Entries in letting go (4)

Tuesday
Jan082019

Part 2: The Dig

When Mom died nearly four years ago, Dad didn’t move any of her belongings. Her shoes stayed next to the door, her pillbox on the table, her clothes by the dryer. He just went on living around them while his life piled on top. So with his death, one of our first tasks was to clear out their home, which meant going through both of their things at once.

My parents have lived in this house for 50 years—my brothers and sister moved here as teenagers, but this is my only childhood home. After so many years of stasis, the house and its contents felt like a tightly compressed ball of energy. When Dad died, it was like a fuse was lit, and all that energy exploded immediately in all directions. Keepsakes went out the door with children and grandchildren. Bags and bags went to thrift stores and recycling. But the majority was ready to be released as heat and light, and we filled an entire farm truck (twice) with things to be burned in Spokane’s waste incinerator. There was something so right about all that accumulated history and memory being turned into electricity, about clearing the house of the old to make way for the new.

As we cleaned, it struck us that we were conducting an archaeological dig. The top layer was composed of the remains of Dad’s last years alone since Mom died. This layer was mostly things that were clearly disposable: junk mail, old birthday cards, broken sprinkler heads, grocery lists, medication fact sheets, dried up pens and paper clips and popsicle sticks, and all the other little odds and ends that accumulate from daily living. In the parts of the house that he didn’t visit much, this layer consisted of a thick coating of dust.

Below that were the remains from Mom’s last couple years of illness before her death—foot braces, medical bills, memory books from the nursing home, pill bottles, well-worn clothes with her name written on the collars in permanent ink. And below that was a poignant layer of disorganization before we recognized that Mom’s mind was deteriorating. Books on the floor next to the bookshelf. Emails printed out but not filed. Unanswered letters and half-finished projects. I find in a wastebasket a particularly painful note marking the exact edge when Mom suddenly went from her capable self to no longer being able to write an email or care for herself. The note mentions an upcoming concert, then reads: “My condition is deteriorating noticeably. Katie is coming to go to the appointment with the neurologist with me.” This is her rehearsal for one of the last emails she wrote. And this is the only piece of paper in her garbage can. Before that she emptied her can regularly; after that she never used it.

*******

When we skim all this recent history off the top, run the vacuum, and dust everywhere, suddenly the house that I remember when Mom was around is there underneath, still intact after all these years—the same tablecloth, the same memorabilia on the mantelpiece, the same piano music and books and pictures. It is a shock to realize how much the house had changed slowly into “Dad’s house” and to find this familiar place below.

Then we dig even deeper, past the recent history into closets and drawers where we unearth each of our childhoods. First mine—as I was the last to live there—in the puzzles and projects in the dining room cupboards. A replica of a saber-toothed tiger skull that I was chipping out of plaster. Colored plastic strands for braided bracelets. A pelican half-carved out of a bar of soap. Magazine pictures pasted onto scraps of plywood. Bits of lichen and seeds and dried flowers and shells.

Then the life of my siblings appears. In the filing cabinets there are folders for each child of their artwork, grades, school pictures, hospital records for tonsillectomies, and a packet a memorabilia from each birth. There are music lessons, the Learn to Draw with John Gnagy art set that they all drew from together, electronics kits and science fair projects, a row of my sister’s tennis trophies, window sills full of my brother’s pottery from a class he took in college, a quilt that my brother and sister-in-law made that is so well-worn from years of use that Mom had given up patching it. And for all of us, skis and ice skates. Pull toys and blocks. Caroms and Monopoly and Space Shot and Pit. Giant ancient flannel sleeping bags and army surplus camping gear. And the yarn and patterns from all the sweaters and blankets and socks that Mom knitted over the years for children and grandchildren.

Below that we find their life before children. Letters and photos from graduate school. A collection of scientific papers from the lab where my mother worked while Dad was studying physics. A box of unused wedding gifts. Photos of college ski trips. Biology notes, textbooks.  Then younger still—4-H ribbons, a red metal horse, a monkey that climbed a stick when you shook it, a little Japanese box with a secret drawer, a tiny candle stub, some “Willkie for president” pins, a pair of steer horns, an old bell with a strap small enough that it must have gone on a lamb.

We dig and sort, clean and cry, share memories and frustrations, and haul box after box out of the house. The sheer volume of information is overwhelming. I feel dizzy with it all, as though I am living in a house of mirrors and I can’t find the passage out. I am not even sure who I am grieving for anymore. Who just died? Is it Dad? Mom? The house? My childhood?

But as we uncover hidden stashes, sort closets and drawers—as room after room slowly empties, I feel like the house is breathing a sigh of relief. It is coming into the present. Soon it will be a place where the current farm owners can live and work. And at the same time, my ideas about my parents are coming into the present as well. My picture of my parents as people is filling in. Now that they are gone I can see in the reflection of their belongings more of who they actually were, rather than just my ideas about them. It’s so clear in this dig through the past that they lived for forty years before I showed up, and that all of my experience with them—all those events that are so fraught with significance to me—are just one small part of who they were. And if this is true of them as people, how much more true it is of them as souls, whatever that connection is to the vast fabric of the universe.

*******

After two whirlwind weeks, I fly back to our trailer in Arizona. Two weeks of very little sleep left me physically tired, but more than that, I felt profoundly unmotivated. A good part of my energy still seemed caught back at the farm, 1500 miles away. Though I felt a sense of freedom in the first days after Dad passed, I didn’t have any plan for moving forward. No longer do I have to wonder whether I will be needed to care for him. No longer do I have to hope he won’t break a bone or wreck the car or burn the house down. And yet all I wanted to do was curl up around my memories and hide.

It has taken me a few weeks to get my feet back under me. It’s like I have been whirled in a blender and my ideas of who I am have been tossed around and broken apart. It is not an entirely unpleasant feeling, but I am still waiting for the present to coalesce again—waiting for the new reality to feel real.

Tuesday
Jan012019

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.

 

Monday
Jun122017

Day 280: What is home?

May 25: Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

In a couple weeks, Tom and I plan to be at my family's farm near Spokane where I grew up. Even though I have not lived there for nearly 30 years, I have continued to call it home, something that always confused things when we would drive from “home” in Seattle to “home” on the farm. Sure, I knew it wasn’t where I lived at the time, but it was always a more fundamental kind of home—a place that I originated from, that defined me, and by which I measured all other things.  It was a kind of center of gravity; something that you never really left.

For months now I have thought of arriving back on the farm after all of our traveling this year, as going home. But it suddenly hit me tonight, completely out of the blue, as I was in the middle of cooking a sausage for dinner:  the farm is not my home.

I am not sure I can explain the impact of this thought to anyone who moved frequently as a child. Those of you who did, got this lesson long ago.  But for someone who lived in the same place growing up, a place that was such a force of life, a place which still exists essentially unchanged today, this idea felt like a small revolution in my mind.

The farm is not my home. Yes, it is the place I grew up. Yes, it will always be part of me. Yes, there are people I love there. But it is their home, and it seems important, at this point in my life in particular, that I stop calling it mine.

Which of course raises the question: What is home? Is home the structure I live in? Is this trailer, that we have now hauled around the West to 60 different places, home? It certainly is no small comfort to have this little island of familiarity to return to each day, but is that all that home is? Is home where the heart is—with the partner that I have chosen to live with? Or with family? Or with the community of people I work and share friendships with? In the past, I have associated home with a location—a piece of land or a kind of landscape. I remember when I first moved west of the Cascades in my early 20’s how utterly lost I felt immersed in unfamiliar weather and plants, and how long it took me to begin to recognize this new place as somewhere I belonged.

May 10: Winky at Sunny Flats Campground, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mts, Arizona

This past year, though, has given me a new perspective. That perhaps it isn’t something on the outside that is home, but rather something inside myself. And that perhaps when I am in touch with this inner home, my outer home can expand. Perhaps (as I began to consider in earlier posts) the whole world is my home. Perhaps wherever I happen to live is part of a much larger whole. Perhaps this is another way to “hide the world in the world.”

And perhaps letting go of calling the farm home, and recognizing that I am a visitor there, is a step toward embracing a fundamental contradiction: that while I am at home everywhere I go, I am also a visitor everywhere I live. As my sense of belonging widens, perhaps my sense of possession can lighten. Perhaps I can learn to be a partner with the place I live rather than its master.

What I can be master of is myself. And that mastery brings with it confidence. The confidence to say: Where am I today? And to answer: Today I am at home, in myself and in the world.

Thursday
May252017

Letting Go

You think you do right to hide little things in big ones, and yet they get away from you.
But suppose you were to hide the world in the world…

--Chuang Tzu

This trip began with a death and a theft.

The death was the death of my mother after a several-year decline. When she passed away, not only were my care-giving services no longer needed, but something I had taken for granted my whole life suddenly disappeared. The resulting emptiness was freeing and disorienting. I felt like a horse who had been hitched loosely to a post for a long time and now the post was gone, and there was no guidance about the many directions I could wander off in.

The theft came a few months after that, in late June of 2015, on a trip we took to the Oregon Coast. We had parked at a trailhead early in the morning to walk to the sand dunes, and when I got back to the car, someone had stolen my bags with all of my clothes in them out of the back seat. All that was left was what I was wearing and my pajamas back in the tent. Everything that was gone was either useful or sentimental—for example, the last crocheting project my mother was working on with me before she died. But though I felt angry and sad at first, I noticed that I felt a great lightness at not having bags to carry, or having to decide what to wear the next day, or having to protect things from getting stolen. The freedom I continued to feel from this simple loss made me start to wonder what the price was of owning things. How much did I want to own, and why?

So it shouldn't come as a surprise to me that this trip is turning out to be about letting go. At first it was about letting go of physical things—cleaning out our house of 20 years and selling or giving away (or throwing out) most of our belongings. Leaving my office and our familiar surroundings in Seattle. Being separated for a time from friends and family. But I am finding that it is also about letting go of inner things. Letting go of my plans. Of strategies for getting along in the world, like being helpful, accumulating knowledge, or staying busy. Of old reactions and habitual responses.

What I feel drawn to over and over again as we travel is a kind of inner emptiness. The kind of emptiness that is not so much precursor to something else, (the space in the bell / allows it to ring) but a state of awareness in and of itself. A condition of Being completely separate from my plans and projects.

And yet it feels scary to watch birds without making a list, or to not have a plan for how we will get back to Washington, or to not be creating something. At my most doubtful, I wonder what is legitimate emptiness and what is just aimlessness. After I graduated from my master's program in June of 2011, I took a couple months off to rest before deciding what to do next. In September I started building my private therapy practice. Looking back on it, I can't remember what I did during the summer at all, while the fall is bright and clear in my memory. When I go back to my journal I see that I had lots of ideas that summer—I painted, I planned interesting workshops with friends, I took some trips, I thought about the future—but somehow that time off was not nearly as memorable as actually starting to create something that I loved.

This emptiness I am sensing now seems different, though. It is not just a void, it is actually something alive. When I woke this morning I remembered the poem I wrote in 2015 about what my work is: to guard the silence / at your center. It takes an alert vigilance to guard, and I notice that most of the time, I am not tending that silence—especially when I am feeling irritated with something or caught in some kind of mood. As soon as I begin to believe these feelings and act on them, it gets very noisy inside. If I took that poem seriously, it could be a guide for this time:

So lay aside your lists,
your plans,

and your intentions.
The silence

of this space
contains everything.

Its words
are your words.

This morning (May 1st) we are leaving yet another place that we have fallen in love with—another kind of letting go. Saying goodbye to the calming presence of Mt. Wrightson, to the Mexican jays, to the alligator junipers with their distinctive checkerboarded bark, to the Rincon paintbrush and the sycamores. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and I feel this in my gut as a kind of ache every time we leave somewhere.

But as I just feel this sadness (and let it go, too) there is an emptiness that replaces it that is expansive and full. After having over 50 different “homes” this year, I am getting used to endings. I am beginning to see that grasping onto things to try to keep them the same also creates an emptiness, but one that is fearful and lonely. This new emptiness is different. It resonates with energy. It is large enough to contain everything we have seen and done—and more. It is indefinable. And it requires trust, something that is easier said than done.

I can remember other times when I felt this kind of emptiness. When our cat Lionel died at home after a long decline, I sat with the body afterwards trying to feel what had just happened. As I sat there, I had the sense that what I considered Lionel was dispersing out into the universe. He wasn't there, and the emptiness of his passing was heart-wrenching. But now he was everywhere—in the trees and the grass and the air and the stars—and if I sat quietly, thinking of him, I could feel in that emptiness a connection to everything, if only for a moment.

Perhaps if we do not shut down when things are taken from us or when we are sad, there can be room for this. Perhaps this is one way of hiding the world in the world.

*****

This part of the trip is hard for me. We have done many of the things we set out to do. We don’t have a lot of plans between now and the end of August. In the absence of structure or purpose, I often find myself depressed. Or, to put it more exactly, I cycle between extremes: one day I feel a deep sense of awe or contentment. The next I find myself aimless and lost, unsure about myself or the point of anything.

Jim Corbett speaks to this difficulty in his book Goatwalking. He talks about these feelings as the natural result of the search for this emptiness, which he calls detachment or selflessness. Detachment requires an end to our addiction to social busyness, and in order to even see this addiction, we have to step outside of the usual social structures for awhile—which is not as easy as it might sound.

Wandering purposeless and without human companionship, one sometimes experiences emotional crises that are...similar to culture shock and cabin fever.... In the absence of socially supported identities we may discover ourselves possessed by naked demons who have the good manners to appear only in acceptable disguises when we are in polite society. During extended periods of isolation working as a sheepherder and cowboy, I discovered little of this kind of emotional conflict. After all, I was doing a job and earning a living. Each day had its work and objectives.... But in full solitude—free and easy wandering without purpose or schedule—the demons appear.

Society provides most of the make-believe that prevents one's hells from surfacing into full consciousness. But whoever leaves the world to wander alone...should be prepared to meet a devil or two, when busyness ceases to drown out the dream side.... Old wounds become fresh injuries. Unresolved terrors become immediate threats. I've come awake in the close darkness of a cloudy new-moon night, sobbing from an early-childhood rejection, so overcome with its lasting presence that I could only gradually remember my way back into middle age. I've come awake old and senile, awaiting death with dumb, motionless panic. (Corbett, p. 10-11)

Jim's descriptions of his experiences help me recognize the moods I feel for what they are and to understand how to continue to orient myself by naming them and re-focusing on the bigger picture. Without this perspective I would have headed back to something familiar long ago. But it is clear to me that this pain—though not the point—is necessary. That this breaking open is the first step in receiving the world.

*****

A few weeks ago I took a nap in the trailer in the heat of the day and woke up thinking that I was a child again on the farm and that my family was just in the other room. Then I started having sense memories of taking care of Mom at Manor Care—the smell of the building, the long faceless hall, all those blank hours in which she had to occupy herself. I felt groggy and disoriented from sleep and had a jolt of empathy for her confusion while she lived there—how difficult it would be to not be able to get up and walk, or to go outside to find your present self again. I was surprised at how fresh all of those memories still were for me, and how often these days I feel like I imagine Mom did during that time. Perhaps this is another kind of letting go—the need to let go of the past.

I think of all the letting go she had to do those last years. Letting go of her memory and her ability to make sense of the world; of her ability to walk or take care of herself; of her capacity to make her own decisions and of most of what was fun. Eventually letting go of her body and of her life itself.

When I think about this, I am pretty sure that I don’t fully understand the implications of letting go, or even what I am giving up. All I see at first are the positive aspects of living lighter along with a little collateral sadness, something along the lines of not having luggage to carry out of the car. But when I think about Mom, and I consider losing parts of myself that I consider central to who I am—memory, interests, skills, my home, my work—it is much more unsettling. I can feel the desire to clutch fiercely at these things, uncertain that what will take their place is worth it.

Then I feel the wind blow, I see the tips of all the trees move in concert like a green ocean, and I know that these trees are connected all the way back to the canyons of Utah, the sage brush of Nevada, the pines of the eastern Cascades, the great fir trees of the Olympic Mountains, and on and on. I feel the whole earth breath. I feel the pull to keep trying to understand what it means to hide the world in the world. I know there is no going back.

When you let go
you relax
open your hand—
everything falls to the ground.
You don't have to choose
any more.
This does not mean, though,
that you are bereft—
that things won't choose you.
That things with wings
won't land on your open palm,
or that little feet
won’t make the long journey
from the ground to your lap.
Just wait.
Open.
Everything
is a part of you.

------------------
Corbett, J. Goatwalking. (1991). New York: Viking.