How Do I Live?

Image from The Empathy Project at Seattle Art Museum 11/2018

12/31/2018

We arrive on this earth, learn things, affect people, people affect us, eat too much or too little, hate ourselves, work on loving ourselves, work on not hating others, lose people, gain new people, worry about money, and kids, our parents and siblings, and friendships, have some laughs here and there, and then we die, we are gone.  At some point, it is over, just over.  We make up ideas about where we go when we die and typically think it will be much better or much worse than life here on earth. I think we just die.We leave energy behind, we leave memories and that is all we really know.  

Death seems to happen by mistake, an anomaly in our world.  We all know that we die, but I am a member of the club that pretends that it will really never happen to me. Or it will happen in a way that is swift so I barely know it has happened. It will happen as I imagine when I am 100 and still have my wits about me. I will be sleeping and my heart will fail.  My imaginings are based on facts; My mother lived to 94, her sister to 92 and her cousin lives on at 101 about to be 102.

When death happens we land in the country of disbelief and say this wasn’t supposed to happen, especially when the person seems too young to die or cut off from doing something that we think is important or it is just someone we love spending time with and it feels like they are taken from us.

As I don’t have a ritual for death, there are the memories that I want to collect up, like a hoarder.  The Day of the Dead ritual in Coco seems good.  Creating an altar of things that help me remember my friend Paula, my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, the friend that died when we were both 19, the friend of my daughter’s who also died when they were 19.  I still carry around my mother’s ashes in a shoe box, fitting for who she was, waiting for the perfect moment and place to put them.  I think of somewhere for the ashes, weigh in on it, and, so far, nowhere ends up saying, yes, leave her here, with us, where she will be taken care of. Maybe a shoebox is the perfect place. It was not uncommon for my mom and me to joke about her and Imelda Marcos.  Not about shared politics, but about too many shoes.

This past month I sat and watched my friend wither away like a dying, brittle vine, still clinging to the trellis it once had adorned with blossoms.  She had stomach cancer but told us she had breast cancer because that is what she wanted to believe. It was part of her wish to believe she could recover from this by diet and positive thinking.  By the time she had told me, and a few other friends, she had had this cancer for a year. We learned of it when the cancer was in the process of attacking her entire body.  In the end, it left her with a writhing ocean of an open wound weeping from her chest.  It was as if her insides had become a riptide of pus trying to break free from her cancer-riddled body, just as she hoped to do, break free.  Prior to hospitalization, a nurse suggested wearing a Kotex as a bandage on her leaking breast, which she did, bringing both of us to uproarious laughter.  The whole time we joked, I had no idea she was dying and maybe it was more fun that way.  It was just a silly bandage that would be removed one day when she was “better”.

The last time I saw her, she was in a baseline assisted living home where she was receiving Hospice care, at least when the nurses chose to follow Hospice’s instruction or when Hospice was there itself. She looked kind of like a person I once knew, but as she became ever more gaunt, she was a sliver of who she once was.  Over a months time, she became an empty body, with blue eyes that moved and had moments, flashes of recognition, and then vacant.  She died on December 24, 2018, at too young of an age, taking secrets with her.

Each day, after leaving the vigil of sitting with Paula, my thoughts would drift off to how will this happen for me.  Who will be with me?  I would like my kids to be with me, but wonder if one could stand the process and if the other will be too busy. I carry a fantasy that my kids will be there like I was for my mother, but that fantasy includes things as if I were like my mother and my kids were like me.  But, in fact, my mother and I were always pretty different.  I mean it was clear we had a special bond, and we were related, but I live my life differently than she lived hers.  I attend to my fears differently, I attend to my hopes differently.  So to think I will have what my mother had in her ending years, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The last time I saw Paula she looked a lot like an alien with a small diminishing body and huge eyes.  I felt cliche when my mind went off to wondering if this is what life comes to and then wondering if am I doing my life right.  Paula died much as she lived. In the end, she was as worried about her finances as ever, though her worries were unfounded, as they always had been. She scrabbled around with friendships and kept secrets or half-truths how she was actually related to certain people who she spent time with. Early in my first visit, at some point in her morphine stupor, she made a comment about looking fat. The only thing that could possibly suggest fat, was her cancer inflamed arm. Even on her death bed, her eating disorder was alive and well.  Her concern and fear of being fat was evidence that our craziness follows us to the end.  So if this is the case, I deeply want to unhook my deep, low self-esteem issues now. I would like my death bed to be free of the ailments of untruths about who I actually am.

So what am I doing with my life?  How cruel have I been?  What can I do about it now? When do I just let go and be kind, do what I need to do, do what I want and brush off the cruel things said to me, by me and others??  Get the tougher skin my mother had wished for me.  I find all my actions are directed towards freeing myself to be present, being kind and generous, uncluttered by my lower needs of inclusion, fear of being left out, needing to defend myself, needing recognition.  I find I am driven to live from a higher place than my ego and I fail at all of this a lot.

After watching Paula, I hope I get there.  I think I want this more than anything other than for my children and their loved ones to be happy, healthy and feel safe.

Henry with Paula
For Paula and Our Friendship… With love from your Buddha Buddy and Henry

“If death is certain and the time of death uncertain, what do I do? How do I live? What matters most to me in the time that is left?”                                                                      ~Stephen Batchelor

 

Revised 1/21/2019

 

 

Floating in A Dinghy in the Ocean…for Now

Photo credit: The Hidden Art of Moonsweeping   Ala Pixar

“You are in a dinghy in the ocean.  You will beach and you will be fine, just not yet.  ElsaElsa, Astrologer

I am that kind of a person who listens to things like this because they help explain what I feel, what I can’t control or don’t want to control. Elsa spoke to a deep part of me that knows, and what I know is that I don’t want to land, not yet. She tells me, in an attempt to comfort me, that landing will occur sometime in early 2019 to Spring of 2019 when I will beach my dinghy. I am hoping It won’t be longer unless when I get to the Spring of 2019 it feels right to wait, again, for landing.

I reached a pivot point where doing something different, though scary and unsettling, out weighted remaining as I had been for so many years, afraid. Some freedom has been unleashed in me that yearns for the next adventure. No naysayers to hold me back with all the fears and considerations rebounding in my mind, “Watch out!”  “You might…”  “What if…”  

The Traveler in me, always thought travel was the luxury of good fortune when I deeply Knew it was my birthright. And now, I can’t go back into the attic, the basement, my room, or hunker down.  This Journeywoman wants to stay out, like an unbound child, reaching for every wish and dream and wants to discover more about all the possibilities of living a life unconfined by “supposed to’s“, shoulds and the restrictions brought on by “ought to’s“.

This journey is not for everyone. It is hardly for anyone, and it is not one I recommend as a choice.  It is a part of a path that is painful, seemingly unending, and at times, very boring. It began many years ago and then, I fell and tumbled further, deeply onto the path 10 years ago, after my divorce.  The road I landed on was laden with much solitude, more aloneness than what gave me comfort and the discovery of the wonders of silence. My soul companion, Henry, my chocolate labrador, was necessary to my bravery, and he did his work of getting me out when I didn’t want to be out and getting me talking to people I might have otherwise ignored.

 

 

The past many years was a life of renting rooms to wonderful strangers who arrived at my door from all over the world, giving me purpose and a reason to get up, make the bed and keep the house clean.  I could focus on being of service to others.

This was a period of too many years of a most disquieting depression. A depression that lurked around the corners of my mind for most of my life with a few respites such as attending Dell Arte School of Commedia, having my kids, and raising them, and travels abroad and elsewhere. The darkness fully dropped its shroud on me and enveloped my mind upon my divorce in 2008.

So, the last 10 years was a time of surrendering to a way I had fended off for a very long time.  It was an uncomfortable and very dark awkward time of clarifying what I know to be true for me.  It was not a time of answers or solutions, it simply was a time of getting by with putting one foot in front of the other, slogging through, showing up as best I could.  And from what I hear, most people had no idea I felt as I did.  It was not that I tried to disguise what was happening, rather, it was a very solitary experience that did not show up when I was with others.  I sought the help of therapists who did not know what to do with this.  How do you treat a symptom that only rears its horns when one is alone?  I sought the help of antidepressants and nutritionists and those gave me a few moments of feeling less than depressed, but moments that felt as if I was teetering on a cliff and could fall into the vat of depression at any moment. I studied about the heart’s desires, forgiveness and began to meditate and study secular Buddhism and that has given me better places to go in my thoughts. It gave me the work of training my mind when headed down the wrong road.

But really, the remedy for me seemed to consist of taking the seemingly very big risk of stepping out of my life as I knew it: Leaving the life I had outgrown; realizing I was wearing a skin that no longer fit and perhaps never did, and slipping out of it even though fear made me want to stay in it, even though anxiety of how all of this would go, made me yearn for the comfort of the old skin, though it was no longer offering comfort.

IMG_2620

Life is different now. I have broken away, literally, and the depression has lifted. I feel released from the prison of my dark mind, my lethargy and the weighty fog that enveloped my thoughts and turned Every Thing dull.

My trip to Chicago in April 2017 started me off.  It woke me up to people and things in the world that I always knew was there, but never really experienced.  As a  therapist, I always said and taught, that a geographic change won’t really change you, but it did.  I let go of things I had been holding on to; my past, a stress, a pushing against, the treading water that exhausted me.  Going back to Chicago, where I grew up, let me live with my memories, see places of familiarity, gather back strength from my roots, refresh old images that rested in my mind and look at them again, and deeply re-examine the childhood I had spent there.

The muscles of my mind hold such a memory.  My great aunt lived on Laurel, a block from the stunning Baha’i Temple in Wilmette.  As a child, my parents would drop me off on Linden Avenue so I could walk the secret path, alone and meet them at my aunt’s house.

This time around, visiting the temple, was not about traveling a secret path to my aunt’s house but meditating at the very temple whose image is embroidered in my mind. Meditating in this place of such craftsmanship,  felt like a privilege.  Looking back, practicing here, seemed to gather all of my past together, under it’s great, intricate dome,  The great atmosphere of light, and shadow allowed wounds to be released and fly through the cement lacework, out to the sky. Though as a child, it was just something to ogle, this time it was a familiar soft, silent place to sit and feel.

Though I did not go to meditate with the idea of healing wounds, it now seems to be what happened.

 

Now, without the darkness of depression hanging over me, I have a deep sense inside me that I am not landing anywhere yet and when I stretch my thoughts out into the future, as if on tendrils, it feels scary and words surface like, “you should know…, if you don’t, you will miss this opportunity for… or you will miss that… ” You will never own a home again, you will never find a place as good as the one before, you will never do this, or that or… ” So many things that won’t happen if I don’t figure this out.  But I am focused on all the things that could happen if I don’t pretend to know and allow possibilities to unfold.

When I just stay where I am, present, not reaching into my future or back to my past, I am okay, things work and life is more full.  It isn’t perfect; places I stay aren’t the aesthetic that is my cup of tea, nor my preference but what does all that matter? What I am finding matters are the relationships with the people I meet, the amazing generosity of spirit on the road and the stories people share with me, as well as the stories they tell just in their ways of doing things, their actions, their ways of relating to others.

I find that in choosing this road, magic has a place. I can have a wish to camp my way back from Chicago to California but feel uncomfortable about doing it alone. Then about two months before I am to leave I get a text from an old friend and camping pal asking what I’m up to. We had not seen each other for some 45 years when we were on our last camping trip from Chicago to Alaska. I called her and she and her husband were planning a camping trip from their home in central Illinois to Portland, Oregon. So I asked to tag along. Some people say I manifested that. I believe I was just aware of a wish, open to possibilities, determined to not allow fear to guide me, and there was the opportunity I could say yes to.

A note about moon sweepers photo:  If I am out in a dingy, I may as well sweep the moon. As a dear friend often said, “What else is there to do?”

The Rocky Road of Listening Within

I always thought that listening within would be simple if I would just do it. Now I know doing it is hard, really hard, but as a good friend once said, “What else is there to do?”

5/7/17

The journey of listening deeply which started back in January,  moved me away from family and friends in California, back to the Midwest, back to the North Shore of Chicago. My purpose was to heal and reclaim something I may have left behind. It certainly was to re-feel life that I once new on the North Shore and see how it fit with me now.

The journey of listening deeply takes me to the nooks and crannies that lurk around the corners of my thoughts, where pockets of solitude lie. Sometimes I can think that I am doing nothing and feeling everything and forget there are pockets of solitude.

Just before I turn to listen deeply, and turn towards the whispering voice, I can experience nausea that makes me want to change channels or go do something else.  I am sure that the whispers I am hearing cannot possibly be directing me onto the right path, and it definitely must be wrong because I feel so riddled with a disquiet. But over and over, when I listen and just allow the discomfort, the nausea of anxiety goes away and I am happier and comforted by the direction I have turned.

Listening deeply has been a nagging desire inside me for too many years.

 

Scared…Sacred

The fences we create bind us to the stories we tell about ourselves.  I am looking for the light in the fences.

I have learned something about scared and sacred.  Scared wakes me up. Sacred lets me steep in an experience of what I am feeling, what I am seeing and what I am doing.

4/17/2017

After a meeting with my two daughters in which they told me that I needed to change something and it needed to be big, I embarked on a very unexpected journey.  My girls spoke from their hearts to mine with love and a deep knowing.  It was January of this year 2017 when I actually let my mind and soul consider moving and returning to the land of my growing up, on the North Shore of Chicago.  I knew that was where I needed to start.  I didn’t know what would happen past April and then May came around.  Now I don’t know what will happen past May.

I have a constant, questioning voice about my decisions or life choices. It makes me completely miserable.  I am working on a better relationship with that voice. Working on hearing it and reminding myself this is an experiment, not a done deal.  That all I can do is be where I am and when that makes me edgy, when I can, I turn towards it and look at it square in the eyes. When I have eyeballed it, I look at it from head to toe, I see the light of it and the dark of it, the shape of it.

This move was yet another life decision and I wanted to be sure it was the right choice. Embedded in my head was my father’s words just before his death, “Never regret anything, Ellen.”  It puzzled me then and puzzles me now. I regret most things at some point or another, except having my two girls and going to Del Art. Did my father really never have regrets?  Or was he saying that because he had so many regrets and regretted regretting?

My choice to move away from the Bay Area, my friends, my kids and what I have known for 30+ years felt risky, scary, and so crazy. I suffered the 10+ required days of thinking about how this would work and each day was filled with fear. I had no appetite, and a gazillion roiling thoughts going around and around in my head about how this would work, what would I do with all my stuff and all I really wanted to do was to discard everything. I was exhilarated, and exhausted, eating and sleep suffered a bit. All of that continued as I proceeded to get a renter for a year, empty my home, fix a few things in the house and leave by Sunday April 2nd.

I arrived in Evanston 4 weeks ago as of this rewrite, moved into an Airbnb with a wonderful hostess who also takes care of dogs, and the only things I know for sure are that I will be feeding and walking Henry twice a day, going to Lake Michigan and eating in or out. Other than that, I really do not know how my days will be filled when I get up in the morning and the quiet voice of doubt whips up and I am flattened by thoughts of what the hell have I done by moving here.  How will I bring in income? Maybe I will just get camping gear and stay on the road.

My days always get filled regardless of my chattering mind, some days are slower than others. Some days have been filled with what I must do. I have had to get dog permits for the Mr. to go to the beach. That alone took 3 visits and a very patient clerk at the City of Evanston who commented on my commitment to get this done. I told her that I would come back from time to time just to say hi, so we wouldn’t miss each other too much.  We both laughed and wondered if I actually would do that.  I have had to get my car tuned up, take a ring in to be fixed, get a button for a shirt and sew it on. I have gotten a library card, found art and needlework classes, continued my writing, working on my website and figuring out licensure here. I have met friendly strangers, explored cafes and restaurants. I have located sanghas that offer insight meditation, and most days I have gotten in my 10,000 steps while exploring the many villages on the North Shore.

Each errand I have gives me another opportunity to meet people, and the people I have met are really swell.  That 50’s word, swell takes me to when I was growing up here on the North Shore of Chicago. Swell reminds me of the harlequin print peddle pushers my mother made from altered hand-me-downs, of the ice cream truck with organ music that would arrive in front of our house at 1083 Oak Street on Saturdays.  Swell reminds me of the light pouring in through the glass shelves at the bottom of the long steps to the second floor of our house. It was the house where I would sit in puddles of sun which poured out on the carpeted floor. Swell takes me back to the wonderfully long summer days on Lake Michigan, and most of all it reminds me of my mother in her handmade batik moo moo dress busy in the kitchen or helping at my father’s store. I felt connected back then. Being here, in the land of “midwest, milk fed beauties” (thank you Max Greenstreet), connects me again to a place I feel I might belong.

The other day while waiting for my car to have a routine check at the recommended Duxler Auto Repair on Greenbay, I ate at Prarie Joe’s.  I sat outside with Mr. H. soaking in the sun and trying to remember the cold of winters here as if to prepare ahead. Good old Henry drew a visitor to us and she was the self-proclaimed mayor of Central Street, Tina. While chatting, sitting right there on Prairie Ave., Tina told me about the many different streets she lived on, all bearing the name Prairie. She reminded me of a time, before my time, when there were prairies around here, and of the time my family drove out to the so-called first McDonalds in our two-tone Ford, passing by prairies all around.

Those days of my youth could have been held as sacred if I had known what that meant. The only thing I knew was that I was alone a lot, and life at home gave me both comfort and fear. I knew where I belonged and that was a comfort and knowing where I belonged made me a little bored and antsy.  As a kid I seemed to have spent a lot of time waiting: waiting for a ride to come get me, waiting for a classmate to come over, waiting for my brother to play with me and make silly jokes, waiting for my dad to be home for dinner and waiting for him to be in a better mood.  I felt bored a lot like my mind was hungry for concepts to mull around. I needed something to think about to drown out my yearning for my dad to be okay, not grumpy, not depressed, and not angry.  I needed concepts like sacred as an antidote to being scared.