Remember …

You think we have it rough now, yes, we do have a challenge. None of us has dealt with a pandemic before, perhaps ever heard the word before. The uncertainty and so many unknowns can freak people out.

Hold on to yourself. Fear and panic are bad places to make decisions from. Right?

Imagine being Peer Gynt, captured by trolls and taken before their king, Dovregubben. Right?  (Some of Edvard Grieg’s most famous music.)

Near Snohomish

Remember who you are, who we are. In our regular lives, very few of us live in isolation. Keep contact how you can, it’s important.  Ah, Leonard Bernstein, what would he be composing now and Jerome Robbins be choreographing?

Feel your strength, know it. Yeah, it’s there, sometimes we get distracted and forget our spine is flexible and strong. It needs protection yes, yet it protects us. (Listen at least into the second minute. Carter Burwell, born in a great year, has scored many Hollywood movies. This is from Rob Roy; he’s done The Big Lebowksi, No Country for Old Men, Being John Malkovich.)

Remember. So many things, one of which is that whatever each of us does ripples out to others. Be kind, compassionate, respectful. I have to smile at this one, as when I am called to those things, I usually don’t want to! Okay, self-disclosure: I can be a bit righteous and judgmental. I keep working on it. (Aaron Copland is in the audience for this performance!)

Andrew Davis, born in a good month, is conducting here. He is an internationally respected conductor and musician. Turn up the volume, raise your arms, welcome it into you.  I will never forget the first time I heard this. (More about that another time…)

Since you are still with me, here goes:

When he gave Emerson, Lake and Palmer permission to arrange and play his magnificent piece, Aaron Copland said he was attracted to what they had done, not sure how what they did in the middle was connected to his music, and then famously chuckled. Keith Emerson regarded Copland as ‘the soul of American music.”

     Remember …

Lace, Grace & Scars

Foggy Morning photo by Mary Dessein

A loud wail rent through the room, its anguish and sorrow piercing the whole apartment, unrestrainable. Surprised even me, the source, and I could not stop it.

 I rarely see raw grief, uncontainable and wrenching – much less experience it myself.

I had just hung up the phone with the animal hospital and made the appointment to put Monkey, my sweet tabby, to sleep. In two hours.

     To end a life, and a life I loved so much was an enormous decision. My brain knew it was time, indeed, Monkey had shown me he was physically near the end and might be in pain. Yet my heart called, “What if it’s too soon? What if…?”

     The remorse I felt fifteen years before came back to me, when I did wait too long. Our cat, Midnight, was in such pain before I could say, “Okay, we have to,” to my teen-agers.

     Death is all around us, as is life. Two of Jodi Picoult’s novels come to mind, Leaving Time and My Sister’s Keeper. A quote from Alice Metcalf, an elephant scientist in Leaving Time, got my attention, “What I was really researching was not how elephants deal with loss but how humans can’t.”

There are so many folktales, myths, and stories about life and death, how they interact, and how we as humans, and a world, must have death in order to live. Great old 1939 movie, ‘On Borrowed Time,’ with Lionel Barrymore, takes on a version of the tale of when Death is tricked up into a tree where, in this case a he, where he can’t get down, nothing dies and the world gets too full. A similar one is a Spanish story, “Tia Miseria,” Aunt Misery. There are stories about dancing with death, making deals with death, tricking death, even preferring death to God or fate, as death eventually treats everyone the same.

Monkey had gotten tangled in the blanket on my bed, and was scared. He gouged a good sized scratch on my left arm in his frenzy to get free. Instead of an irritated sharp response that I might have made at another time, I put him down on the floor, “I know Monkers, I’ve been scared, too.”

It seems to me that going through the losses, dealing with the sorrow and the empty place in our world, teaches us how to live. All of us have losses, some are huge – losing one’s family in an accident, losing a child, losing a body part, etc. One friend told me when her mom disappeared into the jungle on a guided tour and was never found, that was harder than anything she ever experienced as there were no answers, no understanding, no closure.

Yes, I was going to publish my upbeat essay on how I jumped to my feet when hearing a piece of music, yet thought I’d finish this experience first, so please know I shan’t be Donna Drama indefinitely.

We all come back to, circle around, avoid, deny, yet at some point have to face the myriad of issues around death and loss in our lives. It’s been a while since I’ve had to, and several have resurfaced. What if? Maybe I could have… If only I’d… I still hear his claws tapping on the wooden floor in the hallway. I hear a bump in the kitchen of the towel drawer (he used to pull out the dish towels.) The dissonance of how can he be gone, yet he is.

Playing great CD’s I’d forgotten I had has been a balm: Jesse Cook’s The Rumba Foundation, Narada Decade: The First Ten Years, IZ Kamakawiwo’ole’s Future, Michael Gettel’s san juan suite. Like a lace tablecloth for the family dinner, the music didn’t change the event, yet added grace.

I told you he was smart!

So my generous friend, Deborah, offered to go with me to the vet. Monkey so did not like the pet carrier, and he had little energy, so we wrapped him in the sky blue fleece blanket and Deb held him for the short drive to the vet’s. I turned the key in the ignition, “I will ease your mind. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind,” floats out of the stereo.

Are you kidding me? Deb and I looked over at each other, our eyebrows went up and we shook our heads. Our eyes got moist, we each started blinking as I pulled up to the intersection

Friends. Community. Neighbors’ kindness. Empathy. Learning how to live and live with each other.

The scratch on my arm is healing well, there will only be a tiny scar. Scars can be our strongest parts – – if we let them heal.  

He’ll Let You Know

Are Life and Death extremes, at opposite ends of a spectrum? Or are Life and Death partners walking together along the path in the world? Are Life and Death parallel experiences, intersecting and criss-crossing each other? Perhaps they are flip sides of the same coin?
Mused on by countless thinkers, authors, philosophers… and folks like you and I.
Do Life and Death find definition by not being the other, such as if you are alive, you’re not dead. If you’re dead, you’re not alive. Sort of like the definition of black is the presence of all colors, white is the absence of all colors.

Ziggy – 1 day old!

I arrived in Oregon last week to visit my wondrous and beloved daughter and son-in-law. Within a few hours, their goat gave birth to beautiful twin girls. I can take no credit for that other than my arrival may have startled the mama, yet I so love my little grand-goatlings. Who knew goats could be cuddly and responsive? Not me. These are Swiss Oberhasli goats, the new babies’ names are Fantasia and Ziggy, each at one time or another fell asleep in my arms.

I get home and again in the time frame of a few hours, my veterinarian diagnoses my gentle tabby with advanced kidney disease, with a short life expectancy. Monkey is just shy of thirteen years old and has stopped eating. It is all up to him now. He is gentle, purrs, and likes to sit on my lap. However every few minutes he fidgets and rearranges himself – he just can’t get comfortable, and will then awkwardly toddle into my room to nestle in my thick fleece blanket.

After a couple tearful meltdowns, I pondered on what do I do that is best for my sweet tabby? My son, who gave Monkey his name because as a kitten he insisted on climbing the drapes, gently told me, “Mom, he’ll let you know when it’s time. He’ll meow differently, quit purring, or won’t get up – he’ll let you know.”

This river of life (I know, you are impressed by the originality of my metaphor) splashing along, capturing and whisking things along with it, tossing other things up on the shore, drowning some and feeding others. Cleansing the earth, replenishing the earth, sometimes devastating, more often nourishing.

Monkey’s gentleness and tenacity remind me of my mom’s passing three years ago. She too was gentle and tenacious. I can still hear her last breath, a long, slow sigh. I felt in it acceptance… and relief.

Acceptance. Monkey seems calm, he is not anxious or fretful.
The life force he has. He jumps up on my bed, gives a little trill as I first pet him when he wakes up. He hasn’t eaten for several days. Yet purrs in my arms.
I have lost pets before. I have lost loved family members and friends before. What is different now is that I have time. I am not working a forty-seven hour week. I have been able to cancel or reschedule my commitments and spend time with Monkey, make visits and calls to the vet myself instead of delegating.

If you had told me a few years back that one day I would be sitting on the hay-covered ground in a goat pen holding a baby goat, enjoying the smells of hay, goats, and fertilizer wafting all around me, delighting in the ‘bi-ip’ sounds the baby goats make, laughing at the the barking and jostling of the pups, and swaying to the the coo of doves, I would have thought you had me confused with someone else. This different connection with life, and time, is stunning to me.
Wasn’t I connected to life? I sure thought so: I raised two children, I worked in social services for decades. I taught, volunteered countless hours at many organizations, had a romance here and there, walked on the Great Wall of China, swished my hand in the water as the gondolier paddled us down a canal in Venice. Yet this was different.

Monkey 3-5-2019

Sitting on the earth, holding a newborn goat, away from phone and internet. Sitting close to my newly pregnant daughter who is married to her soulmate, I was connected to life in a deeper way, a clearer way.

One of the memorable stories about my mom’s mother, Grandmere Marguerite, happened just before she died. Many of us were in her hospital room circled around her bed, some standing, some of us sitting: my mom, her sister, her brother and his wife (so all three of Grandmere’s children), a couple cousins, and myself. We were hushed at first, then as families do, the whispers evolved into chatter about who did what with whom when and where.
“I am dying. You should be praying,” Grandmere declared firmly. Instantly we became silent. A few stolen looks passed among us from beneath lowered brows. Now, that was clarity.

Grandmere had lived life: a war bride, widowed at thirty-nine with three young children separated by an ocean and a continent from her birth family in eastern France, survived breast cancer. At eighty, she had lived and parts of her had died to get to such clarity.

Why yes, I did say newly pregnant daughter. So life embraces all. We love, we leave, we learn, we grow. We live, we release, we accept.

Monkey has taught me new things about being in the Now. I hold him, he purrs and snuggles into my shoulder, tucking his head by my chin. Now is what we have.

When Compulsion Calls the Shots

Snohomish River from Lowell Riverfront Park Photo by MDessein
Here is an up close and personal session for you – How many times do I have to experience a negative consequence after repeating the same behavior before I figure it out and stop doing it: eating when I am not hungry.
Eating for solace, to ease loneliness, to expand on excitement, to get a temporary feeling of pleasure, to assuage disappointment, to ‘reward’ myself for some accomplishment, to fit in with those around me, to somehow feel better than I was feeling in the moment, perhaps even out of boredom. How many times? Over the last forty years, I could not begin to count, we are talking big numbers here.

“The lesson comes back until you learn it,” has been said in various ways by many people. Yee gods and little fishes…

Maybe you can relate to this one: continuing to date someone even after the red warning flags are up? For many of the same reasons, perhaps justifications is more accurate, as I mentioned above? We may come back to this one.

Another lesson more closely related to the over-eating issue is alcohol use. The reasons above can just be dittoed to here. Then the insidious compulsion takes over, in both cases. There are good reasons at first to assuage or to celebrate, then there is no reason, one just does it. Control is gone. Regulation is gone. The compulsion now rules.

Changes in the reward systems and neural pathways in the brain are established facts in compulsive and addictive behaviors. So how do we get control back? The answers are not easy or clear or the same for everyone. Nor are they here. However, some lessons might be.

One lesson I learned last night was compulsion is a monster that will only harm me. My intuition said, “One dish of ice cream is enough.” My body told me the same thing. The monster replied relentlessly, “One more dish. It tastes so good and creamy. One more dish. Use a small dish, it’s not like you’re eating out of the carton. You love caramel. You haven’t had ice cream in forever. One more dish.” By the end of the evening, the quart and a half was gone. In fact, at the store, the healthy part of me said, “Don’t buy the big container even if it is on sale.”
Yet I did.

The primary takeaway was do not let the monster out of the box. Yes, I’ve heard it and said it before, yet it smacked me upside the head and heart this morning, reminding me of a dear friend of mine, who was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. Hank was a radiation physicist who worked for the government and taught around the world. He once said to me, “There are things I can’t have in the house. If it’s here, I’ll eat it. If I eat it, I’ll eat it until it’s all gone.” Hank was a slim and trim man who went to the gym six mornings a week, seven if he could. Yet, he clearly had learned the hard way to keep the monster in the box.

Near Camp Casey
Photo by MDessein

Jack Kornfield talks about the war within ourselves in his book, “A Path With Heart,” a richly enlightening dialogue I will return to another time.

Indeed, the issue of doing negative things to oneself is much more complex than just keep the monster in the box. Some things hearken back to beliefs instilled in us as kids, negative self-image, a variety of fears, low self-worth, etc., etc. For now, I will focus on just keeping the monster in the box.

It worked today.

How Do You Be So Brave?

Inside Passage, British Columbia
photo MDessein
These kids work hard every day just to stay alive.
To live, which I take for granted each day when I get up, dawdle, feed my cats, do some laundry, and never think “What do I have to do to stay alive today?”

These kids have medically complex issues that I cannot begin to explain, like having heart surgery for birth defects within 48 hours of being born then five more surgeries over the next three years, being paralyzed, having a brain injury, childhood onset of scoliosis; these few examples do not touch on the myriad of illnesses and challenges these children and their families face.

Yesterday, I was fortunate to attend the 11th Annual Stanley Stamm Camp Guild Fashion Show, a fundraiser for a summer camp founded by Dr. Stanley Stamm for kids ages 6 – 14 connected with Seattle Children’s Hospital who could not otherwise attend a summer camp due to all their medical care needs.

A Fashion Show, you ask? Yes, fifteen of these children came on stage modeling outfits donated by a large retailer. Many of them came on stage alone and did the stroll around it twice, some had help. Some in wheelchairs, some having their hand held, a few of them sashayed by themselves, a couple others had a volunteer or staff member walk beside them. Miranda, who was too shy to talk with one of the MC’s, did a lap around the stage by herself. Matthias waved, did a couple thumbs-up, and shook his booty in the course of his two laps. From his wheelchair with the huge wheels, Tucker had witty responses to questions. Serafina sang a song she wrote. And Joseph.

Joseph is about 12 years old, tall and slender, blind since birth, he walked with his taller-than-he-is walking stick in his right hand and a volunteer guiding him by holding his left elbow.

How many times did I get teary-eyed watching these children be so brave? Couldn’t tell you, as I lost count. Before each child came on stage, one of the MC’s, a longtime volunteer at Children’s, gave a brief synopsis of the child’s medical history and some of their favorite things. The things these children have done to get through another day, and then do it again the next day is remarkable to me.

Such young ones to work so hard to be alive.

Stamm Camp allows these kids to be kids: paddle-boats, pizza, tacos, fishing, swimming, horses, arts & crafts, archery, games, being outdoors, campfires, music… and freedom from many of their daily concerns. The Stamm Camp Guild is a special guild that raises money solely for the Dr. Stanley Stamm Camp. (If you are interested, donations are gratefully accepted: 206-987-2153.) In addition to the medical staff, there are 200+ volunteers who make this camp happen each year for these kids. Some of the volunteers are now adults who were in the camp in their youth.

Dr. Stanley Stamm photo by MYNorthwest

Who was Stanley Stamm? I’m glad you asked. Dr. Stamm founded the pediatric cardiology department at Children’s Hospital as well as pioneered treatments for kids with cystic fibrosis. When he died last year at age 93, the Seattle Times quoted his son-in-law who called Dr. Stamm, “the Mr. Rogers of pediatrics.”
Treat kids like people, not patients was one of his primary tenets.

After the Fashion Show and a few minutes of closing chat from the MC’s, there was the Fashion Models Finale – all the kids came on stage with some volunteers and helpers. We audience members cheered, clapped, hurrahed. All those on stage waved and clapped back at us.
Joseph was front and center. He handed his walking stick to his helper and raised both his arms in a great open V for victory and smiled.

Did I cry? You bet I did.