Bargaining (Again)

August 25, 2010

This is from a “free-write” I did  yesterday in my women writer’s group (unedited).  It’s a good example of the irrationality but compelling attraction of the “bargaining” process in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ “stages of grief.”  The writing prompt (from a poem) was, “If I had done the right thing…”

… she might be alive today, about to turn twenty-three next week, but instead I must have made a series of invisible, seemingly innocent, but fatally important mistakes that contributed to the perfect storm that sent her careening off the shattered guardrail on the downhill trajectory of U.S. Hill, on what may have turned out to be exactly midnight, the day before Halloween, beneath the enormous gaze of the full moon, not long after her fourteenth birthday.

Could this be the source of my mysterious malaise these past couple of weeks: the building up of anniversary memory in my cells?  Year #9, and I must still go through this primal unraveling?   Each revolution of the full four seasons brings us back to an earth cooling down and dropping its decoration, a world that no longer sustains the life of my baby girl.

It’s been a summer overstuffed with activities that mostly defied my nature, demanding things of me I was not designed to deliver.  I am depleted and vulnerable, prone to that nameless sadness that seeps through my broken seams like smoke and chokes me.  Maybe even as I recognize the shape of my loss, in yet another new disguise, I can unmask what’s bothering me and be free.

Or maybe not.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter that every year I integrate what happened a little more, and become more resourceful, and therefore more of a resource to others newer on the path of unbearable anguish.  Or that, on many days, between, say early January and late July, I can even bless Jenny’s death as a strange and terrible grace in my life.  And look how famous I have made her!  Speaking and blogging about her to thousands of people who grow to admire my extraordinary child, dead but never forgotten.

Maybe all those good days are stashed in one compartment, spacious and fertile, while these days of restless sorrow are stuffed into another one altogether, and I catch my foot at the threshold and go tumbling in behind them, and the lid snaps shut, and I can’t breathe for a while.

Maybe it’s supposed to be this way, and there’s no point in congratulating myself on my progress.

Writing practice, or “free-writing” is a great way to get down to the truth of your own experience.  Try this: pick up a collection of poetry, open the book to any page, read the poem, and pick out a line that strikes you.  Write it at the top of a piece of paper, then give yourself exactly ten minutes to write whatever arises, without censoring yourself in any way.  When we banish our inner critic, we are free to discover what’s really going on.  This can be invaluable on a path of conscious grief.

For more about this practice, see any of Natalie Goldberg’s books.

Being Here Now

August 3, 2010

This summer I have been immersed in the legacy teachings of my lifelong mentor and elder spiritual brother, Ram Dass, and it has stretched me beyond anything I might have anticipated when I offered to organize an event to honor the 40th anniversary of his landmark book, BE HERE NOW, in my hometown of Taos, New Mexico, where Be Here Now was created.

I first met Ram Dass when I was a teenager at the Lama Foundation, on fire with love for God, determined to do anything to “get enlightened.”  I was also grieving my first love, Phillip, who had recently died in a gun accident, and my yearning for my boyfriend was all wrapped up with my longing for the Divine.

I followed RD around for years, puttering in the background, setting up the stage, fluffing his pillows, lighting incense, serving tea: (successfully) practicing invisibility.  I was (pridefully) determined not to be one of those cloying groupies who were constantly sucking the man’s energy, though I was just as thirsty for the Truth.  Years later we served together on the board of a non-profit organization, where I continued this pattern and (comfortably) hid behind my role as meeting facilitator.  Jenny died in the midst of this period, and Ram Dass called me right away, offering his love and compassion through the long stretches of silence his stroke wove into all his conversations.  It was this loving quietude I needed most.  When he came to Taos for the last time, before his health made it clear he could no longer travel, Ram Dass presided over a ceremony in Jenny’s honor.  He sat beside me in his wheelchair beneath the young cherry tree and wept.  I had never loved him more.

Because of my abiding connection with both Ram Dass and Taos, it made sense for me to put together an event that would celebrate the connection between them.  I worked on the planning and promotion for months, stumbling my way through a mounting mass of details for which my skills had not prepared me, fielding misunderstandings and soothing disappointments.  Finally, in early July, two weeks before the event, I had the opportunity to visit Ram Dass in Maui where he lives.  I had a feeling this would be the last time I would see my old friend and teacher.  This time I counted on nestling myself into my role as event organizer, another handy disguise to add to the list of concealments I have draped over myself in RD’s presence.

As it turned out, there were no other visitors when I went to stay with Ram Dass in his beautiful home overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  There was nowhere to hide.  And so I sat with my friend Ram Dass for hours, reading him prayers from my new book, telling him about my counter-culture childhood in Taos, my radical parents, my current writing challenges, my belief in the beauty at the heart of profound loss.  I asked questions about his teachings, and he shared the heart of his legacy, which is nothing other than unconditional love: not feeling it or cultivating it or talking about it, but simply BEING unconditional love.  And I have to say, the man the world has known as Ram Dass, the eloquent speaker, translator of the mystical wisdom of the East into the vernacular of the West, has been distilled to the essence of love.  To be with him is to bathe in that delicious elixir.

There is a lot of silence with Ram Dass.  The effects of the stroke make it difficult for him to find words, though he still speaks with brilliant insight and humor.  There are long stretches inside of conversations, and those periods of companionable silence were my favorite times with Ram Dass.  I did not feel compelled to finish his sentences or fill in the blanks with the sound of my own voice.  I was happy just to be with him.  For the first time in the thirty-five years I have known Ram Dass, I got to just hang out with him.  It was delicious.  It filled my cup.  And though it was a relief to finally reveal something of myself to him, and though I felt deeply seen and loved, there was something utterly impersonal about our time together.  As Ram Dass says, he loves everyone and everything: the rug beneath our feet is as dear to him as his oldest friend.  I did not find this threatening in the least.

When I say that I went to Maui to say good-bye to Ram Dass, it’s not that I think he is about to die.  It’s just that he is so far away, he no longer travels, and I can’t afford another ticket to Hawaii.  It’s also true that he his body has been transfigured by a major stroke, and that body is aging.  Eventually, it is going to fall away, and it seems likely that this will happen before I have the chance to be with him again.

I am at peace with this — probably because Ram Dass is at peace with his own brokenness.  I have never known anyone so truly “in the moment” as Ram Dass.  He seems to have fully arrived, here now, with exactly WHAT IS.  There is a profound joy in this.  As I said to a friend, Ram Dass seems to be fully at home in an inhospitable body.  Just as he has been a guide to the world for walking a spiritual path with courage, humility, and passion, he is now on the vanguard of conscious aging, returning to the place where it all began: BEING HERE NOW.  I feel unutterably blessed to have glimpsed this unfolding first-hand.

I love you, Ram Dass.  More than the rug beneath my feet.  But I am not yet fully here now, where all is one.

War and Children

August 2, 2010

With her permission, I am posting an excerpt from my mother’s personal journal.  You can see where I get the impulse to allow individual loss to connect me to the suffering of the world!  My mom, Susanna Starr, is my role model for compassion in action.

Susanna writes:

Sometimes I wake up from that place just preceding the deep sleep at night where I’m coughing and gasping for the next breath.  Sometimes my heart is racing and I have to take some deep breaths to slow it down.  For a number of years, especially in the final years of a difficult relationship this was an ongoing syndrome.  Almost every night I would have the choking sensation, which I later thought of as some kind of anxiety attack.

For some fairly long period of time it seemed to have subsided and just again has begun to recur.  Again, I have the same association I’ve always had: Is this what my son Matty was feeling that night at 12 PM, at the change of shifts at the hospital, when nobody heard or saw him?  It was around 3 AM when we received the “dreaded” middle of the night phone call.  It was from an unknown doctor at the hospital who let us know that he had to perform an emergency tracheotomy, since by the time he was called, Matty had stopped breathing and was turning blue.  He was very apologetic.  I was grateful that my son was still alive.

The next day at the hospital my father-in-law said, “They should have let him go.”  I was astounded, still in denial that my son would never recover from the brain tumor that was destroying him, now in its final stages.  But when your child is just ten and a half years old, it seems that anything that could be done to prolong their life is justified. As a doctor, himself, my father-in-law knew differently.  Matty survived the tracheotomy, but never really had a quality of life again.  He regained consciousness and I still held on to the belief that he’d get through this, too, as he had several times before when he was in crisis during the various hospital stays.

We brought him Christmas present, which he couldn’t see, since the muscles controlling his eyelids were no longer operative.  Just the day before the tracheotomy he said that his hearing was affected, as if the sounds and voices were coming through a tunnel.  So it’s likely that he wasn’t hearing, but who knows?  Meanwhile we spoke to him, wrapping his finger around the new pen and pencil that we assured him were for when he returned to school.  There was a small stained glass hanging that we bought in the hospital gift shop that we told him was to hang in his window in his room at home.  Were the gifts for him, or for us, to keep up the illusion that there would be some kind of future for him, for whatever limited time he had?

By the next day, though, we sat by his bed and saw the struggle, calling on the last vestiges of strength he still had just to breathe, his body wasted, his still child’s face, pallid and drawn, with the bone structure showing through.  When my husband Ian said quietly, “We have to let him go,” I nodded in resignation.  It was apparent he was holding on just for us.  That was the day that we drove out to the cemeteries on Long Island, looking for a place to bury our son, our firstborn.  It was a cold, grey day, typical of the end of December on Long Island.  We were both numb, but not from the cold.

We’re all accustomed to using the metaphor of the “camino” or road as the metaphor for life.  We call it our “path.”  The path, obviously, is unknown.  We sometimes think we have a roadmap, but often we don’t.  Many times we deviate from that path, going off in different directions, sometimes to return to the more traveled one, sometimes forging out into uncharted territories.   But all along the way there are markers.  Since we can’t look ahead, we can only look back and recognize the markers.  “Ah, here was a turning point!  I’m so glad I didn’t go in that direction….  If only I had…. Knowing what I do now, I would have done it differently….”  Would we have, could we have?

Sometimes the markers are clear and we know when we are experiencing certain events in our lives that they will leave their mark upon us forever.  Often they’re a lot more subtle and only in retrospect can we recognize their significance in our lives.  Although we each have our own scenario, most have specific events that are major markers, and we have ceremonies to honor them – birth, death, marriages, catastrophic happenings that affect us forever.  Some of the markers that we thought important seem to fade as in a road sign that has become weathered. Others, that we paid little attention to at the time they occurred, take on increased meaning.

Death and destruction, loss and unspeakable sadness touch us all.  We sometimes think we really don’t want to continue living, but we do.   “Letting go” is still one of the most difficult concepts to carry out, even when we think we have a good grasp of it’s meaning.  How do people survive unspeakable atrocities?  How do people witness the death and torture of their loved ones and have to bear witness to these inhuman crimes? The human spirit can be amazing in its resilience.  It’s too easy to get completely submerged in despair as we live in a world that continues to treat human life not as something to be honored and revered but all too often as having been stripped of any meaning, reduced to something “other than.”

Do those who have for thousands of years sent other people’s children off to fight in their wars have any idea of what it means to lose a child, other people’s as well as our own, someone’s son, father, brother, and more recently, someone’s daughter, mother, sister?  Do we each have to suffer our own individual loss to know compassion?  I think not.  There is no way we can each share every experience, at least not at the level of human consciousness that we’re at right now.  Our experiences are limited and the freedom of expression comes from our ability to respond to our own particular life circumstances, the ability to celebrate joys as blessings and sorrows to be transcended.  Often, that’s much easier to say than do.

Every day we casually say upon meeting someone we know, “How are you doing?”  What if we were to answer “I’m transcending.”  Even your best friends might be taken a little aback, or maybe they would respond from their heart instead of their head, and not try to figure it out, but smile because they “got it.”

Susanna Starr

Spring 2010