Quote

Happy Valentine’s Day

The next time I’m asked what’s so great about aging, I hope I can remember this. It is excerpted from David Whyte’s Living Together.

“ . . .we hunger for maturity, see it not as stasis

but a form of love. We want the stillness and confidence

of age, the space between self and all the objects of the world

honoured and defined, the possibility that everything

left alone can ripen of its own accord . . .”

 

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Outlaws and Insights: On Reflective Nursing Practice

The faces of illness and death can make us small. As nurses, we become large again at the intersection with others as they experience their own watershed moments. The simple mechanics of doing our jobs allow us to look through windows that open, wide and brief, into others’ lives, providing us great insight into our own. I learn much about interiority in this way.

My own seasonings as a nurse and as a person are inseparable. A defining point occurred in a dilapidated New England farmhouse with a screen door that flapped in the wind. Inside, torn floral linoleum covered a crooked floor. Greasy dishes were piled in a rust-stained sink. The house smelled of chain-saw oil and stale urine. An antique hospital bed, crank missing, was in the center of the room. Clint was young, only forty years old. He existed under the radar of authority. To live outside the law, his wife informed me while I did his Hospice intake interview, required that one must be honest. This family considered themselves outlaws; this family was unflinchingly honest.

Three months later, I pronounced his death. Friends and neighbors gathered in the dooryard, keeping a crude but comforting vigil. It was one part festival, one part wake, and one part street theatre. Singular customs like these distinguished every landmark in the lives of this unconventional, eccentric community.

Clint’s three weary brothers were at his bedside before he died. These were big, tough men, not afraid of much,  yet morose with this dying happening so close to them. They strode through life, hard-drinking, hard-living desperados. Now they stood before death. Quiet. Stunned.

Their armor had failed.

________

But these men knew survival. The success, or failure, of hunting season determined the difference between a fat year for the family and a lean one. They told stories of the long, cramped surveillance from narrow deer stands in the numbing November cold. They could follow a buck’s trail in the woods for miles. They interpreted scrapes and smells. Their heavy bodies were graceful, feet planted carefully to avoid the snap of a twig. They predicted an animal’s behavior and its route. They tracked trails of blood, patches of hair caught on woody shrubs, and hoof prints on damp brown leaves.  The brothers waited for good shots:  a clean kill demonstrated mastery of the craft and respect for the animal, avoiding a slow and painful death. They knew all this deeply. Close to the bone. They read signs and followed inner guidance.

They knew that in his own way Clint had lived and died well.

________

The brothers left, after Clint’s heart stopped, charging the women with the care of the body. A feeling of tribe is associated with doing this work with others, at home.  The air in a room changes when death arrives. A hush is discernible. When death is institutionalized, there is usually a lack, a void.  Respecting the stillness, we women worked quietly together.

Into this pause, this threshold place, sudden gun shots exploded just outside the screen door. I jerked around and saw the three brothers in braced postures, the butts of their rifles gripped hard against their shoulders. Calloused hands, steady, prepared to shoot again. They aimed over the impenetrable far woods, and for a second then a third time the deafening shots pierced the stillness. They slowly lowered their guns. Quiet conversation resumed. The other women and I turned back to our work.

This ragged 3-volley salute from hunting rifles was a raw and eloquent prayer of grief and honoring, a spontaneous eulogy born of one family’s particular way of being in the world. Rich meaning and tradition are elements of every culture.

_________

Nursing often requires doing constant impossibles. Contemplative nursing practice exists as  the underpinning to all dimensions of all care that we provide, wherever we provide it. Reflection and compassionate service hold the potential for us to change lives and to be changed ourselves. Pilgrims, all of us. Together in this land of living and of the dead.

Redemption Poem

This piece spins off from a Ben Huberman Daily Prompt post of January 17. Thank you, Ben! The first part of the question he poses is “. . .when was the last time you wrote something substantive—a letter, a story, a journal entry, etc.—by hand?” This post tells the story of my most memorable writing by hand.

The dark of the moon makes the call more believable, a storm cloud moving slow and inevitable across familiar terrain that suddenly shifts. Jolts.

“Come home. Your grandmother is in the hospital. Heart attack.”

It isn’t really my home anymore and hasn’t been my home for decades, but this time I don’t feel compelled to point it out.

The drive is too long. Vermont roads that usually give comfort or pleasure now simply twist and annoy. The entire State of New York is in the way. Despite the beauty of the Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania goes on forever. On one trip to Ohio, my mother was at the other end, dead. Now my grandmother is gravely ill, perhaps dying. My elders are conceding their ground. Not ready, I protest to the empty passenger seat. I am not ready.

Grandma raised me while my mother worked to support us. “Divorced” was a pejorative in Ohio in the 1950s.

Grandma taught me that you had to be good in order to be loved.

Grandma was a perfectionist.

And Grandma fed me nourishing home-made food, breads and soups and pies. She kept me warm under hand-stitched quilts and hand-made feather-beds. She taught me the value of a dollar and the worth of a bird in the hand, a place for everything and everything in its place. On rocky ledges above Ohio strip pits, Grandma taught me how to hear the floating, haunting voices of the fish. Beneath the grape arbor, she introduced me to life’s incongruencies. I was Annie Oakley and she shelled peas.

When I left home, Grandma wept inconsolably.

When I moved into a commune, she wouldn’t answer my letters.

When I was arrested for political activism, she helped post my bail then took me home and placed me under her own scary version of house arrest.

When I veered off toward addiction, she shamelessly went through my bureau drawers, my backpacks, my closet. She pushed up my long-sleeves-in-the-summer, searching, scrutinizing the soft skin of my forearms for track marks.

When I had my first child, she came to New Hampshire and cleaned my house.

When I had my second child, she came to Vermont and alphabetized my spice rack.

When I left my husband, she snarled at me in alarm and disgust: “You’ll never have a pot to piss in.”

She ironed wrinkles out of $20 bills and sent me one every birthday, every Christmas. She sent the same amount from 1968 until 2004, never thinking to take inflation or food stamps into account. Never forgetting to send the card.

When my kids did poorly in school, she worried endlessly, then sat back against the worn afghan on the back of her couch, folded her arms, tightened her mouth, and conferred the blame entirely on me.

When I came out as a lesbian, she stopped speaking to me entirely and for a very long time.

When I visited her with my partner and my mandolin, she was puzzled: which one of us did the cooking?

When we left the next week, she hugged us both good-bye, then called me back to her door and hissed into my ear, “You’re out of my will. Drive careful.”

She looked at my lifestyle, over and over, but she could hardly see me. She couldn’t sort me out. “How did you get so twisted?” she often asked. It was a question that nagged at her so much that she puzzled over it every time we saw each other. I found the question devastating, and for me the visit often ended in tears, my adult self wilted, my still-child’s heart broken. Twisted. Not a very kind word.

I met my son at the airport, and together we went to the hospital.

She was sitting in a blue recliner, newly transferred from the ICU, watching a game show. I sat on her neat hospital bed, wrinkling the bedspread. But her eyes sparked with utter love. “You look beautiful,” she said. “You look like your mother.”

She looked at my son, awkward, frightened, stoned. “You look so handsome, sweetie. You be a good boy for your mother.”

We stayed with her for an hour, and absolutely no unkind words were spoken, no recriminations made. She pulled out flannel memories from a softened heart and handed them to us with shaky, generous hands.

We promised to come back after dinner to watch Wheel of Fortune with her.

“Pat Sayjak!” she exclaimed. “I love that little Pollack!”  I had to roll my eyes, but she laughed and said how delighted she was to see us, and now she was ready to go home. Of course, she didn’t mean her apartment in elderly housing.

We were eating something fried, standard fare at my aunt’s, when the phone rang, shrill, into the neat suburban house. It was decorated by what wasn’t there anymore. My mother, my uncle, my grandfather. Young cousins, all grown up and gone.

We drove back to the hospital. Grandma was panting, in congestive heart failure. The nurse was putting in a foley catheter. I held her gently by her shoulders, put my face close, looked in her faded blue eyes. Said, “I love you, Grandma.”  She smiled. It was the sweetest smile. She spoke some garbled words. Her eyes closed.

My cousin and I sat vigil with her. Sometime after midnight, I saw her hover above her body, in the rocking chair from my little-girl years. It’s in my bedroom, still. She was half seated, half rising, trying to decide whether to stay or to go.

She died at 4AM.

I went alone to the crematorium the next day. My cousins found the idea peculiar but generally in keeping with what they had come to expect from me. What else was there for me to do but to go on listening to my truth? What else was there to do but to listen with my heart?

I dressed warmly and brought my journal. I sat in a private room in a faded floral easy chair that I dragged across the room so I could be close to her body. It was on a gurney. She still wore the same hospital johnnie that she died in. I could tell from the tiny Betadine stain on the front of it. Her eyes and her lips were shut tight. For a long time I stared at the tiny line of epoxy glue that sealed her mouth.

I sang her favorite hymns, without flinching. I sang songs by the Sons of the Pioneers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, 50s tunes from my childhood. I sang Sinatra, Perry Como. Tony Bennett. Then I sang Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Brokedown Palace:

“Goin’ home, goin’ home / by the waterside I will rest my bones / Listen to the river sing sweet songs / to rock my soul.”

I talked with her body for a while. Mostly I cried. It felt good to be there.

When I stood up to kiss her goodbye, some inner choreography changed. Instead of pressing my lips against her cold forehead, I purposefully placed my journal over her silent heart. Then, holding my own body at such a peculiar angle that, afterward, my back had a crick in it for weeks, I wrote. I filled page after page in my journal, which was supported by the hard surface of the shell of my grandmother’s life.

That day, my own epic redemption poem was born. It sang, it wailed, it witnessed. And it transformed.

The cover of the journal was black.  The figure of a woman, dancing, was etched on it in gold. The binding was big, fat, and spiral so the pages stayed open beautifully. I wrote with a fountain pen, given to me by a dear friend to honor a special occasion.  But to this day I haven’t found it necessary to open that journal ever again, nor to read any of the writing. It has been enough to realize, after all those decades of feeling not enough, not seen nor understood, that my Grandma loved me the very best way that she could, and she loved me so much that she waited while I drove a thousand miles so I could be there when she died.

“What the hell does someone DO that long at the crematorium, Pat?”  My cousins were waiting for me at my aunt’s house. Dinner was ready. I was late, and they were hungry.

I smiled and reached for the deep fried zucchini.

 

 

I am Looking at Blue

 

I am looking at blue, the color of the iced-over earth reflecting the vastness of space and indigo night. Blue, color of the winter ice that surrounds us now, companion to our waking and sleeping, and to everything in between. It glimmers and sparkles and confers such magical stories onto the trees and bushes that I have to blink, sometimes, to make certain what I’m seeing is true. Sometimes Truth is hard to see, especially when it’s in your own back yard, especially when it’s beautiful, especially when it could be dangerous.

The ice saturates the branches and twigs, burying the buds that will explode with life in the spring. Blue, the color of life receding, burrowing back into subterranean layers, surrendering to inexplicable rhythms, complex in their own patterns as is the night sky. Underneath, there is deepening, a silent infusion of essence. This is what happens in the long nights in the dark time of the year.

Something is speaking to me in my dreams.

In the morning, when the sun rises and lends its truth to the ridgeline, the golden, silver glowing begins a transformation that will stay with us all day but will never give up its solstice season color of throbbing cold, ice-blue. Life sleeps and dreams deep in the earth, and invites us to hibernate, too.

And I am pondering this throbbing cold, this ice, this blue.

The Good Neighbor Thing

Coming-out stories come in all shapes and sizes. When my friend Joanne came out in her late 30s, it was a pretty lonely affair.  She came out as a lesbian feminist, and there was a general lack of affection in the broader lesbian community for this identification. She didn’t know many women in town in any case. There were several lonely months, lots of self doubt and second-guessing, before Joanne felt welcomed and comfortable. In telling this story later, she shakes her head, dismayed, still a little puzzled, but with an intact sense of humor: “I really thought someone was going to show up at my door, sort of like a gay welcome wagon, with a reading list and a loaf of bread and friendship.”

Starting to blog is a little like that. This assignment offers a remedy. Here are some sites that I have been drawn to and/or that have particularly welcomed me:

With powerful photographic images and penetrating words, Treothe is immersed in the ecopoetics of the Pacific Northwest in his blog, Tree Oathe — Fresh Ancients of Cascadia & Beyond, that can be found here.  There is  an especially incisive post in his writing category, using the story of Ferguson as an allegory to the state of our communities, comparing it with a case of lethal domestic abuse:  http://treeoathe.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/witness-to-ferguson-state-of-our-family/

Elspod writes creatively on a variety of topics, some whimsical, some serious, all very well crafted. She imagines a spectacular send-off for Robin Williams–one he deserved, one more fitting to the humor and magic that he shared so generously with the world. Her blog, Be Amazing, is found here.

talesbytink is another excellent, creatively written blog. Her muse is a mermaid. An  evidently brilliant mermaid. She is committed to developing her craft of writing, and her posts have substance and depth.  Find her here.

Wendy Barron is a spirited writer with a rich creative life. She has a love for all things literary and an aversion to housework. You can find her over here.

I declare this the blog equivalent to the Gay Welcome Wagon thing that my friend Joanne missed. It’s true that making positive connections strengthens the fabric of our communities. Whatever and wherever they might be.

Lise’s, Montreal. Blogging 101, day 9

43fbfc4ac5c4fdda2405f42d8430ad57A professor and friend of mine lives and writes in Montreal. Her brick row-house faces a green urban park. The street is lined with trees, and parking is impossible. The view from the sidewalk, all along the street, is of cats on window-sills and container gardens flourishing in the sun.

Ah, but it’s the view out the kitchen window that enchants me. Those back windows look out over a maze of complex courtyards, paintings of rich detail: a cat’s-cradle of clothes-lines that fly work clothes on Monday morning and billowing worlds of sheets sailing later in the week; back-yard balconies with routine performances by mops and brooms and the wild shaking of throw rugs. There are magic flying carpets floating in the hot glimmer of a summer afternoon; fairies conducting their fairy-business beneath the drenched leaves of a June downpour; early morning children, Saturday night couples, and Sunday solitary women.

Inside, a rich world of books suggests a lifetime affair with words and ideas. I smile. It’s like walking into another time, into a crowded back-alley bookshop where communicants seeking shelter from the rain are announced by the shallow tinkling of a delicate bell positioned over a carved wooden door.

Then all my whimsy vanishes, stopped short in the presence of shelves bearing the heavy weight of discourse from those formidable French feminists.