Archive for July, 2013

Solitude

July 28, 2013

Keeping on, keeping on

I’ve just finished reading Sara Donati’s Fire in the Sky, committing to myself to find the next book in her series about the Bonner family, and life in upstate New York in America’s early years. In an afterward, Donati states that she hopes she has done her work well enough for readers to seek out histories of the period, the War of 1812, which she feels is given short shrift in school history lessons. If my own experience is any indicator, she’s correct. My recollection of what I learned in elementary school about that war is limited to the battle at Fort McHenry and its role in the origin of our national anthem. High school American history class gave me even less about the War of 1812 – undoubtedly because the lesson was taught in a school in Paris, by a British woman who dismissed the entire affair as a “skirmish on the edge” of the important war happening at that time – Britain versus Napoleonic France.

My take-away from Donati’s writing is not, however, an interest in researching the complexities of what U.S. history books also refer to as the ”period between the French and Indian Wars and the settling of the West” (i.e. all the anguish and horror of the Amerindian experience with European intolerance). My take-away from Donati’s well written, engrossing series is far more personal – a profound feeling of loss, and a bone-deep sense of aloneness. Unlike the characters in this novel, who are an extended family with deep interconnections and emotional commitments to one another – unlike these people written into vivid life – I am alone. Profoundly alone. Only child of older parents long deceased, no first cousins, formerly married to a loner whose own small family (one brother and his children) made me welcome but with whom I have too little in common to connect. I have no children of my own, and never had the occasion to adopt any.

Mind you, I am not lonely. I like my own company, indeed find that I need solitude and tire quickly of constant interaction on those occasions when I am in extended social situations. When, with my husband, we went to visit his brother for a weekend, my sister-in-law was first puzzled, then amused to know that if I went missing, she could usually find me settled in the back seat of our car, with a book. Never happy unless surrounded by the noise and chatter of her children, nephews, cousins and visitors, my sister-in-law struggled to understand how overwhelming so many people could be to a person like me. I was raised in a home dominated by the quiet of parents who, because they did not like each other much, spoke little and went their own ways – until my mother would explode in rage. Noisy interaction, to me, means anger, shouting, ugly accusations, slaps, and being punished for non-existent infractions of unstated rules.

I am well aware of other types of noisy, social family dynamics. Adults happy to be together, chattering about their shared past and planned future, children busy with invented games that send them chasing among the adults, teens congregated on the porch giggling and talking (now also texting) their secrets to one another… I see all this around me as a positive experience, but know myself unable, now, to become part of it. Know that I was set onto my solitary path as early as kindergarten, where my tentative efforts to join the other children and make friends were undermined by my mother’s belief that it wasn’t safe for me to visit in any of their homes, or get to know them outside of the classroom. I know, as an adult, that it was her own self-doubt, her own fears that she was projecting outward, creating an environment around me that forbade socializing in groups.

I’m grateful that I’ve learned to enjoy people, and have been blessed over the years with companions and close friends. I’m also blessed with the ability to enjoy life as a single person, not needing to be part of a couple or in anyone’s company to eat at a restaurant, go to a concert or play, take a road trip, or vacation abroad. I have seen how family dynamics can become warped, twisted into lifelong animosities and unforgiven grudges. I know that much of the appeal in Donati’s stories (beyond the fact that she is an excellent writer) lies in becoming engaged with an ideal of family caring. The members support each other through their various trials, remaining in the end united despite distance or even death. The appeal of romances is that they portray an ideal, of love overcoming obstacles, achieved in the end. The appeal of traditional westerns is of clear cut right and wrong, an ideal justice achieved in the end.

The appeal of an ideal… Is there an ideal of solitude?

Not noticeably in fiction, but perhaps in religion or spiritual pursuits. The Buddha, sitting alone in contemplation. The Benedictine brothers at Christ in the Desert, living a vow of silence in their isolated monastery. The occasional lone backwoodsman – Robbie, in Donati’s Lake in the Clouds – an exemplar of a character choosing to live alone. Spiritual practitioners of solitude do carry the qualities of an ideal. The fictional characters do not. They are portrayed, even the most positive of them, as missing some important element of life. They are portrayed as strong enough to live alone, but nonetheless in some way damaged and unable to connect appropriately with society.

Why this disconnect between the positive image of spiritual solitude and the flawed one of social solitude? I am happy to have ample alone time for my spiritual practice, during which I feel embraced and held close in the joy of the Divine’s presence. I only question my aloneness when I encounter – usually in fiction, but occasionally in daily life experiences – the ideal of family, and then my emotional self begins to wonder if I’ve missed something important. A co-worker has been diagnosed with cancer. His family – sister and two adult daughters – have come from across the country to visit with him, provide support, and enjoy his company. Who would come if the same challenge were to arise for me?

I am looked after and cared for most completely by my spiritual Beloved. I know in my bones, in my gut, in my Soul, the certainty that I am not alone, not forgotten, not adrift in a life without purpose or meaning. As life challenges arise, the tools to meet them will be provided to me, in ways and forms I cannot invent nor imagine, as has already been proven true when I review my Path thus far. Indeed, my current querying of my state of aloneness, my curiosity as to whether I’ve missed out in some way by not experiencing the ties of family, my observation of the ideal of those ties as presented in fiction – all this reflection is an example of the process by which I am gifted to acquire whatever tools I will need going forward. It is just my mind, like a little child, tugging at my spiritual skirts and whining, “I want a sister, I want a brother, to talk to, to play and share with.”

Maybe next lifetime?
Careful, there. Remember the adage about being selective in what you ask for!

. . . Was the Word

July 20, 2013

 valley viewI wrote my first poem, in my teens, after standing up to a howling wind blowing across the rim of Les Baux, in southern France. Below me was the Val d’Enfer (Valley of Hell), so named, I was told, because it was the site of attacks on merchant caravans whose masters tried to avoid paying tithe to the lords of Les Baux. My poem sought to express a sense of standing up to challenge.

Now, in my so-called golden years, I live in one of the windiest areas of the USA, the foothills of the Rockies in northeastern New Mexico. As I write, the wind swirls around my home, slamming against the house before fading to a conifer-leached sigh. With my eyes closed, the sounds could be those of the ocean, hitting the Maine coast and splashing me with spray or, from even earlier in my life, the rolling tumult of storm-roiled combers crashing onto Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, below where I stand hanging onto the railing of the boardwalk.

Just last month, the wind lifted tin off the roof of my loafing shed (fortunately no horses were around to be frightened into bolting). I arranged to re-roof the cottage to which the shed is attached, so tonight there is no clatter and rattle, only the almost intelligible language of an ocean of wind, once again attempting to tell me all the truths of the world.

Heavenly Wind

Heavenly Wind

The wind, no matter in what spot in the world I experience it, brings change. Sometimes merely a change in the weather, other times a practical change like the needed, but previously postponed, new roof. The wind, no matter in what spot in the world I experience it, always brings me to inner change.

Awareness of a power beyond my small self, clinging to the boardwalk rail.
Awareness of good and evil across the ages of man’s time on earth as I looked into hell’s valley from the heights where I was sheltered and protected.
Awareness of the power in wind-driven, fragile drops which shattered to spray against mica-rich Maine rocks, before falling back into the sea and rising again to the work of eroding those rocks over eons of time.
Awareness tonight that, living amidst frequent winds, I have placed myself in the perfect outer environment to match the pace of my inner spiritual evolution. Washed by waves of wind-sound, like the Maine rocks, I am inexorably cleansed, my ego eroded to allow the bright mica reflections of Soul to shine forth.

Cleansing started, and will end, with the Word, spoken by the lips of the wind, into the ears of those who wish to hear.

Whoooo Are Youoooo?

July 13, 2013
I Dare You...

I Dare You…

The neurology course I finished last month on line, through Coursera – and the Cardiac Resuscitation Science one I just finished – both touched briefly on brain phenomena which have been observed to accompany what people describe as near death experiences. By wiring up Hospice patients to study brain patterns as life ends, or monitoring brain activity in the emergency room during CPR and defibrillation, scientists have observed bursts of brain activity which accompany the last moments of life – and which also occur in those who are “brought back”.

I’m not sure where I stand with regard to the effort to explain all cognitive experiences in terms of brain physiology. On one hand, the brain is fascinating in its complexity, flexibility, capability – and in the fact that there is so much we still don’t know about how it functions. On the other hand, I am strongly drawn to a spiritual life that knows phenomena by direct, non-mental, experience. It’s an easy out to say that when we fully understand the brain, we will fully understand transcendental experiences. I am more inclined to maintain that when we fully understand the brain we will fully understand that not all phenomena of experience can be explained by physiology.

How I wish that I could inquire of my three year old Shih Tzu what his experience was when he recently flat-lined and was resuscitated with extended CPR at the vet’s during what should have been a routine, minor surgery. When I picked him up he showed only the usual post-anesthesia grogginess – and his recovery was reasonably normal for what he’d experienced. It took him a few days to regain easy movement after the bruising and soreness from chest compressions, and he slept more than usual for about a week. He now seems his normal self in most activities, but there is a slight yet noticeable change in his personality (okay, his behavior, if you prefer a more rigorous, scientific terminology).

From puppyhood a rousing, adventurous and typical “boy”, Shian Shung would tussle with all comers, chase after rabbits, try to dominate larger dogs at the food bowl and to herd the neighbor’s horses if they came too close to ‘his’ property He manifested an assertive command of his life. He accepted human affection and tolerated my ministrations to his infected eye, but would generally leave people with the impression that, catlike, he was gracing us with only a portion of his attention and that only for a limited amount of time before more pressing demands took him off into the fields or to a game with his peers. (I have four dogs and a cat, while neighbor dogs and cats – including the striped and stinky variety – regularly visit our acreage).

Since his resuscitation, Shian Shung has been seeking out human contact, wanting to spend time on laps or in the house around people. Just today, he tried to climb into the car of a new person coming to our home, rather than standing to one side as he used to do, barking to let her know she was on his turf. He is as energetic as usual, but milder and less dominating of the other dogs. And he has stopped chasing the cat. Because he has “seen the Light?” He was intubated during the CPR and did not suffer oxygen loss to the brain, so cell death in motor or instinctive behavior areas did not occur and thus cannot be invoked as a cause of his behavior change.

Personality is the subtlest of the selves by which we are known and recognized. One might say it is the aspect of oneself closest to one’s real essence, or core reality. Changes in personality do occur with changes in brain function, as often happens with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. But that does not obviate the possibility that a personality change can occur without any apparent change in brain function. The sense of self we all recognize as part of our being and project through our personality has, as it were, a life of its own. If we suffer brain damage from accident or chemical changes, we may behave differently but we retain – in almost all cases – our ‘selfness’ unaltered.

How I wish I could inquire of Shian Shung whether he recognizes his changed behavior (personality)!

I think I’m on solid ground when I project that he would not be aware that he has changed, just as we humans are rarely aware, until circumstances or another person force the point, that we have begun to respond differently than we did in the past. We think of ourselves as impatient people striving to improve until one or more situations arise which we handle with a consummate patience for which we are praised. “Oh,” we say. And look back at our behavior with some surprise, recognizing that we have indeed been patient, not only in the most recent encounter but also, upon reflection, in those of the past several months as well. The interesting question is whether we then alter our self-concept to include being patient, or continue to cling to the idea that we are impatient but ‘doing better on occasion.’

There so often is a disconnect between so-called reality, and our perceptions of it, especially when the subject of the perception is some aspect of ourselves. Humans are famous for perceiving themselves as fatter or thinner or older or uglier than reality – the consensus of others – dictates. Some of us can feel fat one minute and not-so-fat a few minutes later (when trying on new clothes for example) despite there being no change whatsoever in our actual size. How much more flexible, and divorced from reality, are our perceptions of our personalities.
So who are we, really? A body commanded by a brain to move through time and space? A mind inhabiting and directing a body to move through time and space? A Soul or Spirit temporarily linked to a mind and body and animating it within time and space? Something else altogether?

If Shian Shung could communicate with me about his death and resurrection, would he express it in terms similar to those used by people to describe their own near death experiences? Or would the fact that the canine brain differs significantly from a human brain mandate that the experience be perceived differently? I wish I knew – or do I?

Each advance in science, seeking answers to these ancient questions, seems over the course of recorded history to have only raised new versions of the same questions. Quantum physicists posit abstract entities, the descriptions of which sound a great deal like the energies that mystics have attempted to describe with terms like Soul or spirit. Neurologists use the laws of physics to describe brain function at the level of the neuron. Neuroscientists have completed experiments which purport to show that neurons are activated in support of one option in an either/or choice milliseconds before the subject becomes conscious of deciding to act. From these results, they propose that free will, like the concept of a self which is separate from brain function, is an illusion – a byproduct of brain functioning.

A contrarian argument arises – that the need to believe brain function can explain all aspects of human experience, is itself a brain-generated belief and not the ‘choice’ of a rational, scientific mind. I need to stop at this point. Taking the iterations any farther will land me in the far reaches of hypothetical thinking, and I will have come full circle once more from science to philosophy, from the brain to the Self or Soul – without knowing anything more about the inner experiences of my dog.

For now, I am content that he survived, that he is healthy, and that he enjoys time on my lap.

Life Patterns

July 7, 2013
At UWC-USA Graduation 2013

At UWC-USA Graduation 2013

Marker events in our lives – weddings, baptisms, graduations, funerals – don’t just bring us together in community. These rites of passage often also occasion a life review, or at least a review of that part of one’s life affected by the event being marked. Is my child growing in the way I would hope? Has my marriage turned out as I anticipated? Do I need to make changes to my diet, to live longer than friend John there in the casket? It is a natural human behavior, to make comparisons and to consider not just where one stands in relation to others, but where one stands in relation to one’s own life goals.

There is another type of life review, however, that does not arise so easily, nor so obviously. I’m referring to a bout of unsettledness that descends (or creeps up) seemingly out of nowhere. For me, a recent one definitely came as a sneak attack, catching me in the gut, triggering an upset digestive system not related to diet, illness or any other identifiable external cause. Only stress has, in the past, caused me this sort of physical response. There are no apparent stresses in my life just now, at least not recognizable ones off the widely distributed list of events (including happy ones) known for causing this pernicious dis-ease.

Perhaps that’s why it took me awhile to recognize that what was troubling my tummy lay deeper than a ‘bug’, or too much green chili on my tostada.

For much of the past year I have not known in what direction my life would turn. I left a position I’d held for twenty years, and experienced a huge easing of stress. I’ve gone forward with an open mind, following no pre-chosen path, but rather exploring each option that has presented itself, to see where it would lead. All of the possibilities fizzled out, until I came to writing, which is not a new interest but one that I have pursued in fits and starts over the past twenty years, too frequently allowing it to fall to the wayside as paying work and family demands took precedence. Now, however, I find myself able to give the writing precedence – and am very happy to do so.

I have recently recognized that my life pattern has been one of compromise – and of finding validity for my existence in activities that are of service to others. Teaching college in a prison, working for defense attorneys, running a home health agency and providing case management services to clients – worthwhile pursuits from which I gained as much in learning as I offered in care. The compromises lay in choices made regarding how and where I served – in the U.S. rather than in other countries, as I would have wished to do had I been single and free to go where I pleased. The compromises also lay, unrecognized until just recently, in the subtler realm of belief that I had to justify my existence by some form of service. How many of us are driven by an unstated, perhaps unrecognized, belief that we have no worth until we have somehow ‘earned’ our right to existence? I was startled to realize that until very recently, I did not feel entitled to choose a career on the sole basis that it is something I want very much to do!

I was still a young child when I first came across Robert Frost’s “Death of a Hired Man”, and the concept therein (stated by the wife, mind you) that home is “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” By that criterion, I have been searching for a home most of my life, and am only just beginning to understand to what extent I have carried within me parental strictures about having to measure up, to prove myself, to earn the right to be thought ‘good enough.’ Finding home, and happiness, as I seem to have managed over this past year, means I have – finally – extricated myself from the tentacles of ‘deserving.’

In my former conditioned way of thinking, I could say that I have worked hard, done what was expected and required of me, for enough years that I now deserve to devote myself to the new career I choose – writing. But I recognize with some considerable surprise that the happiness I am feeling arises not from the doing of the writing, but from my freedom from the need to justify the doing of it. I think I have finally found ‘home’ – a state of being which is independent of the concept of deserving, within which whatever I choose to do with my time and energy will prove to be the right thing for me to be doing.

It isn’t surprising that a major shift in how I approach current activities could cause subconscious stress, and hence digestive upset. I do want to be careful that I don’t use my physical state of well-being (or lack thereof) as a measure of my success in making this transition, since I know that the physical takes much longer to change than does the emotional, which in turn takes much longer than the spiritual. What can be grasped in a moment of enlightenment can take years to fully manifest on the physical.

What matters is that first willingness to recognize that a shift is not only necessary but has in fact occurred. And to allow an unexpected welling of emotion, as well as the uncomfortable gripping of pain, to mark a happy transition from a limited state of (earned or deserved) being, to simply Being.


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