CHRISTMAS EVE

Trees in snow

My grandmother passed away December 20, 1980. Twenty two years later, on the same day, my brother passed away. On that first December 20, the family gathered in Ohio to bury my grandmother. My parents had moved out there earlier in the year. My father had retired by then, and my mother was an only child who had moved from New York to help her father care for her mother.

Christmas Eve that year my brother and I flew home from Columbus, OH to LaGuardia airport in New York City. There’s always something about seeing the city lit up at night, sparkling and glittering through the darkness and patchy clouds, land masses broken up by wide expanses of black water, which calms and soothes. I felt especially touched that night, for these sights, along with the bumpy descent of the plane, mean I am coming home.

At the time my brother and I lived in side-by-side apartment buildings on a main street in the town where we had been raised. We shared a cab from the airport home. Everything seemed lit by the gaudiest of Christmas lights, a visual assault on the senses that went on for miles and miles and miles.

I remember Co-Op City, an apartment complex in the Bronx, especially from that night. Like the lights from the city itself, there is something grounding and comforting for me in the glare of holiday lighting, too. Co-Op City was a mass of multi-storied buildings of apartments with balconies and windows and rooftops blinking and twinkling in the night. Even the train trestle in the town in which we lived sparkled with the light of a huge flashing wreath as we passed under it, almost at our destination.

Still later that night I sat in the darkened living room of my apartment and watched the dots of primary colors from the little tree there blink across the walls and ceiling and reflect from the window glass as I thought of my grandmother. She was always a part of my childhood Christmases, with sparkling eyes and neatly permed white hair.

Twenty two years later it is the daylight vision of a receding view of the city I remember. I can still hear the roar of the plane as it rushed toward the black water’s edge, sense the lift as it seemed we barely crossed the water before watching the rush of cars on the highway below and the approaching rooftops of buildings so close you could almost touch them, can still remember the right-handed lean into the steep bank of the plane as it circled over the eastern end of Long Island, south over the Statue of Liberty, up, up, crossing New Jersey, and finally west toward home, Colorado. This time I traveled with my husband and kids, to a whole new world without my brother.

I have a younger friend who just lost her mother a few weeks ago and for her, this will be her first Christmas without her mom. Precious tears rolled down her face as we sat talking. I used to hate holidays and anniversaries and birthdays because they reminded me of loss, and change, and the fact that there are no certainties in life. I used to hate that I can’t control events or people or even my feelings about them.

Somewhere along the way I have learned to see things differently. It’s not that the pain ever goes completely away, but it does ease with time. I had a friend long ago whose little daughter at the time had a rare and aggressive kind of brain cancer. She had already lost an eye, and faced another major surgery. He talked about the only way he could deal with being with his daughter and the girl’s mother without breaking down was to focus on how grateful he was to have both in his life. Every minute became precious.

It took me a number of years to really get what he was talking about. I like to think that I live much more from a place of gratitude than I used to. Living in the now, in the moment as it is passing, means I am truly present to my life. It’s not just a series of memories of the past, or thoughts about the future that engulf me. It’s where I am today, at this hour of this day.

Last week I went to a wonderful Christmas service at a church a friend attends. A friend of hers sings in the choir. There were three different human choirs, a large bell choir, an orchestra of stringed instruments and horns and flutes and drums, and members of the clergy and congregation to read the spiritual passages of Christmas from the Bible and other texts.

Yes, this Christmas for me is radically different than others that have gone before. This year a wiser and more patient and hopefully, with the passing of each year, a deeper person looks out at this holiday.

We celebrate the coming of Light into the world in the form of a baby born in a manger and call it Christmas. I have thousands of associations with the symbology of this season. For me one of the most profound occurred a long time ago.

The church I attended as a kid and young adult used to have a Christmas Eve service that started at 11:00pm and ended after midnight, so really it was Christmas Day when we finished.

One year I had attended the service and walked out into the parking lot with a couple of hundred other people. It was very cold and you could see your breath in the air. Snow covered the ground and crunched under our feet. In the black sky above my head, stars twinkled brightly, numerous beyond counting.

I stopped and stared at that sky. I held my breath, the still air chilling my nostrils. The very space around me seemed alive. For that minute, in that place, I knew without knowing that I was not alone. Something was looking back at me. The Light of the World truly touched me. To me, that’s what Christmas is about.

THE PAST CAME KNOCKING

Rocky Mountain View

The honking of Canada geese fills the silence in my kitchen and slides up and over the roof of my house as they head west, toward the mountains. There have been so many geese lately I have wondered if something is unusual this year that makes them gather and move in big groups so differently than other years. It’s been an odd weather year here, at times warmer, then colder, then warm and dry again in seeming measured bursts. The sky is very still today, threatening to bring a little snow.

The honking is a beautiful sound that pulls up memories from my childhood. I remember one long-ago morning as I walked to school and looked up into a similarly gray and tentatively stormy sky. The staccato sound was loud but gentle as not just tens but hundreds and hundreds of geese flew overhead. It seemed to go on for minutes as I watched. There was a hint of sadness in my heart as the last of the stragglers flew on and the sky emptied. Recollections like this don’t change with time, I’ve found, but something needs to happen, like the sound of geese, to bring them back so clearly.

Such a thing happened yesterday. A comment came in from my blog, sitting there in my email in-box. I love the things people write. I think it’s the interaction that touches me most. “Oh, someone read what I wrote.” I think. “What was it they felt? Who might this be who comments? How have we engaged?” Every comment is still a fresh experience, even sometimes the things I don’t like. This one was a surprise. It came through the comment path, but it wasn’t a comment. More a personal note.

Hello. A phone number. A name. “Really? Is this happening? Am I seeing this name for real?” A sweet breeze of summer flew across my mind. A friend like no other, for far too short a time. Decades and decades ago, now. My skin remembered the warmth of the sun in July. My eyes locked on that name. A basketball clanked on a chain link fence forty years in the past.

The voice. I remembered the voice that went with that name. Would I recognize it? Would it be the same? Dare I call? “There’s a voice that goes with that name,” I thought. I smiled. I felt like I would cry. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “I can’t open this Pandora’s box.” So I let hours go by. Finally I thought “How could I not? How could I not call?” So I texted. So he called.

I talked to the man that kid had become. Uncountable summers later that voice was the same. Of course I remembered. “That was a sweet time for me,” he said. A sweet time. Oh yes. Almost unbearably sweet, still. I liked the man. I liked the things he said. I liked his curiosity, his wanting to know. I liked the heart and the wisdom he shared, perhaps without knowing, when he talked about his work.

It’s curious to me that this contact comes now. I suppose nothing about the Universe, the mysterious ways of the Lord, should surprise me. I’ve been talking to my Higher Power lately. I’m not so afraid of men anymore. So much has healed. I’ve moved on from a very sad place. I’d like to know who I am now, in a relationship with a man. I’m not looking for another husband. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. Perhaps a reminder that I have a heart, still. A chance to practice and be honest with someone who also happens to be a man.

All this year men have been coming out of the woodwork. Chance encounters. Conversations. Coffee. I must be paying attention. I must be less guarded. I smile. I respond, and talk and laugh. Men at the gym. Men in stores. Younger men. Older men. The men at the workshop I just went to. Okay, I get the hint. Maybe it’s time for me to move forward, with heart. So how do I do that?

And then this. That name. That voice. That time. That soul. Not just a little heart. Full throttle heart. A remembering. An unexpected approach. The Universe tells me not to be afraid. There is nothing to fear. There never was anything to fear, here. Except maybe for love itself. If I talk to him again, so be it. If I don’t, I learned something profoundly important, anyway. My heart is alive and well.

I remember that day my daughter walked into my house and down into my basement with her stuff, to move back in after living in Australia for a year and a half. I remember how I watched her and heard myself say silently, “You better not let yourself love her too much. She’s just going to go away again and break your heart.” As if love is something you control, or should even try. I was surprised I even thought about it. I was surprised I had become so guarded. I loved her anyway. She is my forever precious child.

And so I guess I learned another lesson about love. A phone call from a timeless place reached right to the heart of the matter. I should never limit who I am, just because I am afraid I might get hurt. I should never limit who I am just because someone might not like me, or worse, not love me. I’m not here to live a limited life. No one is. I’m here to live a full-throttle life, now, today. Life never ceases to be full of surprises. Guidance comes in the most unexpected forms.

Thank you, John.

SHAMANISM 101

Animal Speak

I’ve just returned from an extraordinary experience outside of Madison, VA. I got to spend two weeks participating in Michael Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies annual Two Week Shamanic Healing Intensive. If that sounds like a mouthful, then know that actually being there was more like a soul-full of both personal and spiritual revelations that have helped to transform me yet again, and pushed me outside the limits of the box of “who I imagine I am.”

The Foundation for Shamanic Studies teaches “cross cultural shamanism,” which means we learned ancient spiritual healing techniques common to most indigenous societies rather than to a specific culture. Believe it or not these techniques are very similar no matter where on earth they may have originated.

“Extraction healing,” for instance, or removal of unwanted energies like illness, stress, entities, curses, or pain might look different from culture to culture, but the method has more similarities than differences. Where one culture might literally work with the shaman, or medicine healer, sucking something from the body and spitting it into a bowl, we learned to use our hands and to dispose of what we remove by “throwing” it into a body of water.

The point of much of this work is to rebuild your “spiritual power” in this reality, called Middle World, with the help of compassionate helping spirits and power animals from Lower or Upper Worlds. These are different “levels” of reality akin to what I might better explain as another dimension where things are just as real as they are here. One of the more exciting exercises for me was where we were sent to find a partner in either Lower or Upper World and to describe what we saw.

It was set up like a game of hide and seek, and we had to place ourselves in this other reality and wait to be found. Our partner had to wait approximately 30 seconds and then take off after us, tracking until they found us. This is done in a trance state initiated by the sonic drive of drumming. The drumming creates altered states of consciousness. That I could actually see my partner come and find me, and then go and search and actually find my partner, was validating on a very deep level that not only does “this stuff,” (shamanic spiritual work) work, but that it is as real as anything else I have experienced.

The point of this essay is not to reveal all that we learned, for that would not be possible using only words. Suffice to say that over the time of the twelve days we were together we became a community. We were sequestered in a beautiful wooded area of Virginia with walking trails, a river, wildlife galore, and time enough each day to commune with Nature, each other, and the power of what we were learning. The modern world still intruded, but it did not disturb. We could hear traffic, and trains, the lowing of nearby cows, and every once in a while, gunshots as deer season began.

Learning these techniques involves both giving and receiving healing energy. It requires trust of a stranger, who in the beginning the only thing you have in common with is a similar interest in non-ordinary reality. In a video conference we had with Michael Harner, Ph.D., an anthropologist who has made shamanism and preservation of these ancient healing techniques his life’s work, Dr. Harner told us that his intention is to have us learn this work in an effort to help heal and save the Earth.

According to Dr. Harner, we have ignored our responsibility for each other and our environment for too long. His admonition to us is that it might be too late, but our obligation is to try to help. Even if it’s just working with friends and family, or as part of a community drumming and healing circle, we should do something. Change happens one person at a time, after all.

Part of the work of the traditional shaman was not only to take care of the tribe, but the total environment, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The whole community participated in this as part of everyday life, and a spiritual overview of the nature of reality was a given. It was not religion as I have ever experienced it, but a deeper and more intimate connection with both seen and unseen worlds where help and guidance are available for the asking.

An interesting culture we learned about sent their very young children out into the wild by themselves, unguided, unprotected, in an effort to find spiritual help that was then believed to stay with and guide the person for the rest of their lives. As you might imagine, not everyone came back. I think this is an extraordinary act of trust. I surely would not have sent my precious children on such a journey.

Our retreat did not only open my mind and teach me about the techniques I signed up for. I lived very intimately with more than thirty other people for almost two weeks. We spanned a gamut of ages from 20 – 70. Some of us had experience with this work, some did not. We were all at different places in our lives. We were all looking for some kind of inner change as a result of participating.

I learned I still suffer from a lot of self judgment. “I am too old,” “No one will like me,” “I am not outgoing enough,” and a hundred other things ran through my mind. None of these judgments proved true, but it was interesting to listen to the inner dialogue. It made me very grateful for the life I do lead, living where I live. I am a thousand times more connected with the natural world than I once was. I have found inner peace and quiet on a very deep level even when the world around me is fairly chaotic.

My trip home was an awakening of sorts, too. Due to equipment problems my connecting flight to catch a plane back to Denver landed five minutes before the Denver flight was due to take off. I asked the flight attendant if he thought I’d be able to make it. “Not if that plane is on time,” he said.

We had landed at Gate E48. I needed to get to Gate B10. Even though Charlotte, NC is not a huge airport, that was a heck of a distance to negotiate in five minutes. So I meandered along for a minute or two. First one, and then another person sprinted by me. So I thought I’d sprint too. Maybe that plane would be a little late, too.

It was late enough at night so the moving sidewalks, which might have saved me not only a couple of minutes but some wear and tear, too, were all turned off. I had plenty of time to mentally thank my friend, Pam, for making me do my cardio so I could run so far without having a heart attack.

I got to Gate B10 and there were people there. I was thrilled. I had the good sense to ask someone, “Is this the plane to Denver?” instead of standing there waiting to board with everyone else.

“No,” she said. “That plane’s been moved to B14.”

I raced on to B14. Not a soul was there, but I could see someone still sitting at the desk. “Is the plane gone, yet?” I asked.

“Nope,” the bored looking woman said calmly. She scanned my boarding pass. I trotted down the empty rampway to the plane door, and on to my seat. It was 8:35pm when I sat down. The plane had been scheduled to take off at 8:20.

“Thank you, helping spirits,” I said.

“Thank you, friends from the intensive who sat with me in the first airport and helped the hours pass swiftly as I waited for my delayed puddle-jumper propeller plane to finally arrive.”

“Thank you, USAirways for being delayed for whatever reason so I could make it home tonight.”

Ordinary reality can sometimes be a real pain to negotiate. It’s so much simpler if you can just be grateful. No matter what.

I’m so lucky.

I had the best two weeks.

TOUCHED BY SPIRIT

Orchids
I’ve been looking for God again. Every decade or so, I go through some inner reorganization that seems to involve a huge shake-up and resettling of my spirituality. I was raised in a very mainstream conservative Presbyterian church. Now that I look back on it, I am grateful for all the many activities and experiences I had through the church to ground and educate me as a kid and young teenager. I look for that sense of belonging-to-place to this day.

There was definitely something about the building itself and the mystery of the sanctuary that seems to have gotten into my very cells and is the foundation of my idea of “church.” The church was built of granite, with a slate roof. Inside it had huge wooden rafters that held the vaulted ceiling and attached to the stone sides of the building. The colors of the many stained glass windows seemed to add a pulse of life to the air. A red carpet led up the center aisle from the carved oak doors at the rear of the sanctuary to the altar. Between the banks of organ pipes and over the choir members’ heads, there were more beautiful windows. I loved the music and the voices and even the smell of whatever was used to clean the wooden pews and the floor.

Certainly there were grander places, more magnificent, more stunning in their architecture. I fell in love with St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and the sheer majesty of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, also in New York. The organ there could play notes so low you heard the vibration with your body, not your ears. The visceral experience of such a place stays with me to this day. A more modern church, no matter how beautifully built, does not call to me in nearly the same way.

Of course it is also the form of the service and the ritual, combined with the familiarity of the hymns, even the drone and pace of the minister’s voice that is comforting, too, but all that pales by comparison to the stone and the wood and the colors of the glass.

As my spirituality has grown and expanded to include so much more than the strict Christianity in which I was raised, I of course have learned to appreciate the beauty of other holy spaces, both indoors and outside. The awe the creators of those spaces meant to inspire certainly moves me, too. But my taste for the small stone cave sort of place is still there.

I went with my friend and her daughter to an Episcopal Church service this past Sunday. She has been longing to reconnect to her Catholic roots; to bring her children in to some faith, too. Her beautiful daughter is nine, if I remember correctly.

“Come with me this Sunday to our church,” she said the other day as we sat talking. “I know you have been wanting to reconnect with God in a different way. I think you will like all the ritual.” I am familiar with the Episcopal Church. I know its history. I’ve been to many services. I thought, hopefully, it might spark my interest in church again.

The sanctuary was indeed beautiful, though the walls and vaulted ceiling were angular and made of wood. The floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows that flanked the altar were filled with light. The intonation and inflection of the priest was familiar, homey, thoughtful. But nothing grabbed me. “What was I thinking?” I thought as I sat there. “If I want a mainstream, 1950’s style Christian church service, I belong in a Presbyterian church, the seat of my beginning.”

When it came time for communion and the congregants to go forward, I stayed in the pew. Even though the program said “all persons who have been baptized, regardless of denomination” may participate, I didn’t. Instead I watched my friend and her daughter go forward to receive the bread and the wine. My friend and her young daughter knelt at the altar and waited for the priest. Shortly he stood before them. I watched him rest his hand on the girl’s head and speak to her. He lowered his face close to hers as he spoke. He touched her hair a couple of times. Suddenly I knew exactly why I was there, witnessing this ritual.

Once, when I was probably the same age as my friend’s daughter, I had spent the night at a friend’s house and been invited to attend church with her family the next morning. They belonged to the Episcopal Church in town, a mile or two away from my family’s church. It was one of those beautiful stone buildings with colorful stained glass, too. It was smaller and a little more intimate than the space of my familiar sanctuary. It seemed a little darker and more cave-like. Perfect, in other words.

In my own church I was not allowed to take communion until I had joined the church. So when my friend’s family all got up to go forward to take communion, I thought I couldn’t go. “You can come, too,” my friend whispered. “When you get to the front, just kneel and cross your hands in front of your chest and bow your head. The priest will bless you.”

I did as I was told. My elbows rested on the polished oak rail. My knees on the velvet pad near the floor. I bowed my head and crossed my hands over my chest. The second I felt the priest’s hand on my head it started. A flash of warmth flew through my body. His words were soft and ancient. I had no conscious understanding of what he was saying. I was no longer in that space, that church, that time.

A brilliant light enveloped me. I felt absolute peace, and protection, but mostly that loving warmth. As quickly as it came, it passed. The priest moved on to the next person, totally unaware of what had happened to me. I realized no one else knew, either. But I surely did. To me, in that second, perhaps because I was young and open to it, I felt touched by God.

It’s that connection I want when I go on my spiritual search. I constantly seek the hand of my Higher Power in my life. Sometimes my yearning for it is more tangible than others. I come closest to it, I think, when I use some of the shamanic practices I have been taught. I love to set up a little altar, or clear the space before someone comes to have a session with me.

In the morning, if I pray and meditate and get into just the right mental space, I can touch it fleetingly again.

It isn’t the church, or even the religion that brings it to me. It’s so much bigger than that. And it’s only by Grace it comes to me. Most of the time I’m just an ordinary mortal, doing the best I can in life.

On days like this one, however, when the memory is so tangible, it is hard to settle for “ordinary.”

LETTING GO

Hydrangea
I don’t let other people in very easily. It takes a long time or extraordinary circumstances for me to open my self to others. I have never been the kind of person who has many friends at any given time, but the ones I do have I hold fiercely to my heart. I have been so blessed to have so many good people come into my life over the years.

I had a difficult mother. She chose to dictate who could and couldn’t be my friend all throughout my growing up years. She arbitrarily decided to end my connection to others based on some unwritten and unexplained code that had, occasionally, devastating effect on me.

She forbid a friend who lived across the street from me from ever setting foot in our house again after a supposed accident in the house (a typewriter and a small wheeled table it was on fell over). Coincidentally, this was also the day our family dog nipped my friend from behind when we were outside swinging on my swing set.

I was with my friend all that fateful day and we never even went in the room where the typewriter was. I suspected even then it was probably my friend’s mother’s response to the dog bite that pissed my mother off. The consequence for me, however, was that two other families on the street refused to speak to me and I was no longer welcome among the tribe of children who had been my companions.

“You can’t just come over here and play if we’re not welcome at your house anymore,” my friend’s sibling announced when I rang her doorbell shortly after my mother’s edict. She shut the door in my face.

It was only after I got older that I tried to defy these edicts and remain friends with whomever my mother was on the warpath against, (and there was always someone), especially boyfriends. I think her iron will to break a bond actually bound me that much more strongly to my friends…a couple of whom I look back now and think it really might have been to my benefit to let go.

I tell you this to paint a background of possibility as to why friendship is sometimes a difficult and risky business for me. I have to remind myself that there is no one standing over me waiting to slash the bonds I have with another, now that my mother is dead and my ex-husband lives his own life, except me. Not every friendship is meant to last forever. We evolve over time, and sometimes the ties that bind simply unravel or become less important, so we move on. Still, it is never easy to watch that happen, especially when the bond is strong.

Now I am facing a giant change. A friend and a mentor is moving away. She came into my life as a spiritual guide when my life felt chaotic and desperate, shortly after my divorce. She was reliable and supportive and kind. She was trustworthy and had good boundaries. Gradually we became friends. The wary inner child allowed the adult to bond.

And now, as happens so often in our transient society, my friend and her husband are returning home. She knew when they moved here they wouldn’t stay forever. Colorado, a land of cold and snow and mountains, is nothing like sunny California. They went back to find where they might want to live earlier this summer. They found a city. Their home here sold almost immediately. Their realtor found something there instantly, too. Their moving date looms only a couple of weeks away.

I am so happy for her. I know it is a great step into another life. I thought it really was okay until I got an email inviting me to a “say goodbye” party. Goodbye is a word I hate. I haven’t wanted to face that part at all.

“You know you need to find another mentor, Chris,” she’s said a few times now. “Have you asked someone yet?”

No, I haven’t. I’ve thought of a couple of people I might ask, but they aren’t my friend. There is no one to fill her shoes. It’s not like I can’t call or write or keep in contact with her, but the relationship will be different. It might even end. It’s that part I don’t want to think about.

There is both blessing and irony in my work with her. She helped me develop a closer relationship with a Higher Power, whom I choose to call God. My life has been immeasurably enriched through prayer and meditation. I have learned I can turn to my Higher Power with any problem. In order to do that, however, I have to let go. I can tell God my troubles, but then I have to leave it in His hands. It’s not that I don’t eventually get answers, I do. I just don’t always like the answers.

“Whenever there is change in your life, Chris, you are being prepared for something new to come in,” my friend said a few days ago. Yes, I know. I’ve lived long enough to realize that sometimes the “something new” that comes in is quite wonderful.

In the meantime, though, there is that gap. I must say “Goodbye.” Sometimes all I see is the loss.

I would not have been a very good student or a friend for that matter, if that was all I focus on now. She helped me let go of the walls I had pulled tight around me after the pain of divorce. She helped me open my heart again and to “clean out the pipe” that is my connection to my Higher Power. “That’s our job, you know,” she’s said a hundred times. And I have cleaned out that pipe. Just sometimes I’m tempted to stuff it back up.

So my prayer for her is that her dreams for her new life all come true. That she find meaning and friendship in her new hometown, and her transition be filled with ease and Grace. I especially hope she knows what a gift she has been in my life. This is the part I have to leave to my Higher Power. I have to trust that all will be well for both of us.

I have to “Let Go and Let God.”

ORDINARY MORTAL

IMG_0071
I sold real estate for a brief time near the beginning of my working life. I worked for a broker who was smart, shrewd, and a very savvy business-woman. She had scratched her way up in the world from humble beginnings when her family fled Italy and the rise of Mussolini to start a new life in this country. By the time I knew her, she had accumulated a great deal of wealth, yet still lived a comparatively simple life.

She was at best a difficult personality with whom to engage. I came to work for her when interest rates were 13-14%. Needless to say I didn’t have a great deal of monetary success in the short time I worked with her. I did, however, learn an awful lot about residential real estate and how to sell it. I also learned that underneath that tough exterior beat a compassionate heart. She told me one day with great pride that her niece was going to go to medical school, and that she was going to pay her way.

My mother-in-law had worked for this broker, Ann, for many years, and was the one who introduced me to her. Shortly after I began to work for Ann, my mother-in-law had a massive stroke.

Grace was a warm, sweet lady, though she had retired by then due to failing eyesight. Real estate was a common bond between us, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to have gotten to know my mother-in-law better because of it. It was a shock to see this formerly active and gentle-spirited woman lying so still on the gurney in the emergency room. It was touch-and-go for many days whether Grace would survive or not.

The doctor asked if a family member could come each day and feed Grace her lunch. She needed to eat but could not feed herself. The nursing staff did not have the time to spend with Grace helping her eat. My husband, her only child, worked in the city while I worked much closer to her hospital. My father-in-law was not up to this task, so I volunteered. It was a long, arduous process to get her to eat even a portion of her meal, but I did the best I could.

Grace did survive, but as a shadow of her former self, and was sent to a nearby nursing home. A few of the other women in the real estate office who had worked with Grace went to visit her, but Ann never did.

I judged Ann rather harshly for this. I thought the least she could do, since Grace had not only worked for her but felt she was her friend, was to go see her once. I was sure the other women who had visited told Ann of the shocking change in her, now wheelchair bound with the whole left side of her body paralyzed. Somehow Grace could still recognize people and was able to speak coherently if you listened carefully. I never said a thing, though my judgment must have shown. If I could do it, certainly Ann could, too, I thought.

“I want to remember Grace as she was, Chrisy,” Ann said to me one day when we were alone in the office. “I don’t want to see her as she is now.” Still, I looked down from my high horse.

It was only after I looked at my own behavior in a similar situation I had faced a few years earlier, that I could understand where Ann was coming from. My mother’s dear friend, Wendy, had passed away from throat cancer after a long struggle. I thought of Wendy as a second mother and I loved her dearly. My mother spent a lot of time visiting Wendy, and though she never asked me to go with her, I never asked to go along, either. I had no idea how to deal with terminal illness and didn’t want to start with her. To this day I sometimes feel guilty for my choice, for I know Wendy cared for me as much as I did for her.

I am many decades older now, and have faced the long and protracted deaths of several family members. It doesn’t take away the difficulty of dealing with these situations, but it does take away the fear. Until very recently, I spent time as a Hospice volunteer, visiting people who were very close to the end of their lives. I even joined an “Eleventh Hour” program as part of Hospice. For that you volunteer to sit with people who are actively dying when family members need a break, or when staff can’t be with a person even if they are in a hospice hospital. Twice the person I was with actually died.

I had a friend who had been a nurse, who snorted with derision when I told her I was training for Hospice. “Oh you’ll never be able to do that,” she said. Insulted, I never did understand where she was coming from. I knew it would be a challenge, but I thought I was up to it. It turns out, I was.

Other friends remarked that they would never be able to do what I was doing. They seemed to find my choice admirable, or brave, or too depressing to do themselves. I just thought this was a personally satisfying way to give my time. I wanted to make a difference. Yes, sometimes it was difficult. Once I had to decline a patient because he was a young man the same age as my son. I was smart enough to realize that one would be too close to home for me to be helpful.

I’ve come to realize that in our culture at this time, death is something to be feared. Illness is something to be feared. We no longer live in multi-generational homes, and most of us no longer even live close to older family members who reach the end point in their lives where death sometimes takes a long time. It is not something we routinely see or experience as a passage, part of all of our life experience.

So in its mystery it also becomes the kind of challenge we can not face willingly. Like me, we refuse to be part of a person’s life when they might most need us. Like Ann, we choose not to deal with the heart-wrenching transformations that sometimes precede a person’s passing.

I know I am not one of the ones who could make Hospice work my living. As a volunteer I had a choice to say yes or no to a particular opportunity to be of help. I remember the lovely, competent nurse who assisted my brother at the end of his life. I so admired her skill and gentle soul. I don’t think I could do that, deal with death all day every day. Those people are saints.

As much as I might like to be different, I am only an ordinary mortal.

PEACE AND QUIET

Eagle Nest
I grew up, and lived most of my adult life, in a wealthy “bedroom community” suburb of New York City. This was a place of old and stately homes; beautiful Victorians and Colonial style houses built in the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1950’s there was another spate of building as some of the larger lots were broken up and sold to accommodate smaller, newer, less grand but still nice houses. It was an easy commute by train to the heart of Manhattan and the financial and business centers of the world.

I had little understanding or appreciation of some of the legal restrictions required of those who lived there until my husband and I had our own tiny house in the town. We lived across the street from a single man who kept his property well, but was something of a character. Unlike many of his neighbors who had lived there for decades, I knew little of his past and thus was one of the few people who bothered to make an effort to talk to him, despite his reputation as a recluse of sorts.

One summer he decided to take advantage of the early morning light and mow his lawn before going off to work. It was light, alright, but it was 6:00am when he decided to fire up his very noisy, though thorough, mower. The first time this happened I didn’t think much of it as I had young kids who woke with the light anyway. The second time I did find it annoying. The third time I actually thought about going out and telling him he ought to consider mowing at a more reasonable time for making that half hour of racket.

Someone else must have had the same idea, for as I listened to the mower I heard it stop abruptly in the middle of mowing, far less time than he usually spent to do his lawn. I looked out the window and saw a police car stopped in front of his house. A policeman and my neighbor were engaged in conversation. The mower went back in the garage, and the policeman drove away. I later found out that there was a noise ordinance in the town. You had to wait until 8:00am to make such untoward noise or you would be subject to a fine. The man never mowed his lawn so early again.

I live in a tiny little town in northern Colorado now. I live in a new subdivision, subject to the noise of all kinds of construction machines as new houses are packed into the available little lots as the housing economy recovers. The rumble of dump trucks, cement mixers, excavators and front loaders permeates the air on nice days between the snow storms. With few exceptions, this has rarely bothered me.

This morning, however, was not the case. I normally get up early because I like to spend time in the quiet as dawn begins to sit in my healing room and meditate. I had neglected to set my alarm and thus was still in bed as the gray twilight peeked around the edges of my window. I felt more than heard the deep rumble shaking my house. “What the hell is the matter with my furnace?” I thought as I started awake. Another second or two passed and I realized it wasn’t my furnace.

I hastily dressed and raised the shade so I could see outside. A few feet off my back fence a huge truck, the kind that have the long arms that unfold to pump cement through a hose into foundations, sat humming, its red trailer lights on in the dark. A rumble and grind continued as a cement mixer backed up to the pumper, its lights on, too. It was 6:10am. They were coming to pour the floor of the basement of the house going in catty-corner to my lot. The vibration continued as they waited for it to get light enough to pour the cement.

“Really?” I thought. “What time did these guys have to start their day to come pouring cement in a residential neighborhood before first light?”

It bothered me a lot more than listening to a lawnmower on a summer morning. I thought of firing off a letter to the editor of the local paper. I thought about going to the town hall to register a complaint. I like to let my opinion about things like this be known. I like the sovereignty of my personal space undisturbed. I am much older now, and oh so much less flexible than that long-ago young mother. Besides, it’s winter. According to me they shouldn’t be building now, anyway.

I also know how futile my complaint will be. I tried once before to register a complaint at town hall. The house next door is unlike the others in the neighborhood. It’s a tiny little house built on a cement slab without a basement at all. A huge machine came one day to tamp the ground into rock-like solidity so the slab wouldn’t shift as I was typing in the basement bedroom that was my writing space. The ground shook with each resounding stamp of the iron rectangle on the arm of the machine. I could see the vibration in the wall next to me. I imagined a crack appearing somewhere and how thrilled I would be.

I hightailed it to town hall to complain. That’s all I wanted, was to complain. I was blown off and told to come back in an hour when someone would be back from lunch. It wasn’t lunchtime, but I did come back in an hour even though I suspected they hoped I wouldn’t.

I was met with a resolute little woman, a member of the town board, who was anything but sympathetic. She didn’t introduce herself or ask me my name, but I knew who she was. She didn’t even invite me into her office to speak, but chose instead to stand in the middle of the open space among the various secretaries with her hands on her hips as I spoke. She didn’t invite me to sit in one of the chairs nearby, either, these simple courtesies even an oaf should realize would at least partially defuse a disgruntled homeowner.

I know how to be polite. I didn’t raise my voice, or say anything untoward. I told her my story. I asked if there was any place at all to register a complaint. I asked when she didn’t respond if my only alternative was to write the town paper.

“You should have known when you bought your house that there would be construction noise in your area,” she snorted. “Besides, the worst that’s ever happened is a picture fell off the wall in a house next to one of those machines.”

“So I’m not the only one who has ever complained,” I thought.

I didn’t say any of the things that went through my mind, the least of which was to chastise her for her perceived lack of civility as a member of the town board. “You really shouldn’t piss off a writer,” I thought. “Especially an ex-New Yorker.”

Ultimately, other than complain to a couple of my neighbors, only one of whom owned the house in which they lived at the time, I did nothing. I could feel the futility of continuing any conversation with this person. It wasn’t my place to give this woman a lesson in etiquette, much less become irate at her behavior. I was proud of myself for not “picking up the rope,” as they say.

I found out later, as a partial explanation of her behavior, perhaps, that she is the mother of the guy who built the house next door.

So this morning I stood on my little patio, coffee cup in hand, and watched the floor being poured in the house behind me. Eventually the light got strong enough to illuminate what they were doing and I found it entertaining to stand there and watch for a little while.

Three truckloads of cement later and they were done. The arm of the cement pouring machine folded up neatly. It was exactly 8:00am when the last truck drove away. So much for country life.