck a major taboo.

Let me reiterate here.  The provision didn’t try to address how we’re treated, it just wanted us to start talking about how we’re treated, but it’s authors may as well have suggested we all drink poison Kool-aid.  They failed to understand how profound the fear of talking about dying is in our society, and that failure is a big part of the reason why the whole thing blew up.   

Personally, I think legislation of some sort is a good idea, but this version was doomed to fail.  I mean, come on.  Any politician planning to link death, law, and government is going to have to make a serious effort to engage the general citizenry in a calm, compassionate, respectful, informative, and thoughtful discussion about the whole thing first.  They need to institute a massive educational outreach to explain why a conversation about end of life care is so essential.

They need to do a much better job of explaining its gift.

There are stories out there that we all need to hear.  Stories about how drastically a simple end of life care discussion can improve outcomes for individuals, families, and entire communities.  For instance, we needed to hear about the two studies done by Aetna insurance.  The ones where the terminally ill who had access to both ongoing treatment and palliative and hospice care, cut their emergency room visits by half and their hospital and ICU visits by two thirds.  Costs dropped by almost 25%.  And most importantly, these people reported much higher levels of satisfaction with their care.

We needed to hear about the compelling evidence emerging from the Coping with Cancer study that suggests end of life care discussions not only decrease suffering and costs, but also increase both quality of life and even life expectancy.  As Dr. Atul Gawande explains in his article Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life?, “These patients suffered less, were physically more capable, and were better able, for a longer period, to interact with others. Moreover, six months after the patients died their family members were much less likely to experience persistent major depression.”

And then there is the interesting case of La Crosse, Wisconsin, where life expectancy is actually one year longer and end of life costs about half the national average.  This is because  some far sighted medical leaders in the community got together back in 1991 and started a campaign to get physicians and patients to discuss end of life wishes.  Again from Dr. Gawande:

“By 1996, eighty-five per cent of La Crosse residents who died had written advanced directives, up from fifteen per cent, and doctors almost always knew of and followed the instructions…Answers to the list of questions change as patients go from entering the hospital for the delivery of a child to entering for complications of Alzheimer’s disease.  But, in La Crosse, the system means that people are far more likely to have talked about what they want and what they don’t want before they and their relatives find themselves in the throes of crisis and fear…The discussion, not the list, was what mattered most.” (Emphasis mine.)

These amazing stories and others like them are currently opening a lot of eyes to the wide ranging gifts that come from having a simple discussion about dying.

It would have been helpful if we heard these stories before the legislation was introduced.  A few realized their error and tried to get the news out, but it was too late.  Fear had already seized another golden opportunity (politics!) and set its snare.  The term Death Panels rose from the depths, Fear immediately latched onto it like a monster from a nightmare, and our group, instinctual  brain responded with a great big Hell no!! Explosions sounded from the belly of the debate, windows and skylights shattered, and Provision 1233, like the Christmas tree, slowly toppled to the floor, destroying any hope for mutual, constructive discussion during this round.

Which leaves the majority of those who are currently dying in much the same position as the unlucky Poseidon passengers who decided to sit and wait.  They’re still not having that conversation about end of life care choices, so they’re still missing out on the help, relief, grace, and extra time which are its gifts.

But there’s good news.  We don’t need legislation to talk about dying.  We can talk about it any time we want.  We can figure out, right now, who it is we’d like to choose for us if a time comes when we can no longer choose for ourselves.  Then we can talk with them, right now, as long or as often as we need to.  We can tell them about what’s important to us and what scares us.  What we’re hoping for and how hard it is to trust with something this big.  And they can talk with us, too, about how badly they need to know what we want and how scared they are of making a wrong decision.  About how much they love us and how afraid they are of the loss.

Then we can go in and sit down with our doctors and tell them, too, about these frightening, tender, sacred things we’ve discovered about each other and ourselves.  We can give them the vital information they need to have, so they can care for us in the way we want most.

If we can do all that then the legislation that follows will be far more informed, compassionate, and respectful…the kind of legislation that everyone can trust…because we’re finally talking.

If you’d like to start talking about dying and end of life care but aren’t quite sure how to start, here are a handful of reading resources that might help jump start a conversation:

1) Dr. Atul Gawande, Letting go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life? (13 pages long but more than worth the time required to read it.)

2) Final Gifts (This book is a huge favorite with the hospice crowd…curious, beautifully written, and uplifting.  Good for easing fear.)

3)  Palliative Care Blog (Fantastic resource for everything end of life and palliative.  Contains a wealth of links to other resources as well.)

4)  Talking About Death Won’t Kill You (The title of this book pretty much says it all.)

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Update 8/25/10: Here’s some news. Last week New York state passed a bill (The New York Palliative Care Information Act) requiring doctors to offer terminally ill patients information about different end of life options.  It’s essentially Provision 1233 resurrected in state form.  Behold!  The Christmas tree rises again.  What I found most interesting was that the bill was passed over the objections of New York State’s medical society.  The doctors opposed it saying ‘the new law would intrude “unnecessarily upon the physician-patient relationship” and mandate “a legislatively designed standard of care.”’  Truth be told, there are studies showing medicine tends to attract people with the highest levels of anxiety about dying. Doctors as a group tend to be more reluctant to talk about it than the average person, yet they’re now the ones who are legally responsible in New York to initiate the conversation?  Hmmmmm…  What does this bode for the future?  Hopefully, now medical schools and other sources of medical education will provide more training for how to talk about dying.  As Dr. Gawande stated in Letting Go, it’s a skill that needs to be developed just as much as surgical skills.  We’ll see.  In any case I hope this will stir up more constructive discussion!

There’s A Yorkshire Saying

I’m at the Commencement ceremonies for my daughter’s college graduation this morning and will be busy celebrating this great, great, GREAT event for most of the day.  It’s been a wild week with very limited writing time.  Therefore, the post I had scheduled for today will have to wait.  In the meantime, I give you this fantastic saying from Yorkshire:


John of Going Gently told me about this one.  He said people in Yorkshire use it to remind themselves of how important it is to live life fully while we still have the chance, because once the chance is gone, it’s gone for a long, long time.

Needless to say, I love it.   I figured, in the holiday spirit of giving, I’d pass it along.

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

(Image is from Wikpedia and is of Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire)

Stray Thought

I was just thinking about whether it’s possible for anyone to really know what happens after we die and this is my personal conclusion:

1)  I think the people who say they don’t know, really don’t.

2)  I think the majority of people who say they do know, actually don’t.  They just believe they know.  Really, really hard.

And 3) I think there are probably a few people out there who really do know.  I don’t know how they know it, but I still think they do.

However, 4) Their knowledge will never be of any use to me since there’s no way I can ever, with rigorous certainty, distinguish them from the majority of people who believe they know, but really don’t.

At first glance that seems like a bummer.  But is it?


Nope.  I don’t think so.  It doesn’t feel like it anyway.  In fact, I’m a little relieved.  I don’t want anyone telling me what will happen when I die because  then it wouldn’t be a surprise and, to be honest, I’m kind of looking forward to the adventure aspect of the whole thing.

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

Agoraphobia, Sea Legs, and Life with the Red Pill

Taken by the hubster on the Maine coast

Intense cold is scary to me, but then so many things are.  Over the last couple of decades, one of agoraphobia’s many little gifts has been to heighten my awareness of much of the danger out there that I never would have noticed before.

It’s made me conscious (sometimes paralyzingly so) of how unbelievably fragile all this is.

Before the fear came I used to live in a luxurious world where I could still take what I have and love for granted by just assuming that everything would last.  But that sense of safety is long gone.  In it’s place came the (existential and largely useless) knowledge that every breath, every desire, every heartbeat, every moment of touch or warmth or joy is actually teetering on a razor’s edge above a chasm of eventual loss, and the sheer size of the realization started causing a kind of perpetual, emotional vertigo.

On the inside I started dropping to the ground, squeezing my eyes shut, and white-knuckling onto anything that felt even remotely stable.  On the outside it became increasingly difficult to leave the house.  Needless to say, the change wreaked some widespread havoc on my daily routines and commitments, but life has a way of incorporating even the more difficult things and, with enough time and practice, I eventually began to get the hang of the swings.

On our recent trip up to the cabin during a winter storm and cold snap, as usual, I was obsessively clear on how vulnerable we were.  There the hubster and I were, driving along through the mountains, nothing but the thin walls of the car and a working engine standing between us and exposure, hypothermia, or worse.  I was acutely aware of what a flimsy, fragile bubble it was, carrying us along through a hundred miles of frigid landscape, and in all honesty even once we got up to the cabin I didn’t feel that much more secure.

All the necessities were laid in of course (because being afraid all the time makes one a stellar planner.)  We had water, food, firewood, tools and supplies, warm clothing, everything we needed to secure our survival.  But even so I knew that if something went wrong, something as simple as a power outage coupled with a broken window during a storm, a whoops! moment with the axe, a snowshoeing misstep, or some bad food, things could get complicated in a hurry.

Ordinarily, there’s a fantastic and really helpful illusion that says, given enough effort and planning and control, life can somehow be made secure.  Unfortunately, I can’t access that illusion any more. 

(Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?)

While even I know that some activities are less dangerous than others, still, I can’t shake the reality that there will never be such a thing as completely harm-proof or hurt-proof or loss-proof or safe.

Knowing this mostly scares the bejeezus out of me and make me want to withdraw.  But then I remember this quote from Helen Keller:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature…Avoiding danger is not safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.  I love that.  I love that Helen Keller said it, this other woman who also lived with a challenge that made it harder to navigate life.  It’s like a mantra that helps me find a way out of the holes I fall into, a rope tied around my waist so I can never completely disappear.  Living with the perennial tug of agoraphobia as I do, it’s so easy to get sucked down into the creeping paralysis of chronic fear again, to wind up curled in a ball back in the bedroom, or frozen for hours at the front door just staring at the handle.

It just seems so weird sometimes, how somebody as naturally adventurous as I am could wind up grappling with such an odd and opposite kind of illness.

For me, learning how to live with chronic fear has felt like learning how to live on a schooner.  It’s different from living on land.  The surface beneath my feet heaves and plunges and rolls now in a way it never did before, and I’ve had to develop my sea legs in order to keep from being tossed off and battered and drowned.  But over time I’ve gotten better at the shifting balance, learned how to read a horizon that’s constantly rising and falling, rhythmic and grinding, as the level of my daily fear ebbs and flows.  Gotten better at reminding myself every day, every hour…every minute sometimes…to try to relax and just roll with it.  To take a deep breath, then stand up next to my fear and hang onto it’s hand for dear life, rather than letting it run around crazy consuming everything I love.

I’ve gotten better (while I’m oh-so busily preparing for the the end of the world) at remembering, oh yeah!  Of course it’s terrifying.  Life is a daring adventure or nothing.

Which makes it a little easier, each time, to face forward, lean into the wind, and let myself either fall or fly.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

My New Idol

Okay.  You have to see this.

For those who haven’t yet, here’s a photo of one little five-year old’s fantastic Halloween costume along with his mom’s commentary about what he was subjected to for choosing to wear it this year.  It’ll make you both gnash your teeth and cheer.  This cop’s wife at Nerdy Apple Bottom is my new idol, my hero, my role model for everything honorable, loving, and courageous.

And I adore her son.  He totally, totally rocks.

The story she tells is particularly insightful for the fact that she’s identifying and naming bullying at it’s very earliest stages.  And…surprise!  As always, it starts with the adults.  In her words:

“But it also was heartbreaking to me that my sweet, kind-hearted five year old was right to be worried. He knew that there were people like A, B, and C. [Editor’s note:  A, B, and C are other mothers at the preschool.]  And he, at 5, was concerned about how they would perceive him and what would happen to him.

Just as it was heartbreaking to those parents that have lost their children recently due to bullying. IT IS NOT OK TO BULLY. Even if you wrap it up in a bow and call it ‘concern.’  Those women were trying to bully me. And my son. MY son.”

I think this is what the source…the spring, the headwaters…of bullying looks like, how it appears right as it first starts seeping up out of the ground.  It’s well worth studying because it’s so much easier to stop it at this stage than it is after the kids pick it up.

And bravo Nerdy Apple Bottom!!  As you can tell by now, most of us out here are far more eager to celebrate your son than judge him in any way but the best.  I have no doubt that, with a mom like you behind him, the man he eventually grows into will be outstanding and a gift to us all.  Thanks for this!

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Of Troughs, Wombs, Longing, and Loss

Today is the sixteenth month anniversary of my mother’s death.  Her birthday was a week ago and I’m experiencing some sort of strange sadness-lag.  Kind of like jet lag, only emotionally.  I was fine on her birthday.  I actually had a great day with lots of fun and happy thoughts about her.

The hubster and I spent that day taking his father on a belated birthday, airboat ride down in the Snake River Canyon.

There were storms rolling in across the southern part of the state later in the afternoon and we were treated to thunder echoing off the canyon walls, one of the most spectacular double rainbows I’ve ever seen, and some distant lightning.

“Hand of God” looking isn’t it?

(Smiting?  Anyone?  Anyone?)

It was wild and intoxicating and celebratory, the kind of day my mom would have adored, and there were a few times during the day when I secretly felt like what was going on in the sky was the meteorological equivalent of confetti and giant candles on a big afterlife cake.

But that was the anniversary of her birth.  Now I’m at the anniversary of her death and the happiness engines have reversed and I’m feeling sad instead, gliding back down into one of the shadowed troughs between waves on this huge ocean of grieving.  I thought I’d grown accustomed to the ups and down of the whole process but this slide has taken me by surprise.  The troughs have grown farther apart over time, and I guess it’s been long enough since the last one that I actually forgot and thought I was done.

Silly, silly me.  Like the waves of the sea are ever done.

Maybe in the end this isn’t so much an ocean of grieving as an ocean of love, and this vast, rhythmic fluctuation of ups and downs, joy and sadness, fullness and loss is simply a continuation of the love my mother and I always shared…and still seem to share in some new yet confusing way.

On the morning that she died my sister and I gathered water, soap, and washcloths by her bedside.  We closed the door to the room and together bathed her for the last time, gently touching her arms and legs, her face and hair, all the intimate, beloved parts of her body that granted us entrance and life so many years ago.  At one point I stopped and rested both hands over her womb.  I closed my eyes, struggling to remember what it was like back then, when I was infinitely fragile, tiny, and curled.  Waiting and dreaming.  Contained and safe in the first home I ever knew in the world.

Perhaps this ocean of love I’m drifting up and down, up and down in now is like some second, larger womb I came into when I exited the first.  A continuation of the warmth, protection, and nourishment she enveloped me with after I left her body and began to grow outside of her.  What she smiled and still cradled me in as I pushed her away, developed into a woman, and came to believe I was somehow separate.  Only in the end, not quite so separate as I thought.

Thank God.

And now, even with her beautiful body collapsed and dead and returned to ash, I can still float along in the waters of this other great womb that her love for me once created, and my love for her now sustains.  It’s probably okay to welcome today’s weight of longing as much as I welcomed the joy of a few days ago because in the end, they’re each a different expression of the same exquisite gift.

I miss you, Mom.  I’ll always miss you.  Thank you for loving me.

Thank you for everything.

Taken on her 70th birthday, playing in a tributary of the Salmon River: The River of No Return

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Can You Ever Go Home Again? (We’re About To Find Out.)

The hubster and I are on the road again, heading back to visit a small town in rural Iowa where we used to live in another life, long, long ago and far, far away.  It’s where we first met one another and fell in love twenty one years ago, where we belonged to an eclectic and tight knit community of other odd, dysfunctional, and hopelessly idealistic souls, and where we had more fun and comical adventures trying to save the world than anyone has a right to.

We left fifteen years ago now and even though we’re happy and thriving in the life we’ve built for ourselves back west, and even though we’ve both changed and grown in significant ways since we left, and even though we’re not even sure if we’ll fit in there anymore still…we’ve both had the feeling while planning this trip that we’re heading home.

Is that even possible?  The expectation makes me a little nervous.

But we flew into St. Louis yesterday, picked up the rental car, and as soon as we hit the open countryside I started to cry.  I tried to hide it from Cal but he could tell anyway.  He can always tell.  He loves it when I’m melting.

I couldn’t help it.  I looked out across a gently rolling landscape of hickory and cottonwood trees, alternating prairie and farmlands and constantly changing sky, and felt like I’d just crawled back into my mother’s lap.  I had a flashback to when I first arrived in the Midwest nearly thirty five years ago and it was like slipping back into the life of somebody else I knew a long time ago.  Someone I’d almost forgotten but, it turns out, still care about deeply.

Back at seventeen years old I was already a refugee from life, broken  and barely functioning, in desperate need of someplace safe, gentle, and friendly where I could just exist for a while.  Haul my battered boat into dry dock and recover before I started trying to patch some of the gaping holes in the hull.  Rest, unknot, and stop shaking.  Unhunch my shoulders.  Unclench my fists and my heart.

And there was Fairfield, the brand new home of Maharishi International University and  a center for the blossoming T.M. movement.  It attracted a small, strange, and dynamic clutch of assorted souls around whom a community started to grow.  It was pretty commune-like back then with its mix of flower children and liberal intellectuals leftover from the 60’s, but most importantly for me, it was drug and violence free.  The thinking of the place was devoted to all the usual things like world peace and unconditional love, vegetarianism and organic food, but also veered way outside the box into things as diverse as only stirring a pot clockwise to keep the food pure and trying to learn how to fly all together in big groups (without a plane.)

I know it sounds weird and a lot of it really, really was, (and still is for that matter), but the intentions were always good and the creativity and imagination unleashed there were rampant.  It’s intoxicating stuff, living way off the map like that, and it  can really nourish one’s ability to  entertain and pursue possibilities that most people wouldn’t consider.  A lot of the things we tried didn’t work of course, but enough did, and a handful worked brilliantly only in completely different ways than anyone anticipated.

Cal and I eventually left fifteen years ago and during that time the community continued to evolve in wild, wacky, and surprisingly productive ways.  It’s produced a bewildering array of tech companies, has become a regional force for sustainability, has spun off a small satellite village that is completely off the grid, and built a convention center (in a town of not quite 10,000 people) that supports a thriving artistic community.  Who would have thought, all those years ago, that this project of lofty ideals would last at all, much less turn into what it is today.  I guess  passion, if it’s deep and lasting enough, can help make up for a host of other flaws.

So anyway, we’re back here for two weeks and I thought I’d post about some of the oddities and inspiration we encounter along the way.  So far, last night we ran into a woman who started her own church for the feminine face of God, I discovered there’s an Energy Healing Master/Teacher coming to town next weekend who’s going to be staying here at the B&B with us and holding his sessions here (that should be interesting since we weren’t told anything about it!), and the weekend after that there are Grandmothers from the indigenous cultures of Tibet, Nepal, Africa, and Central, South and North America all converging here for a women’s conference.

Never a dull moment.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Why The Disabled Are Worried About It

In last Friday’s post I mentioned that, much to my surprise, the disabled seem to have good reason for worrying about assisted dying/assisted suicide (I’m going to shorten it to AD/AS here…) legislation being passed.  In this post I’d like to take a look at why.

It started with the whole Death Panels phenomenon.  After I wrote  Christmas Trees and Death Panels: How Fear Sets A Snare a few weeks ago, a thought kept nagging at me.  When Sarah Palin first threw out that now infamous term, she claimed that the government was planning to set up medical boards to decide whether her child with Down Syndrome would be allowed to live or not.  I initially thought it was a (pretty brilliant) piece of political misdirection and dismissed it.  (Admittedly, my opinion of politicians is at an all time low.  The bias runs deep.  If their lips are moving, I doubt it.)  Nonetheless, the claim reminded me of different accounts I’ve read over the years of the historical treatment of the physically disabled and mentally ill, and as I recalled some of those horror stories I began to wonder if there might not still be some deep psychic scars hanging around in our group subconscious.  It wouldn’t be unusual.  Deep fears based in old realities do tend to die slowly.  Could some element of genuine fear also be coloring Ms. Palin’s political ploys?  And was it an echo of that same fear that inspired such an overwhelming response in the American public?

(Who would have thought that my old fascination with mental asylums, body snatching, and medical experimentation on the terminally ill might eventually offer constructive insight into the deep, subconscious fears about disability and dying that are still active today?  Go figure.  Let that be a lesson to follow one’s passion, however odd it seems. )

In terms of their treatment at the hands of a larger society, historically the disabled have often drawn the short, shorter, and shortest straws.  Some of the accounts are heinous.  For example, in the Victorian era, in the early days of asylums and workhouses the disabled (both physically and mentally) were often segregated and abandoned in abysmal conditions; shackled in dungeons with no light, clothing, beds, or heat,  and left to languish in their own filth. In addition, because there was no meaningful legal protection, they were sometimes targeted for questionable medical experimentation by unscrupulous doctors.  Not to mention that, when it came to committing someone for mental illness, the definition of insanity was…well…insane.  Families could commit just about anyone to an asylum for reasons as simple as disobedience (in women) and unruliness (in children.)

It was a traumatic age to rank among society’s most vulnerable and, while conditions have improved dramatically in the western world over the last century (not always so rosy yet in pockets of the developing world though,) the old horror stories have nonetheless carried forward to today.  There are still families handing down tales of not-so-distant ancestors who were locked up in these places, and who doesn’t get a delicious chill running down their spine at the use of old asylums as settings in classic, horror movies?

Kings Park Psychiatric Center, New York (Building 93)

These stories from bygone days are still lurking deep in our group unconscious and contributing to the fear and stereotypes about disability and its treatment that exist today.   But up until recently I assumed those fears were dated and irrelevant.  Imagine my surprise then, to discover there are still compelling reasons for the disabled to not only fear segregation and discrimination, but possibly euthanasia as well.

After assuming that Ms. Palin’s stated fear for her son was not entirely political, I dug a little deeper.  I did a quick search using terms like disabled, fear, and assisted suicide and found this publication put out by RADAR: The Disability Network in the U.K.  It  addresses concerns about proposed legislation for assisted dying in the terminally ill and…please, let me first just say that in a media world as full of hype, spin, and misrepresentation of the facts as ours is currently, this little bulletin is a treasure.  It’s heartfelt and passionate, but still somehow manages to be respectful, and I read it a few times just to bask in that little miracle of miracles.

But aside from that, one piece of information I learned there shocked me.  It turns out the disabled have a right to worry about legislation sanctioning AD/AS.

Included in RADAR’s publication is a case study concerning a woman named Jane Campbell, diagnosed at birth with spinal muscular atrophy and not expected to survive her first year.  Best I can figure, at the time of this publication she was about forty and, in spite of extensive disability, living a dynamic, happy, satisfying life as a national advocate for the disabled.  However, during a hospitalization for severe pneumonia in 2003 she encountered an unconscious stereotype held by members of the medical staff that could potentially have proven fatal to her.  Her experience is important because it crystallizes some of the very real danger that AD/AS poses for the disabled, and I think it’s something that all of us healthy, strapping people need to consider carefully.

Evidently, while in the hospital she was approached by two different members of the medical staff overseeing her care who told her that, in the case of respiratory failure, they assumed she wouldn’t want to be resuscitated with a ventilator.  She was at first surprised, and then alarmed, because they didn’t seem to believe her when she insisted that, no, she wanted to continue to live very much, even on a ventilator.  Her husband eventually had to race home and collect photos and other factual evidence to convince them that in spite of her disability, she did indeed enjoy a very high quality of life.  Unlike an equally young but non-disabled patient, Jane found herself in the position of needing to prove that she still had every reason to want to live.

I imagine it was terrifying for her.  Medical personnel often have to make tough calls that influence whether a patient will survive a crisis, and if they believe that the patient doesn’t want to survive it will almost certainly influence their decisions.  Jane was confronted with medical professionals who, because of unexamined stereotypes about her quality of life, automatically assumed that she’d prefer to die.  More frightening for her was the fact that these stereotypes acted upon them so powerfully they continued to doubt her, even after she initially told them it wasn’t true.

Now some might suspect Jane was projecting her own fears onto the staff.  I might have too, except that I instantly recognized the kind of situation described because I was in it once myself, only I was on the medical side.  When Maggie, a woman who’d been left as a quadriplegic by polio sixty years earlier, was first referred to our hospice with terminal cancer, I was laboring under the same flawed assumption that she must be relieved.  When I first entered her home I thought surely she must be looking forward to her long suffering coming to an end.

Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

I found a woman devastated by the news.  She loved her life and for good reason.  Surrounded by a devoted, supportive husband, children she loved, grandchildren she adored, and a wide network of extended family and friends, she had at various times produced an educational TV show and managed a branch of the state tax commission for more than a decade.  She was sharp, beautiful, disciplined, optimistic, graceful, and dynamic…and she was not, I repeat not, ready to die.

It was a real eye opener for me.  The reason stereotypes are so damn successful is because, without any real life experience to refute them, they feel true.  It isn’t until one finally runs aground on the rocks of some contrary evidence that they crack open, revealing the blind assumptions they’re based on and allowing us to finally begin to question them.  Maggie was the rock that split my hull.  She was severely disabled but, where her desire to live was concerned, that was totally irrelevant.  While her husband told me after she died that of course she was relieved to escape the limitations placed on her body, that in no way translated into meaning that she wanted to die. Evidently, wanting to be free of a disability and wanting to be free of  life are not the same thing.

Go figure.

Now, an important question to ask is, does any of this really matter to those of us who are not disabled?  Clearly, this stereotype is potentially dangerous for someone who is but for someone who’s not, other than arousing our deep humanitarian instincts, is it pertinent?  Will it ever affect us?  Do we have any skin in this game?

You bet.

Here’s an important point to keep in mind; eventually anyone who doesn’t die instantly is going to experience what it’s like to be disabled. Because the dying are a subset of the disabled. When we begin our final journey we all enter the world of steadily decreasing ability and, to varying degrees and for however long it lasts, we each get to feel what it’s like to become helpless, dependent, weakened, and vulnerable.  And when that happens all those non-pertinent stereotypes about disability flapping around are going to catch our scent and come circling, and you better believe they’ll influence the people making critical decisions for our lives.  It won’t matter which side of the AD/AS argument any one of us falls on, whether we’ll be among those who want to live but, like Jane and Maggie, are cared for by people who don’t believe us, or whether we’ll be among those who want to die but who are cared for by people who think we’re no longer competent to decide.  Either way, left unaddressed any stereotypes about disability will almost certainly wield power over our self sovereignty.

Now you might think that this alone is a good enough reason to look more closely at the actual wording of any given legislation for AD/AS, and to have some in-depth, follow-up discussion.  But Wait! (I say like an infomercial for a new, blender/chopper/shredder/slicer kitchen appliance that one just can’t live without…) There’s more!

But…it’ll have to wait until another post.  I’ve already gone way too long already.  Next Friday, I’d like to take a look at the possibility that the blind assumption the disabled don’t have any real quality of life may also be a prime factor influencing why some people choose assisted dying/assisted suicide in the first place.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

The Compass

My father sent me his compass this week.  It’s military issue,  camouflage green, weighs in at half a pound, and is nigh onto indestructible.  It’s the one he carried with him for fifty eight years, the one he used through wars and special missions to guide him across mountains, jungles, and deserts around the world.  It’s also the one, as he put it, that probably saved my life more times than I can remember and always got me home.

My father sent me his compass because he believes that I’m lost.

He and I don’t communicate all that well, which is not a big surprise.  He’s a man’s man, from the greatest generation, and prefers his communication simple, short, and aimed at a swift resolution.  He’s uncomfortable and impatient with the delicate dance required in talking about feelings and tries to either ignore a conversation that introduces them or, if that doesn’t work, shut it down altogether.  This can make it difficult for the women who are intimately involved in his life.

Because women have to talk about feelings.  It’s in our DNA.  Relationships are our genetic job and the drive to talk about them is as relentless as the instinct to protect our young.  It’s a diagnostic tool to help us determine if everything is running smoothly.  Preventing a woman from talking about the relationship is as counter productive as stopping a man from checking the oil in the car.  All that happens is the engine of each eventually blows and we all know how hard it is to get them up and running again after that.

Which is what happened with my father and I.  I needed to talk about something important but he silenced me instead, and even though we lasted a few years longer, the pressure built until it finally blew after which I stopped talking to him altogether.  And for the life of him he can’t understand why.

Yet he’s still reaching out to me with his compass.  He’s sending me a message in the language he knows, and while I stiffen at the inference that I’m lost, I’m also moved and shaken by his longing for me to come home.  Because I want to go home.  I love and miss him.  But I still don’t know how to survive closeness with a person who demands my silence.

I think all of us have an internal compass we steer by, a deep sense of knowing about what we need, what we believe in, and who we are.  This knowing is what fuels our passion and shapes our dreams and we can always tell when it’s not functioning properly because without it, we feel lost.  The directions on this internal compass are unique to each person, and I think that mine are different from my father’s in significant ways.  He steers by things like loyalty, courage, secrecy, and discipline while I find my way through curiosity, exploration, expression, and truth.  These are not qualities we’ve voluntarily chosen for ourselves, things to try on and discard at will.  They’re what we are, the cardinal elements out of which we were created, and he can no more stop being what he is than I can.

And yet, and yet.  He keeps calling and calling me home, and I keep searching for some way…some way…to reconcile the differences so I can survive a return.  Because, in spite of the hurdles and confusion and pain, we still share the same magnetic north; we love one another deeply and can’t seem to forget it.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A Sense of Presence (Can you feel me now?)

Uncle George, husband, father, friend, and legendary storyteller.

I thought a lot about my encounter with Alf and the Fly this weekend, about how vivid the sensation was when I felt Alf’s presence during the memorial service.  The subject was up again because we drove down to Reno to join extended family in celebrating the life of an uncle who died earlier this year.  During a conversation with one of my cousins (a daughter of said uncle), she described a moment, while going through his things shortly after he died, when she suddenly felt like he was right there with her, giving her an intimate message of love through, of all things, an obscure word in one of the National Geographic magazines that he loved.

She, too, experienced a sense of presence.

Many of you might recognize what she described because you’ve felt something like it yourself.  It turns out that experiencing a sense of presence is fairly common, not only among the survivors of those who’ve recently died but in a variety of other settings as well.  The experience is so common in fact that it’s been given names like the third man, widow effect, and the ever magical imaginary friend of young children. There has also been a fair amount of research done on the phenomenon and I’d like to touch on a few of the studies as referenced in a fascinating book called The Third Man Factor by John Geiger.

(BTW, if you ever get a wild hair and feel like reading a variety of personal accounts of  a sense of presence, here’s a forum on The Third Man Factor website.  These examples are unique because most of them result in a person surviving a situation where otherwise they might have perished.)

Geiger’s book deals primarily with the experience of a sensed presence in extreme, survival situations but he references other circumstances where the experience regularly manifests.  Needless to say, given my focus on dying, I was particularly interested in those dealing with the widow effect, the experience of a sense of ongoing relationship with someone who’s died.  He cites one study by researchers at the University of Arizona at Tuscon in 1988, where about half of the 500 widows questioned reported sensing the presence of their deceased partner, and another survey of 227 widows and 66 widowers in Wales which produced a similar finding.

“That study, by W. Dewi Rees, published in the British Medical Journal, found that most people who had the experience reported they had visits intermittently throughout the day, while 10 percent said they ‘felt that the dead spouse was always with them.’  All said they sensed the presence of the deceased; a few also said they actually saw or heard him.  Rees found the experiences were in no way frightening, and concluded, ‘these hallucinations are…normal and helpful accompaniments of widowhood.’  Other research into widows of men killed in automobile accidents in Japan found the incidence even higher, and there, too, the researchers concluded the presence ‘may be a positive sign in helping them adapt to the loss.'”  (pp. 153-154)

Geiger also sites a larger survey conducted in the UK in 1995 that didn’t just look at widows and widowers, but included a broader cross-section of society.  It revealed that “the continuation of an important relationship after death is not confined to those who have lost a spouse.”  People reported sensing the presence of parents and other family members as well as friends.

Clearly this experience of sensed presence is widespread among the recently bereaved.  Yet prevalent or not, as most people are painfully aware, there’s a social stigma attached to talking about it.  I’ve found the majority of people, at least initially, are reluctant.  Some, deeply so.  They’re afraid others will think less of them for believing in “that kind of thing,” or worse, that people won’t believe it happened at all.   But it does happen, to a large segment of the population, and I hope that Geiger’s book will be a watershed, marking a shift in trend where it becomes more acceptable for people to speak openly about their experiences.

Because being able to speak about these experiences is important for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

I found it interesting that Geiger himself expected a lot of resistance to the idea that the experience of a sensed presence is real and was surprised when none materialized.  He realized most people don’t doubt that the experiences are actually happening.   The controversy centers around what might be causing them.

The first thrust of The Third Man Factor is to confirm the experience itself and Geiger lays out evidence that makes it indisputable.  People are sensing something that feels like a presence.  (This is huge.  Absolutely huge. He’s finally provided a framework within which people of all intellectual backgrounds can talk about the subject.)

The second purpose aims at reconciling the traditionally supernatural elements of these experiences with possible scientific explanations and he presents some compelling evidence for the role that stress, loneliness, and neurological function play in the phenomenon.   The book is well researched and, while his conclusions ultimately raised as many questions for me as they answered, I was still wildly relieved to hear the subject discussed in a practical, factual manner instead of the half-embarrassed, half-apologetic whispers that I usually hear.

Now, let me be clear.  While I’ve long been intrigued by the dynamic tension between science and spirituality, and I’m always curious to hear what both sides have to say, on a purely practical level I, personally, don’t care what’s causing these experiences of sensed presence.  It’s not relevant to me.  It’s an interesting question, don’t get me wrong, and fun to explore when nobody’s dying.  But when someone is dying, the arguments are really just an intellectual exercise.

Once you’re in that room and it’s you or your loved one lying on the bed suffering, once it’s you facing down the maw of unbearable loss, once it’s your family that’s been swept away in the maelström of vulnerability that dying entails, you’ll probably discover that the arguments about what’s causing an experience of sensed presence aren’t nearly as important as whether or not it helps.

It’s like drowning in the middle of the ocean.  If a boat pulls up and throws you a life buoy you probably won’t care about where the thing was manufactured.  Nor will you ask to see a business card from whoever is throwing it to you.   What you will care about, deeply, is whether or not it floats and, if it does, you’ll grab it with gusto and hang on for dear life.

I think everyone should be allowed to speak openly about any unusual experience they have during the dying process.  (FYI, there are a lot of them.) Because even though no one can definitively explain them yet, they still provide enormous comfort and reassurance during a journey that’s tough at best and devastating at worst.

I’ve often felt frustrated by the fact that such a luminous, nourishing, (and it turns out commonplace) human experience is relegated to the back of the shame-closet where we stash our bogey men and under-the-bed monsters.  I don’t think anyone should ever have to feel embarrassed because they experienced something that helped them cope and heal.  Neither should anyone have to hide the fact that they’re experiencing something lovely even if it’s odd, because doing so robs the rest of us.  I’ve studied the faces of those listening when this kind of thing is shared and the effect of these stories on others is almost always one of wonder, hope, or relief.

Which are good things, things that are in relatively short supply.  We want more wonder, hope, and relief in the rooms of the dying.  Trust me on this one.  They help.

These days, in rational society, we tend to resist things that involve Mystery.  We have our science and we like our rational explanations and we’re uncomfortable with odd-shaped things that sound weird and don’t fit.  The problem with that is, as soon as we enter the dying process we also enter the Mystery.  The two things are a package deal and the ticket covers both rides.  Everyone has to grapple with the fact that questions grossly outnumber answers at the end of life, both existentially and physiologically.

Whether these questions revolve around an experience of sensed presence, or the surprising level of foreknowledge or control many have over the actual moment of death, or the perennial biggie concerning what will happen to us once it’s all over, or the most basic question of Well…what’s causing this symptom?, one thing is certain; sooner or later something will occur during dying that everyone will guess at but no one will know.  And if that something is a sense of presence that lightens the load or eases the pain?  If it provides a pool of nourishment from which we can drink a little courage, respite, or strength?

Then perhaps the most useful explanation is simply that these experiences of sensed presence are a rare and beautiful gift at a time when we need one the most.  Maybe it’s okay to not know any more than that for now, but open both hands anyway, accept the gift, and whisper thanks.

For anyone interested, here’s a brief interview of John Geiger talking about the book, The Third Man Factor.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Well, color me surprised!

March 22, 2010

Y’know, I wasn’t expecting any visitors yet but welcome, welcome, welcome!  (How in the world did you find me anyway?  There’s nothing here to link to…talk about curious.)  I’m just moving in and the house is a mess but feel free to roam around the paragraph or two I’ve managed to hang up so far. I should be ready to entertain in a month or so if you’d like to stop back then, or leave me a calling card/link and I can return the favor.

Thanks for stopping by and welcome to The Odd and Unmentionable.