The End: Honoring Death, Pain, Disease and Decay

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

Over the past year, I have been faced with some disheartening news about my cat Freckles, my sole consistent companion since I was in college. He was diagnosed with kidney disease and has been relatively healthy up until about a month ago. Since then, I have watched him lose weight, his coat become oily and unkempt and his insistence upon water out of a dripping faucet much more physical in urgency. Most days, he sleeps in the bathtub, possibly to be closer to water and the promise thereof.

While he continues to eat and enjoy attention, I see his movement toward the inevitable end and have found myself avoiding talking or thinking about it. Being such a vet-phobic and nervous kitty, frequent trips to the clinic produce additional stress on his compromised system and result in him not eating for a day, staying well hidden until he realizes I am not taking him anywhere again. At 16 years, he has aged into the upper level of life expectancy – a senior boy who has had a great life. So why is it so hard to accept his mortality?

While the veterinarian continues to recommend IV therapy, it is costly and would add more stress on Freckles, who is otherwise still purring and getting around. Yes, it might buy him a few more months, weeks or days, but for whom? I wonder if our insistence on extending the lifespan of our pets, despite their pain and lack of quality of life, is simply a reflection of our intense fear of death and decay, of loneliness and release.

Pain is a necessary aspect of being alive. While spending billions every year on prescribed pain and mood management drugs, cosmetics, legal and illegal mind-altering substances, surgeries and other therapies, we have lost touch with the necessity of being aware of our body and our health. I am not advocating for a return to the pre-anesthesia medical model or denying ourselves the treatment of diseases; however, I am advocating that a little bit of pain during emotional hurt, loss and the disease and death process is actually good for us and for those witness to these processes.

Without pain and discomfort, we lose the opportunity to strengthen sinew and spirit. We lose our evolutionary advantage of adaptability. We weaken ourselves mentally because we become used to being in a maintained “false state” where we are not under any sort of perceived threat, even though we are, of course, really susceptible to our own demise. This delusion of mastery over age, health and life is carefully managed through our current medical and behavioral health models.

When we hurt, naturally we want to take action to remove or relieve the cause of hurt. We learn something about our physical being, our surroundings and the threat that caused the hurt. We may internalize this as a lesson and avoid such situations in the future. We may even pass something on to our children, resulting in the next generation acquiring more information for survival. We gain an understanding of what we like and what feels good by these elements being juxtaposed against what we do not like, what is dangerous or what feels bad.la loba

By synthesizing pleasure and anesthetizing pain, how far will we go to strike a perpetual state of feeling good? And, will our willingness to adapt, grow and act as our own teacher and advocate against those who are managing our pleasure and pain states wane? As animals, we function best when we are fully engaged in controlling our bodies, minds and emotions. When we subvert our survival instincts – if by only even minute levels – we allow the state and corporations to take away our right to experience and express pain through illness, disease, aging and death.

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional… er, sorry – also inevitable.

In most Eastern religions, suffering is seen as something akin to the human condition. Even the sages and bodhisattvas experience some suffering. Through meditation and study, reducing our human tendency to form attachments and expectations encourages a reduction in the frequency in and severity of suffering. Generally speaking, suffering is perceived as a given state of being aware of and in resistance to a life that will most certainly end.

Suffering can be a part of the human experience that enhances our life – after all, if we did not greatly grieve the loss of a loved one, how might our depth of love be altered? Is the fact of finality not an aspect of intense love, pleasure, communion and affection that allows us to have these feelings?

I was raised in a Baptist church and as a child I recall being intensely frightened of the idea that when I died, I would go to Heaven – you know, Paradise – where I would live FOREVER. I remember thinking about the enormity of what would never end, what would be an unending amount of time, drifting in an Elysian Field never to arrive at any destination – just eternally blissed out. That scared the hell out of me! How can something never end, I thought. It went against what my body knew as truth. How boring, to live forever in the same state. I like an ending to anything, even orgasmic rapture. I consider that child, so afraid of manufactured happiness, to hold the key.

If we are always avoiding pain, nullifying our aches and using any means (including enlightenment) to subdue the reality of our demise, what will we miss as individuals, families and societies? Where will our rites go, and how will we recognize a life well lived  if there is a struggle to maintain a baseline of absolute balance?

Dying is painful. The body decays and then shuts down, but not without discomfort. Is this an abhorrent thought? Learning to let go to the transition of any loss and fully experience that ache is the fulfillment of the life cycle. Even if we personally seek to avoid pain, what are we denying our peers to witness, honor and move through to cultivate their own wisdom and understanding?

The bodies of the ill are sequestered away in institutions where we sterilize and anesthetize. While machines hum and bland art hangs on ultra-white walls – where everyone speaks in hushed tones with serious looks and padded shoes, we fall to sickness and death. When we die, we are dressed in suits we loathed to wear in life, made up with rouge that would offend Dolly Parton and are propivped in silk, posed like some fly pinned beneath glass. When my grandfather died, I thought he looked like a stranger. Where was the garden dirt, the disheveled hair, and why did he smell like baby powder and not tobacco and sweat? This was a man of the earth, not the air, to be pomp and pretense. This was a very real man, not to be belittled and made into some digestible piece of fiction. He died, and we gathered in denial of what is so difficult for the living to accept.

Life is alive on the nerve endings, on the shallow breath of  fight or flight and the mating call and mourning song. Being fully aware is frightening. A broken limb or a gash to the skin, and we cannot escape our body-limitations. Pain can be a teacher. Pain makes us soft to the hearts of others, aware of our own sweetness and fragility. In addiction, watch how that light dims. The addict is a perfect example of pain avoidance. We penalize the addict for doing the very thing we want to do: anesthetize.

My old cat may be in pain. He still holds a fire in his eyes, a curiosity and enjoyment of sitting by the window watching birds. To deny him his life / death process would be vanity and selfishness. It hurts to watch our loved ones transition and experience pain, but pain is in itself not bad. I have watched animals take their last few breaths, with broken bones along desolate, winter highways. Still, there was nothing in them that said they’d prefer to be dead before that last breath was ready to leave them. As living creatures, we want to live. Mercy killing is insulting and unjust. Life leaves the body when it is ready. We spare others and ourselves the experience of transition and a reverence for the dying process by intervening prematurely.

The last time I visited Indiana, I spent some time talking to my grandfather and other ancestors at their grave sites near a beautiful cornfield lined by oak trees. In my hand, I held the written prayers of wind, dirt and laughter – seeds I threw into the June windstorm. I know their transitions – some of them painful, some of them prolonged – were beautiful aspects of their life narratives. Their endings, the way they transitioned and even the diseases that facilitated the end to their lives, all comprised the next generation and what we have to learn – to struggle against – and to embrace. Ultimately, I live the song of suffering as much as the song of happiness. I wish no less for you.

Making Work a Conscious Act

elite-daily-stripper-pole-girl

I have had many jobs in my life. I have scrubbed toilets, bussed tables, sold trinkets, stripped and posed for an 80 year old sculptor. I have been a business owner; I have been a corporate drone. Perhaps my most important role, however, has been as a nonprofit professional, raising money for a myriad of good missions over the years. Still, looking back, I do not associate any of these roles with who I am as a human, nor would I have passed up the chance to quit any given job to pursue a life of exploration, learning and spiritual growth.

There is no job or career I have taken on that supplants my desire to run, to move, to wander this world with an inexhaustible curiosity no career could ever sate. I simply do not believe in career or job as being something natural to us. Work is of course a part of being alive. We work to eat, keep warm, find a mate and gain security… but work was never meant to consume us in such a structured manner of identity and value. The need to work would often arise with the need for outcome. Spontaneity, chance and flexibility revolved around the perils and payoffs of work – reward or lack thereof. As we formed community, roles were assigned, but again, work was the basis of an outcome and not a descriptor with false value and meaning assigned per se, until we began to move into such a context.

From industrial perils to blue collar masses to college-fresh degree holders entering into the career world, we have replaced the elements of work that make it work with fantasies of identity, power and prestige. Work no longer produced only results = i.e. food, house, car; work became our pinnacle form of identity and pride. Academic institutions pushed the new “educated worker” with the mantra of a more enlightened nation and a workforce of specialists, making higher wages. In fact, the past 80 years have funneled us into believing that we can earn our worth. This philosophy assumes that our worth is based on monetary gain, academic success, or – in the case of many conditioned women – our ability to work someone else’s gain.

The problems inherent in this phony empire of career pomp are becoming more apparent as the disparity of classes and make-believe markets are creating deeper gouges in the fabric of this economic dreamscape. But I am not writing about the current fiscal crisis and profound inequity between classes. Ultimately, what I argue is why must we even subject ourselves to this?

As someone who grew up in rural lower middle class/poverty Americana, I was – despite being a bright and relatively good student – encouraged to find a job at one of the local factories in our mid-sized community. On a positive day, my guidance counselor might have suggested community college. You see, poor, rural folks were to be tailored for industry. This was the early 90s – not the early 1900s.

Thankfully, my stubborn gene kept me from succumbing to limited suggestions, and I left the small town and traveled throughout North America, working various odd jobs to support me as I wrote and experienced a multitude of places I thought I might need to see: Seattle, Boston, New York, LA… and the plethora of tiny burgs full of artists and writers, weirdoes and geeks. My life living paycheck to paycheck felt normal – I existed day-to-day and actually don’t recall worrying about the next source of income, whether I’d have a savings account or if I could afford to fly back to Indiana when my 1980 Honda hatchback (with its still working 8-track player) finally and stubbornly gave in to the auto graveyard.

Of course, this story does not serve to advocate the life of the young vagabond to those who want to have kids and settle in to some kind of community. Perhaps the sheer fact of youth and curiosity led to me to this pathway, but I am most certainly happy I took this course and started the ebb of wanderlust at a time most appropriate for passage into adulthood.cubicle

This story, however, is not a moral fable about lessons that lead one to buy that house, that car, that oceanfront property. This story is about someone who has decided to leave every myth behind entirely. For me, success comes through community, creativity and self-expression. I don’t care if I if I ever own the latest gizmo x, y or z. I want the kind of life that distinguishes perceived need versus impact. I want the kind of freedom that doesn’t require upgrading product every year.

Now, I can hear you screaming, “Luddite!” at the top of your lungs, but what I am advocating is not an elimination of technology, but rather a moderation of reliance upon such. There are always vast benefits in being able to communicate and learn globally, relate to new scientific advances and build social activism on a level never once achievable. However, just as with any other product or outlet, we can reduce  blind adherence to buying these tools when we view them as tools and not an extension of worth. Any time I have worked with teens and early adults, I have witnessed the incredible social impact of owning the latest tech toy or cell. It truly is brand talking and not necessarily need or advancement of intellect or action.

Getting back to work… there are many choices at hand for those seeking more fulfillment in life and moving away from the 8am-6pm dregs. Some suggestions to reduce economic enslavement are as follows:

1. Outline what you want

As a survivor of domestic violence, this obvious fact-finding process was very arduous until I was able to honor the internal. Before any of us can begin to manifest work as an expression, we must know Self and our subsequent values, ethics and hopes. Make a list of your deepest, most purposeful intentions to begin.

2. Adjust your habits

Ah, this is where action comes into play. Many of my dissociative habits – such as drinking and running – were counterproductive to the life I outlined and the beliefs I held close. What habits do you allow to run the show? How do your habits prevent you from engaging in your life and the life you desire?

3. Resist fear

I recently heard from a wise female friend how she made a decision to stop the “scary movies” she was playing in her mind. I connected to this on an intuitive level – my life was almost held hostage by potential horrific scenes of future atrocities. In order to manifest something new, we can maintain a state of mind that receives the energy of the day and resists future posturizing.

4. Reach out and accept

Reaching out and forming community, as well as getting sage wisdom regarding our chosen paths, are essential elements to growth and moving into a work that truly meets our soul-needs.

Allow yourself the guidance to listen, learn and apply.

5. Pass it along

When the time is right, pay it forward! Think of the myriad ways you have been told, “no” and pass the gifts of independence to others.

When I think about the ongoing theme of dissuasion from my true talents and calling, I am even more motivated to help others cultivate a path that honors their values, beliefs and talents. Work – that is, the stuff we do to attain housing, food and security – need not become our primary purpose. Work can be supplemental, but our paths and expressions can be aligned with our life at large. Purpose is so different from work. Purpose transposes talents with communal benefits and blesses us beyond measure.

It is a true gift to begin to look at the quality of one’s life, even in dire economic or health circumstances. Open to the possibilities inherent in each day and remain a student – the world needs more iconoclasts, willing to bridge the pressures of society while supporting the ideologies related to independent thought, action and path.

Beasts we Know

beast

“Even if she be not harmed, her heart may fail her in so much and so many horrors; and hereafter she may suffer–both in waking, from her nerves, and in sleep, from her dreams.”
― Bram Stoker, Dracula

“The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day
And by night rants and rages at the stars
God help the beast in me”
― Johnny Cash

In the story, the girl with blue eyes saves the terrible beast with love. The two are separate: the beauty and the beast, lightness and darkness. On polar ends we place them. We grow up believing this pair of opposites exists outside – we paint ourselves with those blue eyes, with that saving, sacrificing heart…

And watch those other beasts, and wait for love…

Both men and women grow up believing in the myth of the good rescuer: the one to subterfuge, to tame the mean beasts of the world. From the time we are able to understand words, the concept of “good” and “bad” – “yes” and “no” – are firmly reinforced through language and consequential behavior. Sometimes we ascribe the light and dark to genders, particularly when we are raised in a family where strict gender roles are performed – mommy is good and daddy is bad, for example, or where parents refrain from sharing the role of disciplinarian.

For those of us who grew up on farms or in very rural environments, nature provided more of a balance between a life of two extremes – in the wild, joy and pain intermingle. Animals are born and die. The spring brings new growth and winter brings closure. The injured and sick suffer, yet they continue to struggle to live and to heal. There is no such thing as mercy, or mercy killing. Death doesn’t always come swiftly or easily. Predators sometimes make it quick – sometimes drag out the suffering. Our humanity wants to intervene of course, label life with all sorts of adjectives. But it is only in us that these two separate entities: good and bad, grapple. Fundamentally, life is at work – opening and closing; opening and closing. There is an incredible teacher in this – beyond the use of words or written curricula.

For many of us, and especially as we become more and more urban, those original teachers become human and manmade. And, as we know, people experience the world through the lens of perceived reason, categorizing experience and inviting pleasure/avoiding pain. Our images of Self and Other are wrought with positive and negative narratives where the internal, or the core, is frightening, devouring… we avoid the internal discomfort of our realities, the multilayers of happenings and stimuli that cannot be understood but through the poorly formed, receptive external Self. When we cannot bear to even look at our external Self, we focus on others.

When pain comes to us, do we meet it? Or, do we chase it away and hope to deceive others or ourselves?

I’m okay, we say… while in the dark, in our hearts, we are not. We continue our hard bargains and distance from anyone and anything that might know or expose these deceits.

I have noticed the most critical among us will neurotically focus on the shortcomings (hypercriticism) and victories (envy) of those around them. Their beast becomes the external world. His or her “faults” are always theOld Woman_jpg result of what is wrong with someone else or the world. They cannot love and accept what they see in the mirror, and do not even know the core Self.

There are those, too, whose sense of self becomes so integrated in saving the beast, they no longer exist except within the boundaries of the beast and his/her recovery. They are the pop-psych co-dependents. They love the prisoners, the addicts, the abusers… they hang on the dear thread of hope until there is no fiber of happiness. And yet, they would be… so happy, so happy… if they could only get the other to be free….

Then there are the submerged – the ones who dance with the inner beast and rarely come up to surface. They are the true loners, the shape shifters, the shamans. They are the rare. Even when we believe ourselves to be them, we are likely but a glimpse. The submerged are antithetical to humanity and are but a minute percentage of those who walk between the veil of here and elsewhere.

In the end story, the girl with the hopeful hold … and beast with the seething ache…

One of the preeminent challenges we face is self-awareness. Beyond present moment awareness, true self-awareness is perhaps more important. Self awareness doesn’t just end with the touchy-feely aspects of our current state, but reaches into our ugliest selves, the pimpled, scarred, wounded, raging, abusive aspects of us and says, “Yes, there you are.” If done with humility,this exploration may even inspire change, but only when these aspects are truly acknowledged and welcomed.

monster

There is a monologue I return to in a movie called The Big Kahuna (screenplay by Roger Rueff), when Phil Cooper, played by Danny DeVito, has a candid conversation with another up-and-coming, ambitious sales rep about facing oneself, totally….

“I’m saying you’ve already done plenty of things to regret, you just don’t know what they are. It’s when you discover them, when you see the folly in something you’ve done and you wish that you had it to do over, but it’s too late. So you pick that thing up and carry it with you to remind you that life goes on, the world will spin without you, you really don’t matter in the end. Then you will gain character because honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself across your face.”

The reality is, the process of facing our “beast” is lifelong. Each time we believe we have etched his face in our mirror, new images manifest in the fog. Truth telling is a lifelong endeavor. It does not end with one story, one beast saved. It reaches into us, again and again, and calls out yet another monster until we learn that both beasts and beauties make good and necessary bedfellows.

Puppies and the Art of Acceptance

puppy-chewing-rug

Over the summer, in some bizarre, masochistic state of mind, I decided it would be a good idea to take on the responsibility of caring for a puppy. As a former foster mom to a host of canines of all breeds and temperaments, I was cognizant of the challenges a young pup would entail. In some kindly moment of sentimentality, I referred back to Lily at 12 weeks and recollected her sweet spirit and how she endeared herself to me immediately. Assuming she was too young and weak to create much havoc, she entered my life as a reminder that the small indeed are mighty. Lily was perhaps the hardest dog I have ever trained, yet one of the brightest. I am sure many teachers and parents can nod their heads in a unanimous understanding of those most precocious of students.

Lily is now 1 year and 10 months old and is still ever defiant. I have come to accept that the rules that are most important – such as where to “potty” and to stay within eyesight of me on a trail – she follows. Everything else depends on her mood. As with any aware, intelligent, sentient being, she is who she is. Neko (the tot in question) proved to be much more trainable, although nonetheless intelligent. Perhaps it was her upbringing – a round-up stray, she probably never knew the cushy comforts of indoor beds, bowls of food, and saccharine humans to dote on her. She was born slightly feral, outdoors always, and learned – as any animal – that her survival depended upon modeling the behaviors needed to avert predators and ensure food, water, and the comfort of being a part of a pack. She immediately set to work observing Lily, mimicking some of her habits – both desirable and, well, less than. She instinctively knew where to go “potty” and watched me carefully for clues as to how she fit in to our small pack.

This post, however, is less about puppies and more about acceptance. Some might call it radical acceptance. What occurred to me, and has occurred to me in some less than articulate ways in the past, are the lessons that puppies provide. Most would agree patience must be practiced with any young animal, humans included. Patience has indeed come into play, or my lack thereof. Patience is something with which I have struggled in dealing with the various foibles of humans, but never seemed to be an issue with all these puppies. Every time an accident happened or a disruption or bad behavior, I just rolled with it and acted in the moment, taking care of whatever needed to be done, then releasing any feelings about it within seconds. This is not a process I practice with humans. When humans behave – by my definition – badly, I get angry, hurt, and run through a panorama of emotions that all boil down to my expectations of how they should have responded/behaved and how their behavior somehow reflects something in me, rather than just something the other person chose to do, hurtful or not. It then occurred to me as an epiphany on the a chorus of baroque angels:

 Patience comes when one allows oneself the humility of releasing expectations.

This seems obvious enough. Well, most of us know that we should keep an open mind… Thou shalt not judge, the man in the sky commands. Karma, some say, will take care of all injustice. The new age movement sincerely believes that we simply attract both good and bad by the energy we put forth.

I won’t get in to my personal feelings about the above, only to say that, while it’s a nice embroidered sentiment, letting go of expectations is hard. Brutally hard.

In fact, it is counter-intuitive, or counter-instinctive. As animals, we are in a constant state of outmaneuvering others to ensure the protection of our loot, our booty, our ranking… this physical state of competition is sometimes outpaced by our mental competition, which devises all sorts of psychological and behavioral machinations that make us prone to anxiety, suspicion, stress… and thus, adrenal overload. So, of course, in this stew of motives and skullduggery, we formulate plans, and plans rely on speculation.

 We must make an effort to avoid forming expectations. A lifelong effort.

I’d say most of us – somewhere along our timeline – have experienced some form of betrayal, a hurt, a wounding we have yet to really “get over”. Our natural response, rightly, is to be better prepared, anticipating any similar clues for future harm. We know this is futile. It is impossible to mind read or foresee every possible scenario before it occurs; yet we all are guilty of participating in this game of assumptions, whether innocently or pathologically.

It takes infinite focus to allow ourselves to ease only into the moment that happens right after the next, then the next, then… It takes a monk’s discipline to be so aware of the delight and innocence occurring in each experience that we are re-creating ourselves in every new moment. There is immense courage in this. You lose the drive to be mentally engaged in survival mechanisms and begin to transcend those primal urges to compete. You simple wake up. Then wake up again.

Some call this seeing through child’s eyes.

Some call this the opening of the lotus.

Zen.

The cloud of unknowing.

Some call it a hell of a lot of hard work.

{That last someone would be me.}

 When I am playing with a puppy, though, it doesn’t seem so hard. There’s forgiveness, a softening in me that arises. I feel it when I walk through the woods, or watch the light change in the desert. Maybe, rather than being at the mercy of fear, it is being at the mercy of joy. Perhaps finding more joy, rather than swimming upstream against our nature, is the path of least resistance.

Fully accepting we are in a predator’s body takes a lot of chutzpah. We are animals that rather like to think of ourselves as bearers of reason and goodness, and lash out against those we deem to fall short of, or stray from our paradigm of right. There’s so much freedom, however, in moving between moments. Joy expands and radiates. Joy commands a full attention, but with the rich, wonderful taste of being alive. Joy doesn’t have time for wondering if someone learned his or her lesson, or if justice has been served. Joy doesn’t have need for quid pro quo. Joy is being fully aware that the act of acceptance is in itself the first and last poem.

Live Each Moment…

 

 

Perhaps it is the two-day stomach flu bug that brings to mind mortality? Whatever the cue, I have been thinking about the cliché expression, “Live each moment as if it were your last” and realizing the absurdity and glibness inherent in this concept.

If I were to live each moment like it was my last, what would I do? I can start by telling you what I wouldn’t do:

  1. sit in an office
  2. listen to people I think are full of crap
  3. pick up dog poop
  4. pay bills
  5. feel obligated
  6. drive the speed limit
  7. worry
  8. argue

The list goes on and on. If it were my last – very last – moment, I would probably spend it somewhere under a canopy of cottonwood trees with people I love. Now, before you tell me I am being too literal, I point to the obvious number of references to “last moments on earth” with movies like the Bucket List and songs – sad, country saccharine songs – such as Live Like You Were Dying. Both follow the same conclusion that – given each moment was akin to our last – we would do the extreme, adrenaline-rush stuff we normally shy away from but secretly fantasize about. And, we do fantasize about final days in the arms of secret lovers, pirates, pilots and poets (consider the millions of dollars we spend on these themes)… Or we fantasize about being in those roles: of power, of intrigue, of mystery.

Maybe therein lies the crux of this quandary: Fantasy.

I once read a wonderful quote by a German author (whose name escapes me) that goes something like, “Before we can change the nature of our reality, we must change the nature of our fantasies.” I read this quote back when I lived out most of my fantasies in a reckless cacophony of bar music and road trip soundtracks. I did not live for much more. I had experienced life devoid of happiness, and with the most modest flicker of hope, and I was more than intent to live each moment FULLY and completely. But, I wasn’t happy, and I am not sure those moments – while sensual, reckless, or adrenaline-rich – were meaningful, other than in the life lessons they provided. My fantasy of happiness was a myth made in the lonely room of a lonely young woman. I had no basis of how to live the moment. I lived a fantasy day, a mirage on the sands of my twenties. My moments were blurred out, distinguished only by passing time.

I now am 38. I have bills, responsibilities, a job, a husband… a yard from which to pick up dog poop and lots of people to listen to, for whom I have little interest or respect. These annoying burdens in life seem to be experienced by all of us who decide to live something more than our own fleeting mirage of fantasy freedom. Of course, it is not all dreary and not all jobs are created with the capitalist system in mind… better than a job; some have a place, a purpose. With these responsibilities come the rewards, or outcomes. A house and yard, or a yurt, or a caravan will provide a nest, a place to raise kids or animals, and give shelter to a family of people who gather there. A spouse becomes one’s dearest, most cherished friend and ally. A job – like my own – can become a source of connection to other missions, people and concepts. Purpose provides the means by which we navigate our role in the world. But it isn’t fantastic, and it isn’t always something we would choose to do in our final hours.

More than fantasy and adventure, and more than structure and function, we simply need the space and willingness to be. How many of us ever, when asked, “What are you doing?” respond with a heartfelt, confident: “Nothing.” We suffer from an addiction to function and purpose, and when not engaged in function and purpose, we are defining our function and purpose either through colloquial dialog or in some mental health / pop psychological way.

So in the last moments… how would I be? What would I want?

There is no answer to that question, of course. The reality is most of us spend a lifetime being busy and, when we reach a point of sickness or very old age, we simply do what we have been doing all along, what we know, what we find comfort in doing until we can no longer do it. Then we go. I will no doubt do the same.

If there’s a soundtrack for this path of least resistance, I think it would be understated, modest and beautiful. The memory of a child’s voice, the sound of oak leaves moving under a slow, spring wind, the breath of our beloved dog at the foot of the bed, crickets near a lake, piano practice, the one we love making coffee. This is the music of moment. This is the way we live them out, one by one, each moment, until we are done.

Solitude: Not a Love Story

Over the past year, I have developed a keen interest in literature that speaks to the topic of solitude. Being married to an archaeologist and also being an introvert has given me ample space for quiet contemplation. Summer 2011 was spent exploring much of the northern half of Arizona, often in an attempt to escape the 115 degree summer days Phoenix so nefariously offers. Since my schedule was spent managing various contracts, I found myself with odd patches of mid-week travel time when companions couldn’t join me in my travels. Suffice all of this to say, I was alone often.

If you have read any of the trendy solitude books and themed blogs, you will find that they – for the most part – present solitude in two phases. The first is the comedic realization of solitude ( ie the city to country transition, the odd encounters with new places and people, the wilderness snafus or wildlife bandits, etc.) and the second, and perhaps conclusion to the former, is the phase that I am going to focus on which presently has me stumped, the grand, sweeping, Muir moments of divine connection to self and place. And, to dredge up show tunes, how they present themselves “in the most delightful way”.

I would like to think, in my own bumbling, flawed manner,  I, too, shall one day be singing show tunes and having Muir visit me in epiphanies in cabins on mountaintops. But my foray with solitude has been anything but pretty. Powerful? Yes. Challenging? Yes. But not necessarily peaceful in its starts and stops. And not ideal in process or results.

Each excursion into the forests and canyons has been met with mental la brugas: the mean medicine, fairy tales, nightmares, and – perhaps an adult’s biggest enemy – memories. Never the quiet easement into aloneness, my journeys have felt like  immediate emotional landslides, long tumbles into the crevice of habit and heartbreak where skeletons bang around the edges of experience, demanding, always demanding…

The fact is: solitude includes time with me, myself, the awful “I”. No people are needed. These aspects of self crowd in and gaze, point, cry, scream and sometimes sit silently, waiting for me to get comfortable with some space or sense, then emerge strong, demanding… They are, in fact, the crowds I thought I was escaping by leaving known territory and venturing into solitude.

Where was the beautiful transition into peace?

Where were the epiphanies with Muir and Thoreau singing in my ear, those buddies in isolation and nature?

Rather than finding a voice or having a creative experience, I simply witnessed the beauty around me, moved a lot, and avoided the internal dialogue and chaos as much as possible. The more chaotic, the more demanding the internal became, in fact, the more determined I was to drown it out. “I am here to be HERE, dammit! Go away!” But the internal crowding continued, despite intense hiking, a six-pack, or thunderstorm, the demands kept coming until I was so exhausted from my own company, I had to get away from myself.

To the city. Ah, the city… where so many distractions simply overwhelmed that damn internal group of hangers-on. To the city, where I pretended my solitude experiences were meaningful in some way. Until now.

What occurs to me most about solitude and experiencing solitude is that there is a vast difference between selective solitude – often taken in timely chunks – and imposed or accidental solitude, often not intentional or purposeful but more sustained and sincere. Creating solitude is theatre. Imposed solitude is truly where the proverbial rubber meets the road. In its extreme form, we might imagine jail time or a POW camp. Thankfully, I have not experienced either of those forms of solitude where solitude is but one of many concerns. Solitude might include months of work abroad, or moving to a new place without a companion. This was how my less-than-intentional isolation came into being.

Recently I relocated to a small town in the far southwest corner of Colorado, near Mesa Verde (a beautiful area of canyons, high desert, green pastures and mountains). I was offered a stellar job with a wonderful small business. I accepted. I knew, given the fact that both my husband John and I have careers and a home in Phoenix, there would be an extended period of separation until he found a job and a tenant or buyer (whichever came first, and neither particularly easy). I arrived in Colorado as a baby bird out of the nest, meeting the ground with a hard thud… a little gnarly and featherless, but ready to move on. Somehow I held hope that – magic thinking, mind you – John would arrive soon after. Both John and I have been wanting out of Phoenix for a while now, so the move was what we envisioned for the future, but certainly not seemless in its execution.

As a wanderer, I have had experiences with solo travel and even moving to new lands. However, I don’t think I had emotionally prepared for being a stranger in a strange land again, and no longer in my fearless twenties.  I have one of those personalities that make me shy with those I should feel most comfortable, and comfortable with total strangers, ramblers like me. It didn’t take me long to make conversation with the eccentric locals, but at day’s end I was quick to crawl back into my den and ponder the fact that my husband would be away for weeks and no friends were near enough to fill my time. Every little household problem became monstrous (funny, how one gets used to having another to share household trouble-shooting with) and the nights loomed long and quiet.

So here I sat in a new house. In a new town. With no identity other than the one I claim and believe exists.

Enter in the host of goblins, the mischief makers of memory and habit… My idea of solitude always included the space and creative energy for writing, painting… you know, all of the things we try to make room for but cannot because we work like crazy Americans. So when I am gifted temporary solitude (not of my choosing entirely), what happens? I clean. I worry. I make lists of tedious tedium only the most compulsive among us would appreciate, let alone enjoy. Out come the jerks of my own creation: anxiety, what if scenarios, paranoid ideas about the things that could happen. An awful word: could.

Yes, I longed for those romantic evening writing fests, the wind softly blowing and the moon glowing through the cracked curtains, or philosophizing at a clear lake with a journal and the sound of owls in the distance. Yes, I longed for creativity to sieve itself out of my heart, brain or soul, depending on one’s definition, and work its magic.

But what I got was paralyzing self-examination and litanies of fear statements. When my brain got tired of these, I was left with an exhaustion so enormous I could have slept for days. Sometimes I did. And, then, the remarkable part: something transpired that makes me feel OK… safe, even. And then, a little more… until – yes, yes – there it is! I am a bit happy. I find my feet. I find others. I leave solitude behind in its eternal cancer ward. I return to the previous state of movement and occupied mental state – the interruptions, the calls, the family responsibilities – but a little more appreciative, self-aware, and … determined to forgo the need to push out the world to know what lies within.

I have always known I have tremendous strength. I have felt and used my tenacity many times in horrible places, where isolation was no option of my choosing. I don’t need Muir to point out the strength of spirit that is possible. What I did lack, however, was the awareness that happiness cannot be found chasing solitary confinement in some literary fantasy of such. No. Happiness is a product of familiarity, something I never would have wanted to believe, but continue to find its truth. Solitude is simply a byproduct of being alive. We endure it, we may even harness its energy at times, but to be happy is to leave the goblins of what ifs of our own internal drama and to remove our gaze from navel – to gaze deeply into the world.

Un-Schooled: Valuing What No One Else Can Tell You

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.  ~Kahlil Gibran 

We are a society that values academia but questions knowledge. Education that does not come with an invoice is overlooked or deemed suspect. Students are funneled through grad schools, seminaries, mail-order certification courses, and retreats aimed to connect student with guru/teacher/master, the one who claims to have “the word”. There’s no end to the deluge of purchased thought and those willing to sell. Those who question this blind system of organized education are simply labeled uneducated, outlaw, savage, unenlightened, or delinquent. When education is criticized, said criticism pertains to problems in public schools, lack of funding for educators and low-income students, and failing state colleges. Rarely, does one read an article about the problems inherent in the institutionalization of learning. 

Quite possibly, the biggest challenge to learning in our purchased degree-driven society is though the discernment of both teacher and idea. Ours is a culture addicted to efficiency and immediacy. Where these addictions have grown something positive, there are numerous examples of technological and scientific advances. I need not go into the benefits in any great detail; modern man boasts on these accomplishments fervently. However, where we are left anemic is in the area of critical thinking. Independent thought, mastery of problem solving, and old-fashioned “gut smarts” are seldom encouraged when dealing with standards and benchmarks. These rare talents have resulted in a collective gullibility that has the United States as a whole susceptible to blind party allegiance, thoughtless to laws that are – peering in from outside – verging on fascist, and ever so willing to demonize other cultures, races, anyone who does not align with the dogma of the day. Riding the forefront of this wave are the educated and successful, those who believe they’ve done the right thing, deserve their spoils. These entitled souls are perhaps the least discerning among us, for they have built their lives around the system of principles that supports this grand illusion of deserved property and prestige.

On the flip-side of the madness of politics and corporate corruption, class war and hierarchy, we have emerging from the vindicated mists of spiritual liberation, survivalists, militants, cult heads, and new age teachers willing to pander their own spoiled salvation. Countless smart, enlightened folks have flocked to the deviant savior who offers respite from the modern machine. Never a unique proposition or creation, these gurus sell Native American or early Americana, Paganism or Buddhism, or any form of “authentic” knowledge born from those who came before.

In our quest for answers to life’s most important questions, we have grown subservient to the knowledge of others, while forgetting our own sense of truth, awareness, and perception. To make matters worse, we are pushing willful ignorance, entrenched educational systems, and academic debt onto future generations. Many of us, both young and old, now skip problem solving entirely in an immediate Google search frenzy for quick solutions. One common complaint I hear from teachers, is that their students no longer want to think through a problem to arrive at an answer; they simply want the answer. That’s what they are paying for, after all.

Far from luddite, self-exploration and independent learning are paramount to discovery and to re/evolution. The best thing we can hope for as lifelong students is to connect with the teacher whose response is “What do you think?” in lieu of the one with a costly answer. We hope to find the teacher who understands that his/her job is to merely crack open the door with infectious enthusiasm and experience-driven joy, imploring the student to enter in, not through ego and economics, but through a sheer happiness and authenticity in the delights of life’s lessons.

Nothing changes in an institutionalized system of processes and input/output function. This approach simply rewards worker bees with increasing debt and a head-full of “must do-s” for a mandated American life. And, how shall this logjam be moved? Through radical thinkers, the rebels, the revolutionary women and men willing to move away from the norm. Thanks to them, some of our most ingenious discoveries, inspiring art, and necessary social movements have been created.

Let us not forget that access to learning is within each of us. Academia provides the baseline and the all-important paper needed to obtain that insidious career, but learning is everyone’s right and responsibility. Questioning basic assumption becomes second nature when flexing the muscle of critical thought. It is in the wisdom of a grandfather who allows his granddaughter to make a mistake or two (or three) while learning how to fix a problem under the hood. It is with the mother who listens intently to her son’s struggles with self-esteem and encourages him to listen to his feelings and adjust his actions based on the lessons these feelings convey. And, it is with the professor who instills a deep love of questioning – moving beyond textbook to exploration and challenging his own concepts and ideas. It is in each of us who are brave enough to say “no” when something feels wrong, or “yes” when the path before us is too compelling to stay comfortably seated at home.

With all of the information now literally at our fingertips, it becomes ever more crucial to problem solve, deeply consider, and weigh outcome against proposition. Employing this level of inquiry and intuition will certainly bring you to a deeper understanding of your talents and abilities and will lead you to the teacher or academic path best suited to your style of learning and the true heart of knowledge.

Lessons in Awareness

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I was about to write this particular blog post for a separate, intermittent poetry journal to keep it from going completely dormant. I thought, because this post is about INTUITION and the SENSES and how I have come to a deeper awareness of both when in the wild, these topics would somehow seem too esoteric, too emotional, and God forbid, too poetic for an environmental blog. I thought there must be some figurative border wall between writing passionately and writing logically.

But I stopped myself from indulging this undue separation of wild lands and wild feeling. After all, isn’t it that we are drawn to the wild because it sings to us and coaxes us out, so we can enjoy its peace, its healing, its sensory gifts?
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I have had several dreams recently of a fox. Usually, the fox in question is running through trees, alongside my car, or in thick brush. When I notice him; I wake up…

This past Saturday night was spent winter camping in the Sierra Ancha’s, a range just northeast of Phoenix, above the Tonto Basin. Winter camping in Arizona isn’t quite as intense an experience as in areas with lots of snow and threat of avalanche, but certainly a winter camper in the mountains here will meet nights of below freezing temps and winds, snow hugging north-facing slopes, and an icy dampness across the earth. I knew the experience of camping in the Ancha’s would be uncomfortable and in that discomfort, I dreamed of connecting more, sensing more, and physically challenging myself to make adjustments or adapt.

Our arrival on Saturday morning was pleasant. The thermometer read mid-50s and sunshine poured through winter branches and warmed rocks. Few people were on trails or forest roads. So, into the perimeter of the Sierra Ancha Wilderness we went – a friend and I – seeking solitude in the hidden joys of the low season. As we hiked up to a waterfall — just a ridge away from where Edward Abbey spent time in a fire lookout during the late 60s — the air filled our lungs and nostrils with the metallic scent of snow.  And, yes, snow has a scent. I never thought of this before, but it does: a mixture of soil and decomposed rock (minerals). This was the first lesson in sensory perception.

Making our way back to camp, the puddles and creeks bore the impression of the impending night and subsequent coldness ahead of us. Ice crystals clung to the banks and fractured layers of ice topped Rose Creek. With our fire lit and our bellies full, we watched the western light diminish above us, as we prepared for the night and took an extra sweep across the site to ensure no crumbs or bits of food remained.

Deep under the covers, I listened; first, to the sound of running water, and then to the careful steps of small hooves passing near the tents. Reading and journaling, I noticed the chill of the air on my exposed face and fingers. My breath fogged my glasses. Condensation dampened my wool blanket, above another blanket and my winter grade bag. How infrequent it is that I should feel this cold. A night unprepared in the woods leaves an indelible impression. ( I never camp without back up blankets and layers this time of year. ) Some time later, I would crawl out and seek gloves and a hat… and much later, another pair of socks.

As I dreamed beneath the pines, the forest remained alive, vigilant, and pulsing. Some animals roamed and rooted; some animals were sleeping also. The creek fell to a quiet murmur as the night passed.
 
Around 6am, I awoke to the proud yaps and eventual serenade of a coyote above the ridge. Within seconds of his finale, the sun broke the darkness. Did he sense the coming break of dawn? Peering out into the morning, I noticed fox tracks near my tent and I recollected the sounds of the night. Deer was identified, as was the bravado of coyote. But fox… no sounds, no sighting. Clever fox, slipping between day and night, never loses awareness, yet eludes us in our lack thereof.

A night of winter camping brings me into myself, tingles my skin, and perks up my ears. Fox sense can be described as the ability to discernibly perceive, to see but not be seen. Fox teaches the importance of blending in and remaining aware. I can think of no greater lesson in perception and adaptability. I humbly give thanks to both teachers: Winter Season and Fox.

 

Time, the slow speed

beetleLately, I have found myself at a crossroad – no form of nirvana here, but a heavy dose of peace with what has become a general loss of hope that we humans will solve the problems we have created.  I am not the first nor will I be the last to come to this liberating yet sobering sense of hopelessness. Many have written about leaving the path of cherished faith and where a life of service sometimes leads: to the end.

I will soon be 37. I am not who or what I wanted to be. My hands do good things, at times. I write. I pick up trash. I garden and take care of rescued cats. I love others, care for others as best I can. I work for the land, but I cannot save it.  Still, I do what I think is the ‘right’ thing to do for the sake of doing it. I carry no false pretenses that I save anything. Life carries itself. It’s not dependant on me. Breathing breathes.

I don’t wonder about the ways in which my life and the life of those I love, including the land around me, will end. There are theories on a myriad of endings. There is debate – a hot ooze of conversation – whirling in the lines. Are we the cause of so many extinctions? Can we use technology to create an escape hatch for ourselves? Can we

sidestep

linear time or reinvent flesh into pixels?

I don’t know. This is not of interest to me. I have come to the place where working the keyboard into love letters is enough. I have come to the time when making dinner is enough. The cats are here. My love is home. The night comes … and comes again.

I sometimes wonder, as per most of us, what my purpose is – as if being a human means scurrying to find great meaning in being alive. The picture above is one I took. The beetle was dead before I arrived. The flower I picked… dead from my hand before the snap of light glazed essence to stillness.

More of us come into being every day, to live on the curved space of everything… to breathe the last breath of the one who goes ahead.

Interconnected forms of solitude

I have been doing a lot of thinking about solitude. What is it about being alone that is so frightening? I had hoped to write a thoughtful post on the topic today, a reflection on the nature of solitude: others’ and my own…. But I am still stuck in the emotion – the visceral kick and groan of the emotion.

Things happened today while considering aloneness. First, I found a dead bird under my office window with no visible signs of trauma. The phone kept ringing all morning, but only static was on the other line when I’d answer. I was also very, very sleepy and it seemed like everything – stroking the cat, editing poems, cooking, yoga, working, driving, watering the plants – had a lull-whisper, a soporific effect. I walked through the day like Dreamtime – whip-tailed lizards of ideas slipped in, then disappeared behind shadows before I could discern their message.

What I gather from this is perhaps I need to be with solitude a little while longer before I dare to decipher its meaning. I am a novice in its presence, a new baby to the distance. I need to observe more. I need some time to know the stranger that resides here.