Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Death on a Blog? Engage with Grace NOW

When I think of the end of my life tears immediately spring to my eyes. I am completely in love with life and the thought of leaving it behind with all its glories is sorrowful.
Nevertheless, today, Thanksgiving morning, I am inspired to join the "blog rally" and to speak of death in the spirit of the grace of this holiday. I invite my readers to join the Engage with Grace ( project, begin conversations with friends, family, at a book club or online about how to end your life with the same purpose and love with which you have lived it—no, it's not about Dr. Kevorkian or the Hemlock society.
I read the front page story, "Talking Turkey about Death" in the Boston Globe, November 26.2008. Rosaria at 32 was dying of a malignant brain tumor. As she lay motionless, unconscious in her hospital bed, at home her beloved two year old daughter languished without Mommy. The child was afraid to touch her mother in the hospital setting. (I've been a hospital chaplain and I understand that fear.) Rosaria's medical team strongly advised the family to leave her in the hospital where she would be well cared for. They defied this authority and took Rosaria home to her own bedroom and bed. For the first time in a week Rosaria opened her eyes as her daughter snuggled in beside her mother. She died the next night at home.
Did this courageous family make the right decision? It seems so but they had to do it by guesswork. They had never talked about dying wishes. Have you?
I have a living will, health care proxy and other written directives, but at 70 I have never talked face to face with myself, my children or even my spouse about my feelings. We are a pretty open family. I guess it's felt almost tabu. Why introduce such an uncomfortable topic? Leave well enough alone.
As a priest I have sat with many a family engaged in agony and argument over what a loved one would want or not want. They care but they don't know! Believe me the discomfort of that struggle is far worse than any discomfort one may feel talking about all this NOW. And this isn't a one way conversation: from the old to the young. We all need to think, talk, and love each other into and out of ignorance. Rosaria was only 32!
Rosaria's sister-in-law Alexandra Drane started the Engage with Grace initiative and the word has spread throughout the healthcare community and beyond thanks to the internet. The website suggests ways to engage yourself and others in such conversations. Begin by asking yourself: On a scale of 1 to 5 where do you fall on this continuum, 1 being let me die in my own bed without medical intervention and 5:Don't give up on me no matter what. Try any proven or unproven intervention possible. I'm on the cusp of 2.5/3. (Other questions, links, resources and more information can be found on the site.) I invite you to check this out and spread the word.
Spiritually, is this taking your life in your own hands? Is it hubris, trying to control too much, not letting go, taking over for the divine will? I say, none of the above. A loving creator has given us minds, hearts, bodies and souls with which to discern how best to love ourselves and others right up to the final intake of breath. This effort is all about fulfilling the essential word of all the world's major religions: do to and for others what you would want done to and for yourself.

I love life enough to talk about its end with gratitude, grace and tears. Death may just be one of those spiritual lemons that you think is too sour to taste, but it could deepen your relationships right NOW, as well as in your last hours. So pucker up!

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Kinda Guru

There is a terrible and growing mess all over our front steps—orange shreds of pumpkin flesh and hundreds of strewn seeds. I should take a broom to it.
I've watched the demolition of our Halloween pumpkin at the mercy of the deft claws and razored teeth of squirrels. It's taken them days to get a breakthrough but at last this morning they, spelling one another, get all the way through to the juiciest innards. The chow line forms.
I grab for the digital and click away through the storm door. My favorite photo shows the tail end of one of the gray scavengers whose front body is completely submerged inside the pumpkin. She looks up every once in a while, sometimes to sniff— raised ears alert, eyes darting around, head aswivel, and sometimes to sit on her haunches and nibble to satiation, cheeks flapping, tiny jaws moving faster than she can fly from branch to branch—and that's fast.
As for me these silly gray rodents are my kind of gurus. A guru is a remover of darkness. The usual image of a guru is someone who embodies tranquility, evokes and emits energy from a still point at the center of the cosmos, a point that encompasses all things and also roosts in individual souls, a point called divine. A guru in any religious tradition is a wise soul who can teach you how to live happily in spite of it all.
My squirrels don't fit the bill. But they teach me this: be diligent after that which will feed you; pursue your passions working in teams; be watchful for dangers but do not let your fear keep you at bay for too long; when you have a breakthrough savor it, then share its juices; do not overeat; spit out pitts or other indigestibles; if you make a mess do it with joy; return often to visit the holy place.
I've felt dismal today, worried about many things. My gurus have lifted my darkness. I'm grateful. Maybe tomorrow they will topple the pumpkin and have a community Thanksgiving banquet.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Open Door Policy or Will and the Kingdom

When my grandson ( or one of them) was four (he's five now), he wanted to come see my church, "with no one there."
"It's the one where you get all dressed up on Sunday and give us bread," he says. I tell him he can come on Sunday, but he wants a private tour. So we go.
Will, always speedy with words and legs, runs in ahead of me and heads for the sacristy. "This is your special closet, Grammy," he says. The sacristy is where clergy, acolytes and other servers at the altar don robes for the service. Will wants to see all the scarves. He means stoles, long narrow, colorful strips of fabric clergy wear over their shoulders. Will wraps himself round and round in stoles—red, green, white, blue, paisley and more and asks me to open the door, "Grammy's secret entrance," that leads into the sanctuary. He hops up one step and into the high altar area, which in ancient temples used to be called the "holy of holies."
What happens next surprises me. I listen for Will's speed run around the altar area but hear nothing. Silence. Has he fallen? I go to see and find Will standing still, staring up at the reredos, the wooden carving that fits over the altar, an altar we no longer use. In our day it doesn't make sense to invite people to a holy meal in Godde's name and not allow them to gather round the dining table.
Will is still. His widening brown eyes roam the sculpture: a large wooden crucifix surrounded by niches in which stand Jesus' many followers stand, some looking straight out at us and a few, including Jesus' mother Mary, looking up at Jesus. I worry Will will be frightened by the image. Then I half expect him to drop to his knees and wonder if he has a vocational calling.
"Grammy, look," he finally says.
I look.
"Look. Look," he pulls my hand and walks me back and forth tracing the rows of niches with his finger. He see something wondrous. His eyes are alive with light. I wait.
"There are no doors," he says. "There's no doors."
Will is not at all interested in Jesus and has no questions about what must be an odd image to him. It is the array of saints in their doorless rooms that mesmerizes Will. I know he is learning about time-outs, and I know he is able to turn his temper around fast, repent and begin over, as long as his parents leave the door to his time-out room open.
No closed doors.
Before I can hug him he's off, dashing down the aisle, then hurtling his tiny body as fast as it will go in and out among rows of pews down one side and up the other and back again shouting to me, "Watch this. Watch this."
I watch. I clap. I think to myself that Jesus' wisdom about children was right: " It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." (Mark 10:13)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Young and Old Bodies Got Spirit

I've discovered something quite wonderful as I age— and it's not all my aches and creaks.
I watched my grandchildren, the latest one only six months old, begin to see, smile, sit, hitch, crawl, toddle, fall, run, skip, leap and dance. There is such joy in every bodily achievement. No need for a grade. The pure exhilaration of movement, praising Life itself, if enough.
Just recently I was privileged to witness the same bodily joy in a person age eighty two. She suffers from physical ailments all of which keep her a little depressed and mobile but with pain. But this day she came to see me with a smile. "I can walk!" She had always walked I thought.
She told me she'd decided to "take hold of her body and stop all this sitting around."
One of her loves is gardening. "I was afraid to get down there. I might never get up," she says. "But watch."
She did a demo—put the stool in front of her, rolled over it, got her one good knee positioned, curled her toes under, telling me she knew this move from yoga, braced her belly on the stool and stood up. She was overjoyed with the feat. "I'm walking better since I did that," she said as she strode, sort of, across the room as full of grace as a toddler in between falls.
Childhood and elderhood are ages of embodiment, times when the body's movements, not the mind's, are the chief source of and witness to soul. Maybe that's true in between too.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Post- is in!

So now we are in a post-election nation, if not world. Is that like post-modern, post-Christian, post-Bush or just plain post-American?
I don't know, but anything with post- prefacing it is over, done, finis. We've moved along. Yes, we've moved along taking all that went before along in different order. Change isn't pure.
Whatever comes after will always contain some of what went before. For example, I no longer suck my thumb, but when worried I can pout and go secret. Prayer has replaces thumb-sucking as my preferred practice.
I've written a memoir. In writing I realize that who I am now is in every way continuous and discontinuous with who I was. I was bossy, submissive and afraid, defiant, powerful, wise. I still am with different emphases. Older and wiser is true. But I'm still a composite of myself, a post-Lyn Lyn.

This nation is rewriting the American dream, moving from "you can be anything you want" to "you can be anything you want with a lot of consideration for your neighbors near and far." Independence and striving won't disappear but higher values will be interdependence and rest. Peace will become a more effective way than war. The ladder will look more like a broad stretch of highway.
Our President-elect Obama uses the pronouns "we" and "our" when he speaks of leadership, national goals, political policies and dreams. And he uses the word "slow" a lot and "taking time."
I like this post-American way. It is ours not Barak Obama's. He only got the vote. I'm not naive about the baggage that will blur the vision and even make violence, but I am hopeful that post- really means post-.
My hope is founded in election day's tears on many different faces.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Political Genetics

Imagine this! In the nation of jittery politics in the midst of a crucial national election to be decided TODAY, I learn that politics is in part controlled by genetics. I thought I was so good to get myself informed and as objective as I could to prepare to vote. But I might be kidding myself.
Catching up on the Sunday (11/2/08) papers I read in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe an article by Eve LaPlante about new brain research that suggests that political bipartisan politics, aka red or blue, is influenced, if not determined, by one's inborn response to threat.
Who knew? I thought I was a liberal Democrat because of my response to my parents' staunch Republican overkill, their FDR paranoia, and the like. I remember when I snuck into the Town Hall in Canton, CT. to change my voter registration from Republican to Democrat, I looked around every corner to make sure my father wasn't lurking there to see the heresy I was committing. I was even a little proud of my carefully reasoned rebellion.
There's a new scientific group called political physiologists. There isn't space here for much detail, but it seems that brain research studies indicate that so called political liberals react less vigorously to threatening stimuli and are quicker to provide a new response, read change. Conservatives, au contraire, are more easily startled by such stimuli and have more difficulty switching to a new response. It's all about "blink-startle" and sweat, both measurements of responses to stimuli.
In the old nature/nurture debate it seems that politics is more of an inborn instinct than we thought. Liberals tend to support less protectionist policies like abortion, gun control, open immigration. Conservatives tend to support more protectionist policies like capital punishment, school prayer, the Iraq war. and conservative. This I know, but I thought it had to do with culture, geography, religious leanings, and whatever your parents said.
As a liberal I of course love this new finding, no matter how inconclusive. Why? It leaves room for nuance, ambiguity, new life and, I admit, divine grace. Safety isn't the highest value. It expands the horizons; it douses worn out stereotypes, such as: liberals are soft in the head/touchy feely and conservatives are strong, steady and rational.
The other thing I find hopeful about this new complexity is that obviously we do need each other. Conservatives, for example, in the Church help the community preserve the finest art, or spiritual practices, or the most elegant old language for certain occasions; whereas, liberals can foresee atrophy unless some things die by choice to make room for new souls and new occasions. Instead we mostly call each other, silently or aloud, "dummies" and wring our hands.
It takes great grace not to try to make lemonade out of your own or your neighbor's "lemons"—just for your own comfort. But there is spiritual health in communities that can accommodate reds and blues in the same pews without loss of integrity and maybe a bit of love.
Talking and listening help.