What to Remember When Waking
"...To be human
is to become visible
what is hidden
as a gift to others..."
Excerpt from ‘What to Remember When Waking’
From River Flow: New and Selected Poems
Many Rivers Press. ©David Whyte
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Encouragement: The Harvest Surpise Birthday - 60 years
My life has been focused on the bounties of life since Summer Solstice. For all of the rattling of skeletons, the drama and bravado in my stories of the past this year, time marches on and I'm swept into the fray always making choices. In assessing my baggage, it became obvious in June that I needed to let go of some things if I was going to move forward. I've been busy doing just that.
I have enjoyed a great deal of control in my life. Commandeering my birthdays, for instance, and doing something quite fabulous at each decade year...until this year. This year my anticipated plans for my life and my festive birthday fell flat. I had been quietly planning, since 2005, on going on a walk in Europe to celebrate my 60th birthday I've never been abroad and in keeping with my tradition of doing something I've never done before or going somewhere exotic on my decade birthday, I wanted to do a walk in the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean. A short walk - nothing too rigorous - but enough of a walk that I could rest on my laurels in pride of accomplishment for another ten years. My youngest son was willing to accompany me. How fabulous is THAT? Just knowing the fact that he wanted to go with me made it worth the attempt, in truth. I could not be further from making that trip had I actually died, however.
This particular year has reintroduced me to a poverty I have not experienced since my sons were small and Ronald Reagan declared war on the poor and infirm in the 70's when I lived in California. I feel as though I have been drawn into an enormous whirlpool of economic dysfunction along with many others of my vintage. Even though I'm in good company and I am aware that I've had a good run, it is disappointing to loose the trajectory of 5 decades of outstanding birthday celebrations...but it is not the end of the world. The end of the world makes a much larger sucking sound than the echo of the disappointment in one birthday wish bouncing off the walls of an empty party pavilion.
My last decade has been clearly marked in my mind by losses. On my own terms as I faced each of my personal losses I've had to really slow down to appreciate just what each one represented and examine just what each vacancy required to heal properly. The thing about losses is that they compound and if one gets too many, too fast, it can take one out; it can become too much. A strong character can become fragile beyond belief in the stoppage of one too many heartbeats....or some quitting of the flow of love...or the exile of some vital component to one's happiness. Never have I been so aware of this dichotomy of human strength and fragility as I have in the last few years. Staying abreast of my own grief has been a full time job at times. In the lonely depths of dark nights, I have wondered what if nothing fills these vacuous chambers left within one's tender, aging heart?
The thing about loss is the keen focus one must maintain in getting through. It is just this focus that can threaten the very healing that is present. One morning around Solstice, as I dutifully (habitually?) counted my losses, it occurred to me that I was completely forgetting what I had gained in the last decade. The most obvious blessings are my two Granddaughters who opened up a whole new vista to my world regarding love, time and aging and purpose. Also the aging of my own children and being witness to their adult development and enjoying their successes; expressing myself; choosing not to be simply "tolerated" any longer; the rush of living smarter and not throwing money at everything that scares or woos me; developing a new and stronger personal investment in my time and the small amount of money that is available; being able to appreciate how I get through a day by my own wits and not just answering to others often vague expectations in exchange for a great deal of money; or having to belong to something or someone. These things have replaced some of what is gone now - some losses cannot be replaced and have become sanctuaries of memory within me...I am very much on my own now and, perhaps for the first time, truly independent from supports that have long lost their power, usefulness, magic or romance for me.
I still miss many of those people and places and ideals where I used to find comfort. They are now transformed in some way that does not allow me to relate to them in the same way anymore...but my year of encouragement has been gracious and abundant in sharing the awareness that there is much to fill the vacancies in my heart, should I allow it in. The universe itself presses in and welcomes me everyday; the world wants me in a new way. It is something foreign to this older woman in her 60th year but something, I suspect, overdue and quite vital to the enjoyment of a full life that sits within this invitation.
Long before any of these losses manifested, I was an advocate of independent living and I've long had an interest in aging in a culture centered around youth. So when I began to experience my own aging, I cultivated these interests. I affiliated myself with Hospice and focused on palliative care. After years of sloshing around the fields available to me getting various on-the-job training to support myself and to learn new skills, I've settled down now as an Independent Provider for the State. I'm a Certified Home Care Aide. I work at keeping people out of assisted living facilities where they can have the opportunity to age in a more natural rhythm in their home. I'm proud of my accomplishments in that it was such an overwhelming prospect to start completely over at a new career at 58 years old. I've had a lot of help from friends, tutors and clients along the way. My journey, since the demise of my position as an academic library clerk three years ago, involved an original far-out idea of bringing my experiences and interests around and back to education with the intention towards the conversation of End-Of-Live-Navigation issues somehow.
My focus has been on the actively dying (though my work currently is with people who are functional without an active expiry date). Just recently I've had the opportunity to join an organization as a volunteer educator (WAHA). This is a big step for me. The organization is committed to educating the public on their End of Life choices. It is my firm belief that the advocacy and discussion about death and dying is just as an important a dialogue as the re-visitation of sexuality and birthing was in the 60's and 70's. When I tell young women about the birthing techniques used when I was born and before, they are appalled. So, I expect with my grandchildren, when they hear how people - the culture and the technologies - were employed on the dead and dying in my lifetime, they will possibly be equally in awe over the ignorance and lack of respect for life.
We now bring a majority of people into the world with a certain reverence that was once unheard of and that is a direct result of the work of a few voices who began to question the torturous methods employed as standard procedures in the birthing process in this country. Women and families were subjugated to all kinds of unnecessary and harmful practices in the name of efficiency. So it is with the subject and substance of dying. Our bodies are not just refuse and so much trash to be disposed of as they are currently treated. Our body serviced a life that was important and should be respected in its release. Dying needs to be transparent and of benefit to the survivors. I'm of the belief that the fact that we find it so easy to discard a life - and the body that holds it - reveals the back story on how easy it is for us to kill other human beings. We have been separated from our mortality and the life that leaves us and our loved ones at the point of departure. It can be a celebration even in the most tragic of losses, if we are educated in the reality that everyone dies and within that everyone's life is valuable.
I begin this new training as a community educator on my 60th birthday week; the fall equinox of my encouragement year. So, it is all happening...just as I wished it would when I opted out of a corporate livelihood. It is not an exotic walk in the old world that I get for my birthday but a venture into a new important dialogue. I get the gift of a rewarding pursuit down a road less traveled. I have the opportunity to help ease the suffering of those who need answers to questions, often when in the unfortunate throws of unfathomable grief. And what's more, I surprised myself because I am, indeed, going somewhere that I have never been before: living a life of allowing my ideas and interests the importance they deserve - a new way of being in the world.
Thanks to the amazing Amanda Palmer.