A very hard week.

Cameron black and white

Hey everybody. I was working on a different post for this week but it was sidelined when our family got hit with a devastating event.  The hubster’s nephew, an extraordinary, loving, and gifted young man, took his own life Sunday night and everything since then has been aftermath.  His parent’s did everything conceivable to get him help and prevent this from happening but in the end his illness overpowered all the rest.  My mind is whirling with all the things that could and should be said about what’s happened…the desperate need for people to be more aware of how profound a danger this is to our children, the desperate need for everyone to be more willing to talk about suicide instead of hiding from it, the desperate need for better funding for our hotlines and mental health infrastructure and suicide education for the school staff who often serve as first line of defense, and the desperate need to break down the current stigmas associated with mental illness…but for today I’m still too heartbroken.

Here’s a link to Cam’s obituary that just came out today. If you’d like you can take a moment to read it and, in your heart, celebrate the beautiful life of someone who did tremendous good and helped a lot of other kids during the short time he was here, and perhaps say a prayer for him and all those who loved him, it would be more deeply appreciated than you know.  His parents felt very strongly that his cause of death should not be hidden or spun in this notice of his death as they know…better than most now…just how critical it is for all of us to start talking about this more openly.  This from the obit:

“But through all the laughter, Cam suffered from depression. He tried to disguise his pain and put to use the deep empathy, love, and compassion generated from his own life’s survival experiences to help as many other people as he could. In the end, he took his own life but he would have wanted everyone to know it was not the outcome he longed for.” 

I can’t begin to tell you how unbelievably brave his parents have been or how, even in the midst of their own devastation, their concern for the many, many other kids reeling from this loss has been uppermost in their minds.  There was a prayer vigil the other night that Cam’s dad helped organize where four or five hundred kids and parents showed up to grieve and sing and tell stories and also talk openly about suicide and the things we can do to watch and help one another to prevent this from happening again.  Everyone in that hall wanted to know.  Everyone there wanted to hear it discussed openly.  The kids especially needed the evening to help them understand and try to come to grips with what’s happened, and the way they came together and were holding and supporting and loving one another through their grief was one of the most extraordinary and moving things I’ve ever witnessed.  They’re so much stronger and courageous and wise, our children, than we tend to believe.  We grown-ups owe it to them to face into our own terrors and finally stop hiding from this.

But enough.  Today I just wanted to say I love you all, even if I don’t know you, and I can’t tell you how glad and grateful I am that you’re out there right now and still alive.  Because that one simple thing gives me more hope than you can possibly imagine. Really love one another today and reach out to someone nearby just because you still can, and do something kind or make someone smile because thats how Cam used to live every single day and why, even with all the turbulence right now, the most lasting legacy of his life will ultimately be one of laughter, love, compassion, and song.

Important links for those considering suicide or those who know someone having suicidal thoughts:

NAMI (National Alliance On Mental Illness)

List of National Suicide Hotlines (Scroll down a few inches to list)


The Fisher King Goes Fishing

A friend of mine was once a vital, physically dynamic. backpacking, canoeing, outdoors enthusiast and passionate, social worker powerhouse.  Then she contracted West Nile virus during one of its earliest appearances in the West, collapsed overnight, and almost died from the severe neurological complications.  It was sobering, how a tiny virus can take down a strapping, healthy, wildly intelligent woman in her prime like that.  Somehow I had thought that only the young, old, and already compromised were vulnerable.

Fortunately, she survived and has been industriously working to rebuild a new life out of the ashes of devastating illness.  One of the biggest challenges has been trying to get to know who she is now as a result of all the neurological damage that took place.   Her mind is still as keen, curious, and active as ever, but tends to quickly overload and go smoky with any kind of strain.  And while she still loves the outdoors and continues to camp and hike a little, she walks a razors edge in terms of how much physical exertion she can pursue before her brain short circuits from the flood of brain chemicals released by fatigue and stress.

For a woman who largely defined herself by her independence, extraordinary mental acuity, and physical dynamism, the loss of self she’s experienced through illness has been profound and the continuing effort to redefine herself, grueling.  But she does it anyway…and inspires me  in the process.

We used to talk a lot about how hard it is to let go of who you once were, then try to rebuild a new life according to this other, lesser version you’ve turned into.  (At least that’s what it feels like in the beginning.)  I experienced something similar during my rapid descent into a long and severe depressive episode twenty years ago, an illness that effectively blew my old life to smithereens.  Like most people in our situation I, too, spent the first few years trying to first recover, then return to the old life I’d known.  It was only after it grew apparent that could never happen that I finally got on with the job of crafting a new life and a new identity to go along with it.

Any kind of major illness or injury can create this cycle of course, but there was a unique challenge we both faced in that we still looked the same from the outside.  All of our injuries are invisible at first glance, which makes our inability to perform certain, standard tasks very confusing for others.  And when we frequently failed to meet the seemingly normal, reasonable expectations of people it wound up creating friction in our relationships with them, a fact that then made it even harder to figure out and accept who we had become.

But time is a great healer and has been slowly revealing that we didn’t actually become lesser people after all, just different ones.  Our identities have changed substantially–who we are and what we can do in relation to the world around us–but it turns out our essential selves haven’t really changed at all.  We still love the same things we’ve always loved, with the same depth.  We still strive to give, serve, behave, and belong in a way that nourishes the greater world.  We’re still just as committed to the happiness and welfare of our children and husbands, doing whatever we can to support them.  And we continue to try and pass along the little tidbits of light, inspiration, and meaning we uncover while sorting through the various piles of debris that now litter our lives.

Today, she sent me the following three minute video and it reminded me again of what an extraordinary gift and accomplishment it is to survive in this world at all.  Its many and formidable hardships aside, life is still pretty magnificent and I do so love getting to participate in it, for however long it lasts.

This is footage of an osprey fishing from the BBC archives.  First sequence: he catches half a dozen fish in one strike.  Second sequence: he dives underwater and plunges talons into a flat fish resting on the bottom.  Third sequence: he captures a huge fish that looks as if it weighs more than he does.  (How they get this kind of footage is beyond me but they do.  Pretty brilliant.)

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

Part VI: Advance Directives: Mine

(Continued from Part V: Advance Directives: Best To Wish Carefully With A Genie)

In this post I wanted to share a smattering of specific thoughts and choices coming up for me as I fill out my own advance directive.  I wanted to do this just in case 1) someone might benefit from an example, and 2) anyone reading this may somehow, someday be involved in my care.

Just kidding.

(Not really.)

But before I start down that road I want to remind everyone that whatever I say here is a personal thing.  It’s a reflection of me and what I’d like to see happen with my care.  It’s not what I think anybody else should do.

When I was working with hospice my first job in any home was to find out what the people who lived there valued, believed in, stood for, and loved…and then work to support them from that foundation.  I did this because the dying journey is pretty turbulent and, for the most part, people need to harness the emotional and spiritual strength they’ve already established, not try and develop something new.  It’s almost always a bad idea to change boats in the middle of rough water.

Jared Alexander on Hazard Creek in Idaho

Any boat is better than being dumped out and beaten against the rocks for the duration of the journey.  That’s why I always tried, as best I could, to hang my own beliefs and personal preferences on a hook outside the door.

This post is only about the things hanging on my hook.

And now, specifics.

Here’s one of the most valuable directions we’ve come across so far:  Fill this thing out based on what choices we’d want made for us right now.  I’ve always thought of an advance directive as something that would come into play…oh…years and years from now.  Like when I’m eighty-three and dying of skin cancer from all the second-degree sunburns I sustained during my haole childhood years in Hawaii, for instance.

But no.  Turns out I need to think more immediately.  Like for the next five years (after which I’ll review and update my directive for the following five years, and so on.) Which leaves me facing the question:  If my life was threatened right now, at fifty-three years old, would I want more life sustaining treatment than I would want at a terminally ill eighty-three?  In other words, do I want more aggressive medical intervention?  Will I accept more risk?

I suspect the majority of people would say yes at my age, however for me it’s a little more complicated.  Because I’ve already been fighting the good fight to survive depression for two decades, my troops are on the depleted side and I’m a little battle-weary.  My basic will to live has taken a considerable beating and I don’t have the reserves I once did.   Just the idea of having to mount yet another massive resistance in a brand new war is exhausting.

It’s not that I want to die.  I really don’t.  I haven’t been in that phase of the illness for a long, long time now.   But depression years are like dog years…you live more of them in the same period of time…so fifty-three years probably seems longer to me than it would to the average, healthy person my age.  To me, I’ve already lived a really long, great, adventurous life.  Everything from here is just icing on the cake.

So what does this mean?  Well, as of today (of course things can always change which is why I’ll continue to review and update this thing regularly) but as of today, if I was mortally injured or ill and teetering on the brink of infinity, and if a possible recovery was going to mean a long, hard slog just to get back to a state of health equal to or less than what I have right now, then I’d rather take a pass on any life sustaining measures.

Please kiss me and let me go, my darlings.

Of course I’m not sure if the medical personnel involved would either agree or cooperate with that at my age…at least right away.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that in an emergency situation I’d still wind up on life support temporarily.  But then that’s exactly why I’m filling out this document right?  So that the hubster and/or the kids would be able to explain to them first, that I’m completely sincere about not wanting to be “saved no matter what,” and second, why I’m sincere, and that way eventually…gently and with everyone on board…they could remove me from life support.

Like I said, this stuff winds up being totally unique for each person doing it.  I suppose the main dictum for filling out an advance directive is, Filler Outer: Know Thyself.

A couple of other scale-tippers I discovered so far concern the issues of being a burden and/or a catastrophic financial cost.  I saw some tragic examples in hospice of how the drawn-out dying process of one spouse can not only bankrupt the surviving other, it can cripple their bodies and/or minds as well.  Occasionally, that’s just the luck of the draw and in those cases…oh well.  I can always stop eating if I feel that strongly about it (and can still think.)  But at other times it happens because of medical intervention and in that case…I don’t want to do that to him.  I DO NOT want to.  It would suck all the meaning and happiness right out of any additional life I gained if it stripped or destroyed the hubster in the process.

At this point I should mention that the advance directives we’re working with don’t offer assisted suicide as an option.  They can’t.  It’s not legal here in Idaho.  (I wonder if advance directives in Oregon and Washington include something along those lines?)  Locally, we’re only talking abut whether we want to accept or refuse “life-sustaining treatment” in extremis (from CPR to major surgeries to artificial nutrition and hydration to kidney dialysis and breathing machines…all of which can be big contributors to the election campaign of financial catastrophe BTW.)  So…no.  Not really.  Thank you.


So, these are just a couple of examples of what we’re considering as we move through the documents.  It’s a lot more than just checking off box #1, #2, or #3.  And while I realize it might sounds pretty grim, in reality it feels surprisingly freeing to just face it.  Like these are big, unknown fears lurking just under the surface anyway, unconsciously sapping our focus and creating unease, so why not just haul them up out of the water where we can finally get a good look at them?  So far we’re finding that under the bright light of day, talking about these things isn’t horrible or morbid at all.  On the contrary, it’s a relief.  While it’s definitely emotional, it’s emotional in a kinder, braver way.  Not bad, really.

Well, this post has gotten too long.  The hubster and I are having our second go with the advance directives this weekend so I’ll try and post more about how it’s going next week.

(Next: Part VII: Advance Directives: Ours)

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

How Thinking About Dying Is Helping Me Navigate Life


This week I got a surprise dividend from all the time I’ve spent thinking about;

1) how I’d like to die, and

2) how to explain it to a loved one making choices for me.

But in order to explain the dividend I have to go back to the beginning of the year.

As I relayed in False Positives Are The Tenth Circle of Hell, starting in January the hubster and I endured four stressful months of an unnecessary prostate cancer scare.  What I didn’t mention in that post was that, during Month Three of this ordeal, I went in for my first mammogram in eight years and afterwards received a call back informing me that I needed to come in for further scans.  The radiologist had questions and wanted a second look.

I felt like I’d just been slugged.  I was already grappling with the onset of a depressive episode because of the fear and uncertainty surrounding the hubster’s prostate scare and I quickly realized there was no way I could simultaneously navigate the stress of a second scare without going down for the count.  I decided to postpone dealing with mine until I found out what was going on with the hubster’s.

Which was easier said than done.  The aggressive barrage of phone calls and letters that followed pressuring reminding me to schedule an appointment for further treatment only pressed me deeper toward the depressive episode I was fighting to stay out of.  (What’s up with that anyway?  People with real cancer don’t get that level of follow-up.)

Finally, we received the news that in spite of an elevated PSA, the hubster’s prostate was actually perfectly healthy.  The last four months were “just” a scare.  As I described in my post about the incident at the time, I didn’t feel relieved.  I felt conned.  Not by any of the people we dealt with…everyone was genuinely concerned and trying to help…but rather by a system that had gone horribly wrong for us.

Clearly, I needed to understand how it went wrong so I could navigate my own health scare differently.  I started researching.  What I discovered dismayed me.  First, I learned that the PSA test isn’t even FDA-approved for cancer screening, and the fact that it’s been widely deployed for that purpose has been the subject of controversy for over twenty years.  The jury is still out on whether the benefits of mass testing justify the resulting high rates of over-diagnosis, false positives, and over-treatment.

Then I moved on to mammograms and found some equally disturbing news.  Mammography neither prevents nor cures breast cancer and, while there does seem to be a modest benefit in decreasing mortality, the length of time screening actually extends lives has yet to be determined. Yet estimates for false positives run anywhere from a conservative 60% to a radical 90% of all callbacks, and some say over-diagnosis of breast cancers that would have regressed on their own may run as high as one in three.  Over-treatment is rife.  But the harm caused by all this is only just beginning to be studied.

Now, there are a lot of people who feel that if even one life is saved by all this over-doing, then any harm it causes is worth it.  And I really appreciate the fact that they value life that highly.  Because I do, too.

However, being one of the harmed myself now, I can’t help but feel some reluctance to continue the project.  While I’d dearly love to help save that one life, too, I can’t afford a descent into depression every time the system makes one of these frequent mistakes.

So with all this on my mind, for the last six months I’ve been considering what other course I could chart for myself; researching, sifting, weighing, and waiting for the voices battling in my head to reach some kind of consensus. On the one shoulder I’ve had all the aggressively pro-mammogram voices screaming, Go for the call back, woman! You could die! You could DIE!!  While on the other shoulder I’ve had my own voice warning, Careful Dia. You could easily slide into a depressive episode here that you can’t climb back out of.

(BTW, for those of you who asked what I meant by exercises for developing emotional endurance, this is an example.  I had to sit and hold hands with some incredibly uncomfortable, even frightening emotions while waiting for my eventual answer to put in an appearance.)

Then this week, I suddenly remembered a choice I made seven or eight years ago about dying that immediately and completely put all the voices to rest.  In her book Talking About Death Won’t Kill You (great title, no?) Virginia Morris offered a question to use when trying to talk to elderly parents about end-of-life choices.  She suggested we ask them:

If something happens and I wind up having to make medical choices for you, would you rather I erred on the side of doing too little or doing too much?

First let me say, this question is worth its wait in gold.  I kid you not.  I’ve posed it to a lot of different people over the years and the answers I received have frequently surprised me. I think this one question alone could save a boatload of suffering, if everyone only knew and asked it.

But back to what my own personal answer would be if I was asked, the instant I heard the question it was a no-brainer.  If anyone ever asked me, I’d tell them to definitely err on the side of doing too little.  Always.  I’m just not wired for the game of brinksmanship involved in trying to grab as many extra moments as possible at the risk of getting hopelessly entangled in the medical interventions that make them possible.  While that kind of extra time is worth the risk for some (particularly those with small children or other dependents who still need them) at this point in my life it certainly isn’t worth it to me.

It’ll be enough for those who love me to know that I have no qualms about giving up extra time…years if necessary…if it means being able to live a full and vibrant life, journey through a meaningful dying time, and then die a peaceful, simple death at home surrounded by people that I love.

So.  What does this understanding I’ve come to about the end of my life have to do with the current choice I’m facing in the middle of it?  Well, as you’ve probably figured out by now, it’s essentially the same question, only in a different situation.

Faced with a questionable mammogram but high rates of false positives, would I rather err on the side of doing too little or doing too much?

And as soon as I realized what the real question was, I immediately knew the answer.  I’ll choose for the least medical intervention possible, because that’s who I am.  It’s actually the same choice I’ve been making my whole life, only without realizing it.  Clearly, it’s the one I’m most comfortable with.  

It’s why I gave birth to both kids at home and navigated two decades of depression without antidepressants.  It’s why, when dealing with any illness or injury, I start with the least invasive treatment first and then work my way up from there.  It’s why I’ve spent so much time exploring less-invasive forms of medicine to supplement my use of modern medicine.  And I think it may even be part of the reason why I was so drawn to work with hospice; because it’s the way to die that usually involves the least amount of intervention.

The whole realization was kind of blinding.  I mean sure, I’d been hoping for some kind of resolution but I certainly wasn’t expecting an answer that big.  Suddenly my entire life, as well as a huge chunk of medical decisions I’m going to have to make going forward, just got a lot simpler.  And why?  Because of something I learned about myself while considering how I want to die of all things.

That’s the surprise dividend I mentioned.  Not bad, eh?

So what will I do about the current situation going forward?  Well, I’ll practice weekly home breast exams and watchful waiting until my next check-up in December.  Then I’ll discuss the whole thing with my doctor and get his input on where to go next.

And then (this is unrelated but something I’m kind of excited about)…if he’ll let me…I’d like to initiate our first conversation about how I want to eventually die a good death and see if I can get him on board with talking about the whole idea.  (I don’t think it’ll be a big leap.  Dying is totally the topic on the table as soon as you start talking cancer screening.)  I like Dr. R.  He’s a nice guy and a good doctor and if he’d be my primary till the day I died, I’d be happy.  We’ll have to see if I scare him off though.  I’ve never done this before and don’t really know what that kind of conversation is supposed to look like, but still.  There’s no time like the present to try, y’know?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Update:  10/10/11  Looks like I’m not the only questioning  what’s going on.  New recommendations are being mulled over for PSA tests.  See following article for details.

PSA Exams Should End in Men Without Cancer Symptoms, Panel Says: 

A draft report, released today by the Health and Human Services Department’s Preventive Services Task Force, recommends against so-called PSA tests for men who don’t have symptoms that are “highly suspicious for prostate cancer.”

A Good Skill Set For Depressives (With or Without Drugs)

I’ve been living with clinical depression for a couple of decades now.  It can be challenging terrain…lots of sheer cliffs and deep canyons that are way too easy to get lost in, especially in the beginning when they can feel inescapable..but after twenty years I’ve learned how to get around.  Mapped out the local territory, made friends with the natives, and built a beautiful life there that I really love and am deeply grateful for.

I’ve done it without antidepressants.  And before anyone gets their panties all in a bunch, I’m not opposed to pharmaceutical treatment. (I so dislike that whole battle.  It’s divisive, distracting, and a waste of precious resources.)  It’s just that, back when I slipped into my first severe episode, I didn’t know what was happening to me.  Depression wasn’t the by-word it is today.  It took a while just to figure out what I was dealing with and, once that became clear, I still couldn’t afford long-term, continued access to drugs.

So it was fortunate I’d already pieced together an alternate treatment plan that was working for me.  It’s complex, eclectic, and tailored specifically to my life and strengths, so there’s no point in going into detail here.  But there were a handful of important skills I had to develop in order to make the whole thing work and I suspect they might be helpful no matter what treatment plan a person turns to.  So just in case that’s true, here they are:


1)  Develop emotional endurance.  A lot of it.  Do exercises.

2)  Trust your instincts, you’re not crazy.  Some studies have suggested that depressives actually have a more realistic view of the world than non-depressives.

3)  Question your conclusions.  Depressives can take that aforementioned realistic view (especially in a severe episode) and translate it to mean everything is futile and unbearable when it’s not.

4)  Develop emotional endurance.  Really.

5)  Depression annihilates confidence so cultivate stubbornness instead.  (Desperation is also a surprisingly effective motivation for short hauls but it’s tough on the adrenals.)

6)  Did I mention develop emotional endurance?

And 7)  Look for light.  It’s a discipline that can save you.  If you can’t find any immediately, then hang on to memories of old light until you can.  Living with depression is a lot like living at night.  Colors fade out and disappear during a descent, and the whole world falls into shades of gray.  But once you figure out where to look and start to see them, the stars in there will knock your socks off.

The Pillars of Creation

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The Worst Kind of Natural Disaster

With Japan’s ongoing crisis very much on my mind right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about natural disasters in general.  Most regions are vulnerable to some kind of disaster and, usually depending on how recent the last one was, the people who live in them wind up developing both a deep-seated fear about theirs and an emergency plan to help them survive it when it comes.

When I lived in Iowa I always had an ear cocked for the wailing of tornado sirens at the onset of a violent storm.  In Southern California I dutifully bolted bookcases and water heaters to the wall in case of a possible earthquake.  In Hawaii as a youngster I learned all the warning signs and action steps for surviving a tsunami, and living in Idaho today the hubster and I have supplies and an evacuation plan set up in case a catastrophic fire ever sweeps through our neighborhood (as one nearly did last summer.)

This basic disaster reality is everywhere.  The Gulf coast has hurricanes, the communities along the Mississippi river are prone to floods, Boonville, New York gets buried under record snowfall every year…

a bad year

and North Dakota see wind chills in winter that can equal the flanks of Mt. Everest.

But in Quinault, Washington, where we just spent a week at the southern end of Olympic National Park, I witnessed the residents living with a niche type of natural disaster that’s particularly unique.  These people live with the ever present danger of falling trees.

No.  Wait.  Let me rephrase.  Falling big trees.  Huge.

The tiny community is nestled in the Valley of the Giants, so named for the towering Douglas firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars and sitka spruces that fill the valley.  These behemoths are spawned by the twelve to fifteen feet of precipitation the area gets each year.  (That’s right.  I said feet.)  In fact, the Quinault Valley is home to six of the largest living trees of their species on record.  Short of the sequoias and redwoods farther south, trees just don’t get a lot bigger than this.

Me in the middle, standing on the root of a Sitka spruce that’s over 1,000 years old.

In other, dryer places trees are considered large if they reach a hundred feet.  But around Quinault, a hundred feet is just the point where branches start on the older Douglas Firs.

What it felt like in there.

It was like time traveling, walking around under a fern-laced, moss-draped canopy like that.  The light is filtered, soft, green, and primeval.  If you ever doubted that water is indeed life I highly recommend a visit to this place because wandering around the area was like watching the life cycle in hyper-drive—bursting, spurting, reckless growth delicately balanced with every conceivable form of sagging, creeping, bulbous decay.  It was heady stuff, and fascinating.  A wee bit unnerving at times but utterly breathtaking, too.

It changes one, being underneath it for a while.  I’m not quite sure how, it just does.

Anyway, apart from their staggering beauty these giant trees have a lesser known, scarier quality.  Because most of the ground water in the rain forest is contained in the top three feet of the land, that’s as deep as their root systems grow.  Horizontally, they spread out over mind boggling distances, but vertically, they don’t bother because there isn’t anything they need down there.

But wait, you might think.  What about stability?  Don’t they need deeper roots to keep them from falling over? Well, that seems logical enough if you’re thinking like a human.  Our species lives by the belief that surviving to the oldest possible age is a valuable goal.  But the rainforest trees of the Quinault Valley have a completely different agenda which includes eventually toppling over while they’re still alive and relatively resource rich.  Because if they don’t, new, baby trees won’t be able to grow down on the forest floor.

You see, the reason most of the ground water is held at the top is because there’s a three-foot thick layer of moss and fungus lying between the air and the earth.  This layer serves as a sponge and can hold a tremendous amount of water (which, trust me, is necessary in a place that gets twelve plus feet of it a year.) But there isn’t as much in the way of dirt and nutrients available in this layer so seeds falling to the ground have little chance of putting on significant growth without some kind of additional support.

This is where the falling trees come in.  Not only do they provide an elevated surface, but as they settle and begin to decompose all the nutrients and other resources stored in their wood become available, so seeds falling on their trunks and branches have everything they need to get a good start in life.  These fallen trees are called nurse logs because they literally become giant nurseries for the future generations of forest life.

A fairly new mom.

Below is a picture of what the middle stage of a tree’s growth looks like.  This is an initially successful Douglas fir with roots working down the sides (of a nurse stump in this case) to establish themselves permanently in the forest floor.  I’m not sure why all the moss and other growth was stripped off here…kind of disturbing actually…but it reveals the process.   Sorry the photo’s a little fuzzy but this was taken with a camera phone.

And finally, here’s a photo of the bottom of an older tree after the original nurse log has completely disintegrated.  It was fascinating to see how all the big trees had multiple “legs” at the bottom like this.  This is what those skinny, snaking little roots grow to look like years later.

I admit, the generosity built into this kind of life cycle takes my breath away.  I love the idea of elders giving back everything they’ve managed to collect and contain over the years to nourish the younger life just getting started.  It makes more sense to me than the way it’s so often done in the human world, where increasingly our resources are directed toward the aging and children are left to bear the brunt of the resulting scarcity.

So, getting back to the original narrative of a falling-trees-natural-disaster, what is it that eventually knocks these gigantic puppies over?  Well, there are hurricanes that come in off the Pacific ocean periodically and the winds they generate knock down trees.  Small hurricanes take out smaller trees.  Medium hurricanes take out medium ones.  Big hurricanes knock over some of the big ones.  And then every hundred years or so you get a monster hurricane, and that’s when the giants can start coming down.

The last monster hurricane hit in December of 2007 and it just so happened that the hubster and I showed up in Quinault a scant three months later for our first-ever visit to the rain forest.  Driving into the area we had no idea what had just happened.  Strangely, there was almost no mention of the local impact of the gale in regional news coverage at the time, which seemed really strange considering the extent of the devastation both to the forests and the human communities along this stretch of coast.  (I imagine that, because it’s a rural area, there weren’t enough people impacted to be considered newsworthy.)

We couldn’t figure it out at first.  Driving up the coast from Oregon on our way to Quinault we noticed that a significant number of houses and buildings in every coastal town we drove through had extensive roof damage.  Blue tarps covering big holes were everywhere.  Then, as we turned inland, we drove past entire hillsides that looked like some kind of huge buzz saw had gone through.  In these places, literally all the trees were snapped off midway, like matchsticks, every single one, but we just figured the timber industry had come through and done a really shitty job of clear cutting.  (Sorry guys.) It wasn’t until we checked in at the Lake Quinault Lodge and started chatting up the locals that we learned about the real nightmare.

Evidently they’d had no warning in Quinault.  The local Forest Service had mistakenly forecast 50 mph winds for their area so everyone assumed they were looking at an ordinary storm.  They made no additional efforts to prepare for what was actually coming.  When the strongest winds hit, (sustained 100+ winds for about twenty minutes or so) some said it sounded like a fleet of jet airliners were all coming in to land simultaneously.  Others just described the sound as deafening. They all remembered that you could hear the trees crashing down through the forest like explosions, and that there wasn’t a house in the area that escaped unscathed.

Before the winds had gotten really bad, when the locals still believed they were dealing with an ordinary storm, there was a small crew of men who set off in a truck with chainsaws to clear the two mile stretch of road out to the main highway.  Six trees had fallen across the road early in the storm and the locals hopped in the truck thinking it was road-clearing business as usual.  But once they finally cleared the road all the way to the highway, they turned around to discover eight more big trees had fallen behind them that they had to clear to get home again.  They made it back safely, but with more trees falling behind them the whole way.

On that trip we talked a lot with the brand new owners of the little local mercantile (built back in the 1920’s) across the street who told us their story.  They said that once they realized how dangerous the storm had become, they decided to evacuate  over to the Lodge for more protection.  The wife had run upstairs to their apartment over the store to grab a few things when the 200 foot Sitka Spruce on the hillside behind them gave way, crashing down right on top of her.  The only thing that saved her life was the old, stone chimney running up the back of the building.  The tree hit it dead center, miraculously stopping it from completely crushing the store, but a large branch broke through the roof striking her in the head and knocking her out temporarily.  When she came to she discovered she was trapped and had to wait for her panicked husband and a few other men to cut her out.

During that first visit we stayed for two weeks and the hubster and I had ample time to wander around and soak in the aftermath.  A lot of the trails were either partially or completely closed.  Indeed, sometimes the forest had just collapsed on top of them.

There was one section in particular where a microburst had ripped about a mile long path of devastation through the trees.  Here’s what one section looked like in 2007.  A few months earlier this was dense, lush rain forest.

And here’s what another part of the area looked like last week:

A lot of the debris that originally buried the creek was washed away by successive spring run-offs in this spot, but there were other areas where we still couldn’t see the creek for all the fallen trees.  We could hear it though, and then watch where it reemerged later downstream.

And here’s a picture from 2008 of what it looks like when one of the big trees gets snapped off near the base.

Fast forward to 2011 and it was fascinating to return and see all the ways the forest has been healing itself from the carnage.  We took the same trails we’d taken before and there is now a layer of moss, algae, fungi and ferns softening all the ragged, shattered edges that were so fresh on our last visit.  There are new trees sprouting out of the many fallen trunks, and all the giant root systems that were ripped out of the ground and left exposed (some of them fifteen feet tall) are slowly transforming into beautiful, vertical walls of moss, trapped stones, and epiphytes.

I’m happy to say there’s also some healing taking place among the human population, but it’s gradual.  The wife trapped by the falling Sitka Spruce was the only person to sustain any physical injuries during the hurricane, but the deep mental and emotional scarring that took place was distributed more evenly.  Everybody who went through it has PTSD.   Everyone.  You can see it in their eyes whenever they hear a strong gust of wind, the uneasy way they turn to look out a window or peer up into the swaying tree tops.  The man who was supposed to lead a group of us on a guided tour around the lake canceled it an hour beforehand because the forecast was calling for possible high winds and nobody there likes to take chances anymore.  Honestly, by the end of this trip I was starting to feel a little nervous myself as a big storm rolled in off the ocean the day before we left.  I caught myself glancing up into the canopy to gauge the strength of the wind as my pace picked up on the way to the car.

I think we’re designed to learn from one another like that.  I think it’s hard-wired into our brains to listen and observe the people we meet when we travel, especially in new, unfamiliar zones that lie outside our ordinary range of experience.  A couple days after the Japanese tsunami struck I heard a professor being interviewed on the news about everyone’s horrified fascination with all the images being broadcast.  He said we do it, at least in part, because there’s an enormous amount of information encoded in those kinds of images.  Biologically we’re all deeply wired to survive and that’s why, unconsciously, we’re always scanning the horizon for possible threats and any information we can glean about how to survive them.

There have been a few times since we returned home, as I’ve watched the tsunami coverage, that my mind has gone back to the two days we spent strolling along the beaches of the Washington coastline.  We’d discovered rare pathways down the cliffs and then walked along the shoreline for hours, enjoying the sand and rocks, playing in the swell of water as it rushed up to our feet and then retreated again.  Even though there are signs along every coastal highway indicating tsunami evacuation routes, we never once seriously considered that such a monster wave might come while we were there ourselves.  That it might catch us unaware, rolling up while we were lost in our long, relaxing reverie of salt spray and sea gull cries, sweeping us right off the narrow, exposed stretch of beach we were exploring between water and cliff.

I’ve considered it since though, as I’ve watched the footage from Japan, and that professor is right.  I’ve gleaned enough information from the images to realize that if a 9.0 earthquake had happened off the coast of Washington instead, a few days earlier while we were there, the resulting tsunami would have swept us away.  The hubster and I would have vanished and no one would ever have known for sure what happened to us.

Looking into the face of that kind of stark reality is sobering.  I’ve had the wild, frightened thought a couple of times that, on our next trip, I won’t return to the beaches at all.  Just in case.  It’s in those moments that I have to make myself remember.  Make myself step back and say, Wait a second, Dia.  How much are you willing to sacrifice  here to be safe? Am I really going to give up the ocean, or hiking through rain forests, just to be safe from tsunamis and falling trees?  And if I’m willing to give those up, where else won’t I go?  Anywhere where there might be an earthquake?  A hurricane?  A typhoon?  Anywhere where I might fall or freeze or burn or be eaten by wild animals?  Anywhere where I could possibly be mugged or raped or otherwise terrorized?  Just how small am I willing to allow my world to get before the ensuing suffocation makes my life not worth living anymore?


And that, my friends, is the real kicker.  I’ve already been to that place.  I’ve already lived in the weird, terrifying world of phobia and creeping paralysis and, between you and me, I think falling into that abyss is the worst kind of natural disaster that can happen to somebody.  The fact that it’s internal doesn’t make it any less real or devastating, and the fact that nobody else can see the destruction doesn’t make the struggle to recover from it easier or less necessary.

The Great Gale of 2007 is long over but even so, during each subsequent storm, those who survived it are experiencing another sliver of it again.  For them, that storm is still real and, inside them, aftershocks are still happening.  Its ghost is alive and well.  The great tsunami that just devastated northern Japan is now over, too, but the ghost wave it left in its wake will be alive and haunting that land for a long time to come.   That’s just the way an internal disaster works.  They’re longer and slower and more ephemeral.  They can also be trickier to rebuild from, than the ones that happen on the outside.

But it can be done.  For me, over time as the fears have receded and I’ve started to recover, I’ve discovered a lot of nurse log-type activity going on inside.  The years of depression and agoraphobia were unquestionably destructive, and a lot of my old life was toppled over and swept away during the worst of that illness.  But even so, these days there’s some fascinating new growth coming up out of the hopeless, twisted, tangle of what my world used to be.  I’m considering things, experiencing little sprouts of hope and ingenuity that, during the worst, I believed would never be possible again.  Maybe these little sprouts will someday grow up to be big trees of their own or maybe they won’t.  I know that another wave of depression could always come along and sweep me out to sea again because that’s the risk of the region I live in now, but deep down inside me I’m not sure that would really matter anyway.  I’m beginning to suspect what’s most important is the fact that I’ve been able to endure, survive, and live at all.  For however long it lasts.

Because isn’t that just the thing about life?  Whatever winds up happening with me, with any of us individually for that matter, Life itself will never stop because it has an endless capacity to reroute.   Sure, accepting the details of that rerouting sometimes involves my having to step back and expand my view a lot, having to accept that life is something far bigger than just my life.  Life is actually our life, something we all get to participate in for a little while together, and something we all still continue contributing to after we’re gone.

It’s like how the pattern of old growth tree roots reveal the place where the nurse log that gave them life once lay.  In a thousand, million different ways, large and small, we all wind up as nurse logs for this world and for each other; each of us profoundly effecting and altering what’s around us during the brief but blazing time we’re here.  I think the magnitude of our impact is far, far greater than we’ll probably ever understand, and that our gifts to this world will never be wiped away because they’re far too necessary to ever waste like that.  On the contrary they’re transformed; reabsorbed and used to nourish all the generations of life that follow, life that wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t existed here for a little while ourselves.

My prayers go out for everyone who died–everyone who is still dying–in Japan, and I send my wishes for deepening strength, resilience, and healing for all those who ultimately survive them.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

A View From The Edge (Part II)

“Lunar Eclipse” by Lorin Kline (my son)

(Last week in Part I I described the forces that drove me high into the mountains for a three-day rendezvous with my deepest fears.  This is the continuing excerpt from the book, Chapter 5.  Dia)

While the list of things scaring me was varied and long, when I arrived at my campsite I discovered one fear in particular standing head and shoulders above the rest.  More than all else, hands down, the prospect of the sun setting terrified me.

There was something so final about it.  I was all alone. Cal had chosen a spot about five miles away and there was no way to communicate with him, no satellite phone or flare or even matches with which to build a signal fire. The trailhead where we’d left the truck was only a two-hour hike away, but without a flashlight I was unable to traverse the steeply forested, snow-slick, north side of the mountain I was on in the dark.  If I panicked I had no weapon to wave wildly at the night, no back door, no safety-net.  Once darkness fell I’d move beyond the reach of any help and for the next eight hours or so, whatever came into my circle I’d have to face.

Which is exactly what I’d intended of course.  Back home it seemed like such a good idea.

Struggling to control the impulse for white-eyed, foaming flight I forced myself to sit down on my sleeping bag facing west.  I called on the desperation that had driven me up there in the first place and made myself watch, eyes unaverted, as the sun dropped towards the peaks, observed as the light around me faded and thinned—and in the process discovered something surprising.

You may not know this but it turns out night doesn’t fall.  It rises.  Shadows start at the bottom, puddling and pooling in the hollows and roots like water and then filling things up from there.  Initially, I was suspicious as I watched the darkness climbing out of the valley towards me, enveloping each boulder, bush and bare spot in its path.  But eventually some subconscious, nightmare expectation in my mind relaxed and I realized there wouldn’t be any eerie wailing or flapping of leathery wings, nothing with foul breath descending on me from above and behind.  The big, bad dark was not coming to get me after all.  On the contrary, as the night shadow rose higher the world grew hushed and peaceful, feeling—rather than a monster—more like some great mother coming to tuck her children into bed.

I watched as she enfolded everything in a calming embrace and when the shadow finally reached my toes I sat stock-still, observing the light that bathed me fade as the sun sank behind the mountains.  Suddenly, I felt excited and couldn’t wait to change into my long underwear, brush my teeth, and climb into my good-to-15 degrees-below-zero sleeping-bag.

I zipped around and still had enough time, after climbing into my bag, to watch as the last rays of light disappeared from the higher ring of mountain peaks that surrounded me.  Everything terrestrial was now encased in the beginning shadows of twilight but it would take a couple more hours for everything to move into full darkness.  I lay there, looking up at the fading blue of the sky and realized that the shadow was still reaching skyward, enfolding even the air, molecule by molecule, and as I watched the darkness deepen in tiny degrees I began to tingle at the thought of seeing the stars.

Back in the Sierra Nevadas during the long nights of my survival training course, while lying there looking up at the brilliant, twinkling worlds spread out above me, I’d slipped into a state of quiet, serene delight.  Feeling like no matter what happened everything would still be all right, that I was safe and cradled in ways that defy explanation.  As the memories of those nights came flooding back I grew excited–couldn’t wait to feel that sense of well being again–but since I knew it would be a while yet, in the meantime I turned to gaze at the deepening shadows on the ground around me.

My enthusiasm swiftly unraveled as I watched the things of this world, the trees and mountain peaks, flitting birds, the carpet of dusty pine needles and stones, the three plastic water jugs and backpack I brought with me, disappearing into the gathering darkness.  The horrified, creeping fear returned as I felt myself being cut off and isolated, stripped of everything familiar, and I began to wonder again if something would come out of that dark unknown to get me during the night–a cougar, a drunken hunter, a wave of bone-chilling cold, a demon.  I frantically reminded myself of the stars that were coming as I turned my eyes back up to the deepening darkness of the sky.

And it was in that moment, as I lay trembling and unexpectedly longing for the darkness of full night to arrive, that I had my revelation.  In a flash I recognized a truth that seems so obvious now but that I’d somehow completely missed.

Both the light and the darkness conceal and reveal.  The light reveals the ordinary world around us.  It gives us one another and makes everything seem smaller and more manageable, wrapping us in a bright and sunny cocoon because as mortals we’re tiny and fragile and need a sense of protection.  But it conceals, too.  It creates the illusion of a blue sky, a ceiling, a world that has limits and is safe and known and predictable.

It isn’t until night arrives that this seductive illusion of containment dispels.  The darkness comes swallowing everything in its shadow,  tugging us away from the usual daylight edges we cling to with white-knuckled fingers until there, in our moment of greatest fear and isolation, it tenderly unveils the larger truth…that we’re cradled, floating in infinity.

The insight was blinding.  Even though it didn’t alter the basic realities of the situation–I was still all by myself out in the middle of nowhere exposed and trapped–it transformed the darkness from a terrifying, alien thing I had to outsmart and survive into a bringer of gifts and grace.  I felt as though I’d reluctantly entered the enemy’s camp only to discover it wasn’t an enemy at all.  It was an ancient, lovely world of starlit depths that had been longing for me, calling me home for years.

A decade of depression slipped away as I fell into an exhausted sleep and, when I woke back up again a few hours later, a twinkling universe stretched out above me.  The soft radiance bathed me as I lay there and quietly wept under the steady, pulsing of starlight.

(Next week, the conclusion.)

copyright Dia Osborn 2010

A View From The Edge, Part I

It’s tax season and I’m buried.  No time for writing much of anything but expletives on the bathroom wall, so the next few posts will be an excerpt from the book.  I’d love to know what you think!

Chapter 5:  A View From The Edge

Journal entry:

…I lay there on the hard ground in the cold and dark, peering up into a universe unimaginably deep, and watched as the stars shifted and flowed across the heavens.  I was comforted—remembering I’m a part of something far bigger than just this ordinary, deeply beloved world.  And it’s like that for me, again, in the dying world.  Where I get the opportunity to peek out beyond this small life, if even just for a moment, at something that’s both so vast and yet impossibly, delightfully hidden most of the time–disguised by our bodies and abilities, memories and choices.

By everything we keep mistaking as ourselves.

With the advent of palliative and hospice care we’ve seen the first glimmers of change but, by and large, the modern, western medical paradigm still looks at dying as a failure and a waste.  The metaphor I hear employed most frequently outside of hospice, by medical professionals, media, friends and neighbors, is that death is the enemy and all of us must wage a war against it.  Either individually within our own, dear body or as a group using the big guns of scientific advancement and policy change.  The metaphor of war is a powerful one, invaluable for generating the will necessary to marshal our resources for a single minded, all out attempt to get better–to survive and thrive as an individual or a society.

But what many don’t realize is that the cost of a martial metaphor is a high one.  In a war whose sole aim is to preserve life, those who perish anyway die as casualties and losers.

It was always difficult to watch—the myriad ways this sense of failure manifested in the people I helped care for.  Some felt bewildered and abandoned by a system that only seemed interested if there was still a possibility of cure.  Others, that dying was their own fault and a punishment of some kind—because they didn’t get a second opinion, have more insurance, take better care of themselves, screen often enough or for the right disease.  Some felt unlucky because they didn’t respond to the drugs or treatment the way they were supposed to.  Others felt guilty because they’d just grown too exhausted and frail to fight anymore.

It seemed more than a little strange to me.  Dying is already such hard work.  Why in the world would we adopt a way of looking at it that actually increases the suffering involved?  Perhaps it’s the natural outcome of our separating dying from life, of deeming the first as a terrible and monstrous thing and the second as our only sanctuary from it.  Whatever the cause, an unintended outcome of focusing wholly on the protection and preservation of life—of regarding our natural transition into death as a sinister and horrible collapse—is that we’re unwittingly multiplying everything about dying we fear most.

It’s ironic. While the duration and quality of life have unquestionably improved over the last century, the quality of dying has been in a corresponding decline.  All our efforts to delay and defeat death have unintentionally prolonged the process so that it now takes longer than ever.  It involves new and novel layers of suffering caused by an ever-multiplying array of interventions, requires increasingly complex—sometimes unbearable–choices, and costs so much more that it frequently not only strips surviving loved ones of any remaining resources but leaves them crushed under a staggering burden of debt.

Over the years I noticed that frequently, especially in the case of a last minute referral, by the time a dying person and their loved ones washed downriver to us, we were among the first people they’d encountered who weren’t afraid of the mists gathering around them.  Every good hospice team has a host of important jobs to do but one of the first is the simple act of trying to normalize what’s taking place, to convey in both words and demeanor that in fact, everything is still okay.  We see and welcome whoever it is wholeheartedly because they are, regardless of what’s happening, still alive and vibrant and real.  If there’s enough time, if they’ve been referred for end-of-life care early enough, that wild, spinning-out-of-control feeling people so often experience in the deteriorating pursuit of a cure has a chance to stabilize, allowing them to find firmer ground so they can return to the rest of their lives.  It can make all the difference between someone fully embracing whatever time they have left or just gritting their teeth while sliding over the cliff.

I began to wonder if the transition from living to dying need be quite this traumatic.  Could there be some way to weave the acceptance of dying still largely unique to hospice and end-of-life care into the branches of medicine which focus primarily on cure?   I started casting about in my mind for a bigger metaphor than that of war I could employ, one that would contain both my longing and reverence for life as well as a deeper wisdom and regard for death.

Something that would not only arouse and inspire me to live but also reassure and cradle me when I die.

*          *          *

In the fall of 2001, after years of navigating the ups and downs of a deep depression, I decided to try a new and novel treatment option.  I was nearly paralyzed again—all the diverse and multiplying anxieties that had flourished in me over time eventually consolidating into a single, more efficient terror of just leaving the house—and one day it occurred to me that I was at a threshold.  I was either going to have to take some drastic, even reckless action to counter the trend or else surrender to life as a shut-in.

So the day my husband suggested that we hike into the mountains separately for a spiritual retreat, to spend three days and three nights alone with God at 9,000 feet in autumn during bow-hunting season without flashlight, fire, or food, something desperate leaped up inside me shrieking YEEEES! Cal had been doing this kind of thing for years, had invited me to join him every time he’d gone in the past, but somehow it never held much allure for me.  So it took him off guard at first when I agreed–he thought I was just messing with him.  But once he realized I was serious he became so excited that later, when I came to my senses, I didn’t have the heart to back out.

To be honest though, deep down I didn’t want to back out.  I’d reached the point where the constant, chronic fear I was living with finally seemed worse than anything that could conceivably happen.  It no longer sounded as bad to me; freezing to death, being impaled on a stray arrow, mauled by a drought-starved bear, trampled by a rutting, bull elk, falling off a cliff, going into hypoglycemic shock from lack of food, burning alive in a forest fire, being struck by lightning, buried in a snowstorm, or captured and toyed with in unspeakable ways by some caricature of a deep-woods crazy. Nothing I imagined anymore could possibly be worse than spending the rest of my life locked in the bedroom cowering under a blanket.  It had become unbearable, losing access to everything I loved drip by drip, the slow suffocation of walls closing in.  The time had come to summon all my fears to sit down in a circle with me–time to either break the back of the depression or die trying–and frankly, I didn’t care anymore which one.

It can be both a devastating and invigorating place to reach, the feeling there’s no longer anything left to lose.

Next week:  Chapter 5 Part II

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Incurable Miracles

One of the most common responses I used to get from people when they found out I worked with hospice was, That must be depressing. I was never quite sure how to answer that.

Because it wasn’t depressing at all.  It was a whole lot of other things; hard, heartbreaking, inspiring, curious, overwhelming, humorous, wonderful, challenging, exhausting, transformative, and ultimately very, very uplifting.

But never depressing.  Not once.  And I’m a depressive.

I’ve been riding the cycles of major depressive episodes for almost two decades but, far from aggravating the symptoms, hanging around with dying people actually helped.  They showed me what it can look like, living in the world of no-cure.  How being incurable in no way limits the ability to make your miracles.

I’d always thought the dying were about-as-good-as-dead, so imagine my surprise to discover they’re actually still very much alive.  In some ways more than most people.  Dying didn’t suppress their ability to live, it enhanced it.  They still felt everything we all do, only times a million.  They were throbbing with life.  Writhing and radiant from it.  The fact that some of that life was transcendent love and some was sheer hell was incidental.

Life has always been a package deal.

So anyway, I’ve never been able to explain this beautiful side of dying with words.  But here’s a video called The Unseen Sea by Simon Christen that captures the essence of it.  This is how it felt during the hours I spent with them, turning and toileting, bathing and dressing, capturing all the last whispered, aching, illuminated stories of their lives.  It often felt like floating on an ocean, carried along by some timeless, perpetual current that ebbed and flowed, swirling around us, filmy and comforting and soft.

This is some stunning time lapse photography of the changing skies around San Francisco.  Just make sure you turn up the sound because the music is exquisite, too.

The Unseen Sea from Simon Christen on Vimeo.

You can find the original posting of this video at Simon Christen’s Vimeo site here.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

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

A Parrot’s Grief

We once had two dogs.  They joined the family two years apart, lived most of their lives together frisky and inseparable, then died at the end, also two years apart.  Our big guy died first.  Swift and unexpected.  He was fine and healthy for years and years, and then one day got sick and three days later died.  Just like that.

Our second dog was lost without him.  For a month following his death she withdrew.  She’d still come to us if we called and try to look happy to see us, but as soon as her duty was done she’d slip away to the corner where they used to sleep together and lie down again, eyes open and unfocused and numb.

We were heartbroken for her and heartbroken for ourselves.  We all missed him terribly.

But time worked its magic and one day, for no particular reason, she returned.  She followed me around the house that morning, trying to flip my hand up on her head with her nose again, and my heart eased knowing she’d be okay.  We had two more wonderful years together before she, too, eventually died.

There’s a lot of controversy on whether animals experience emotions, but the suggestion that they can’t feel things like simple grief makes me angry.  I usually try to respect the beliefs of others but, because this particular belief is so often used as a justification for exploitation, neglect, or abuse, I don’t respect it.  I find it suspect.  The claim is far too riddled with conflicts of interest to take at face value.  Besides, in five decades of living, every interaction I’ve personally had with animals and birds, (and reptile, fish, and even a few insects believe it or not) has confirmed that these other strange and wonderful companions I share my world with feel a great deal, even if most of the time I don’t understand what exactly that is.

A case in point:

One of my first hospice patients had a parrot she said she’d smuggled over the border from Mexico twenty years earlier.  She was a wild, untamed kind of woman and her parrot was just like her.

I don’t remember now what kind he was, but he was smallish, maybe a little bigger than Snowball the dancing cockatoo, and he spent most of his time in those final days perched on the valance above the window next to her bed.  I was a little nervous at first because family members warned me that sometimes he flew down on people, swooping at them again and again, testing to see if they would duck and run.  He was a fierce little thing, tolerating only a handful of people and attacking the rest, but he clearly loved and needed that woman lying on the bed and was made achingly vulnerable by her approaching loss.

He never flew down on me.  I used to speak to him gently when I was on that side of the bed, changing her sheets or dressing or incontinence pad, and he’d closely monitor everything I did, anxious and curious, sometimes fluffing up into a ball of down and shaking his head rapidly, raising his wings for a moment like he just couldn’t stand the uncertainty anymore, then settling back down to watch and wait again anyway.  He’d sidle back and forth along the length of the valance, first to the left, then to the right, over and over again like a loved one pacing the corridors of a hospital.  He knew something was wrong and it seemed to fill him with unease.

Once I saw him fly down to the bed while I was in and out of the room, doing laundry.  She was asleep and he seemed to want to just be next to her, to touch her.  He awkwardly waddled up next to her head, curling into the warmth still emanating from her.  He bent his head over next to her mouth as though checking for breath and just stayed there for a long time, frozen, his feathers brushing her lips.  My heart broke for him and I wanted to pick him up, cradle and croon to him, but I knew he’d bite me if I so much as extended my hand.

First her sister told me and then her daughter.  How he wept on her body when she died.  He flew down from the valance to her chest and started nuzzling and nipping at her, trying to make her respond.  Stroke him.  Yell at him.  Anything.  But when she didn’t move he went still and stunned, and it was then that he started making the strange, small noises, noises unlike anything they’d ever heard him make before, like sobs.  His head bobbed slowly up and down to the rhythm of the sounds, and her family just stood there around the bed, surprised and stricken by his grief.

Later, when the men from the funeral home came to remove her body from the room he attacked them.  Viciously.  Angry and hysterical, he dive bombed at their heads repeatedly until one of the men ran  in the bathroom to hide.  The family finally captured him and put him in his cage while they took her body away.

I’ve often thought about him over the years and hoped that he eventually found someone else he could trust, someone he’d allow to love him, to bring him back in healing and wholeness.

Like just about every other person I’ve ever known, the deep emotional bonds I’ve shared with animals over the years have provided me with a well of strength, beauty, unconditional love, and hope.  My ties to these companions have helped shape me, often healed me, and even saved me, more times than I can count.  I really, really hope that some day soon we’ll grow past the economic and scientific need we have to deny the depth of their vulnerability to us, and instead forge a higher, kinder relationship based on mutual respect.  They’ve already given us all so much.  They deserve something far better than what they’ve gotten in return.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

When in Maine…

Up until seven months ago, Maine was the last state in the union that I’d never been to.  Living a nomadic lifestyle into my forties, I’d at least stopped to get gas in each of the other forty-nine.  But Maine had eluded me.  Maine is not a just-passing-through kind of place.  If one plans to ever step foot in the state, one must intend to go there.

So finally, last October, my husband and I took a vacation and spent ten, solid days there, decisively ending my lifelong quest to bag the Big Fifty.

And I couldn’t have picked a better place to finish.  Maine is drop-dead gorgeous and the people who live there are as solid and generous as their land.  I even found myself thinking about moving there a few times during the trip which was surprising since 1) I have no desire to abandon my children and family on the other side of the continent, 2) I’ve become a high desert creature and at my age probably wouldn’t adapt well and, 3) I don’t much care for lobster.

Not that I knew this last about myself before we went.  I’ve lived landlocked and relatively poor most of my adult life so lobster as a cuisine choice was never an option.  Not so in Maine, however.  No, no, madames et monsieurs.  You see in Maine, in October, it’s lobster high season and during this time period the little bottom dwellers are readily and cheaply available to everyone, high or low.

And I was ready for it.  I was eager.  I was all about putting on a bib and whacking a little, orange carcass to pieces with a wooden mallet.  (Although it turns out that’s crab.  For lobster, one uses a nutcracker.)

We stayed with a couple of natives (Mainers in the local vernacular), foodie friends who were excited to deflower the lobster-virgin.  They decided to initiate me Maine style with whole boiled lobster to be dismembered by hand, and a hot butter dip.  We went down to the famous and fabulous Harbor Fish Market to select our critters…which is where I made my first big mistake.

While the others shopped for chowder ingredients to round out the meal I stood near the giant tank where the fresh catch is held, watching the store-guy fish lobsters out of the dark water for customers.  He held them up in the air, turned over on their backs, while their claws, legs, and little antenna waved helplessly in the air, groping for something familiar from their own ocean world.  They were bewildered, not realizing yet that their old life was gone forever.  I felt a pang of kinship.

That feeling of dislocation is familiar to me.  Back when I made my first descent into a major depressive episode, I too felt disoriented and frightened by the foreign (albeit internal) landscape I landed in.  I did a lot of waving and groping of my own back then, trying to return to the familiarity of my old life.  It took me a while to figure out that I could never go back, and even longer to realize (unlike the lobsters) that I didn’t really want to.  The Woman I Was had grown up on too many secrets.   Turns out she needed to go if I was ever to achieve a sense of wholeness.

But I digress.  Back in the fish market I shook off my brief unease and, determined to enjoy the whole experience, joined the others as they returned to the car, lobsters tucked away in a cooler, packed in ice.  By the time evening rolled around they were still very much alive and waving away at us.  Our hostess was busy in the kitchen, preparing to cook them, and I was busy up in my head, preparing mentally for the sacrifice to come.  I take dying seriously, no matter what kind of life is engaged in doing it.  I always have.  It’s not that I see anything wrong with life coming to an end.  I don’t.  To me it’s a law of nature that stands tall and respected along with the rest.  It’s something that’s happening all the time, everywhere, all around us and there’s nothing that we see, touch, eat, smell, use, value, wear, want, hold, or love that isn’t at some point, somewhere in the chain of it’s existence, touched by, involved in, or responsible for the dying of something else.  Nothing.

And that’s comforting to me.  It’s how I know that nothing’s going wrong.  Dying is supposed to happen.  That knowledge helps anchor me, whenever I come up against it myself.  I use it to brace for the maelstrom that always accompanies dying, by remembering oh yeah, it’s just time.

It was always going to be time.

That evening, in the home of our friends, it was those lobsters’ time and I didn’t have a problem with that.  But I was also responsible for it, they were being killed in my honor, and that was a big deal to me.  So in return, out of gratitude and respect, I wanted to make sure that their dying went as smoothly as possible.  It seemed like the least I could do.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t understand about the process involved in killing them was a lot.

Our hostess was tolerant, respectful, and perhaps a little amused as I knelt by the cooler and said last rites over them.  Then, after studying her method as she transferred a couple to the pot, I picked one up myself, walked over and, with one last quick prayer, pushed it headfirst into the boiling water after which I stood back to watch.

Enter:  The maelstrom.

The lobster mythology that I’d heard over the years said they die the instant they hit the water.  That’s what I figured was going to happen.  Too late I realized that, having lived most of my life among inland people who had no easy access to lobster as a recipe ingredient, the stories I’d heard about how to cook them all came from others like myself who knew nothing about it.

Turns out they don’t die instantly.  At least this one didn’t.  I stood staring in horror as his limbs and antenna continued to wave around under the surface of the boiling water for an unconscionable period of time.  It’s not that he appeared to be in acute pain.  At least not that I could tell.  He wasn’t screaming for help or trying to climb out of the pot or anything.  But he was clearly conscious and experiencing all the sensations that go along with full body immersion in boiling water and, as that realization dawned, my prayers did an abrupt reversal in tone from blessings and thanks to something more along the lines of Dear holy God, what have I done?

I couldn’t move.  I kept saying But it’s still moving…it’s still moving over and over until finally our hostess walked over and gently, compassionately put the lid back on the pot so I couldn’t see inside anymore.  It broke the spell and I fell away from the stove, badly shaken.  Needless to say my appetite was gone.  Obliterated.  It had been replaced by a low grade nausea which I did everything in my power to hide.  After all, I was the one who had asked for this and they’d knocked themselves out to give it to me.

I was now facing a dilemma.  I discovered I no longer wanted to eat a lobster.  The allure was definitely, definitely gone.  However, there was a whole potful of the little guys who had just been boiled to death for my edification and there was no way in hell I could walk away now.  I had to eat one.  In fact, I had to eat every last shred of anything conceivably edible I could rip off its little carcass, because I couldn’t let it go to waste.  Not after what I’d just seen.

Whoops…I went way too long again.  I’ll have to stop here and finish next week.  Stay tuned.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

Irrationally Happy

Until I met Cerebral Palsy Man I secretly believed that my happiness was determined by circumstance.  I’d never admit that of course, because I know I’m supposed to believe that I determine my own happiness.   But I didn’t believe that.  Not really.  How could I?  I’d never seen it before.  I had no role models.

That was before I met Cerebral Palsy Man.

I discovered him while doing my clinical hours in a local nursing home which…may I be frank here?…repelled me.  It’s not that it was filthy or filled with evil staff or anything.  It wasn’t.  While there was a faint aroma of urine that pervaded the place, and the quality of work smelled of a corresponding by-the-hour ethic, no one I met there seemed to harbor any ill intent towards the residents.  The place itself just seemed to drain them.  Physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  It was like a black hole for positive energy–no matter how much you started out with when you first arrived, by the end of the day the run down furnishings and endless, linoleum hallways littered with sagging people in wheelchairs sucked it right out of you.

I’m not alone in thinking that institutionalizing illness and aging isn’t working.  Pretty much everyone dreads these places.  I’ve never met a single human being that’s told me Boy howdy! I just can’t wait to get old so I can go live in a nursing home. While there’s an excellent movement afoot to try and change this sorry state of affairs, to date (as we all know but still deny whenever we have to we drop off one of our own elders) nursing homes are by and large depressing places.

Yet strangely enough it was here, in this horrible environment, that I discovered the surprising existence of Cerebral Palsy Man.  He was a gentleman in his seventies who’d been living with the disease all his life–had in fact resided in a string of nursing home-type environments since he’d first been institutionalized in his twenties.  To my mind, after what must have been a long and miserable existence (right?) he should have been reduced to little more than a lump–a morose, dejected huddle of a human being just waiting and wishing to die.

But au contraire!

How wrong and riddled with stereotypical thinking I was.  Instead of some sad and depressing lump of a man I found a total radical.  In spite of the fact that he couldn’t bathe, dress, toilet, shave, transfer, turn, or feed himself, he was outrageously happy.  Contagiously so.  Everyone loved him.  The only time I didn’t see him smiling was when he had to stop and open his mouth for a spoonful of the pureed, mystery meat they served for lunch that day.  Otherwise, he sailed up and down the hallways in his electric wheelchair, singing out a warm and (to my inexperienced ear) totally unintelligible greeting to everyone he passed including his new roommate and blushing bride–a plump and cheerful, equally helpless woman who shared his name, bathroom, and cerebral palsy diagnosis.

So what was wrong with this man you ask?  Why didn’t he just knuckle under and curl up in defeat as required?  Everyone else living in that awful place seemed to get it.  The majority of them were actually far more independent than he was but still obediently complaining and morose.  Why didn’t he conform?  What made him think he could be different?

Aha!  But our Cerebral Palsy Man was no novice.  He had a gift that few of the others there shared–an entire lifetime of dependency and debilitation.  He’d had over seventy years to adjust and adapt to not only the strict boundaries his body dictated, but the grim institutional settings they’d landed him in.  And–here’s the real kicker–he’d used that time to nose around and discover a secret that most of us never do:

Limits don’t in any way restrict our ability to make miracles. Because they can’t.  How could they?  Limits and miracles don’t even exist in the same dimension.

It’s like the difference between the world of time and space that exists within the speed of light and then the mystery that exists out beyond it.  His body (and the dreary hallways and overworked staff and pee odor and bad food) all belonged to the slower, visible, measurable world.  But Cerebral Palsy Man had managed to launch out somewhere beyond into a radiant realm brimming with unreasonable joy and enthusiasm.  Trapped for life in a nursing home for godsakes, and this man (my role model, my idol, my superhero) was totally and irrationally happy anyway.  That was his miracle.

Well, let me tell you it didn’t take much time spent in his company for the sleeping radical in me to sit up and take note, too.  She studied him for a little while, then looked back at the gray people, then looked back at him again, and finally whistled low and long.  Whewee, she said.  Fuck following the herd then.  I want whatever he’s having.

And really I ask you–if he can do it, then why can’t I?  So what if I’m a depressive?  So what if I’m a multi-phobic person with a dissociative disorder?  So what if I spend more time curled up in the fetal position than your average Joe?  Evidently, if I want to go ahead and be irrationally happy anyway, I can.  All I need is a cape, a grin, and somebody to show me the way.

Bingo!  And now I want to be just like Cerebral Palsy Man.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn