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.

 

 

 

 

When you can’t always get what you want…

 

You can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometime, you just might find..

Do you have something that you want, maybe really want, in your life, but perhaps it’s not to be…

Can you still savor a piece of what you want…maybe a lick of the ice cream you shouldn’t eat, a whiff of the wine you can no longer drink, or a chance to cuddle babies you can no longer have?

Life can be difficult…and yet…sometimes there’s a way.

Here’s what I learned this week:

I have this thing about Springer Spaniels. I grew up with a male, Freckles, a liver-colored, long-haired, ebullient, field spaniel. My family adopted Freckles when he was three and he soon became my dog and my best friend for years. Only Freckles could understand how much I hated that bully, Maureen Paris, who lived down the street. Only Freckles could help me walk off some loneliness, as we explored the woods, him bounding after squirrels, me enjoying a special world where we were safe together. Those walks were my bliss except for the days in which Freckles found his bliss rolling in a patch of stinky skunk cabbage in the swamp near our home.

Freckles helped me survive elementary school and junior high. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that my sister, during the same period, mistakenly believed Freckles was her dog. I’m pretty sure my Dad thought Freckles was his dog as well. That’s a Springer for you, liberally spreading around the love, convincing each one of us that we were The One.

Before I was married, I decided to get a dog, and of course, it was a Springer. I chose a puppy, Lady, who came with no fancy papers but had a personality that could charm the scowl off of any neighbor she visited. Lady became the light of my life for many years. When I married my husband, Steve, Lady showered him with love and made him her special guy. When she died, at almost 15, we were devastated.

For years, I couldn’t look at photos of Springers or puppy litters, knowing that the time was not right for us to look for a new dog. We had adopted a cat, Barry, who ruled our dog-free roost. And, we soon learned, there were certain advantages to being dog-free, when it came to making short trips out of town.

Temptation strikes

But this past Christmas, as  I faced the bleak-getting-bleaker national political landscape, and the challenge of watching my mother die, I started craving some joyful, all accepting love, and found myself sneaking online to the English Springer Spaniel Rescue America (ESRA) website. For just a peak, I thought. But as I stared at the faces of those black or liver colored love-bugs, all waiting for adoption, my cravings kicked in, and once again I wanted some Springer-magic. I could almost feel a scratchy tongue licking my face and the joy of swimming in open water, a Springer at my side.

Then, I discovered a photo of a Springer cuddled up with kittens.  My heart beat faster at the sight of a dog who liked cats. Maybe, just maybe, he’d fit into our home. I approached the subject cautiously with my husband, and then applied to the Rescue Association. Within a few weeks, I had an interview, was approved to adopt, and spoke with the foster owner of the cat-loving dog I had seen in the photos.

When my husband realized that my desire was no longer hypothetical, he offered up a heavy dose of reality, asking, “How can you possibly spend an hour a day taking care of a dog? Aren’t you always talking about being overloaded?”  Yikes, he was right. Moreover, there was the big question of Barry the cat. Would it really be fair to ruin his reign?

Sadly, I asked the association to put my application on hold.

ESRA has a long list of people wanting to adopt a Springer so they were quick to ask me if I’d be willing to screen other applicants. I hesitated. That seemed like a bleak prospect: talking with other people who might get their Springers…while I couldn’t have mine.

I said yes.

But here’s what the experience of interviewing others has given me: a little bit of Springer love. No, not that scratchy tongue on my cheek. But I feel the magic when the people I interview describe their former Springer Spaniels. Our interviews extend far beyond what is required as they share their love for their dogs.  My heart melts. I’m so happy to help them find their next true companion.

I talked to a man in rural Washington who lives alone. He’s not well off, and was a little hesitant to agree to license a dog. We didn’t talk politics. But as he described how much he had loved and doted on the three springers he had owned, we bonded. I discovered, in talking to this man I would have never otherwise known, that we shared one big thing in common: we’re crazy about those dogs.

You may not want a Springer or even a dog. But there may be some area of your life where you can’t have what you want, at least right now.

Could you create a way to have a bit of what you want, if not the whole thing?

The joy of helping others find their dream dog is nourishing me with a taste of what I’m craving: Springer love.

In our over-stuffed lives, we may not be able to fit in everything we’d like to have or do. As we age, we may have to give up stuff that we’ve loved.

But we can still notice what we can have.

I always bend down and talk to the Springers I meet in the park. Sometimes I get my lick.

As the Rolling Stones taught us:

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Today, I have the joy of helping others find Springers.

Even as I still hope, someday, for a new waggy-tailed, drooling-mouthed, addition to my life.

 

Three Little Foxes

What community do you dream of?

 

 

 

Sixty plus years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed about the creation of the Beloved Community.

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and 
this will require a qualitative change in our souls 
as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.”

Beloved Community was built on the idea of inclusiveness, in which people share in the wealth of the earth, and “poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” (From The King Center.)

This past weekend, I traveled to an event to talk about beloved communities, narrowly missing the latest bombshell (literally) of terrible news. How far we still are from a society free from discrimination, prejudice, and racism!

In the beautiful spaces and forested grounds of The Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island, Washington, I attended an event, The Magic of Thriving Communities: Arts, Culture and Deep Listening, sponsored by Thriving Communities. 

I went to listen to stories, and I heard many on the first day of the event. The team of Richard Geer and Qinghong Wei from Story Bridge shepherded us through the process of creating a piece of theatre in a day, based on our stories.

The stories I heard pierced my heart. I heard accounts of discrimination and what gentrification is doing to The Central District, Seattle’s historically black neighborhood.

Pastor Pat Wright, founder of the internationally acclaimed Total Experience Gospel Choir, talked about her fear of losing her home, the only remaining black-owned house left on the block where Pastor Pat has lived for years. Affluenza and Amazonia have taken their toll on Seattle. Neighborhoods are being taken apart and reassembled to match Seattle’s booming new look and many lower-income people are being forced to leave the city.

Where is our Beloved Community?

In an individuated, separated world, problems of gentrification can be set aside if they don’t affect us directly (“that’s too bad, but it’s not about me”) so that we can pursue our busy lives.

But once I’ve heard what these trends are doing to people I care about, my capacity to distance myself dissolves. In each of the three Story Bridge events that I’ve attended, I’ve listened to stories from people very different from me and I’ve fallen in love. Once I begin to carry their stories within me, I drop the distance.

Fortunately, and quite intentionally, throughout the weekend we were buoyed by music, movement, poetry, song, and story. The arts and music opened my heart and made it possible for me to listen to the pain expressed in some of the stories, and still feel joy and find reason for hope.

When Pastor Pat conducted a special performance of The Total Experience Gospel Choir, our meeting room exploded with hope and spirit. I doubt there was a dry eye among us when the room burst forth spontaneously into the “Negro National Anthem.”

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring.
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won…

Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not utopic. One of our group members, Dr. Gus Newport, former mayor of Berkeley, California, knew Dr. King and has spent his long life working to fulfill Dr. King’s vision, working in many diverse communities.

There’s still so far to go.

As for me, as much as I know that action is called for, I am letting new perspectives simmer in me. I don’t have answers.

But I can bear witness.

I’m struggling to comprehend white privilege. White privilege is one of those phenomena that once you start looking for it, you find everywhere. I was blind to how much I took for granted and what a free pass the color of my skin was. Not so much anymore.

[Small detail: as I searched for photos for this post. I googled images of community. Up came lovely photos of circles of hands joined together, all white. This isn’t acceptable–and it hurts.]

But feeling guilty or contrite isn’t what’s being asked of me. Better to spend my precious energy learning about the patterns that keep the Beloved Community at bay.

As one participant said, “You have to see the game.”

Over the weekend, I needed to move, breathe, dance, sing, and join with others to gather the strength I need to face the daily assault of difficult news, while still finding evidence of hope.

I want to keep listening to those whose lives are so different, but still connected, to mine.

How about you? What kind of community are you building? Or dreaming of?

What calls you to act? Witness? Or be?

We all have different paths.

We’re all in this together.

With great thanks to Jerry Millhon, Anne Stadler, Richard Geer, Qinghong Wei and the many others whose commitment and effort created this event. And to my new friends, the participants.

What about your work do you love, love, love…

It’s been a hard week. I lost a bid to do work I was perfect for. Ouch! It’s hard to step back and take a rejection objectively.

A good friend reminded me that losing a proposal bid is rarely personal–but more often about politics and preferences. I later found out that I hadn’t really lost–the organization just decided to do the work internally. But I only learned this after spending a day scraping myself off the floor.

Telling me not to take things personally is like telling a Springer Spaniel not to chase a squirrel. Good advice, but…

On my little spiral down into questioning everything, I began to wonder why I do my work. Fortunately, that night I had an online meeting with a group of three other women, super-talented artist/entrepreneurs. When it was my turn to share, the last thing I wanted to do was talk about my work. Viewing my body language on the computer screen, I saw someone who looked cramped and collapsed, like a moth trying to squeeze her way back into a cocoon.

My voice sounded like I had been swatted. But as I talked about why I thought I would have been so good for the project, I said with some animation, “What I love, love, love about my work is watching people tell their stories in a circle and come alive.”

Bingo. Something happened. I started to come alive. Pepped up. Gestured. Started to fly again.

One of my wise colleagues picked up on this and noticed that my expression, “What I love, love, love…” had helped turn things around.

She suggested an exercise that I pass on to you.

Love, love, love: an exercise

There are days, like the one I just experienced, when asking yourself what you like to do or even love to do doesn’t cut it.

It’s so easy to sound reasonable (yawn.)

But when you ask yourself what you love, love, love to do, you aren’t asking for reasonableness. You’re asking for passion, energy, and sparkle. You’re asking about work that is so irrefutably yours that you would do it without being paid–although hopefully you’ll be paid a lot because you’re so good at it.

This is GREAT practice for writing about yourself or creating an “About” page for your website (see below).

What about your work do you love, love, love?

(I did the exercise thinking about work but you could do it about other areas of your life as well.)

Write it out. If you are unsure about what you’re writing, speak the words out loud and check out the energy. Can you hear excitement?

Gone was the jargon designed to look good. Gone were the words like efficiency, effectiveness, value-added, strategic, or results-oriented. What came to me instead were real examples of working at my best and helping others.

From my list:

  • I love, love, love guiding a group to tell stories and then watching them be moved by each other.
  • I love, love, love helping someone develop a story that leaves her or him feeling proud and competent.
  • I love, love, love helping a team get out of its own way.
  • I love, love, love performing a story and hearing from audience members about how they were moved.
  • I love, love, love watching board members tell stories about why they’re committed to their organization.
  • I love, love, love project-planning on a big, clean whiteboard.
  • I love, love, love supporting someone to take a risk to speak up.
  • I love, love, love writing posts, and seeing the chimp from Mailchimp give me the high five that lets me know the post is on the way to you.

My list goes on, but I’ll spare you.

In describing my work, if  I’m tempted to use a word like empowerment, I think about a specific example and remember the look in someone’s eyes. Thinking about the story always grounds my words.

If you have your own website with an “About” page, this exercise will take you into the heart of what you do and invigorate your copy. Spare yourself the weighty, well-written, important-sounding words I used for too many years. They keep people from feeling your special greatness.

Once you’ve tapped into the energy of love, love, love, you can edit your copy accordingly. You don’t have to include those words to convey the freshness and passion you’ve discovered. People will feel you more.

And remember what they love, love, love about you.

Pause for the light

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

e.e.cummings

How I love the early hints of spring. The sunrise this morning was jaw-dropping, as is the current parade of plants. First came the hellebores, with their downward facing blooms, then the purple and yellow crocuses. Buds appeared on the fruit trees, the forsythia looks like it’s ready to pop, and a few lone daffodils jumped out last night. The daphne has stepped on stage for its starring moment, one that lasts (alas) only a couple of weeks, when it sends me into an intoxicated swoon each time I catch its scent.

Spring is on the way! Let its yearly feast for the senses begin.

In case you missed any recent posts, take a big breath of early spring and enjoy a few:

• Last week, I shared with you news of my great project: a book on creating, working and thriving in the second half of life. (Could we retire retirement?) A number of you shared snippets of your post-midlife adventures (thanks so much) further proving that rumors of our decline are WAY off!

• The week before I wrote about my push-pull relationship to this thing called tidying, albeit tongue-in-cheek, or at least I hope you knew it was tongue-in-cheek. The ultimate guide to tidying (Marie Kondo, you didn’t go far enough).

• Before that, I was thinking of us introverts when I designed a set of camisoles that could greatly help us when we don’t want to talk or be disturbed. What to say when you don’t want to say anything.

• And, if you thrive on giving lots of advice, in early February I wrote  Five Reasons Advice Doesn’t Work and When It Might which, arguably, might have sounded like a piece of advice.

There’s a lot of darkness out there these days. Sharing the light keeps me going–I hope it helps you!

Could we retire retirement?

Did I tell you that I’m writing a book?

Maybe not, because saying I’m writing a book means so little until you actually have a completed draft. But I’m excited about the work and suspect some of you may have ideas to share with me. Besides, I’m a bit obsessed.

The book is about following your calling: working, creating, and thriving as we age past midlife.

I believe we can create a wonderful stage of life if we know how to work with the possibilities it represents.

Nobody told me that the period between fifty and seventy-five, or “the 3rd act of life,” is a time in which we can be more ourselves than ever and thrive as we work and contribute. (Same holds for some of my friends in their eighties.)

Can we retire the word retirement?

I didn’t always understand the potential of working through my sixties and beyond.

When I grew up in suburban Connecticut, I had no clue what I wanted to be–having been told that being a cowgirl wasn’t really a career. However, I knew that at the magic age of 65 someone rang the bell and you stopped working. If you were lucky, you’d be given a gold watch, like the one my Grandfather proudly shared.

Fast forward many years and the word retirement barely makes sense to me.

Why would I want to step away from contributing when I feel wiser, more creative, and more inspired than ever? Not to mention the fact that life didn’t leave me with a big pension to cover the so-called leisure living I see being promoted in magazines.

I’m meeting lots of folks like me who want to keep creating, contributing and working (broadly defined) well past the time the retirement bell was supposed to ring. Even the ones who leave their jobs often sneak back to employment, start businesses, do substantial volunteer work, or follow their creative passions.

In the 3rd act of life, we are older (bodies do creak), wiser (for the most part), and we may not want to keep working in the hyperactive, ambition-filled, ego-driven mode of our thirties. But we haven’t lost our creative drive.

In many of us, there’s still an urge, a longing, a calling that invites us to listen and do the work we are meant to do.

Ignore that longing at your peril–it’s your ticket to vitality and a longer life.

Our new tribe of post-midlifers has an opportunity to reinvent the conversation about working in our later years.

And, it’s about time.

Psssst. Danger. Don’t talk about aging.

There’s such a stigma on aging in our culture that even talking about it puts you at risk. It’s not sexy. People at cocktail parties may run from you. (“That’s very interesting, but I need to go get another gherkin right now.”’)

Our big, fat, cultural myth about the period post-fifty is that it’s about decline. You peak at 50, or maybe it’s 40 or even 35 and it’s just downhill from there. No wonder “aging,” without a positive vision, is a dirty word we want to avoid.

Of course, there’s the counter-myth that you don’t have to grow old or show any of the signs of aging. ($262 billion dollars in anti-aging products support this one.)

I could make millions if….

If I could call my book, Nine Surefire Ways to Stay Young Forever, I’m sure I’d have a hit. Just to be sure, I’d put a wrinkle-free celebrity on the cover and sell millions of copies! (No one needs to know about the repeated facelifts, modified teeth, or PhotoShopping behind her gorgeous portrait.)

I can’t do that. Because it’s fake. We’re all aging. You’ve done it successfully since the day you were born. Denying your age doesn’t keep you from aging, it just prevents you from pondering what the longing deep inside wants to tell you. When you’re in denial, you can’t ask where you’re going, what you really care about, what fills you with meaning and purpose, and how to best use the gifts that come with your age.

Wanting to work, create and contribute doesn’t require staying on the production line, burning ourselves out the way we might have done in our over-amped, adrenalized younger years.

We’re smart. We can choose to invent new ways to work that honor our energy, our bodies, and our knowledge of ourselves. We can let go of thinking we need to change the whole world (alas) and ask what is the one, often small thing we know is ours to do.

What about those employers who still practice covert age-discrimination? Don’t mess with them, if you can avoid them. They have no clue what they are missing. And age-ism? It’s like people discriminating against their future selves because they’ve forgotten that they, too, will hopefully be older some day. Bizarre!

Please share your thoughts

I have a lot to say about this, and that’s why I’m writing a book. Are you with me still? (You may have already gone out for the gherkins.)

Please let me know what you think, or share your personal tale of working, creating and finding meaning in midlife and beyond. I’m collecting stories now.

If you’re younger and already know that you want to work creatively in a wiser, 3rd act way, you can join the tribe.

It’s not age that defines us–it’s an approach to life.

Or, if you’re young and think you can avoid thinking about all this, just remember that you, too, will one day pass midlife. If you’re lucky.