Entries in courage (4)


Part 1: "May we have your father's grace"

Marynard A. Cutler (1923 - 2018)

After almost 96 years of life my father passed away on December 3, nearly a month ago now. As I start to write this, I feel a wave of sadness, as I always thought of Dad when I composed a post. Though he almost never said anything to me about my writing, he was a fan, and I know he read every word. His greatest compliment was when he commented once that he didn’t know how I could put all those words together in the right order. He wondered (in his usual understated way) “If someone took all the words from one of your stories and mixed them all up in a box, could they make something like this out of them?”

On the other hand, I also worried about what he would think of what I wrote. My life is quite different from his and I have tended to keep a lot of it to myself around him. This blog pushes my comfort zone about sharing my inner world. Would he judge my choices? Would he understand what I was doing? Would he think I was nuts?

So as I write, I feel an odd combination of loss and relief. Though in a way I feel freer to speak my mind, there is a hole out there where he used to be receiving what I sent out. I had gotten used to him being there like a light in the night showing me the edge of the world I lived in. Now that little light is dark. I feel the emptiness where it once was.


There's so much in my heart since Dad's passing. My mind is a log jam of thoughts and feelings. Where to begin? I realized today that I didn’t have to fit all my thoughts in one post. That helped. And with the pressure off, it was clear that the first thing I wanted to talk about was his actual death.

Both of my parents were capable, intelligent, independent farm people. Mom, however, became incapacitated at the end of her life by small strokes and a series of falls and broken bones. She needed full-time care for her last two years of life, and spent many months in a rehab facility.

Dad never wanted to go to a nursing home or even have someone care for him in his own home. He said to me once when he was younger that he would crawl around on the floor to take care of himself before he would have some stranger come into his house to help him. And the thought of going to any kind of retirement home always made him grimace like he was in pain. Though he would gladly accept help from his children in his later years, even that was always on his own terms.

Over this past summer when I stayed with him he was clearly declining. He tired easily, was often dizzy, and would occasionally collapse without warning. Though he could still take care of all his daily chores, his world had shrunk down to the house, the iPad, and the television, with an occasional drive on the farm roads to see what my brothers and niece were working on. 

After Tom and I left in September I think he was about the same, but later that fall he started letting my brothers know that he was ready to die, and even looking into what hospice provided. Then on December 2nd my brother found that he was having some small seizure-like episodes. He had also thrown up and just wasn’t feeling well, so in the evening my brother took him to the emergency room. When he got to the hospital they found that his heart rate was very low—I believe the doctor’s comment was, “How can you be talking to me when you have a heart rate of 35!”—and that he would need a pacemaker to survive.  At first Dad was uncertain about what he wanted. What would the pacemaker do for him? Was it a good idea? His sons were uncertain how to advise him. So much seemed like it hung in the balance. What was the right decision? And who would make it and how?

Sometime in the last three years I had read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande—one doctor's exploration of how to help people do what is really important to them at the end of their lives, and his critique of how and why the medical professional sometimes fails to achieve that. It seemed like the doctor who attended to Dad on his last trip to the hospital must have read the same book, because his ability to help Dad with this decision was noteworthy. He spoke directly to Dad, not to my brothers who were in the room with him. He made sure Dad could hear and understand him. And he asked Dad very specific questions about what really mattered to him. If Dad contradicted himself he would simply point that out and continue to patiently hold space for Dad to make his own decisions.

Further tests had showed that Dad’s heart had been damaged by a heart attack. And the doctor’s careful attention to him allowed Dad to take that information in. At some point in the conversation, Dad became very clear. No pacemaker. No surgery. It was time to let nature take its course.

Dad was moved to a room where he could receive comfort care. I was able to say a few sentences to him on the phone, and when one of my brothers left for the night Dad was still arguing with him that he wanted to run the remote control himself. A couple hours later he drifted off to sleep. The next morning he gradually stopped breathing and died.

Dad wasn't someone who shunned medical care. He had a quadruple heart bypass in his 70's as well as surgery for prostate cancer. Just in the past few months he had had some cancerous skin growths removed from his face. He got angry with my brother when he recently tried to help him fill out a form specifying what kinds of medical care he would and wouldn't want in an emergency. "That's what the doctors are for!” he shot back. “They are supposed to make those decisions!"

But he knew what he wanted, and he knew when it was time. For him, life was not worth living if it meant moving out of his home or being helpless. He wanted to be able to cook his own turkey loaf in the oven and play ping pong even if he had to hold onto the table with one hand to steady himself. He took every opportunity to live a long life, to enjoy working and playing, but in the end he didn't grasp at it. He was able to open his hand and let go.

As a good friend wrote to me after Dad's death: May we have your father's Grace.



Day 169: Friends with trees

As I was writing my post on cottonwoods, I noticed my reluctance to say that I felt these trees were my friends. Would I appear too emotional, too fanciful? Or perhaps not serious enough—as though seriousness is what’s required to be credible.

But how are we inspired to do difficult work or make hard changes? Our feelings show us what matters to us: what we value, what we love, what gives us delight, what distresses us. And our feelings let us know what we know we are related to.

At some level, we are related to everything, but we are wired for smaller scopes—to care about and protect the immediate family, clan, or tribe. And our feelings show us who we consider part of our tribe: who is worthy of our effort to protect, who we will risk our own comfort for.

To feel friendly toward something is a recognition that our fates are linked. For your friends you wish good health and a good life. You care about what happens to them. You share their joys and sorrows. You are willing to get involved when they need support, and ask for help when the situation is reversed.

Feeling friendly toward a tree is the first step in a deeper relationship. It may be, as we say, “only a feeling”—not in it for the long haul. But if that feeling is honored, trusted, and followed, it can also lead to deeper commitment and understanding.

Saying I feel the trees are my friends, also says something about me. This morning, with that eerie synchronicity that brings things to me when I need them, I picked up the other book of poetry I brought with me—H.D.’s selected poems—and opened to some of her words about trees. Most of it doesn’t quote well out of context, but this passage from her autobiographical novel HERmione gives a taste:

The woods parted to show a space of lawn, running level with branches that, in early summer, were white with flower. Dogwood blossom. Pennsylvania. Names are in people, people are in names. Sylvania. I was born here. People ought to think before they call a place Sylvania.
Pennsylvania. I am part of Sylvania. Trees. Trees. Trees. Dogwood, liriodendron with its green-yellow tulip blossoms. Trees are in people. People are in trees. Pennsylvania.

This intermingling of self and surroundings is something I have felt since I was very young. Trees are in people. People are in trees. There is a life-hum in the least grassy hillside. Even the gnats vibrate with shared life. Every rock has a say in the world.

Not to follow this sensibility—to hesitate to say something as simple as I felt a kinship with a tree—cuts off my strength. Plain and simple, it is hiding—in a time when we can’t afford to hide. H.D.’s editor says of her work:

What [she] is discovering in the pervasive earth, wood, and water imagery is the force of her natural love for all created beings: tree or flower, wave or meadow, man or woman. Her creative powers depend upon her ability to enter into the nature of other beings, other creatures, and to feel all the world about her endowed with powers…

I could say the same about myself: My creative powers depend upon my ability to enter into the nature of other beings… This could be a call to all of us who resonate with this knowing but keep it hidden, to wake up and have the courage to be ourselves, visibly ourselves.

To make a bold statement: This feeling of friendship with life is what we need most in our world right now. And being more open about my own natural love for all created beings is what I need most in mine.


Day 166: Poem for the day

I love books. As someone who has yet to acclimate to the Kindle-Age, I mean by this, real books. The kind you can smell and feel. The ones you have to struggle to hold open while you fall asleep at night. The kind you can underline, dog-ear, loan to a friend, and return to over and over again as they soften and grow sway-backed.

So only being able to bring a handful of books on this trip seemed like one down-sizing I wouldn't like. I thought I would miss my library and the freedom of having options. However, to my surprise, I have found that this limitation has been a benefit. I actually do like it—a lot.

Mostly I like being able to focus. For example, one book I brought is the selected poems of William Stafford, which I had owned for years without reading. I started at the beginning and read all the way through. One poet. One lifetime. One way of seeing the world. Then, because there wasn't another book waiting in line, I started over and read it again. This way of reading allowed his words to sink into my mind in a deeper way than usual. I am beginning to have a sense of the scope of his worldview. I can feel the change in his subjects as he aged. I can ponder the poems he wrote during his last months. I have never been good at memorizing poems, but when I read this way I find his words settling down and making homes for themselves in my mind. I often find them rising up at just the right moment, as we pass through many of the same places he wrote about. Things like these lines from his poem about Malheur:

An owl sound wandered along the road with me.
I didn’t hear it—I breathed it into my ears.

Or the opening lines of “Lit Instructor”:

Day after day up there beating my wings
With all of the softness that truth requires…

Or from “Inheriting the Earth: Quail”:

And anyway, little quail, your job is
to go out there and lose, when the time comes.

Or from “Outside”:

The least little sound sets the coyotes walking,
walking the edge of our comfortable earth.

Now I am reading Frances Mayes' Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, another book I have owned for many years and never gotten around to reading.  I brought this for the opposite reason—instead of depth, this is about breadth, a chance to see the work of many different poets juxtaposed together. Whereas reading Stafford’s body of work connected the life of one man, reading this connects many different poets speaking to each other across hundreds of years.

All this is just preamble to say that I would like to share a poem from Mayes’ book today—a poem by the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly. It gave me pleasure and the kind of hope that can come from art—whether words, pictures, movement or music.


   After a black day, I play Haydn,
   and feel a little warmth in my hands.

   The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
   The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

   The sound says that freedom exists
   and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

   I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
   and act like a man who is calm about it all.

   I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
   “We do not surrender. But want peace.”

   The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
   rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

   The rocks roll straight through the house
   but every pane of glass is still whole.


Spring is beginning as we work our way slowly across southern Arizona. The Fairy Dusters and the mallows are blooming, the Black-throated Sparrows are starting to sing from the bush tips, and Tom has found two Verdin nests. We spent a week at Organ Pipe National Monument, touched the border of Mexico, crossed the Tohona O’odham Nation's land, spent a week west of Tucson in Tucson Mountain Park (where the above photo was taken) and plan to head down toward the Patagonia area next. After that we will turn toward Cascabel, a small community on the San Pedro River east of Tucson that we visited several years ago, where we plan to spend the month of March. More about that later...


To begin with ... endings

I stare at the 40 emails in my drafts folder and know I should click "send." But I can't move.

This feels like the moment when you bring your cat to the vet because you know she is dying and ask them to put her to sleep.  Everything in you says "no." There are tear stains on the inside of your glasses from crying so hard. All you want is more time. But some part of you knows that today is the day. That this is what needs to happen. That this is part of the deal—what you signed up for when that adorable kitten showed up all those years ago.

These emails sitting in front of me are addressed to my clients in my therapy practice, letting them know that I am taking a year-long sabbatical. Not only that, I don't know what will come after that, don't even know if I am coming back to Seattle. This is a big change. There is no way to make this feel like it isn't coming out of the blue. I know people will be surprised, and some will be unhappy.

Besides that, I am having a hard time letting go. I grew this practice myself. It is something I have wanted for a long time and I love the work. I work with great people. I can walk to my office. I have no complaints.

But I have realized that there are other things calling to me and if I don't pay attention I will no longer be living my own life. No matter how enjoyable it is, no matter how many people benefit from it, a path that is not my own starts to gnaw at me, and eventually creates havoc in myself and in others.

You have to follow your thread.

People have said to me in the past, "You are courageous to do....(bla bla blah.)" I never really took that too seriously, and I have never felt courageous. I don't think I even knew what it meant. But today, as I finally pressed "send" for each one of those emails, I could feel that it was courage that allowed me to do this. That courage allowed me to face the pain of dismantling something I built myself. Courage allowed me to acknowledge the fear of disappointing people. Courage challenged my doubt about whether "good therapists" take breaks. It was courage that kept me moving forward, the everyday kind of courage that we all have access to.

I used to think of courage as some badass thing, like wrestling with mountain lions. I am realizing that courage is more ordinary than this. It is simply the thing that gives our lives structure during uncertainty or difficulty. Courage is not just some special ability that arises in crisis, like being able to lift a car off a loved one; courage is also like the nails that hold the roof together during a windstorm. We don't even think about those nails most of the time, but without them all we would have is a pile of lumber.

I like thinking of courage this way. I imagine all the nails in the roof above me right now, the rafters and beams and joists and sheathing and shingles all shot through with their little slips of metal, creating a safe place from the rain. And I can feel the courage inside me, something ordinary but awake, like a tiny fire in every cell, ready for the next storm.