Having lost someone dear to me, in this past year, has led me to again consider how death has impacted my life. I have come to realize “life has no meaning without death.” The thought of living forever in this form conjures up images of a science-fiction horror story; although zombie movies and books are extremely popular right now. Even considering living forever without aging beyond whatever I would consider an ideal age raises questions of how long would I have to work and how could I challenge myself if I knew I could not die. But much more than this, knowing I have a limited lifespan motivates me to live each day fully, to not “kill time” doing nothing. I am also aware what a precious gift I have been given, the gift of life, a gift of grace. As I advance in age, I know my remaining years are limited and therefore I am committed to cherish each day and live it fully.
I read a beautiful poem today somewhat related to death. Tara Brach, in “Radical Acceptance,” quoted David Whyte’s words on “grief”:
“Those who will not slip beneath the still surface on the well of grief turning downward through its black water to the place we cannot breathe will never know the source from which we drink, the secret water, cold and clear, nor find in the darkness glimmering the small round coins thrown by those who wished for something else.”
Pain and grief give fabric to my life and death has given it meaning!
A few weeks back a friend recommended two TED-talks by Brene Brown, one on “Shame” and the other on “Vulnerability.” I’ll write about shame later, but vulnerability seems to be my issue-of-the-day. I watched the TED-talk on the subject again and it resonates even more with me today. In writing “The Dhance,” I mentioned the life kept “kicking me in the testicles” until I decided to let it all in. To do that I agreed to experience the pain as well as the joy and not to try to separate my life into cubicles, some of which I would experience and others that I would avoid. This meant making myself vulnerable. Brown says, “Connection is why we are here.” And, the only way connection can happen is if “we allow ourselves to be deeply seen.” I find myself sharing feelings, emotions and fears that I would never had the courage to talk about five years ago. Having good friends, both men and women, who will listen without judging has made it easier to be vulnerable. My greatest friend and listener was Carol, of course. She constantly encouraged me to talk about my pain, my fears and my vulnerability. Being able to verbalize my own fears gave me strength to listen to hers. This helped us deepen our connection to a level I never knew possible. Brown says that people who fully embrace vulnerability have the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to be kind to themselves and others, and the ability to make deep connections because they dare to be authentic. She concludes that while vulnerability is the core of shame, fear and the struggle for self-worthiness, it is also the birth place for joy, creativity, belonging and love. I thank God that life left me no choice but to experience my vulnerability throughout Carol’s illness. It was both a source of great sadness and of great love.
Recently I met with “The Rock Group,” seven extraordinary men who love and trust each other enough to share their innermost fears and hopes. One man talked of fear as being both an impediment and a motivator in his life. Since then two other men and I are creating a weekend retreat on “Fear: A Divine Gift.” Working on the retreat brought to mind an incident from three years ago. The subject of fear came up at our Thursday night men’s group meeting and several men shared what they most feared. I couldn’t relate to any of their fears, so I began thinking “What do I most fear?” At the time Carol was in remission and recovering well. I realized my greatest fear was that her cancer would come back. At lunch the next day, I shared this with my friend Greg. As was my habit, as I started home after lunch I called Carol to tell her I was on my way. She told me she had scheduled a doctor’s appointment for that afternoon, because something did not feel right in her abdomen. The doctor referred her for a CT scan to determine if the cancer had returned. Since it was Friday afternoon, the results would not be available until Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning. Over the weekend she and I talked and both realized that if the cancer returned, we could confront it together as we had with her original diagnosis. Monday afternoon the scan revealed two hernias along the incision line from her surgery. This experience was a gift that showed me I could face my greatest fear and move through it. When the cancer did return a year later we both knew that we would be able to be present with whatever life presented.
Jennifer had some very nice things to say about the book on her blog site. See it here: http://life-enlightenmentbookshelf.blogspot.com/2013/02/coy-cross-became-client-of-mine-last.html
“Conventional wisdom” says, “Don’t make any major decisions or become involved in any new relationships for at least one year” following the death of a spouse or significant other. Other “experts” recommend periods of three to seven years. I have come to see healing as an individual process taking however long it takes. Since my beloved Carol made her transition in May 2012, I have been leading workshops, talking to groups and giving interviews on being her caregiver as she confronted ovarian cancer. Each time I talk with someone about Carol and our time together, the pain of her loss is fresh in my mind. But I notice now that I don’t cry as often as I did two months ago. A first-aid analogy came to me recently: it’s like the difference between treating a laceration and a puncture wound. For a serious laceration, the treatment is clean it and close it up with stitches. A puncture wound needs cleaning, but left open to heal from the inside. Losing Carol was a like profound puncture wound. Having the opportunity to share my experience with the purpose of helping others keeps the wound open and healing from the inside. In the long run, I know this will allow me to heal more deeply. I will make major decisions or pursue relationships whenever they present themselves. I’m not a “conventional” person, so I’m not a big fan of “conventional wisdom.” My process will take however much time it needs to heal from the inside out. There will always be a tender place in my heart for Carol as there will be a scar from a puncture wound.
I spent this past weekend in San Francisco officiating at my grandson’s wedding. Saturday was a glorious day in “The City,” blue sky, unlimited visibility, about 65 degrees. More than once I thought how appropriate to start the new year with James and Amelia’s marriage. Carol and mine had ended after nearly 25 years with her passing in the old year. Amelia’s parents, grandparents, brothers and sister-in-law from New England attended. The families immediately bonded. I commented to my daughter, “Our extended family just doubled in size.” Carol had wanted to live long enough to attend, but unfortunately the fates decided otherwise. I wore a scarf she had knitted for me as a symbol for her. Amelia created the beautiful ceremony and selected the music to play at the reception. As we finished eating Van Morrison’s “Moondance” come over the sound system. This is one of Amelia’s favorite songs. It was also Carol’s “theme song” for the last years of her life. She was there, even if I couldn’t see her. It was a perfect ending to a ideal day and a new beginning.
I recently wrote about intention, now I would like to use that word again, but with a slightly different definition. By ” listening with intention,” I mean listening at a much deeper level than we normally do. Listening for the meaning behind the words that are being said. Listening to the speaker’s posture and expressions. Listening for the words that are not said. It is truly “hearing” what is being said. We are all capable of “listening with intention,” but it is not our normal process. I recently caused great pain and disappointment for a friend when I didn’t “listen with intention” when she needed me, too. I heard the words, but not the meaning behind them. ”Coincidentally,” a few days later another friend paid me one of the greatest compliments I have ever received when he told me, “Besides my father and my wife, you are the only person in my life who has ever listened to me with purpose.” I consider listening with purpose and listening with intention to mean about the same. There are times in all our lives when we need someone to listen with purpose. Long-time partners and friends can specifically ask for this, “I need you to really hear what I’m saying,” or “This is important and I want to make sure we understand each other,” or “I don’t feel you are hearing what I’m saying.” The listener needs to give feedback to ensure he/she has heard correctly. This is more than simply repeating back the words of the speaker. “I can hear by you tone, see by you expression, feel the emotion underneath, how important this is and this is what I understand you’re saying or you’re asking of me.” This allows for more dialogue, if needed, to further understand each other. This is a vital skill for a healthy relationship. One we will be called upon to use upon occasion. If we don’t use it when the need arises, the results are often deeply hurtful to someone you love and painful to you.
A belated “Happy New Year!” I have long loved the beginning of a new year. For me it is a time of reflection and a time of anticipation. I look back at the year just past and consider the joys and pains, the things that went well and those that didn’t, and assess areas of my life that I could have done better. As many of you know, my precious wife Carol made her transition in May 2012. So, obviously, it was a difficult year. At the same time, I believe I loved and supported her to the best of my ability. The months before her passing were the most love-filled of my life. 2012 was a year of great love and great sadness. As I look ahead to 2013, I’m excited about officiating at my grandson’s wedding later this month. On Valentine’s Day, which would have been Carol and my 25th wedding anniversary, our family and a small group of our closest friends will gather to acknowledge and honor her passing. Then it will time to write the follow-up to “The Dhance.” In October I’m going to Malawi, my first visit to Africa, as part of the African Library Project, which continues as important work to be done. Carol will continue sharing my life, only not in physical form. For me, life is still exciting, especially as I consider the gifts that each new year can bring. I have been called a Pollyanna. That may be true, but it has always served me well. I’d rather live my life expecting the best from the future than dreading the worst. So have a great new year, one filled with gifts and blessings,and may you recognize them as such, even when they come in disguise.
Intention is one of those common words that we believe we all understand, but which has a different meaning for each of us. The old adage “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is one meaning. Saying, “I intended to mow the grass today, but decided to watch the game on TV instead” is another. I see intention as something much deeper and more powerful than that. Perhaps the closest correlation is “setting an intention,” a process many are familiar with. Yet, I see my “intention” as being even more powerful than that. Unity adheres to the principle “A thought held in mind produces after its kind.” In other words, your thoughts create you reality. That’s how I see intention. But it isn’t some magical thinking for me. When I set an intention, I already envision that it will happen. Any hindrances along the way, no matter whether large or small, are “bumps” to be overcome. They are not reasons to change my intention. Obviously, not all my intentions come into reality. It is always a difficult decision between accepting that my intention is unattainable or is this just another bump to work through. Perhaps an analogy will help. I decide (set my intention) to drive to Toledo see my grandson and his bride (my new granddaughter). As I’m driving I get a flat. I change the car and keep driving. There is road construction. I keep driving. I have an accident, which totals my car, but I am okay; so I get another car and I keep heading for Toledo. A bridge is washed out, I look for an alternate road and keep driving. Nothing has changed about my original intention of going to Toledo to see my grandson. There are situations that could arise that would cause me to change my mind, such as, if I were serious hurt in the accident, or I learn my grandson is no longer in Toledo. To keep going under those circumstance is foolish. The dynamic changes if another person, who also wants to go to Toledo, is with me. He/she may consider what I call bumps as a major reason not to continue on the journey. This calls for an open and frank discussion about whether to continue or not. For someone observing me, they may see my persistence as hard-headedness or “clinging” if applied to a relationship. For me there is a definite and distinct difference, which is how I feel inside. If I persisting because “I can’t go on without achieving my intention,” that’s clinging. If I continue working toward my intention because I feel it is still worthy, even if the odds seem very unlikely, and I know I will be okay whether it turns out the way I want or not, then I am simply keeping with my intention. In the past, my failure to clearly define what intention meant to me and to get my partner’s “buy-in” on a common definition has led to frustration and hurt. One of intentions for this year is to do a better job at this.
A series of “coincidence,” which I don’t believe in, has gifted me with new insights into myself around the issue of living a finite time during this physical incarnation. I have long been aware that we are limited to a number years on the planet. The age of the oldest living person is currently about 115 years. Accepting this fact has often motivated me to accomplish a lot in a short period of time. I completed the remaining three years of a bachelor’s degree program in about two years, while working full time. I finished my six-year PhD program in three years. But until recently, I seldom considered the other side of this trait. If I am not feeling well or things are not going well in my life, my perspective shifts to “I don’t have much time left, so I have to ignore other people’s wants, desires, needs to get done whatever I feel I must get done.” With Carol’s death in May 2012 and my turning 75 in August, this has been the space I have been operating from for the last several months. I can see now that while completing the bachelor’s program, I went to school nights and weekends and spent little time with my family. I justified that by telling myself I was doing it for them. I know now I was really doing it for myself. A promising relationship recently ended, in part, because I felt I did not have enough time left to be patient and allow her process to unfold. As this was happening (“coincidentally”), I spent an overnight with a group of wonderful men who trust each other enough to talk openly about themselves and their lives. One man disclosed that “fear” had always been a part of his life both as a motivator and as inhibitor. He had reached a place of honoring both. In the days since our get-together, I have thought about my relationship with “finite time” and have come to see it, too, has been a motivator and an inhibitor. Like my friend, I don’t want to “get rid of” this trait. I want to keep it as a tool to use when appropriate, to use as a motivator for myself. I don’t want to use it to try to push someone else to move on my schedule. In my experience, that has produced the opposite result of what I want to accomplish. Upon my retirement seven years ago, my precious wife Carol gave me a bracelet inscribed in Italian that translates “I’m still learning.” That feels more appropriate today than ever.