|Horseshoe Curve Today|
About a dozen years after my mother died at age 94, I visited my sister Dorothy who is ten years older than I am. We started reminiscing about our mother: the conversation was a mixture of funny or sweet memories and sadder things showing me that some of my sister’s wounds had not been healed. My mother had a pattern of imagining some future occasion or interaction in considerable detail. If one little thing went amiss, she would declare that the whole day was ruined or the whole dinner or the whole event. Dorothy felt that she or some member of her family was often singled out as the “ruiner.” Mother had little or no tolerance for these perceived flaws and lacked the capacity to have a good time in spite of them. Even as I child I never could understand the concept of a seemingly great time had by all that was somehow ruined for Mother by a small imperfection.
I was reminded of that conversation last week when I had an initially strong reaction to a disappointment: something I thought would happen isn’t going to. However, I quickly realized that it was only important because I had made it important and, with that flash of insight, it was possible to let go. The religious faith of my childhood—which continues to be my lodestar—has much to say about surrender and letting go, I really gained the understanding of non-attachment to outcomes from another spiritual tradition. By the time my chronic, severe cough was finally diagnosed in January 2004 as an atypical form of TB called MAI, Bill had been dead less than four months. The whole structure of my world had turned upside down. I was seriously ill and still grieving. The 18-month course of treatment was onerous; it involved a lot of rest and three prescriptions that all had serious side effects. Once the drug regimen ended, it took another six months to recover from those side effects, and some are permanent. I seldom left the house except for medical or therapy appointments. It was an arid, difficult time; however, out of it came a life-changing experience that gave me an understanding of suffering and some tools to deal with it. It set my spiritual feet on a path I am still following.
At the urging of a friend, I signed up for the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class that Jon Kabat-Zinn had developed as an adjunct program to Dean Ornish’s work with heart disease. It is now more widely available and is applicable to many kinds of disease, disability, and pain management. There are four main elements: mindfulness meditation, yoga, body scans, and stress management. I had already developed a meditation discipline based on the Centering Prayer workshops and retreats I had attended through the Episcopal Church. In my fragile condition, I was apprehensive about the imposition of another philosophy or doctrine. Instead, the class presented a non-religious, although spiritual, approach to managing stress, and I was comfortable within the first ten minutes. My own meditation practice improved greatly as I developed a clearer understanding of the intention and the result when we offer ourselves what is sometimes called rest for the soul. Anyone who has had serious lung issues will understand at once why it felt so right and so comforting to spend forty-five minutes with my whole focus on the dependability and grace of my own breath: in and out, in and out. My attention jumped around but I learned to bring it back to my breath.
I was the oldest person in the class; most of them were in their middle years. As we talked together or read aloud what we had written, I realized that most of them suffered because their plates were too full: jobs, divorces, other marital problems, financial issues, adolescent children, and other major stressors were compounding whatever physical issue they dealt with. My plate, on the other hand, was too empty as I struggled with grief, loneliness, lack of meaning, and the necessity of self-quarantine (as my doctor called it).
When Bill and I fell in love in our early twenties, we began talking endlessly about everything. We placed a rather large emphasis on our own childhoods, our parents, and the things we were beginning to learn and understand on our own. We had both had the epiphany that expectation is the breeding ground of disappointment. Unfortunately, it is a lesson I had to learn over and over until I finally began to enjoy anticipation while knowing that things can change in the blink of an eye.
|Historic Photo of the Curve|
When I was eight years old, my mother, my sister, and I took the train from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to visit my Aunt Margaret, my Grandfather, and any number of cousins. It was the occasion of my first encounter with that essential truth about expectation. The train ride took all day and included the marvel of the Horseshoe Curve. If you were lucky enough to get a seat in a car near the front or the back, you got to see the whole long train as it curved around on the horseshoe track. We were at the back. Since we couldn’t afford the dining car, my mother had packed a lunch and thought we should eat before we got to the curve. The sandwiches were wrapped tightly in waxed paper; she had tucked in little slips of paper indicating what kind they were. I wasn’t interested in egg salad but I was torn between roast beef and peanut butter and jelly. At last I opted for the beef. Mother always put a little horseradish in with the lettuce and mayonnaise and the meat was sliced thin and salted a little. My mouth was so ready for those tastes as I opened the wrapping and, without looking, lifted the sandwich up and took a large bite. “Oh no,” said my brain as peanut butter stuck to my teeth and the sweet taste of grapes replaced the expected flavor of dark, salty beef and the tang of horseradish. My mother had mixed up the labels, and I was disconsolate. As usual I got no sympathy, although she did apologize, adding that I should be grateful I had something to eat unlike the starving children in China. So many times since, I have thought in the first flush of a disappointment, “This is like that peanut butter sandwich.” Finally, heralded by the creaking of the train car connectors and the echo of the train’s whistle in the valley, we pulled into the curve. The long train stretched out around the track, and the Horseshoe Curve did not disappoint.
Two years later, my father gave me a little different view of imperfection when I was moaning about a little knitting mistake in a Girl Scout project. He told me about the Muslim belief that only God is perfect, and so they put a deliberate flaw in the Persian carpets they made. As a recovering perfectionist, his words comforted me many times, and still do occasionally.
Moments of sadness are a poignant companion as life nears its conclusion. In recent weeks one of the Schleppers (a group of elderly neighbors who all want to age in place) began to receive the support of hospice, and another died just a few days after her condition was declared terminal. Several of my friends are dealing with cancer or are facing major surgery. I have written recently on this blog about moments of exultation, moments of grace, moments of mystery. Our sadness is an important part of living and often is the gateway to one of those uplifting moments as we move around our own emotional curve. The message of my work with Kabat-Zinn’s classes, books and CDs is chiefly about moments. Being mindful of each one, to the best our ability, enables us to love, to anticipate with joy, to grieve, forgive, apologize, give thanks, and let go of our attachment to specific outcomes. Moments of sadness and the acceptance of imperfection both have the power to help us to live fully in the present moment.