Posts Tagged ‘pain’

The Post – Extra – Last Speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., RFK’s Speech That Night

May 8, 2008

If you are interested, there are two You Tube videos, one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech in Memphis, and one of Robert F. Kennedy’s, the night of MLK’s assassination. The latter comes complete with footage that shows the pain and division in our country that year, as well as the pain in the man himself.

The videos on are on the blog: Roosevelt Islander, and are in the April 4, 2008 entry, marking the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr,’s assassination. Within 2 months of these videos, Kennedy himself would be dead. As the blog notes: “How might the United States been different had these two men not been killed?”

To view these videos, click here. If for some reason that link doesn’t work, here’s another, the Wikio News link for those same two speeches.

RFK in his speech that night in April, 1968, paraphrased a quote from Aeschylus, from Agamemnon. It is a heartfelt quote, that I share here:

“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

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The Post – The Puzzle Pieces I Don’t See

March 20, 2008

I don’t know who wrote the saying at the end of this post. I jotted it down years ago when I saw it somewhere, and it’s been taped to my desk ever since. So just for the record, if the real author sees this, I don’t claim ownership of it, just ignorance of your name.

This saying attracted my attention because it’s one of those things I don’t do well. I think we are often attracted to wisdom we haven’t mastered or to people who are different from us. It’s like those things complement us, like two halves of a broken locket coming together (Can you tell my brain is still on Nancy Drew – The Clue of the Broken Locket ?)

Now even though we are each complete in ourselves – our answers are within and we each possess the best and worst of the Universe in our hearts – I think we rediscover our own truths and talents quicker through our connection to others. It’s like in chemistry. A reaction between two compounds may take place, but if you add a catalyst, it happens a lot faster and more effectively.

Where it might take us years (or centuries) to learn or rediscover something about ourselves, with the shared experiences, joys, and wisdom of friends and the people we encounter in life, we learn our truths so much quicker if we’re open to looking.

I think we are each a puzzle picture whose pieces got splintered and scattered when we showed up here at birth. We spend our life trying to find or rediscover those pieces so we can again be whole. Given enough time, trial and errors, we probably will put it all together, but I think the process is so much richer and effective when shared with the others in our life. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

When someone else displays a particularly interesting puzzle piece of their own, we have the opportunity to be grateful for that. It may give us a clue to something within ourselves we’d forgotten or just weren’t seeing. It may teach us a path for how to do this journey with more joy, and less pain. It can teach us to appreciate and remember the wondrous variety that is out there in life and within our own hearts.

For me, the following bit of wisdom is a reminder of the power of the “simple.” I often look at things and figure unless you can deliver the whole ball of wax right away or in one fell swoop, or unless you can do the “big” thing, why bother because only doing the small thing is useless. I often fail to see that just one small effort can make such a big difference and can lead to success unimagined. It is the puzzle piece I don’t see in life.

So for today, the wisdom of the puzzle piece of simplicity, and thank you to the author of it, whoever you are:

“The opportunity for success lies in the modest and attainable.”

The Post – A Murderous Time

March 18, 2008

I am tired. I am tired of struggling and believing and hanging in there. I want to sell everything, and just take off and not have to be responsible anymore. I am tired of struggling and struggling and struggling in life, of reaching for dreams or challenges, trying to live my beliefs, stay open to others, all while life just keeps pounding you. Life, can be murderous. Someone said it’s not the big things that get you, but the accumulation of all those small aggravations, like being nibbled to death by ducks.

Now often those are the words of the tired 2-year-old, and we all have one. Usually when the 2-year-old speaks it, the 52-year-old understands, knows it’s just a rant, and keeps going. It’s those moments in life though, when the 2-year-old utters it, and the 52-year-old agrees, that I know I have to stop and attend to my heart. Those are the times I reach for wisdom others have culled from their lives and put into words.

So for today, I simply leave everyone with the wisdom from others who have been there and lived through it to see the other side:

___________________________
In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking. It is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
From “The Testing-Tree” by Stanley Kunitz
________________________________
“The only way out is through.”
Unknown
________________________________

“As a species, we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort. …Never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we hurt. …Being compassionate enough to accommodate our own fears takes courage… We need to be told that fear and trembling accompany growing up and that letting go takes courage. Finding the courage to go to the places that scare us cannot happen without compassionate inquiry into the workings of ego. So we ask ourselves, “What do I do when I feel I can’t handle what’s going on? Where do I look for strength and in what do I place my trust?”

The Buddha taught that flexibility and openness bring strength and that running from groundlessness weakens us and brings pain. But do we understand that becoming familiar with the running away is the key? Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well. Rather than going after those walls and barriers with a sledgehammer, we pay attention to them. With gentleness and honesty we move closer to those walls…get to know them well. We begin a process of acknowledging our aversions and our cravings. We become familiar with the strategies and beliefs we use to build the walls…Without calling what we see right or wrong, we simply look as objectively as we can.

….We can begin to pay attention to our methods of escape. …We can misuse any substance or activity to run away from insecurity. When we become addicted to the lord of form, we are creating the causes and conditions for suffering to escalate. We can’t get any lasting satisfaction no matter how hard we try. Instead the very feelings we’re trying to escape from get stronger….Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move toward our emotional distress without condemning, or justifying our experience.”

Pema Chodron from the book, The Places That Scare You

_____________________________

“Abandon any hope of fruition.”

Mind training slogan #28, of the 59 mind-training slogans or Lojong teachings of Atisha Dipankara, an eleventh century Buddhist teacher who brought these teachings from India to Tibet. These teachings show us how to transform difficult moments…what we most dislike about ourselves….the greatest obstacles in our lives – anger, resentment etc., into the means to awaken our open heart.

For a full teaching by Pema Chodron on this particular slogan, see her book: Start Where You Are : A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron, Copyright 1994, Shambhala Publications.

You can also click on the link at the bottom left of the “Tonglen and Mind Training” web page or click here

Two excerpts from her teaching:

“Our next slogan is “Abandon any hope of fruition.” You could also say, “Give up all hope” or “Give up” or just “Give.” The shorter the better.

One of the most powerful teachings of the Buddhist tradition is that as long as you are wishing for things to change, they never will. As long as you’re wanting yourself to get better, you won’t. As long as you have an orientation toward the future, you can never just relax into what you already have or already are.”

” In Boston there’s a stress-reduction clinic run on Buddhist principles. It was started by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Buddhist practitioner and author of Full Catastrophe Living. He says that the basic premise of his clinic-to which many people come with a lot of pain-is to give up any hope of fruition. Otherwise the treatment won’t work. If there’s some sense of wanting to change yourself, then it comes from a place of feeling that you’re not good enough. It comes from aggression toward yourself, dislike of your present mind, speech, or body; there’s something about yourself that you feel is not good enough. People come to the clinic with addictions, abuse issues, or stress from work-with all kinds of issues. Yet this simple ingredient of giving up hope is the most important ingredient for developing sanity and healing.”

For a complete list of the mind training slogans: click here

________________________

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

“People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.”

Both, by Eleanor Roosevelt, who also instructed us to:

“Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You.”

So now, I will try to see if the 2-year-old, and 52-year old, can reach agreement in their hearts, to struggle on and “do the thing you think you cannot do.”

The Post – Lee Woodruff – In An Instant and Helping Our Injured Soldiers

March 7, 2008

Taking a rest tomorrow, so posting Saturday’s Gift and Post tonight.

Tonight I had the honor of hearing Lee Woodruff speak at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, about her book In An Instant. It’s co-written by Lee and her husband Bob Woodruff, the ABC News anchor who sustained a traumatic brain injury from an IED while on assignment in Iraq . It’s the story of their family’s journey through pain to healing and then recovery.

I could say many things about her – she’s a great speaker, frank, honest, down-to-earth, warm. Passionate comes to mind – she speaks so passionately about our servicemen, what they go through and the struggles they have after sustaining such injuries. She very frankly noted that her family was lucky as they had the care of ABC, Disney, and many family and friends to sustain them. Our servicemen do not. She also frankly noted that it is the willingness of those young men and women to step up to the plate and volunteer that makes it possible for the rest of us, her 16-year-old son included, to have a choice as to what we will do with our lives.

She noted that their family has worked to turn the experience into good, lemons into lemonade, including setting up a charitable fund for servicemen with traumatic brain injuries, which I’ll explain in a moment. They have grown as a family. They have tried to help others. When asked though, given all the good that’s come out of what happened to her husband, and all the good things they’ve done and people they’ve helped, did she view what happened to him as a good thing? Her immediate answer was an unequivocal “NO.” She said if she could rewind the clock, she’d wish this never happened. However, it did. She has come to understand that life is suffering and you simply choose whether it can ennoble you or make you bitter. She noted very simply that she did not want to become a bitter old woman.

She has tremendous compassion for others and said she imagined everyone sitting there has experienced some kind of life-altering event. She feels for all. Often times people come up to her and say “this happened to me, but it wasn’t anything like what you went through.” She immediately put a halt to that thought. Her feeling is that life hands everyone suffering and pain is pain.

She spoke strongly about the struggles of our servicemen and their families when there is a traumatic brain injury. Too often these families are struggling and forgotten. She and Bob make it a point to visit VA hospitals when they travel. It is obvious this is a driving passion for both of them. She feels they were given a chance to have good care so now it’s their turn to bring attention to the servicemen. She shared a quote:

“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country.”

That came from George Washington. She felt we are not doing enough for our injured veterans now.

In gratitude for their good fortunes they’ve started the Bob Woodruff Family Fund to assist service members injured while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Special emphasis is for traumatic brain injury victims. They work to raise public awareness of the problem, excellence in research, prevention, diagnosis, treatment. support and resources for the injured as they try to reintegrate to daily life. They work with individuals and small organizations to do everything from provide money for cab fares to wives of injured servicemen going to and from hospitals, to funds for bills, treament and rehabilitation for a blinded veteran who lost his pension and whose wife had to quit work to nurse him back to health. The stories were too numerous.

Her deep commitment to these men and women showed in her words, her face, her eyes. It is said eyes are the windows to the soul. That is the truth. Her eyes showed her soul. It is a soul of love.

If anyone wants more information on how to donate to the fund and help our servicemen who have given so much, the website is:

www.BobWoodruffFamilyFund.org

And she noted they have only one paid employee – the wife of a Marine who is on his 3rd tour of duty in Iraq, and she works out of her bedroom so they don’t have to use any money to pay for an office.

The Post – Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

February 20, 2008

As with most of my projects, my novel in progress, Under the Pier, started as a picture book. What a surprise, hmm? In fact, it started out as three of them – one animal, two human. Two were homework assignments for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL). One was a short story I wrote for myself. As picture books, all were rejected. Yes, I know. Another surprise.

The animal story was one of the homework assignments for ICL. It reflected my love for the sea – I flat out love the ocean, and really flat out love the rocky New England shores. It also reflected my love for all things ignored or overlooked. We used to go to Cape Cod when I was a kid. Forget sunbathing. I spent all my time with a face mask on, diving between waves to see what rolled around on the bottom. If I could have stayed down there forever I would have. Jacques Cousteau was my hero. I loved crawling all over the rocks at Newport, Rhode Island, sticking my face into blue mussel beds, poking into tide pools, and trailing periwinkles. I loved every creepy thing that slithered out from under a pile of seaweed or crawled out of the foamy surf.

Ironically, my animal picture book story started out set in North Carolina, not New England. We’d taken a day trip to Wrightsville Beach and ended up sitting under the pier because it was so crowded. I sat there looking up at the weathered rafters, watching seagulls roost. Then I noticed the pilings covered with snails, blue mussels, and algae. I knew there were all kinds of fish feeding in the surf around the pilings, and I could see dozens of jellyfish bobbing in the waves alongside them. I’d never realized how many things lived right around a pier.

Stuck in my picture book mindset I figured I could do a short nonfiction with the slant of who lives on and under the pier, maybe even give it a bloodthirsty twist – who eats who under the pier. After much struggle, and several rejections, it occurred to me that since my soul was in New England maybe the problem was location. So I changed it to a New England pier, though I kept it a picture book. Again, rejection letters piled in. Finally, busy with other things, I set it aside.

The two human stories – again, one was a homework assignment, the other something I wrote that drew on imagery of the blue-collar town I grew up in. Like I mentioned in my last post, stories reflect the questions in their writers’ hearts. My questions? I was one of those kids more likely to be in the shadows of a dark window at night watching the skunk nose through the garbage cans, than at a middle school dance. Even if you ignore the fact that I went to a Catholic school with nuns and I don’t think we had middle school dances, there were other places in town that did. No matter. I didn’t care, and even if I had gone, I’d have been overlooked. That’s who I was back then. So why bother?

I compensated by becoming very good in school. So good, I could stuff down my insecurity and look down my nose at all the popular girls and their snobby cliques. How many of them could tell a garnet from molybdenum? I could. Academics and books were my shield against the pain of being excluded. They were my place to shine.

The other half of it was, I truly LOVED all those books and studies. Frankly, I had a better time one summer climbing all over a rock quarry hunting minerals and gems than going shopping. Who else would, of their OWN CHOICE, with their own money, on summer vacation, go to the local tobacco and hobby store and buy a dissection kit and formaldehyde-preserved frogs, fish, and crayfish to cut up? And consider this fun? Of course, in this day and age, I don’t think you can get these things unless you’re an adult, a teacher, and you can order from a science supply house. And they don’t even use formaldehyde because I think it’s some kind of carcinogen. But, I survived. It was the mid-sixties, heck, you could also buy interesting chemistry sets. I had those too. And the prepared microscope slides to go with my microscope and my geology hammer and chisel.

I also loved playing baseball on the street behind our house with the neighborhood kids, loved climbing the fence into the cemetery with the boys, and doing anything that did not include makeup or dresses. The times I had been most bored were play dates at other girls’ houses when they wanted to play house, tea, dolls (now if they’d had that GI Joe doll maybe….) or hairdresser. That’s when I usually wished they’d had brothers. Brothers who had the neat aircraft carriers that launched planes, tow trucks with flashing lights, helicopters with winches, or those old metal yellow Tonka trucks. I spent hours with my friend across the street playing with those and digging in his dirt pile. We were trying to get to China. So. Is it any surprise I did not do well at dances? Still, nobody likes to be rejected. So I declared those girls enemy number 1, ignored them like they ignored me, and stuck to the things I loved

Given this background, I figured I could do a story with two girls, Max and Jamie, who were cousins. They were stuck with each other for the summer at their grandmother’s house in a blue-collar, coastal New England town. Of course one was the “neat character” – hated makeup and such. One was the snot – always putting her tomboy cousin down. Mix in a hefty dose of all of those animosities that creep up between two very different 12-14 year-old girls, add in a quiet, smart, 14-year-old boy to bring complications, and there was my picture book. Except it got rejected. Not to mention that what I just described is no more a picture book than a refrigerator is. And…not to mention that the story line is a bit simplistic, cliché, and maybe not totally honest?

Midlife brings humility in the form of gray hairs, wrinkles, and regrets. Life beats you up enough and somewhere along the line you start to realize, gee, maybe I’m not so right, and maybe they’re not so wrong. Odd ideas arise, such as maybe those snobby girls weren’t the only ones acting like a jerk? This was a scary thought. I always saw me as their victim. Though I didn’t like what I was feeling about how I’d acted, I investigated that line of reasoning a little deeper. I took a good look at who were those girls, really? Again, midlife does weird things to you. Suddenly I no longer saw demons, just girls as scared and vulnerable as I was. Where I used books or preserved frogs, they used clothes or makeup. They were girls with their own struggles, insecurities, and troubles. Maybe they were even, say it’s not so, living, breathing, 3-dimensional human beings with feelings?

I’d rationalized my behavior all those years by deciding they got what they deserved for looking down on me. Anais Nin said that we see life as we are, not as it is. In that moment all the defenses started crashing. When the dust settled, all I saw were a bunch of people, all very much alike, all just trying to get by. What I realized was that I could be that geeky uncool person just because that’s who I am and it’s what gives me joy in life and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I finally came to accept me. When you accept yourself, you are then free to accept everyone else. You no longer have to judge others to protect yourself. I could just enjoy being a geek and not wield it like a weapon against others. I could lay the weapon down because it wasn’t them vs. me anymore.

After I got over feeling like a jerk, it occurred to me I could add some entirely new layers and depth to that very superficial “picture book.” Also, about the same time, I finally started accepting 1) I don’t have a voice for picture books and 2) NONE of the stories I wanted to write were picture books. At the shortest, “maybe” chapter books, but frankly, I think most of what I wanted to write fit into middle-grade fiction. I finally accepted the fact that the child inside of me is about 11 or 12.

The final nail in the coffin of trying to stuff a novel into a picture book came in the mid-90s. I attended an SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and one of the published authors critiqued that third “picture book” I’d written for myself. Her feedback said “Great chapter. Where’s the rest of the book? I want to know what happens to your character before and after this chapter.”

My thought was, there IS no before and after. I only wanted to write that one segment. And what did she mean, “chapter?” It was a book, not a chapter.

Faced with a bunch of rejected picture books that weren’t picture books, I finally surrendered to the truth – I HAD to become a novel writer.

UP NEXT – How do you take three picture books and make a novel?

The Post – Stage Three: Coming Into My Own – Evolution TO a Novel

February 19, 2008

Initially, I was going to call this entry “Evolution of the Novel” thinking I would dig right in to the logistics of writing Under the Pier. But I realized before I could do that, I had to finish the process Uri Shulevitz outlined for the “Evolution of the WRITER.” From that it was clear that this entry’s title needed to be “Evolution TO a novel,” the final leg of coming into my own.

I have always struggled with the fact that others seem to do rings around me. My husband works in a job where not just every day, but every hour, the priorities change, the deadlines change, who he has working for him changes. It’s constant jumping. He has a quick, fast mind. My sisters and friends manage full-time jobs, more than one job, kids, house, pets, and other responsibilities. I thought maybe it’s a writer thing – writers just move at a slower pace. Yet I observe other writers producing novels, while writing articles, while chatting on the writers’ email lists, updating their web sites, promoting their books and doing school visits. It’s like trying to walk with someone who is always faster than you. The best you can do is maybe match them for a little while, but eventually, you always fall behind. For years it bothered me, and the competitive person inside kept trying to keep up or catch up. And I absolutely ABHORRED admitting to anyone, that I couldn’t keep up with them.

The title of last Thursday’s entry for Thich Nhat Hanh’s online course read: “Let Go.” The entry said: “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything . . . we cannot be free.” That was the answer I’d finally come to in the last year or so. Just, let it go. Even playing racquetball – I always fought to win when I was younger. Now I never win, but I have grown to love the process of just playing my best. Coming into your own is the moment you finally choose to be free. You let go of the competition and comparisons and just accept who you are.

I am a plodder. Plodders do not have fast brains. While others are rushing around, plodders just stare at them from the sidelines with their mouths open. Instead of snap conclusions, plodders pull things apart, stare at the parts, put them back together differently, then stare some more. Confronted with a pile of seemingly useless, unrelated bits of information, plodders push them around for hours or days or years, until finally a whole picture emerges. The one thing about plodders is that they never quit. They just keep plodding until they find the big picture and make sense of things. They feel the questions and keep going until they have an answer to the question, “What is it?”

It’s like when I did bacteriology. You start out with a confusing mass of all different kinds of bacterial colonies on an agar plate. You look it over until you spot the one that’s probably the culprit of the infection. You stare at the colony on the plate. What color is it? What’s its size, texture, smell? How does it look on different types of agar? What does it look like under the microscope? You run a battery of 20 or more biochemical tests. You end up with this heap of separate, seemingly unrelated bits of data, and the question – what is it? The answer comes from how all those pieces are assembled by a person too stubborn to quit. Assemble the bits like a mosaic and you have Staphylococcus aureus, or Escherichia Coli, or Enterobacter aerogenes, or my favorite, Campylobacter. 🙂

Maybe the thing that plodders and at least this writer have in common is the place inside where we carry both the tools to recognize the patterns, as well as the questions that need to be stared at.

I think stories come from the places within us that hold the unanswered questions. Those places hold the deepest hurts, the places of anger, confusion, sadness, the disappointments, the unsettled business, the tangles we never unknotted, the humiliations we’d like to forget, or the ugly things we don’t want to look at. And the happy moments. There’s the ultimate confusion in life: Why are some times happy and others abysmal? Plodders seek answers by picking through all the tangles, like a bag person picking through the garbage can. If the plodders also happen to be writers, they make their moments of picking through the trash, public. They write a story to document their quest for truth.

The story may not even resemble anything from the writer’s life. Last time I checked, no author has lived in futuristic space or slain any dragons. The story doesn’t have to be autobiography. What it must contain at its core are the questions that that writer carries in their heart. Writers then journey through what they write, to the ultimate whole picture, hopefully, the answer to their question. Some writers can express this journey to find their truth in a 4-line poem or succeed in capturing God in five words or less. Some write picture books. And some, like me, need the panoramic expanse of a longer, more meandering path. That means, novels.

It means plots and subplots, woven like twisted threads. It means primary characters, secondary characters, and maybe a few cardboard characters. It means diverse settings and tweaky, idiosyncratic details. I know this now, because I know me, now. I am exhausted and weary of trying to be what I am not. I am what I am, take it or leave it. Some will relate to my stories, some will hate them. No matter. I write, for me.

I’ve spent many, many years trying all different things on for size. I’ve tried to be what others are. Do what they did. I’m tired of that. I’m ready to be me. So I just, let go.

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

Cyril Connolly – 20th Century British literary critic.

UP NEXT: Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

The Post – Another Side Trip – In an Instant, Life Changes – The ER and Patton

February 17, 2008

One minute you are moving through your day, clearing tasks off of your to-do list and anticipating all the things you will still tackle during the rest of the afternoon. The next moment you’re wondering if you will make it through the afternoon, and can you ever get what is choking you, out of your throat? In an instant, life changes.

I talked the other day about “awareness and staying in the present moment” in relation to my racquetball game. Shift to the future and you blow the present shot. The same thing happens in life.

My meditation class talks every week about paying attention to what you are doing, and that anything can be a meditation if you do it mindfully, full of awareness. I never thought about this extending to swallowing pills. I also never thought about how I swallow pills as a possible life-altering moment.

It’s something we do automatically. Grab the pills, toss them back, throw in a mouthful of water, all while in motion through the day’s to-do list. As you tip your head back to swallow, your mind is already on the afternoon’s plans and everything you want to get done. Suddenly there is this sense of something horribly wrong.

It is said that when we are in pain, our world narrows. While that’s usually said about emotional pain and our tendency to pull away and close down our connections to the world, the same is true of physical pain.

In just a second or two, the brain, reacting to that sense of something horribly wrong, starts reeling in the attention and cranking down the focus. It shifts gears from 4 p.m. back to 2 p.m. Within another second or two, it registers panic and pain. It tries to rally its resources to deal with the emergency. Whatever was on your mind before evaporates. It is suddenly incredibly irrelevant. You may never get to it.

Now focused very much in the present the brain is frantically trying to get a clear picture of what the hell is happening. It’s processing emergency signals from several places in your body simultaneously – heart rate, throat, blood pressure, lungs, mouth, cervical nerves. The eyes bulge, hands go up to the throat, and the left brain finally grasps that the pills you swallowed without thinking, tumbled down the wrong way. In a one-in-a-million shot they’ve lodged side by side in your esophagus and are blocking the whole passage.

At the same time you’re looking for a waste basket to throw up in and get those things out of you, additional panic shoots through you. The brain has further grasped that not only can’t you swallow, but that the water you took with the pills has backed up into all of your air passages and is now choking you. Inside your head you hear the liquid close off passages. For an odd moment, like time standing still, you notice that the sounds in your head right now are the same as when you’ve dived underwater and everything is flooding with fluid. Except you’re not in someone’s pool. You’re standing in an office wondering if you’ll ever take another breath.

The breath. All those meditation classes. Come back to the breath. Breathe in your pain and fear, breathe out caring and calm. But even the breath has been taken from you. Panic. Focus. Panic. Focus. The battle in the brain begins because it knows if panic wins, you may lose the battle completely.

Suddenly the water drains out and you can breathe. The breath. Come back to the breath. You’ve been given another shot. Don’t blow it. The brain is in command. Stay in the moment. Just this moment. Breathe – just one breath. Assess. What’s your next move? Think. Take stock. Breathe again. Just one breath.

You determine you can’t swallow except for tiny amounts. Okay. Focus. One swallow at a time. Look around. What are your options? Get help. Someone to be here in case they have to call 911. You remember the pills are large. Hard. Coated. They’re not going to dissolve. You need assistance. Get to the ER.

Someone stays with you. They’re trying to help. It’s a comfort and calms you, even though you can’t really respond. You’re using all your focus and energy on “Breathe – just one breath. Swallow – slowly. You cringe. Intense pain shoots up your throat as the liquid shoves the pills against the esophagus wall and ever so slowly drips around them and down your throat. Breathe. It takes a few seconds to swallow saliva that you normally don’t even notice is there. A few seconds more and the swallow is finished. Take another breath.

The brain starts to race – how long will it take my husband to get here? How long to get down the street? How long to the ER? How long before they can do something to make this better? Panic. The brain takes charge again. Stop. Stay in the present. Breathe. Swallow.

Every shift of the car gears hurts. You want to be sick. Take a breath. Swallow. Another bump. Breathe. Rounding the corner. Still a mile to go. Breathe. Swallow. Traffic backing up. Panic rising. Breathe. Swallow. Close your eyes. The ER doesn’t exist. Just this moment. Breathe, swallow. Breathe, swallow. Lean forward because it doesn’t hurt so much. Breathe. Swallow. You turn into the hospital. The ride to the door might as well be an eternity. Close your eyes. Breathe, swallow.

You struggle through admissions. Whisper name, date of birth, insurance, address. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse typing in your vitals seems to be taking forever. Will you ever get relief? Come back to the moment. Breathe. Just one breath. You spot your blood pressure and heart rate. It scares you. Close your eyes. Breathe. Swallowing is harder. Lean forward. Get ready. Breathe, swallow, tighten your fist to take your mind off the pain in your throat. Breathe. Stay calm.

I know my husband is there. His presence is calming. I can’t respond to him. Can’t even focus on him because I am focused on breathe, swallow. For a second I feel his hand on my back. Its warmth relaxes me, radiates through my muscles. Calms them. But I can’t tell him yet. Just breathe. Swallow.

The doctor is approaching the room. Breathe. Swallow. You stare past the doctor and see a room across the department that looks just like the one your husband almost died in a little over a year ago . . . when he almost choked to death. Breathe. Swallow. The nurse pushes in the needle for the IV line. Breathe. Swallow. Meds are moving through your veins. Breathe. Swallow. Breathe. Swallow. Calm. The meds are calming. The muscles in your throat unlock. Breathe. Swallow. Suddenly, a tiny burp. Air is moving up. Breathe. Swallow. They give you water. Tiny sips. It slides down your throat. Pills shift and hurt. Breathe. Swallow. Ever so slowly, the burps get bigger. The sips of water larger. The medicine slows your heart rate. Your blood pressure has dropped. You can swallow and breathe without total concentration. Will you ever take another pill unawares?

Joan Didion wrote a book, The Year of Magical Thinking, about what it was like the year after her husband died of a massive heart attack. She was with him when it happened. It happened in an instant. In that moment as he fell, dead, everything changed.

Even as Kate Braestrup stared at her husband’s cereal bowl in the sink that morning, he already lay dead in his state police car, killed when another vehicle lost control and crashed into him. Her life changed in that instant as she described in her book, Here If You Need Me. Lee and Bob Woodruff wrote a book, In An Instant. He was covering a story for ABC News in Iraq when an IED exploded near his vehicle. In an instant he nearly died. In an instant everything in her day changed dramatically.

It happens so often. It happens to everyone. Yet we all try to ignore that an end will come. We pretend that reality doesn’t exist even though it does. In an instant we are reminded that though we think we are masters of our fate, we never are. It’s out of our hands.

Friday night, terrified after what had happened to my day, my body, and with the calming effects of the valium wearing off, I scrambled to put myself in a place that brought me back to a time where I felt I had power. I retreated to the movie, Patton, about the controversial, powerful, and legendary World War II general, George S. Patton, Jr. His nickname, given by his men, was “Old Blood and Guts.” He never retreated.

It’s a standing joke in my house, that especially when I was younger, I was Patton. I was the general. I ran the situations. Whatever needed doing, I gave the order or executed the action. Failure or retreat was not in my vocabulary. Back then, my thought was, work hard enough, push hard enough, refuse to be defeated or back off, and you can do, achieve, overcome anything.

In the movie, there is one scene where Patton, played by George C. Scott, speaks and my family looks at me and laughs. Patton, has been reprimanded and his command taken from him. Patton, like him or hate him, was a brilliant field commander. He also put his foot in his mouth constantly, and some of his actions were controversial. Yet he was a power to be reckoned with. He bludgeoned his way through things, though aware of the pecking order, did manage to yield some deference to God. In this scene he is speaking to his aide after being told he might be sent home from the war in disgrace:

“I feel I am destined to achieve some great thing, what I don’t know. But, this last incident is so trivial in it’s nature and so terrible in its effect, it can’t be the result of an accident. It has to be the work of God. The last great opportunity of a lifetime . . . an entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?! God will not permit this to happen!! I am going to be allowed to fulfill my destiny!!!” [LONG PAUSE] “His will be done.”

The last four words are said almost as an afterthought, Patton remembering that God just “might” have some say in things. For some reason, at that time in my life, maybe even now a little bit, my family saw a lot of me in that scene. 🙂

So Friday night, I took comfort from retreating to a place and time in life where I felt powerful and in control of everything. Yet, in truth, even as I watched that movie I knew it was just an illusion, a temporary salve for a traumatic day. None of us are really in command of our destinies, only our responses to life’s questions. Even the powerful General Patton learned that. He preferred to die in battle. Instead, in Dec of 1945 he was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of injuries in a car accident. He died a couple of weeks later from an embolism.

I took temporary sustenance from the movie, even as I am aware that we can only take charge of some things, our choices, but for the rest, there is just the one and only powerful tool we can use: stay aware in the present moment, and breathe.

The Post – Father, if Jesus exists, Then how come he never lived here

January 28, 2008

I had planned to write about the serious soul process that underlies the seemingly frivolous hours of fiddler crab watching – the quiet transformation of heart that yields the creation. However in moving the freezing car out of the driveway so my husband could leave for work, I caught a request from the Universe in the form of a song lyric, to share some thoughts about something else, so I decided to do the writing post tomorrow. For what I write here, these are simply my thoughts, how I make sense of things for me. No one else has to believe this, or agree with it.

I turned on the car and immediately the request blurted from the speakers. On the car’s CD player, Sting’s The Soul Cages; the song, “All This Time”; the words: “Father, if Jesus exists, Then how come he never lived here.”

I’ve spoken similar words SO many times in life, though mine were less eloquent and much more enraged. “Where ARE you? You don’t even care, do you? You did this to me. I did what you asked . . . I prayed. Every single day in Catholic school I went to Mass. Loved being there in that quiet with you. BELIEVED in you. In everything you said. And THIS is what you leave me in? How could you?” The rant usually ended with a 4-lettered action suggestion for God. And I meant it. There’s a saying – we give out as much pain as we feel. Truer words were never spoken, and I threw every last bit of it back at God.

Yet even as I did that, there was this small tiny place inside that knew He wouldn’t get mad at me for it – He was more like a gentle parent with an overwrought two-year-old. The child doesn’t understand. The parent knows it’s useless to explain because the child is too young. All the parent can do is hold the child while it cries in frustration and fatigue. Underneath my rage, I still felt a small voice saying He knew, He understood, He wished He could change it right that minute. For a moment it would comfort me, but then the rage would start again. “Great! So you feel bad I’m in pain. Why aren’t you fixing it?”

It was Buddhism that actually helped me understand that Catholic/Christian God I grew up with, forgive Him, let go of the rage, and learn to love and trust Him again. Buddhism has something called the Four Noble Truths. The very first one is short and sweet, but when I heard it, I felt such relief – Life is suffering.

Now at first read, that almost sounds depressing. If that’s the case, what’s the point? For me though, I heard that and almost immediately felt years of rage drain out of me. I realized . . . God didn’t do it. Suffering. That’s just the way life is. It is the result of living in a world where God doesn’t interfere and let’s us choose. It is the logical result of living in a natural world where sometimes there will be ecstasy and sometimes ultimate black despair. God honors His word to let us have the freedom to make our choices. He lets the world unfold in its natural way. He makes suggestions, but we don’t always listen. As a parent, I know how hard that is, watching from the sidelines while your kids choose something, crash, and choose again. And you want to tell them, but you can’t. So all you can do is suggest, then step back, watch, and stand by them no matter what.

If suffering is, then our role is to choose how we will respond. Either we take it and see what can we create with the hand life dealt us . . . or we give up and die. At least to me, that’s what it comes down to. What will I choose? Life? Or death?

So where is Jesus in all that? Right at my side. He stays there through it all, letting me be mean, letting me vent, lifting me when I can’t go on, whispering suggestions when I’m totally lost. It’s that Latin line: Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit – Bidden or unbidden, God is there. If anyone thinks that’s not very much of a gift, think about the last time you were with someone you loved when they were in tremendous suffering – illness, dying, life misery of some kind – and worst of all, you could only watch. You couldn’t help them. If that isn’t the ultimate suffering in life. Most normal people want to run the other way rather than stay with someone in pain. How many people go to visit someone who just lost a spouse or a child or are dying? It’s hard to watch that, sit with that, not run. Well, consider what it’s like to sit with an entire world of people in pain, support them endlessly, and NEVER leave, get impatient, or tell them off. That TRULY requires a God.

Now, all this said, it’s not to say there aren’t times I want to tell God to go to hell, that what He’s asking for is JUST TOO MUCH. So many times, even when I’ve agreed to do what He’s asked, it’ll come to a point of despair and being driven to my knees and all I can say is ‘I thought I could do this for you but I can’t. Take it away. Please. I just can’t do this anymore.” And the quiet voice just says – try again.

It’s like that parable (Luke 5:1-11) of the apostles spending all night fishing and coming up empty. Exhausted, frustrated, despairing, they return to shore. Jesus is waiting for them. Does He comfort them? Commiserate with them? Put an arm around their shoulders? No. He tells them, go back out and put your nets out. I wouldn’t have blamed the apostles if one of them told Jesus to go pound sand. I mean they worked themselves to the bone all night and all Jesus can say is “Go do it again”??? And if that wasn’t enough, He still didn’t make it easy for them. In spite of whatever they thought, they went back out and did what He asked. Now yes, their nets were filled to the breaking point. Well, great. So yeah, He gave them lots of fish. But still He made it hard. I mean, why didn’t He make it so the fish nets were filled and the fish jumped in the boat or they got tons of fish and God magically transported them to the beach so the exhausted guys didn’t have to kill themselves hauling them all in?

Because…that’s life. God doesn’t change the rules of the world. He helps us work with them, sustain, try again, look for solutions, even when we want to quit. But we still have to do the work.

So. I guess my answer to Sting’s lyric is – He does live here. I don’t always feel Him in the middle of the despair and rages. These days at least, I’ve learned that sooner or later, I will feel Him there and to just trust in the meantime that He is there. All I can suggest is do what the Buddhists say, or that line from Tom Hanks’ movie, Castaway – just keep breathing. Just keep walking. Just keep going. See what you can create with the hand you’ve been dealt. Choose life. Death comes fast enough.