When to invite your heart to think (or, How I got a dog last weekend)

 

Have you ever been wracked by a decision in which your head and your heart seemed at odds? Perhaps a good friend told you to “follow your heart,” offering a nourishing counterweight to ruthless reasonableness in a world that can feel heartlessly over-analytic.

The heart is a treasured advisor, but sometimes its impulses come with a shadow.

It may be deliciously fun to run away for a weekend on a whim, but certain decisions we make, like a marriage or an adoption, trigger lifetime consequences. Following your heart has sparked great romances, but has also led people into marriages doomed to failure, resulted in financial decisions that precipitated ruin, and encouraged people to listen to their basest emotions heightened by manipulative hatred, leading to some of the world’s worst genocides.

Your heart, unquestioned, can lead to fairy tales where you can be swept away by the happy ending and never ask who had to clean up after Cinderella’s ball.

When it comes to big decisions, I believe “Think with your heart” beats “Follow your heart.” Listen deeply to your heart, and then bring what you learn into a dance with reason.

A heart that can think

It appears your heart has its own ways of thinking, physiologically. Researchers at the Heartmath Institute are exploring (very cool stuff) how the heart is more than a mechanical blood-pumping machine. According to their studies, the heart is the body’s largest organ of perception. The heart actually sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. The heart tells your brain what to do even as your brain sends direction signals to your heart.

Since your heart does its own version of thinking, it shouldn’t be too much to occasionally ask it to join forces with facts and reasoning, especially in service to a good cause.

This weekend I needed my heart and my reason to think together…

Anatomy of a decision

Can you imagine a gentle dog in need, helpless, hurting, and abandoned, without wanting to help? I can’t.

Last Friday, an email alert was sent out by the regional English Springer Spaniel Rescue America association (ESRA) informing members that a stray Springer, picked up in Seattle, was in bad shape and needed to be taken out of the Seattle Animal Shelter–asap. Traumatized already, he was doing poorly at the shelter. ESRA was working with the Shelter and they needed someone to pick up the dog and foster him until he could be checked out by a vet, and possibly adopted.

“I wish I could,” I thought, as I read the email. I knew that taking in a dog made no sense for my husband and me. We had already held a “Can we have a dog?” discussion over the New Years holidays. and reason, in the form of “no-dog-for-now,” won out.

But as I read about this gentle dog, named “Riley” at the Shelter, I felt heartsick. Why would anyone abandon such a dog?

My husband Steve, who understands my love of Springers, brought me back to reality. “Where will you ever find the time to take care of this dog?” and “Won’t he traumatize our old cat, Barry?”

Right. With his words, I lurched out of my sentimental, “Honey, can’t we do this” nostalgia and considered the realities. No, a dog didn’t make sense.

But as I described Riley’s conditions to Steve. I started crying…

The morning after

Sleeping on our decision, I woke up the next morning to the light of reason. I e-mailed the association and wrote “If you have another option take it. We’re too worried about our elderly cat.”

Decision made. Crisis averted. Except that by afternoon, I was still thinking about “Riley.” I e-mailed asking for some news about him (my downfall) and learned that he had been rescued from the shelter by a very kind, dog-savvy couple. But one of their dogs was attacking Riley so their home wasn’t working out. He still needed a foster home.

Dang.

Sunday morning

My husband and I reviewed the facts: Riley was mostly blind and deaf, very arthritic and geriatric. Maybe even senile. There could be other problems. Not your picture-perfect pet.

The clock was ticking. Action was needed, for Riley’s sake.

I looked at my husband, who didn’t say no, and called the folks who had pulled him out of the shelter to arrange a pick-up. They graciously drove him to our ferry dock, gave us a generous goody bag of treats for him, and then said a teary goodbye to Riley.

Then, with Riley panting like a steam engine with bad breath in the back of our car, we sailed back to the island.

Fairy tales don’t always come true

My husband and I reviewed the facts: Riley was mostly blind and deaf, very arthritic and geriatric. Maybe even senile. There could be other problems. Not your picture-perfect pet.

The clock was ticking. Action was needed, for Riley’s sake.

I looked at my husband, who didn’t say no, and called the folks who had pulled him out of the shelter to arrange a pick-up. They graciously drove him to our ferry dock, gave us a generous goody bag of treats for him, and even left us with a doggy mattress. With tears, they said goodbye to Riley.

Then, with Riley panting like a steam engine with bad breath in the back of our car, we sailed back to the island.

Fairy tales don’t always come true

In the heart-warming fairy tale version of the story I imagined, Riley would recognize me as his person, collapse into my arms, and start wagging his tail.

It wasn’t like that.

Riley has had trauma and needs time to trust. He is slow to cuddle and I’m not sure if his very arthritic tail will ever wag. It doesn’t matter. Every day he seems perkier and warms to us more.

In another fairy tale, doctors would find a fix for his more severe problems and Riley would rebound and have several good years ahead.

In the real world, we don’t know what will happen to him. The vet may decide that a “hospice” program of comfort care is what he should get, or that it would be kinder to euthanize him. (Ouch!)

In a fairy tale, my husband would fall in love with the little guy as soon as he saw him.

That one came true.

Why did we do it?

As the philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote,

“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.”

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

Our hearts may point us towards action, with an unseen logic, but then our actions depend upon working with the reality we encounter. Riley is changing our home life with his many needs.

As we plot his future care, we’ll need good facts, data, and solid thinking. Reason will be our friend, along with ESRA and our local vet.

What happens to Riley can’t be based on sentiment, but it can be informed by love.

Why did we do it?

As the philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote,

“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.”

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

Our hearts may point us towards action, with an unseen logic, but then our actions depend upon working with the reality we encounter. Riley is changing our home life with his many needs.

As we plot his future care, we’ll need good facts, data, and solid thinking. Reason will be our friend, along with ESRA and our local vet.

What happens to Riley can’t be based on sentiment, but it can be informed by love.

Does fostering a dog really matter?

Some would argue that in this world of so much extreme need, fostering a dog does nothing for the world’s problems.

But who knows?

Maybe anything helps that opens our hearts to love.

Our minds show us how to navigate the world and act. Our hearts? They open and break. And anyone who has loved an animal knows they can be heart-breakers.

But if Leonard Cohen (R.I.P.) is right, the cracks in our hearts will allow more light to get in to make the world, even in its darkness, a little brighter.

 

Three words that can change your life (they’re not what you think)

 

 

If I asked you for the three most powerful words you’d use to change a situation, what would you offer? Maybe:

  • I love you.
  • I forgive you.
  • I trust you.
  • I am OK.
  • I am worthy.

Yep. These are magic words that change lives. I want to offer you three more

Just stop it.

Imagine a time when your mind was wracked with a grievance, you were feeling bitter, resentful or besieged, and your mind was racing overtime trying to rationalize what just happened or plot your vengeance.

Or, think of a time when you felt like you were out of control and you wanted someone to change (think family, close friend or spouse, for starters) and they wouldn’t, no matter what you did or said.

Situations like these trigger my got-to-be-in-control impulse and send my brain into overdrive. I rationalize. I judge. I think about getting even.

While this is going on, I also try to think my way into a better place. I try to practice compassion and try to see the situation in a new light. I know the power of forgiveness–which, trust me, is hard work!

But often I just end up spinning in my own thoughts. You know, hamster-in-mind syndrome.

An urgent situation

On the eve of my mother’s memorial service, old fault lines in family relationships surfaced. I felt pierced and offended.

I pulled out everything I knew might help:

  • Have compassion for myself.
  • Have compassion for the other person.
  • Breathe, in a deep, relaxing way.
  • Listen to my body, and notice where the hurt lives.
  • Vent constructively to a safe friend.
  • Dance my heart out at a Zumba class.

All of this helped, a little. Still, as we approached the hour of Mom’s memorial, I knew I had to do something different. So, in the nick of time, I tried these words, directing them strongly at my brain:

Just stop it.

“I know you have a lot of good ideas, and insights. I know you are struggling between compassion and judgment, and I’m sure you want to forgive yourself and the other person. However, we are out of time and you need to stop thinking about this–effective IMMEDIATELY. You’re on a track going nowhere. And you’re the only one who can stop it.

Delete file NOW. 

Fortunately, I was taking a walk with my compassionate husband. I greatly recommend walking or moving when you use this technique. Walking or exercising naturally help soften the grip of your thoughts, plus they can give you a time frame for action. I told myself:

“At the end of this walk, I want things to be different.”

Normally, I don’t believe in will-power, or mind over matter, but the stakes were really high,

Adding a prayer

I also used prayer. I don’t know what your relationship with prayer is, but sometimes I need help dealing with stuff that seems beyond my control, where the only thing I can really change is me.

Finding my prayer brings me to humility, where I don’t have to be the strongest person on the block, or even capable of changing myself. Prayer brings me back into myself.

Without going religious on you, I’m all for praying to whatever gives you strength, as long as prayer reminds you of the good person you really are, and does not judge or do harm to others. Really, why not?

The good news is that those three words WORKED.

My mind calmed down, I went into the memorial, and then, as I heard healing words spoken about my mother, something deeper in me shifted and I knew that the change I had wanted had stuck.

We can’t control others. We can work on ourselves. Make your mind your friend.

Other applications

The applications for these words are many. You can use them to give instruction to your inner critic. Or, when doubt really builds up. Or, when your mind is in a tizz after listening to yet another terrible spate of news. Action in the future may be needed. But first, keep your mind from spinning.

For those of us who are strong thinkers, sometimes we just need to stop the action. I don’t have to always figure out the situation, rationalize or work with it.

I just need to pull the plug and reboot my brain.

Speak these three words to yourself in a pinch. Use them like a life preserver, with compassion and necessary severity, even as you find your own way of forgiving and letting go.

Just stop it.

 

 

Let’s Swap the Ladder of Opportunity for an Open Circle

The Fourth of July in the United States. Flags fly, parties happen and fireworks explode as we celebrate the right to freedom, to independence, and the opportunity to live lives full of dignity and promise.

I’ll wave a flag to that as long as freedom and independence are something we all share.

But this year has me quaking, so I wonder:

What small step can we take to ensure that freedom and independence aren’t just for the privileged?

I just returned from a remarkable and much-savored trip to France. As someone who lived in Paris nearly fifty years ago, I noticed many changes. For starters, my French boyfriend of so many years ago has four grown children, a loving wife, darling grandchildren, and a few wrinkles. (Alas, mon cher, we have gotten older!)

Of course, the change is bigger than that. The Eiffel Tower still pierces the horizon, the Arc de Triomphe royally welcomes visitors, and buildings like the Louvre or Notre Dame continue to move us with their grandeur. But the colors and voices of the Parisians themselves have changed. Near the apartment where my husband and I stayed, groups of tall, dark-skinned men, wearing long robes and skull caps, clustered in the streets. Visiting a near-in suburb, we drove through a small city full of restaurants and other businesses opened by Turkish immigrants.

Women in hijabs or African robes caught my eye far more often than did tall, elegant, white, fashion icons (my old image of the stylish Parisian woman).

One scene stands out. I was walking up a flight of stairs in the Paris Metro (you’d think the Metro planners created a parcourse workout given the number of stairs they installed) when I saw a small African woman struggling to lift her overstuffed cart of belongings. Wrapped in a colorful pink kanga (traditional cloth) and sporting a black jersey cap, she seemed both out of place and obviously at home. Of course, I helped her. On the next set of stairs a swarthy-looking young man did the same. On the third set, an older Chinese woman shared the load. Welcome to the new Paris.

In the US, we’re changing as well, even when we’re not clear about the direction.

Our two competing narratives

In a recent article in 3rd Act Magazine, Dr. Charles Johnson described two narratives he sees competing in America today. The first, the one we learned in school, is about America as the land of opportunity, the beacon to the world, the bright city on the hill where all people are created equal.

The second is one of prejudice and intolerance where justice isn’t available to all. This narrative holds our legacy of slavery, patriarchy, and racism. We fear the other and build walls to keep him or her out. Arlie Russell Hochschild offered the following image to describe the anger brewing in America in her book, Strangers in their Own Land:

“You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill.  Just over the brow of this hill is the American dream. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian and predominately male. Many in the back of the line are people of color–poor, young, and old…

…Then look. You see people cutting in line ahead of you. Who are they? Some are black. Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers–where will it end?”*

*Thanks to a review by Jo Shilling in 3rd Act Magazine.

I don’t like people who cut in front of me, either, and it angers me. But I don’t want opportunity to be divvied out in a line based on a hierarchy of privilege.

Why don’t we stop waiting in line or competing with others to climb the ladder of opportunity and form a circle instead?

The power of a circle

When we stand in a circle, we see each other as fellow parts in a whole. We feel a sense of oneness rather than otherness. We listen to each other and share stories.

Circles, though, can serve to close people out, so perhaps a better metaphor is the open circle in which a gap in its circumference encourages new participants to join and allows others to leave.

In an open circle, we can experience both interdependence and independence.

Listen for the stories

Netflix recently released “Nanette,” a stand-up comedy special by the comedienne Hannah Gadsby. I watched it to laugh but left with tears as well.

Gadbsy, originally from Tasmania, welcomes us to her show with her understated, gender-inspired, down-under sense of humor. She shares peeks into her quirky, introverted life.

 

Early in the show, this acclaimed comedienne announces that she wants to give up comedy. She’s tired of the self-deprecating humor that’s part of her fame. She’s tired of turning shame into jokes.

She continues on, zigging between humor and reflection, life as a lesbian and art history, until she reaches the end of her show. Then the mood shifts and her passion flairs with dead-serious intent as she tells us what she wants more than laughs:

“I want my story to be heard.”

For the last ten minutes of the piece, she stands before us, spellbindingly vulnerable and searingly honest. She shares what it’s like to be marginalized, turned into “the other”, and violated emotionally and physically. She offers no victim-drama or cheap laughs. She’s a woman on fire, not willing to sacrifice her story to achieve either laughter or common anger.

She just wants her story out.

“What I would have done,” she says regretfully, “to hear a story like mine… to feel less alone, to feel connected.”

She speaks directly to those in her audience who know what it’s like to feel marginalized or shamed.

“Your resilience is your humanity.” “To yield and not break, that is incredible strength.”

With the power of a woman who has found herself, she declares,

“There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”

We see her standing tall, like a mama-bear who refuses to wait at the back of the line of privilege. She’ll crash the line and bring others with her.

Gadsby gives us no answers, but at the end of her show offers us a gift that can heal us more than comedy: our stories.

“Laughter is NOT our medicine,” she asserts.

“Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine.”

We need the sweetness and the medicine to deal with today’s world.

Returning home

It was difficult for me to return to this country after listening to a stream of tragic news throughout June, news most Europeans I met found incomprehensible. Flying home, I wondered what I could do, where I could give. I’m still looking.

But I know that there’s a step we can all take, no matter what our courses of action may be: we can open up our circles and listen to the stories.

We can listen to how the story of freedom is spoken by our newest immigrants and the many who live outside of this country’s big promise of opportunity. We can bear witness.

Maybe, in opening our circles and honoring the stories of those who have been marginalized, we can take the wall of privilege down a notch.

Let’s create a new interdependence story, while honoring the freedom of all.

 

Before you deny your age, think about this

This Thursday, as this blog post launches, I’ll be speaking before five hundred people at IGNITE Seattle for five brief minutes of fame. My topic is How I Dumped Denial: 60 is NOT the new 40.  I don’t want you to miss my earth-shaking findings (In case you won’t be there,), and I’ve added some data I couldn’t sneak into my five-minutes-and-you’re-out talk. My big premise: There are some things that get better with age, so why wander around like a zombie pretending to look like or trying to be an age that you’re not. Seriously, there’s a MOUNTAIN of money behind age-defying, age-denying, anti-aging products. I’m talking about an industry that produces more revenue than the GDP of three-quarters of the countries in the world. $250 billion dollars–much of which aims to keep those wrinkles off your face.

Got wrinkles?

Has anyone considered that those wrinkles might be there for a purpose, like treasure maps marking the path of your soul? You earned those wrinkles, those laugh lines, and those forehead furrows. They reflect your personality and your experience–and messing with them can have consequences. I worked with a woman who does face readings based on an old Chinese system; she has lots of examples of people messing up their lives by “fixing” their features or wiping away their wrinkles.

If you say, “But I want my wrinkles,” people are likely to look at you like that 84-year-old woman in Seattle who refused to sell out to the developers, who then built their shopping mall around her property. But who (after a certain age) doesn’t want to look a little younger?  I could make a fortune in click-bait advertising on the internet if I offered up titles like You Never Have to Look Your Age Again, The Secret of Looking Young Forever, or Why Sag When You Can Soar?  The problem? I wouldn’t know what to write. Maybe I’ll build my readership by announcing: Doctor Discovers Secret to Eternal Life. Truthfully though, I’m not a purist and I’d certainly be happier if I could put back into my cheekbones the flesh that has drifted down to my jowls. Oh, well.

Ageism

The message in our culture is loud: young=good/old=bad. It sounds like a bad joke until someone at the deli counter doesn’t see you and serves a younger client first (this has happened to friends). Or, you go to a party and you feel like you’re wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. In my IGNITE talk, I treat ageism lightly, but the topic stops being funny (after a certain age) if you’ve been on the job market for months without even receiving a callback. I used to believe that ageism was only real if you allowed it to be real, but after hearing too many stories, I think my concept was a naive fantasy. Ageism is peculiar. Why would you be ageist when you, too, are going to be old someday? Plus, folks past fifty represent a huge market, which is often ignored by marketers–except for sales of those anti-aging products and Depends (diapers, don’t ask). Older adults are rapidly becoming the largest market segment in society and will possess the most purchasing power of any demographic, according to a task force at the International Longevity Center in New York. Mid-life-plus women in the United States have great buying power and drive many buying decisions. Yet I remember my experience, some years ago, when I took my mother shopping at Nordstroms. She was 78, I was 54. As we eyed the skimpy midriff tops and low rider pants, it was as if there was a sign on the door: OLDER NOT WANTED HERE. I found nothing to buy for my mother. Didn’t the retailers understand that Mom’s buying power far exceeded that of the 18-year-old nymphets that were being targeted by marketers?

What We Can Do

I don’t expect to change our culture’s obsession with youth any time soon. What I can do, and recommend to my friends, is to take ground by learning what gets better with age. I’ve studied about the brain, drawing heavily from the work of Dr. Gene Cohen and his book, The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, and I discovered that there are parts of your brain that improve with age, at least for most of us. For example,

  • Your vocabulary keeps increasing, even if you forget the occasional (or in my case, more than occasional) word.
  • Your brain is better able to handle complexity and see the big picture, and
  • Your amygdala, that pesky epicenter of your emotional reactivity, calms down, making you less subject to irrational outbreaks.

 The Biggest Gift

The biggest selling point for getting older, (and the reason we should all be craving more age)  is that we finally get to let go of having to prove we’re somebody so that we can be who we really are.

What bigger gift could there be to your personal and spiritual development?

So why would you ever deny your age?

Hopefully, after people hear my talk–they won’t.

Who ate your time?

Every day, an army of invaders enters your house; they’re called the conveniences.

Each is disguised to save you time, when in fact…

They’re the computer that allows you to be your own secretary and graphic designer, the software that turns you into your own accountant, the online access that means that you’re now your own travel agent. The do-it-yourself (DIY) or have-to-do-it-by-yourself (HDIBY) possibilities are endless!

In this week’s episode of up-close-and-personal, I’m going to give you an example from my recent experience of buying a pair of shoes.

The old world: How we used to buy shoes

Remember shoe stores? Not glitzy stores at the mall serviced by pre-pubescent clerk wannabes, but the dowdy old store on Main street that smelled of leather, serviced by equally dowdy shoe-salesmen (a career position).

You’d be greeted by the slightly balding Mr. Chinchester who welcomed you in and ushered you to your seat while you waited for him to bring out his magic silver plated measuring slide. Then, he slipped your princess-like foot into it, declared your size, and scurried into the back to gather up two prize selections to offer you.

Of course, they were ugly, but those were the days when your mother insisted on sensible shoes. You picked the pair that worked the best and left. Total time: less than an hour.

The new world

Now we have instant online access to shoes and so much choice. Has that made it easier? Consider the time I’ve spent (to date) to buy one pair of shoes:

  • Talk to sister and three friends about best travel shoes. 40 minutes
  • Internet research on above. 40 minutes
  • Google “best travel shoes” and research top suggestions. Read reviews.  2 hours (at least)
  • Get distracted by click bait and read news about Jared Kushner. Why? (Doesn’t count.)
  • Talk to sister and friends again. 15 minutes
  • Check out “best price” on each model. 30 minutes
  • Attempt to buy shoes online to try at home. (Zappos, Amazon, GreatShoesforSweatyFeet.com, etc.) Try to order. Sit online 45 minutes with customer service working through a glitch.  1.5 hours.
  • Receive shoes with enthusiasm, unbox, and try on. 45 minutes.
  • Try again with less enthusiasm, hoping to figure out why they don’t work.  30 minutes
  • Rebox shoes to mail back. 30 minutes
  • Travel to the Post Office to mail back. 30 minutes
  • Give up online and travel to REI where real people can hopefully help me.

That’s over seven and a half futile hours before the trip to REI. Of course, I’m going to end up with the perfect shoes.

Isn’t it wonderful how “convenient” life is?

Sacrificing time and connection for the illusion of convenience

Once we’re captured by the spell of “convenience,” time becomes almost impossible to manage.

Take this little episode and multiply it over the dozens of activities that we “get” to do for ourselves. (Like trying to figure out all of what doesn’t quite work with the software, computer, telephone, cell phone, external hard drive, plane reservations, etc.)

Once we’ve been captured by the spell of “convenience,” time becomes almost impossible to manage.

We’re in a tidal wave of change and our sea of expectations is rising.

I don’t have a magic wand on this one.

If I did, I’d sell it to you with slightly deficient instructions so you’d spend two hours figuring out how to use it, before putting it aside for the right moment when you had time to try again.

Not to leave you hopeless, but here are a couple of things to do:

Have compassion. When you run out of time, realize it’s not your personal deficiency. (ISS — It’s the system, silly.)
Calculate the real time involved in learning and using something. My husband and I are still befuddled by the clicker on our new TV. (My technique of randomly punching buttons is not working.)
Lower your standards.  When Bill Moyers asked the great poet William Stafford how he could possibly write a poem every day, Stafford replied simply, “I lower my standards.” Perfection isn’t possible. Maybe you don’t have to try so hard to get the perfect pair of shoes.

Who ate your time?

He’s probably staring at you with a cute, chirpy smile on his face, deceptively suggesting “here’s something you’re going to love” as you stare at the next can’t-do-without or how-to-do-it-faster-by-yourself convenience.

Beware!

Helping death come to life

Do you feel some fear around dying? Most people do. I certainly do.

After all, death is something we don’t really understand, haven’t experienced, and is often portrayed in a very creepy way.

I just returned from a conference that helped me see the topic differently, called The Sacred Gateway: Conscious Living, Conscious Dying, and the Journey Beyond.

I discovered that thinking about death can be incredibly life-affirming.

Our culture’s relationship with death is confused 

The movie industry loves to show us, often graphically, people being blown up and killed; death has become big entertainment.

Ask people to actually talk about death, though, and they run for cover.

How many of us have prepared in advance for dying (with affairs in order and a living will), considered what we’d prefer when we are dying (what kind of care and any special wishes), and indicated what we’d want after we pass (whom to contact, what kind of memorial, how to care for the body)?

If you haven’t done all of these, you might consider filling out a document called The Five Wishes that asks you to describe your preferences.

Until relatively recently, people in our culture would not talk about birthing in public. Now, that subject is considered normal and acceptable to discuss. Maybe someday, talking about dying (or “deathing” as some like to say) will be comfortable, too.

Imagine a life where death was not something to be feared but recognized and even celebrated as part of the greater whole of life.

I used to invite my leadership class participants to read Tuesdays with Morrie, in which the author visited a beloved professor on his deathbed. That assignment was my way of going beyond management jargon and asking participants to speak from the heart about what mattered most to them. Talking about dying encourages that kind of conversation.

Ironically, as we make our process of death more conscious we make our process of living more precious.

Death surrounds us every day

The conference speakers invited us to notice how death is all around us, an easy and natural part of life.

  • In the fall, leaves die off the branches so that new leaves can replace them in the spring.  Forest growth is nourished by composted leaves. Dead wood becomes the paper on which we write our words.
  • Ideas come to us and ideas die.
  • We go to sleep at night, dying away from the day, and return refreshed in the morning. John Updike once wrote,

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead, so why … be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”

  • Cells in our bodies support our bones by regularly wiping away dead material (the osteoclasts) so that other cells (osteoblasts) can build new bone material to keep our bones healthy and flexible.  (Dealing with osteoporosis has taught me a lot!)

On tragic and sudden deaths

Even a sudden, tragic death can contain within it seeds of new life, especially when we design processes to bring people together to honor the deceased with love and appreciation.

At the conference, a couple of mothers talked about how losing their daughters was the most difficult thing they had ever experienced, and how it was also the most important event in their lives–one that eventually led them to more compassion, creativity, and joy.

Tragedy, sadness, and joy can dance together.

Christina-Taylor Green, 9, broke our national heart on January 9, 2011, when she was killed at a public rally in Tucson, Arizona where she had gone to see US Representative Gabby Giffords. Christina-Taylor, a straight A student and president of her elementary school class, had hoped to go into politics; ironically, she was a “child of hope,” one of the children born on 9-11.

Her beautiful face, seen displayed over media around the world, became a symbol for the message: “Stop the violence, stop the hate.”

Her death was heart-wrenching and tragic. Yet, her death also brought people together to work for a more life-affirming, peaceful and sane-gun world.

Friends raise up angel wings before the funeral of Christina-Taylor Green

I don’t pretend that death or being with the dying process is easy. I went to the conference in part to learn how to better face my mother’s extremely slow journey towards death. She’s going into her twenty-ninth month in hospice care. I don’t have a clue why she’s hanging on; my challenge is to find ways to just be with her, even in her non-communicative state.

We need the arts on the journey

Just knowing about death may not be sufficient to comfort us. We also need art, music, and story to help us understand on some level that transcends what knowledge alone can give us.

I was moved by a story that the brilliant Maria Popova of Brain Pickings introduced me to: Cry, Heart, but Never Break.

The story is about four children, who meet Death at their dining room table when He comes to take their beloved grandmother. Craftily, they try to stall him from his mission. Yet He sits with them kindly, drinking coffee, compassionately explaining:

“Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?”

The children come to understand that this Death is not the grim reaper and that He too has a heart. After their grandmother passes they sneak into her room and hear Death quietly say:

Cry, Heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life.”

Then He, too, disappears.

The book ends with the picture of a child gazing out the window through which his Grandmother’s soul had gone.

“Ever after, whenever the children opened a window, they would think of their grandmother. And when the breeze caressed their faces, they could feel her touch.”

Perhaps the biggest message of the conference was this: the way we truly prepare our dying is by living more consciously today and appreciating the gift of life.

As Mary Oliver so poignantly closed her poem In Blackwater Woods:

To live in this world

You must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

 

 

 

 

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