The Little Kayak That Could

Did I mention we’ve taken up kayaking?

(Kidding.  That’s not either of us.)

It began as a New Years thing (as in I’m really going to do it this time…) and, as hobbies go, is pretty easy to pick up around here since lake and river-rich Idaho is a major hub for paddling sports of all kinds.  (Except sea kayaking.  Obviously.)

We started by renting a couple of twelve foot yaks to paddle around a pond next to the river (from Idaho River Sports for anyone local and interested.  GREAT store.  GREAT people who work there.  Friendly and laid back.  They all LOVE paddling and LOVE sharing their love of paddling.  All you have to do is walk in the door and you’re their friend.)  We figured we’d rent for the summer, try out a few different kinds of kayaks, raise some money, raise some more money, then raise a wee bit more, until maybe we’d have enough to buy our own boats later in the fall or next spring.

But then we got a call.  They said that a couple of used ones had come up for sale (cheap!!…CHEAP!!) and the next thing you know, we were pulling back into the driveway with a couple of kayaks on the car.

(BTW, that’s not the hubster standing there with my arm around him.  He’s standing behind the cell phone camera.  That’s actually B. Daughter who had just dropped by to say hi.)

And then, abandoning all of our careful plans for gradual safety equipment accumulation (actually that should read “my” plans…the hubster, being a strong advocate for spontaneity and adventure, doesn’t have much use for safety planning,) we grabbed the wetsuits and life vests we’d (I’d) obtained so far and bolted up to Arrowrock reservoir on Sunday for a trial run.

Clearly, we survived, as you must have guessed by now since your’re reading this.  And even though we paddled across a fairly large body of very cold water twice, neither the rising afternoon winds nor the wakes from various power boats overturned us after all, thereafter requiring a long, weakening, futile swim into hypothermia, eventual unconsciousness, and drowning before we could ever reach shore again.  (Again, this type of mental scenario is strictly my territory.  I was made for disaster planning.  The hubster’s mind runs along far more optimistic lines and, indeed, is my saving grace.  Without it, by the time I got through envisioning all the bleak possible futures out there, I’d never leave the fricking house.)

But the indomitable hubster still managed to find an adventure for himself, in spite of all my best efforts to avoid one.  We had just pulled the car down next to the water in order to load the kayaks for departure, when a camping fisherman from the next site over wandered by with his dogs for a chat.  But barely had he arrived when he glanced out across the water to discover his power boat…which he realized with some chagrin he hadn’t moored securely enough…had come loose and was floating away down the lake.  It’s canopy was catching the afternoon wind, moving it along at a fair clip.

Then, to my horror, the fisherman casually mentioned that it looked like he was going for a swim.  A swim?  My disaster radar started beeping.  He was going to swim after his boat??

“You can’t!” I blurted out in alarm.  “You can’t swim that far in water this cold!  You’d never make it.  Hypothermia would set in before you could get there.”

At which point the hubster stepped bravely forward, ripped back his wetsuit revealing the large letter H on his chest, and said in a deep, booming voice, “I can get it for you.”

Well, needless to say the fisherman wasn’t turning down an offer like that.  The hubster quickly zipped up his life vest, grabbed his paddle, and launched his kayak again in the direction of the boat.  At first I thought (in resignation) that I’d just wait at the car since my arms had already fallen halfway off my shoulders from the earlier four hours of paddling.  But it didn’t take long (seconds!) for my mind to generate a surprising variety of different capsizing possibilities so the next thing I knew, I, too, was back in the water, paddling furiously after the love of my life, determined to save him from himself if necessary, or at least drown beside him in the ultimate worst case scenario.

In the end, neither were necessary.  Super H reached the boat, tied the dangling mooring line around his waist, and commenced paddling into the wind to try and cover the approximately quarter mile of water that now lay between the boat and the beach.  The fisherman’s girlfriend, sensing the uniqueness of the moment, wisely grabbed her boyfriend’s cell phone and started taking pictures.  This is what it looked like:

The wind eventually proved too strong for the hubster to return it to the beach.  He had to take it into a less convenient part of the shoreline but, all in all (since neither of us died and the fisherman was grateful to land it anywhere) it was tremendous fun.  A great maiden voyage for our new-used, spunky, little kayaks.  We were wondering what we should name them at the start of the day but the fisherman graciously took care of at least one of them for us.  As a parting gift he christened the hubster’s kayak Tug Boat.  In the future we’ll be calling it Tug for short.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

SOBERING UPDATE:  My sister-in-law in Spokane read this post and then forwarded me a link to an article in the Spokesman Review concerning a novice kayaker who died of hypothermia in early April after his boat capsized in wind-driven waves out on a lake up there.  They were exactly the kind of conditions I worried about for us.  I’ll definitely be picking up a couple of tow ropes and a pump before we go out again.  And I’ll have the hubster watch this excellent video on the effects of cold water immersion, too, just so we’re on the same page. 

Part V: Advance Directives: Best To Wish Carefully With A Genie

From The Arabian Nights by Maxfield Parrish

(This post is the fifth in a series on advance directives.  The last post was Part IV: Advance Directives: Will They Be There When We Need ‘Em?)

February is here!  After eleven years of procrastination, our self-declared Advance Directives Month has arrived and the hubster and I are finally tackling the forms. It’s going a lot better than we expected.  A LOT.  Like finally-easing-that-horrible-fear better.  Here are a few things we’ve learned so far.


In an earlier post I mentioned that I was planning to use our state advance directive forms.  But after downloading and looking them over I changed my mind because, unfortunately, they made me feel even more confused, uneasy, and out of control about the future than I already did.  I realized a big part of my procrastination was because I’m afraid of signing something legal that I don’t fully understand, and with the state forms?  That’s pretty much guaranteed.

I needed a form that would not only list the basic legal choices but actually explain them.  I wanted some context.

In Part III: Advance Directives: Forms and Where To Find Them I researched a variety of other options, and there were two I ultimately considered as alternatives.  The first was the Lifecare Advance Health Care Directive and the second was because they both offered the strong educational/support element I was looking for.  We eventually decided to go with Lifecare for a variety of reasons.  It was just a better fit for us.  However, a person looking for something shorter and simpler might prefer  I’d urge everyone to check out all the options before making their own choice.


And I thought they were just about how to die.  Silly me. 

Far from making us uncomfortable, so far the process of filling out these forms is kind of freeing.  It’s easing that vague, horrible dread that tends to linger out around the edges. (Dare I use the word…empowering?)  It’s helping us both define the basic, essential, and worthwhile elements of life, the ones that make it worth living for us, and there’s this funny kind of anchoring feeling that happens each time either of us hits one on the head.  It’s an aha!  Like getting a shot of strength in the arm that instantly settles the butterflies and clears the eyes.  And what’s really amazing is how much that sense of anchoring lessons all the other clamoring fears like What if get hooked up anyway?  What if I lose my mind and can’t even remember what I want? What if I lose ALL CONTROL!?

That last one is the biggie of course, but it’s extraordinary how just sitting and talking about it together is helping to ease it. Which leads me to the third insight we’ve had so far:


I’ve been saying all along that, no matter how good, complete, and legal the forms are, the chances of them doing much good without having conversations with the other people involved are a lot smaller.

But now I’m discovering there’s an additional…and even more profound…benefit to the hubster’s and my conversations: They’re improving the quality of our life and relationship right now.  I’m not kidding.  We’ve been together for twenty-three years and we’re learning things about one another we never knew before.  Plus, each of us is coming up with unique questions…and insights…and fears…and strengths…that the other gets to learn from, too.  The sense of alliance and trust we already had is getting deeper as we go.

We totally have each other’s backs.


Since the Lifecare Advance Health Care Directive is a long form with a lot of supporting information we decided to break it up over a few weeks.  We’re giving it the hour on Saturday mornings that we already committed to emergency and long-term planning (a new project that we’ve both resisted but is turning out to be remarkably productive) and we had our first sit down with the form last week.  The hubster read from the advance directive while I read from the supplemental Guide (the guide isn’t absolutely necessary but it’s VERY helpful)…and the information is, surprisingly, kind of fascinating.

It covers a lot of history, different legal and medical cases that have shaped thinking over time, medical and legal boundaries that define what we can actually ask for, definitions of what all the different terms mean, and how to bridge the gap between what lay-people tend to want and what medical people can actually do. The overall learning curve is steep but the Lifecare directive is providing a much larger context to help us understand what we’re doing and why, and this leads me to the last important point:


Today’s medical technology is complex, changing, overwhelming, and often totally incomprehensible.  Even so, the hubster and I HAVE to figure out how to navigate it.  (Either that or find a cave somewhere out of ambulance-reach.)  I think most of us want the miracles modern medicine has to offer, but we’d just as soon do without the extra burden and responsibility that goes along with having them.

Unfortunately, that’s not possible.

At it’s core, modern medical technology is basically another genie in a bottle and, like any genie worth its salt, the wishes it grants us are subject to all kinds of unforeseen consequences. It’s pretty easy to wind up with a result that doesn’t look anything like what we thought we’d asked for.

The shrewd Bottle-Wishers among us (generally those with a lot of exposure to the system) have seen firsthand how unpredictable wishes can be, so they tend to think theirs through very carefully beforehand.  They ask, they learn, they craft, they plan…then they write it down.

Newbie wishers, on the other hand, mistakenly believe the genie will somehow understand what they mean however garbled or incomplete.  This, of course, makes them the ones more likely to wind up with something they didn’t bargain for.  (Tubes, drool, and paddles, my friends.)

The hubster and I would prefer to sit with the shrewdies, no matter how steep the learning curve.

I didn’t understand when I first started this project how genuinely glad I was going to be that I did.  Or how much more I’d wind up getting out of it than I’m putting in.  On the one hand, it’s taken a lot more time and energy than I’d anticipated, but it’s already paying off in some handsome and totally unexpected, dividends.

So far, so good.

Next post I’ll start talking specifics about my own choices.

(Next: Part VI: Advance Directives: Mine)

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Part II: What Is An Advance Directive? (Or Why I’ve Been So Confused.)

Continued from: Part I: February Is Hereby Declared Advance Directive Month.  Join Us!

I had a lot of questions.

As I mentioned in my last post, the hubster and I are finally determined to get this albatross of planning out of our hair.  I know from my years working with hospice how complicated and overwhelming end-of-life scenarios can be and I realize that planning for it beforehand can make all the difference in the world.  So time to get it done.

First, the research:

Question:  WHAT IS AN ADVANCE DIRECTIVE?  Well, it’s even more complicated than I thought.  I’ve identified three different parts to the process so far: There are FORMS, what I call THE LETTER, and then the FOLLOW-UP.


IN SPIRIT, an advance directive is a way of letting loved ones and medical personnel know what kind of medical treatment you would or wouldn’t want if you were unable to communicate those wishes for yourself.  The idea is to try and avoid confusion, mistakes, and extra suffering for everyone involved in either an emergency or end-of-life situation.

It’s a worthy ideal with almost universal backing.

IN PRACTICE, an advance directive is a set of actual, legal forms to fill out and this is where things start to get very confusing.

Turns out the whole concept of an advance directive is a work in progress.  The idea was originally conceived back in the 1960s as a result of the growing number of nightmarish dying scenarios taking place, but it didn’t start to take off in public awareness until the Patient Self Determination Act of 1990.  There have actually been three generations of advance directive forms developed over the years as our understanding of the need for them has evolved.  Wikipedia has an interesting article on the history, with specific references to the main forms created and what they were designed to address.  Reading it helped me understand why I’ve had so much trouble determining what paperwork we should use.

Basically, there’s a freaking cornucopia of advance directive forms to choose from out there.  Laws governing medical treatment for emergency and end-of-life care are actually generated state by state with a profound lack of coordination at the national level, so even if you fill out your own state’s advance directive, it’s kind of a crap shoot whether it’ll be honored if you get into trouble somewhere else.  Then there’s the other problem that most state directives (crafted by state bureaucrats) are too limited in scope to accomplish what we want them for in the first place.

In an attempt to address the latter issue, there have been even more advance directive forms created by national organizations that are more suited to deal with the subtler nuances involved, and while these other forms do a much better job of allowing us to communicate what we actually want, (and some of them have even been approved by some states) their legal strength has yet to be definitively proved in court. They’ll probably be honored, but there’s no guarantee.  And if you’re asking for any kind of treatment contrary to the state laws where you get into trouble, you’re shit out of luck.

Like I said, this stuff isn’t just scary, it’s confusing.

So what are WE personally going to do? 

Well, we’re going to fill out two kinds of advance directives: 1) our state form to cover our legal butts here at home and, 2) one of the other national forms that will help us better express the complexity of our wishes to our loved ones.  (We haven’t decided yet which one.  Needs more research.)  That second form is also necessary for us because the hubster travels extensively between states and there’s no way he’s going to fill out a separate advance directive for each one.  We’re hopeful that, in the particular states he visits, one of these other forms would almost certainly be respected.

(Panicking yet?  Don’t.  Whatever state you’re in and whatever forms you choose, the most important choice you’ll make is who you pick for your medical proxy; the person who communicates your wishes when you can’t.  Remember, the best paperwork in the world can be missed, misunderstood, and/or disregarded without your proxy there to back it up.  So don’t fixate on the form.  Fixate on the multiple, ongoing conversations you’re going to have with your proxy.)

To conclude this section on forms, the individual documents included in an advance directive can include a mixture of the following:

1)  Living Will* (name your treatments)

2)  Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care* (pick your proxy)

3)  Do Not Resuscitate Order** (please, please don’t)

4)  Choices for organ donation**

5)  POLST** (Physicians orders for life sustaining treatment) in states where it’s available.

*  always

** sometimes


Even if somebody was to procrastinate and never get around to filling out the legal paperwork, they should at least craft their Letter and give it to their loved ones.  What is The Letter?  At it’s heart it’s something like a profession of faith; a declaration of belief about what makes life valuable to you.  It will lay out what you live for, believe in, and love; the particular things or circumstances that make your life worth living to you.

The medical choices we’re likely to face in catastrophic circumstances are impossible to predict, which makes it difficult to write down instructions for detailed treatment preferences. The purpose of The Letter is to instead provide a set of overarching principles that can help guide our proxy’s decision making.

For instance, one person might write as part of their Letter, I believe that my ability to think and communicate, to interact consciously with the world around me in a meaningful, nourishing way, defines who I am.  It’s what makes my life worthwhile to me.  Another might say I believe that I’m more than just my thoughts, actions, and will, that my life is valuable, sacred, and worth preserving simply because I exist.  While a third person might simply state Hey…if I can still talk and eat Chinese food then hook me up.  In any case, the Letter gives whoever has our medical power of attorney an idea of what’s most important to us, what the unique values and beliefs are that they need to consider when deciding on any given medical treatment.

Now FYI, there’s usually a place on most advanced directives where you can include something to this effect, but I personally would write it first as a separate document for two reasons:

1)  The space on the forms is really cramped, and

2)  You may want to communicate something of an intimate nature that you don’t want a bunch of strangers reading.


So, I’ve now filled out both the legal documents and written the Letter.  Is that enough?  Am I now done?  Nope.  Not hardly.  Because…

1)  THESE FORMS AND WRITTEN STATEMENTS ARE UTTERLY USELESS IF THEY’RE NOT PUT INTO THE HANDS OF THOSE WHO WILL NEED THEM.  This seems kind of obvious but it’s surprising how many people miss this step, partially or completely.  The people who should have access to a copy include:

First and most importantly, whoever has our medical power of attorney!!

Second, our doctor and the hospital (if we’re in for some kind of procedure.)

Third, any loved ones and/or close friends who are likely to be involved.

Fourth, I’ll be keeping a copy with all our other important and legal documents.

We can hand out hard copies, let people know how to access the information through an online registry, or some mixture of the two.  There are pros and cons to each approach which I’ll cover in a later post. 

2)  ADVANCE DIRECTIVES NEED TO BE PERIODICALLY REVIEWED AND UPDATED.  Life goes on, circumstances change, people move or die, and our wishes for what we want evolve as we age.  It’s vitally important to make sure our documents reflect the changes.


Personally, I think this task is probably the hardest one.  But folks, writing it down alone will never be enough.  We have to answer any questions and make sure everything’s clear, for both our sake and the ones we care about most. 

These are the people who will be our advocates when we can no longer advocate for ourselves, and if they don’t know what we want, or if they can’t prove that they know what we want, or if they can’t agree on what we want, then the risk rises we’ll be dying the way somebody else thinks we should.

And, man, would that suck.

These are also the people who will be shouldering a breathtaking burden of responsibility for our sakes, so we have a duty to protect them from any last, lingering doubts; from the painful question of wondering whether or not they did the right thing.

Next post: Advance Directives: Forms and Where To Find Them.

(The above photo is of U.S. Navy search and rescue students.)

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, it was about her.  Not me.

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

“It’s never lasted this long before.”

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


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

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

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

I don’t know.”

Breathe…don’t forget to breathe.

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

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

TRUE OR FALSE? “Talking about dying will kill you.”

FALSE.  Talking about dying is non-toxic and perfectly safe for all ages.

I hit this wall a lot though, because deep down the majority of people believe it’s true.

In polite company, when it comes up that I’m writing a blog about…well…the “topic” (maybe if I don’t say the word, you won’t run)…I usually get a blank stare, long pause, and visible squirming, followed by an abrupt change of subject. Some people even turn around and walk away without saying a word.  (Which I admit makes this topic a valuable extraction tool in a pinch.  For anyone seeking to escape a chatty person, its eerie power of repulsion does have uses.)

In any case, there’s rarely an opportunity for a follow-through discussion.  The conversation is dead before taking its first breath and, so far, this hurdle has stumped me.  That’s why I spend so much time poking around the carcass in my mind afterwards, trying to find another angle which might induce more people to join me.

For instance this morning I was chewing on the common question; I’m not dying yet.  No one I know is dying yet.  So why should I think about it now?

This, of course, is the unstated question behind most blank stares and…I’m not gonna lie to you here…it’s a good one, possibly the most important question of all.  In spite of my flippancy, I fully understand why people don’t want to have this discussion: Talking about dying is a courageous act.  In order to do it, you have to stop running, turn around, and face the very monster that IS someday going to kill you and all your loved ones.  Let’s face it, as conversations go, it just doesn’t get much braver than that.

So when I broach the topic to someone who’s half-dressed at the next locker, or trapped next to me for three hours on a plane, or suddenly choking on their turkey over Thanksgiving dinner, I understand their reluctance.  I do.  I realize I’m asking them to start thinking right now about a real-life horror flick that at best they can delay, but will never escape.

Which brings me back to the question, Why should they?  The reasons had better be compelling.

Well they are.  And actually there’s just one:

It’s so they don’t have to spend their whole lives dragging the deadweight of this secret dread behind them.  Once a person learns how to talk comfortably and freely about dying, they can finally stop looking over their shoulder and relax a little. Living every hour, every day, year after year, with a yawning, existential, chronic fear…even if it’s kept pinned down in the subconscious most of the time…is draining and toxic.  Denial can help for a little while, sure, but ultimately it has huge downside.  Huge.  Trust me on this one.  As a long-time phobic I know.

Courage is a far better option and, while it’s harder to muster initially, it makes up for it by having no downside.  None.  In fact, courage not only eases the fear around talking about dying, it actually makes the event itself a whole lot easier to deal with when it finally arrives.

So when I grin at a 31-year old cashier and say Hey!  What do you think about this whole dying thing anyway?  It’s not because I’m the Grim Reaper’s administrative assistant trying to schedule an appointment for her.  It’s only because I’d like to ease some of her fear about the whole thing.  I’m willing to stay and hold her hand.

Facing into any fear shrinks it, and facing into this fear–as early in life as possible–can improve every day that follows in a way that most people don’t even know is possible yet.  I mean, how could they know when nobody ever talks about it?!


So, what would make you more likely to stick around and have this chat?  If I said:

1)  I write a blog about dying.

2)  I write a blog about talking about dying.

3)  I write a blog that can help ease your fear about dying.  (Actually, is that even true?  You’ve read this.  Are you less afraid of dying now?  More afraid?  Unchanged?  Are you at least more willing to talk about it?  Are you even there?  Hello?  Hello?)

If anyone else has ideas about how to broach the topic of dying in a way that doesn’t repel everything within a hundred yards, I’m totally up for suggestions.  (And please don’t feel you have to be serious.)  Comments are even more welcome than usual on this one.


copyright Dia Osborn 2011

P.S.  The terrifically fun photo above is from Ambro’s Portfolio.

Funeral Processions and Other Reminders We Don’t Want

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

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

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

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

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


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

I was glad and grateful for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Funeral Procession Traffic Laws

Should You Stop For Funeral Processions?

Right-of-Way of Funeral Processions

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

A Childhood Portrait Reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and A Question Of Emotional Endurance

I’m the baby, fair budding to become a sunflower, second from left.  The young Queen Mother to my right is my only sister, while the boy doing the Winston Churchill imitation to her right is my middle brother.  Then there is the Eldest on the far left dignifying the portrait with his expression of Supreme Effort.  The youngest among us (who recently discovered this little treasure) was not yet born.


LAST WEEK I RAN AWAY TO THE MOUNTAINS, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever missed posting on or around my Friday deadline.  Not a first-time I’m proud of or would like to repeat anytime soon.  I know there are tools available for scheduling a post to publish even when I’m gone so really, there’s no excuse.  (Not that I think it’s a life or death issue but still, the discipline is important for me as a writer.  So, note to self: research “scheduled publishing” tool and use it at least once before the end of the month.)

There.  Now on to the Easter Portrait.


My youngest brother became Guardian of the Box of Old Photos when my mother died a couple years ago and, during the ensuing sifting, has turned up a couple of gems like the one above.  We had no idea this thing existed.  Indeed, there are a whole series of Easter portraits that he’s uncovered, with a wide variety of outdoor backdrops (let’s play Guess What Military Base We Were Stationed At!), but this one clearly takes the cake.

The photo is of us but actually speaks volumes about my mother.  She was, like most women of her generation, trying to keep up with Jackie-O and, other than at Easter, we were always dressed in jeans and t-shirts, a fact that makes this snapshot-of-an-age even more absurd and delightful.

Ultimately though, I think it’s the accident of lighting that makes it most striking–we’re so illuminated it looks surreal, like we slipped down the rabbit hole in a string of held-hands and landed all dressed up in Wonderland.


Moving on, I wanted to take a minute to answer a question about my last post.  In her comment afterwards, Linda over at Rangewriter asked what I meant by “emotional endurance.”  I thought it was a great question and, because emotional endurance is such a vital tool for dealing with difficult challenges of any kind, I wanted to address it in a regular post rather than just in the comment section.

Emotional endurance is just what it sounds like; the ability to endure one’s own emotions.  (Obviously, pleasant feelings don’t require much effort.  What I’m talking about are the painful ones like sadness, despair, anger, shame, loss, bitterness, guilt, regret, helplessness, etc.)  This skill was actually prevalent among the older generations but, during the current, unfolding age of budding-pharmaceutical options, has increasingly fallen into disuse.

And unfortunately, as a treat-and-cure cultural mindset has gradually replaced the older accept-and-endure one, the threshold of discomfort, pain, or uncertainty most people can continue to live and thrive with has fallen considerably.  Now…please.  I’m not saying medical advances aren’t a miraculous gift and blessing; they are.  Anyone who’d want to turn the clock back a century is, in my humble opinion, extreme.

However, there’s also profound value to be had from the old skill of knowing how to contain, endure, and navigate heavy emotions without needing to immediately escape them.  And nowhere was this made clearer to me than in the rooms of the dying.

In hospice I saw person after person after person, (all elders BTW,) deal with levels of emotional pain and loss that absolutely staggered me.  And, with only a couple exceptions, they ultimately did it without requiring antidepressants or a hastened death.  Over the course of their lives these people had somehow learned to navigate huge waves of overwhelm, fear, pain, and sorrow without losing sight of the beauty, love, and value that also populated their end.

I cannot begin to tell you what an eye opener this was for me.  I had no clue…no clue…how much stronger we are than I’d ever imagined, and if I could only pass on one bit of insight from all the wisdom I learned from the dying, that would be it.  Allow me say it one more time, because that’s just how important this is:

We are far, far, FAR stronger than most of us currently understand or believe.  By a multiple of thousands.  I know this, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it.  And I’m not talking about the rare hero, warrior, or saint, either.  (Although they are totally amazing.  Whew…)  No.  I’m talking about the rest of us.  All the ordinary, everyday, getting-along people like you and me that weren’t created for greatness; those of us who just want to raise our families, work a good job, have some hope, and live a decent life.  Us.

What I’d love to see is a cultural return to the recognition and development of this skill for emotional endurance, all the while keeping the growing arsenal of available treatments and interventions ready as back-up, just in case.  Y’know…for those rarer yet dangerous periods when life erupts into something that really is too much, too hard, too destructive, unendurable.

Can you imagine what we’d be capable of, what our lives would be like, what our world could become, with the power of inner endurance and medical relief at our disposal?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

For Constance And The Other Pets We’ve All Lost

I learned that a big, flatulent, snore-prone, asthmatic bulldog died suddenly of a heart attack over in Wales a few days ago.  Her name was Constance and her bereft humans are John and Chris.  The news made me sad.  They’d only had her for about ten months…she was a kinda, sorta rescue dog…but in that short time they fell for her pretty hard. 

(Which was something of a puzzle to me, as it often is to non-bulldog people.  Bulldogs are not the most attractive of animals and she could be quite a bitch besides.  But I think that’s part of the reason WHY John and Chris loved her so much, because she was always so fearlessly and unapologetically herself, warts and all, and really, when I think about it, I kind of love that, too.  You go, girl.)

Today’s post was going to be about the dying music that’s come down to us through time, the valuable information embedded in that music regarding how to die, and how in the hell we’re supposed to extract said information all these years later, across changing attitudes, languages, and cultures.

But it doesn’t seem right.  Not today.  Instead, I’d rather play one of the songs I had in mind and dedicate it to Constance and the other beloved, joy-bringing, innocent, vulnerable, and deeply missed pets we’ve all lost over the years.  They’ve mostly died quiet and unnoticed by the wider world.  For some strange reason, we’re not usually given much room to grieve our animals when they die, in spite of the fact that their loss can be as painful and devastating as that of any other family member.  So today, I thought I’d make a little more room.

Goodbye Constance, and all you other beauties who graced our lives for a little while.  We love you.  We miss you.  We thank you.


Oh all the money that e’er I spent
I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done
Alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all

Oh all the comrades that e’er I’ve had
Are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I’ve had
Would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call
Good night and joy be with you all

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

My Writing: Sometimes I Hate It, Sometimes I Love It

I try not to read my writing at night because I discovered years ago that if I do, I’ll hate it.  Always.  When I’m tired, every word I’ve ever written sounds like shit, and if I make the mistake of reading it too late, I’ll go to sleep feeling like a fraud.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the morning I usually like what I’ve written.  And if I’m drinking coffee, I love it. Caffeine does for my writing what pot used to do for my philosophical discussions in adolescence–it lifts it to a level of brilliant insight (which, sadly, rarely survives the chemical letdown afterwards.)

This daily vacillation, while painful, is at least familiar.  I know it, I deal with it.  I’ve learned how to milk the creative juices that come in the morning and sidestep the mental desert of night.

But I experienced a different kind of downswing this week that caught me unprepared. The Idaho Writer’s Guild here in town sponsored a talk by Lori Wasulchek, an award winning, documentary photographer who just published a moving, exquisite book about the hospice program in Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana, called Grace Before Dying.  (I won’t review it here because the self-critic in my head has informed me I’m not good enough.  Just use the link.  Pete Brook does it justice.)

She was inspiring.  Dedicated.  Brilliant and unbelievably hard working.  She walked through fire to bring her book to print because she believes in the value of Angola’s hospice program and what it’s doing for the countless men who are living and dying in there.  She not only created an uplifting work of art that reaffirmed everything best in us, she touched a lot of lives and helped a lot of people along the way.  I left the meeting with her book cradled in my arms, my faith in humanity renewed.  I was high as a kite, energized.  Hopeful for a better future for us all.

And then, about three hours later (as evening rolled around) my trusty, fragile, writer’s ego collapsed and I crashed.  Hard.  The inevitable comparisons began and I spent the next twelve, sleepless hours questioning every word I’ve ever written, everything I’ve ever done, and (while I was at it) my entire reason for being.  I took the earlier post I’d written about Grace Before Dying down off the blog before anyone besides the spammers who never read anything anyway could find it, and then seriously questioned about whether to just take the whole blog down, too.

God.  What a horrible night.  My emotions were painfully, ridiculously extreme.  The good news is they were so extreme I knew I should wait until morning before doing anything I might regret.

Sure enough, dawn eventually came and, with the help of a little sunlight and caffeine, I regained a more moderate perspective.  (Although even coffee couldn’t completely dispel the angst.)  After a rational look at my reaction I learned a couple of important things about myself that I need to keep in mind going forward:

1)  I’ve secretly wanted to single handedly save the world from its fear of dying.

2)  I need to come up with a more realistic goal.  (And admit it to myself this time.)

3)  I’m not a journalist and it’s counter-productive to compare myself to one, especially one that’s award-winning.  I’m a creative writer, and I need to embrace that aptitude and craft my ideas accordingly.

4)  I need to stop being such a hermit and spend more time around other writers for the inspiration, insights, and ego-workout I so clearly need.

I think the last one is probably the most important.  Writers have to spend so much time alone anyway, and when you couple that with my natural tendency to hole up and hide from the world, I can wind up being pretty isolated.  It’s not good for me and it’s certainly not good for my writing.  One of the hardest things for me to do…every single time…is accept a good critique and apply its lessons, even though doing so has always done more to improve the quality of my work than anything but the simple discipline of writing every day.

Spending more time with writers (especially those writing on my topic) would also provide excellent practice for dealing with the I Love It/I Hate It pendulum swings created by comparing my work to that of others.  I really don’t want to be taken off guard again the way I was this week.  I can’t afford it.  It’s painful, it’s hazardous to the work I’ve already written, and in all honesty it’s just not the kind of person I want to be.  The number of talented, hard working, dedicated writers out there is huge, and I’d really rather learn to harness their achievements as a source of inspiration than seeing them as a reason to quit.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

When NOT To Tell Someone They’re Dying

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

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

Last birthday or bike ride, vacation or dance.

Last scent of fresh rain.

Last kiss of a beloved.

Last pang.

Last breath.

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

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

It’s selfish.

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

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

Nobody needs that.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

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

A Huge Life In A Tiny Box

(Sorry for the blur but this is the only picture anyone thought to take.)

A couple weekends ago we drove down to the little town in Nevada from whence my people come and buried a small box in the cemetery there.  It contained a variety of things; a seashell, photos, an old, scribbled note in a silver-plated box with blue velvet lining, a thank you card, a George Washington $1 coin from the U.S. mint presidential series, a Chinese coin, pictures of two Hindu saints, downy feathers, a secret bundle, and a handful of ashes from my mother who died over two years ago.

Some of these things belonged to her and others were things we thought she should have.  The seashell and feathers–because she adored the ocean and migrating birds.  The Hindu saints–because they guided her in life, so how much more important that they be there with her afterward?  The secret bundle–from a secret person for secret reasons known only to them.  And the ashes because they were a last, little part of her that we could come and visit whenever we felt the need.

The old note, I found a couple months after she died.  It was a short list of prayers folded up inside the silver box and stashed with her jewelry, dating from about a year before she died.  The prayers were written in this order:

1)  For an improvement in her health (which clearly didn’t work out so well).

2)  For ten million dollars invested in a trust yielding 8% a year (also a no-go). 

3)  For greater clarity (yes!…she was having amazing breakthroughs and insights during her last months).  And,

4)  A last, loving wish for enlightenment and peace for the whole world. This was the one that made me cry.  It was so like her, my mother, forever toting the world around with her in her bottomless basket of good wishes.

I spent days before leaving for Nevada sifting through the mementos of her life again–through all the deep, swirling emotions they resurrected–looking for the right pieces to place inside the box.  Because my mother believed in reincarnation I carefully tucked in the list…just in case prayers carry over from one life to the next.  The coins went in for murkier reasons even I don’t entirely understand; maybe as a token for the wealth she craved, or as an irrational but oh-so-necessary payment to the Boatman for safe passage, or perhaps just because they were made out of metal and would still be there long after the box itself decomposed.

Six of us came to sit around that small, square hole in the ground, drinking water and wine, soaking up the sun and wind, toasting her memory and telling her stories.  We had a folding chair for each of us and an extra one where we set the box.  We occasionally grew raucous, sprinkling wine over it after a toast, because sometimes remembering in the midst of great loss can just do that to you.

Before we placed the box down in the hole, I opened it one last time so we could have a look inside.  The wind rustled the downy feathers and then blew one out, whisking it over the hillside below us.  It floated above the headstones…more like a butterfly really, than the bird it came from…before finally rising higher, then higher, then higher into the sky.  We all stood transfixed and staring, following its lovely escape in surprised silence, but the same thought was in each of our minds.

Look!  Look! There she goes!

Afterwards we took handfuls of dirt, one by one, and threw them into the hole to cover the box, and with each handful we cried or laughed or were momentarily still…throwing our prayers down for her, too, along with the love of others who couldn’t be there.  With the first handful, grief overwhelmed me and I sobbed on my knees, unconsciously dragging my dirty hand across my forehead and cheeks.  I had no idea why I was doing it except that the grit across my skin felt welcome and good; raw and sharp enough to match the scraping of the wound inside me.

It was the leading edge of a brief but wild storm, and once it passed I felt calmer and lighter for it.  Cleansed and good.  Eventually we finished and, after replacing the small square of turf over the loose dirt, we packed up our things and traipsed off to the city park to eat a small picnic and finish the wine.

I like to think of that small box now, pressed down by the weight of dark, moist earth and already starting to decay, its cache of love and prayer, life and joy, seeping out into the ground like something with a half-life of ten thousand years.  It never ceases to amaze me, how relentless this great current of Life is that flows through us, spilling down from one generation to the next like a perpetual champagne fountain, as if we were ever-widening tiers of crystal flutes constantly filling and spilling simultaneously.

My mother is gone but the huge gifts of her life are still washing down through the bewildering number of other lives she altered just by existing here for a while.  They’re inside all of us who loved her and passing on into all those we love in our turn–inside everything she touched and every place she passed through.

And as of a couple weekends ago those gifts are now inside that tiny box, too, buried up in the high desert mountains where they will be leaking their grace for generations to come.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Going Light

John Grey, a thoughtful and entertaining blogger/smallholder over at Going Gently, mentioned in a recent post that “going light” is a Welsh phrase for the accelerated wasting process that happens during the last days and hours of dying.  During this time it often looks like they’re starting to disappear right before your eyes.

The phrase really struck me, not just because it’s the loveliest way of describing this transition I’ve ever heard, but because it’s also the most accurate.  That’s exactly what the rapid changes look and feel like with both the body and spirit of someone who’s dying.

I’m going light now, Ma.  I’m going light.


(Image: dan /

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Death With Dignity? (…and they all burst out laughing.)

Not to crack any eggs here but somebody needs to say it:  dying is not, and never will be, a dignified process.  I have the deepest respect for all those good people who are espousing our “right” to die with dignity but, really, they’re tilting at windmills.

The physical act of dying is so like childbirth.  Both can be described in a lot of ways; primal, humbling, graphic, awe-filled, raw, ridiculous, deeply human, and often very, very embarrassing.  But not dignified.  Definitely not dignified.  However, this is not to say that the people who are dying can’t be dignified, because they can.  Without question.  Even in the midst of such an undignified process.  But frankly, the only people I ever saw die with dignity were the ones who were already living with it beforehand.

This is where I think the Death With Dignity movement errs.  With all the good will in the world, dignity is simply not something we get to grant one another.  No matter how good the medicine is, or the standard of care, or the advance directive, or the insurance, or the canopy of whatever legislation we drape over it all, true dignity is only generated from within.  It has to be built by each person, brick by brick, over time, from the inside out, using tools like courage, strength, respect, humility, truth, and grace under fire.  Not an easy task by any standard.

But on the flip side of this effort, once its firmly in place, once a person has anchored into a deep sense of their own dignity as a human being, it’s not something that can be easily dismantled either.  Especially not by things as shallow as whether or not a person can drive or feed or wipe themselves, or smile with both sides of their mouth, or even remember their own name.  I’ve seen people curled up and muscle locked from multiple sclerosis who were still happy, people suffocating from pulmonary edema who were still grateful to be alive, and people with advanced dementia who were still tender and loving to everyone around them.  I’ve also seen those who eventually decided to stop fighting their disease and surrender, not because they no longer wanted to live but because the battle to do so was threatening to consume and destroy the loved ones they were leaving behind.  Our ability to control our environment, our medical care, our bodies, or even our brains is not what ultimately defines us, and it seems like the biggest difference between a person who is living (and dying) with genuine dignity and everyone else is that they’ve figured that out.

I say this with the deepest conviction:

The most dignified people I helped care for weren’t the ones with the best medical care, or the clearest minds, or those who displayed the most control over how they were going to die.  But they were staggeringly wealthy in terms of love and endurance, generosity and strength.  They were the people who accepted their final vulnerability with a grace that humbled those of us who stood there and witnessed it.

And they were also, interestingly enough, rare.  Says something about us, no?

While I’m a passionate advocate for universal access to good medical and home care for the dying, it’s not because I think it’ll grant them some measure of dignity they don’t already have.  It’s because in doing our best to protect and care for the vulnerable among us, and by stepping up and helping to shoulder their last burden in all the ways that we can and should, it gives the rest of us a chance to work on deepening our own innate human dignity..

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

When Not Quitting Is The Miracle

Thought I’d post a quick update on my mini-triathlon quest.  There’s good news.  Progress is now detectable.  The trainer who adopted me at the YMCA is terrific, enthusiastic, and more importantly has learned to scale back her ambitions where I’m concerned.  Her early training schedule with six days of alternating weights, running, bicycling, swimming, and stretching with a seventh of optional hiking has been revamped to three days of weights and running.

And I’m consistently hitting two of them!  To the outside observer that may not sound like much…and the trained athlete of bygone days in my head would emphatically agree…but to the shell shocked depressive inside who’s spent the last six years floundering between seclusion and creeping paralysis, two days of successful sports training is definitely cause for celebration!

Honestly, I’m a little breathless at my biggest achievement to date…I haven’t quit.  It hasn’t been easy.  This whole thing has felt a lot like sailing along a treacherous coastline littered with underwater rocks.  Each time I start to pick up speed, working out two or three times in a row on schedule, I think Aha!  NOW I’ve got it.  Now I can unfurl the sails and really fly! Then I hear that damn thud and scraping on my internal hull and suddenly, for the rest of the day, I can’t even leave the house.

Which means I have to keep starting all over again and it’s frustrating.  Early on these frequent stumbles really scared me because I thought if they kept up, they’d eventually make me stop.  But two months into the whole thing now and my confidence is starting to build.  I wonder if this is what it’s like for an athlete who suffers a big injury and has to learn how to perform all over again with a new and different body.  Only in my case, the injury was to my mind.  Everything I used to take for granted…simple emotional discipline, mental focus, and freedom from chronic fear and occasional panic…is kaput, so I’m having to learn a whole different set of mental skills and strengths to compensate for it.

It feels good though, even if it’s producing some additional anxiety.  The hardest thing by far is making myself go to the gym.  You may not know this but gyms are very social places.  Lots of active, purposeful, energetic people all striding and pumping and pulling on complicated, noisy, bewildering equipment.  It’s like a ten freeway interchange with heavy traffic flows and well-orchestrated on and off ramps.  Everyone else seems to know exactly what they’re doing and then here I am, an outed hermit dressed in frumpy, old activewear, newly sucked out of my hole and doing my best not to trip and fall off the treadmill (yes…I’ve done it once so far) or hold up the line of nice but impatient people waiting to work on the weight machine I’m currently tangled in.

So much for dignity.  But in spite of everything I’m actually starting to feel individual muscles once in a while instead of the more generalized trembling and collapse I started out with, and the length of time I can run without walking is definitely growing.  I even tried my hand at running on the track yesterday, instead of the treadmill, and I’m happy to report that I didn’t trip, run into anybody, or attract undue attention with all the extraordinary bouncing going on around my chest, hips, and behind.  (The complex physics involved with fat on a jogging person is really something to experience firsthand, let me tell you.) I’m still trying to get a handle on the whole fashion element involved and have yet to figure out how all these women are wearing what amounts to tights with no…I repeat no…visible signs of underwear.  Surreptitious observation in the locker room has only revealed one thong so far, so something else must be going on.  The anthropologist in me is intrigued.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you’ve got an extra ten minutes, here’s an ESPN awards video telling the stories of two, physically-disabled athletes who have been changing the world.  Jim MacLaren, who endured two catastrophic accidents that successively stripped him of his athletic gifts, but who went on to make his miracles anyway, died in August last year.  But his inspiring legacy continues to grow through extraordinary disabled athletes like Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboa of Ghana.  Seriously, if you want something that both puts life in perspective and inspires you to keep hoping, watch this.

Because sometimes just not quitting is the most amazing miracle of all.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

The Stars We Steer By

LH 95 star forming region of the Large Magellanic Cloud

The results are in from the thirty-seven people who voted in the poll, (hardly representative but enough for a tiny feel), and I’m both surprised and heartened.

But before I launch into that discussion, I wanted to thank everyone who voted, as well as everyone who tried to vote but couldn’t because of technical difficulties.  There were a lot of you latter, I know.  This post got about five times the number of hits as translated into votes so clearly, the glitch some of you reported was a big one.  Bummer.  I really wanted to know what you thought.  I’ve recently been assailed by doubts about the value of what I’m trying to do with this blog and the eventual book, and I was trying to establish whether there was really a need for it or not.

Note to self: Learn more, much more, about conducting a casual poll.

And now to the results.  Taking into consideration that the sampling was minuscule and the line of questioning was leading at best, I was still surprised to find that my suspicions were baseless.  In spite of all the progress medical science has made over the last century, everyone who responded still sees death as the natural conclusion to our biological destiny.  While there were those who thought our age span might be extended beyond 120 years, a few who thought we’d find a cure for aging, and some who thought disease would eventually be eradicated, nobody checked the Live Forever box.   The proponents of Immortalism will undoubtedly be bummed, but it makes the job I’ve undertaken seem more feasible.

For those who didn’t know yet, I have an agenda here.

We all have our particular stars to shoot for and I’m no different.  Mine involves trying to ease some of the unnecessary levels of fear I’ve seen around dying.  I’m not gunning for ALL the fear mind you, because some of it is appropriate and perfectly healthy.  It’s like a couple of people mentioned in their comments; the instinct to survive is in our DNA and, without the fight or flight response, we wouldn’t last long as a species.

No.  What I’d like to target is the unnecessary fear.  The excess.  The bogey man part.  The kind of terror that results from things like lack of education and unrealistic expectations, from misinterpreting symptoms to grossly underestimating our own strength.  I want to tackle the kind of creeping, obsessive fear that arises from focusing on external, technological solutions which we often can’t control, to the exclusion of internal strengths that we can.

That last one was what I was trying to gauge with the poll.  As a society, we’re dedicating our resources and faith to medical science at a rate that’s escalating geometrically, and I wanted to find out just how much faith.  Because if most people are starting to believe deep down that dying is ultimately unnecessary then, honestly, there wouldn’t be much left for me to do here.  The hope of living forever raises an entirely different set of fears about dying that I wouldn’t have a clue how to address.

If that was the case I’d be free to begin a whole new star-hunt.

However, thirty-seven out of thirty-seven people still believe that dying is biologically inevitable and, while it’s not universally representative, it’ll have to do.  I’ll just assume that trying to ease some of the fear around dying is still a relevant and worthwhile goal to pursue after all.

Note to self:  Possible things to talk about in future posts.

1)  Cultivating internal resources like courage, endurance, gratitude, trust, humility, strength, inner dignity, etc., provides the most powerful fall-back position for when technological solutions fail.  (Other options:  Despair.  Rage.  Blame.  Generally falling into the abyss.)

2)  Cultivating the above also dramatically improves the quality of life before dying.

3)  Instead of devoting all our attention to fighting over who’s going to pay for the viral growth of outside, institutional services, we can also look into designing and building closer, committed homes and communities where it’ll be easier to help care for one another.

4)  Before we pour our hearts, souls, and tax dollars into more of the bitter, divisive legislative battles raging, we could first try to weave a constructive, workable meaning for suffering to help us navigate with a little more grace.  (Of course this would require courage, trust, humility, etc., which brings us right back to the practical uses of number one.)

I know there’s a way to die that isn’t as scary as most people think it is.  I’ve seen it.  I witnessed a variety of ways to navigate the process that not only make it less devastating for the person who’s dying, but actually helps buoy and heal those who have to pick up the pieces afterwards and carry on.  I just need to figure out if there’s a practical way to communicate what I learned to anybody else.

That’s my star.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn