Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Death, Taxes and Lunching with Goldfinches

“I’m glad I’m not dead.” Those were the opening words of a Christmas letter I received this past December. The letter writer had recently said that to her husband who had replied he was also glad that he was not dead. The writer then added they were both glad that all of the recipients of their letter were not dead. I laughed as I read it even as I thought it was an odd start for an annual greeting. The subtext of course could be either “I’m glad to be alive.” or “At least, I’m not dead.” I’m sure we’ve all had such moments.

Here’s another take on that idea. I heard Carol Burnett discussing her new memoir (“Carrie and Me”) with Diane Rehm, who asked her to talk about a particular moment in the book. Carol’s daughter Carrie was in the hospital for the last time before she would go home to die, and one of the nurses commented to Carol that her daughter cheered them up. Later she had asked her daughter how it was possible for her to do that. Carrie replied that each morning she would decide, “Today I am going to love my life.”  I immediately thought I’d write that quote on an index card and put it on my refrigerator door. It is a daily reminder that I too have choices about how I approach each day.

Preparing my tax information is always stressful for me, but my taxes were finished on time. When I submit my form and mail the first payment of the estimated amount for next year I remind myself that I get pretty good value for money from my government (federal, state and local) at this stage of my life. But the emotions of tax season are not about the process, they are mostly about Bill. He always did our taxes—spreading papers all over the dining table—and never accepting help because he believed citizens should deal directly with their government. As annoying as it sometimes was, I miss that messy ritual and our joint ride to the post office to mail the finished forms, usually on the last day. As I organized my own papers for the CPA, Bill was on my mind also because he is the reason I have some income to tax. Bill faithfully saw to it that both of our IRA accounts were fully funded each year. He only got to enjoy his minimum distribution for two years before he died and his IRA was rolled into mine, just as he had lovingly planned.

As I get older, thoughts of death and dying are often part of my day, both because of my own ailments and diminishments and also from conversations with friends. Recently word came of the death of Bob Ward who headed the North Carolina School of the Arts when both Bill and I worked there in the early seventies. Bob and his wife, who died soon after Bill, were among our favorite friends, and I continued to receive his annual handwritten note until this year. I noticed with a little apprehension that no card had arrived from him with the other holiday mail. He was ninety-five and had worked as an educator, composer and conductor until he was ninety-four, which was just the way he wanted it to be. Even so when I read the news the lights in my heart (not on Broadway) dimmed in honor of this kind, creative and ebullient man. A friend here in Celo, who has been ill for many years, is now under the care of hospice and, as his wife has said, “He is on his last lap.” Several of my aging friends are dealing with recent life-altering diagnoses, and there begins to be talk of the probable need to move either closer to children or perhaps to an assisted living facility. Obviously the longer we live, the more we face the loss of our peers, and many times each year our heart-lights dim in honor of those who have graced our lives and are now gone.

During the past month I have been reading “Here If You Need Me*,” the memoir of Kate Braestrup who is a chaplain to search-and-rescue workers in Maine. Out of her personal experience with the death of her husband in a traffic accident and through her work with the wardens she writes with compassion and authenticity about facing death. When someone is found alive, loved ones usually say it is a miracle. Kate believes that miracles are proclaimed in all manner of circumstances when something has happened or not happened against the odds. Her conclusion is that a miracle is not defined by an event; it is defined by gratitude.  Since I am prone to noticing little miracles in my own life, I was drawn to that distinction. What then does Kate have to say about those times when the odds win and there is no miracle? She impressed me with her simplicity as she pointed out that in scriptures it does not say that God is death, rather it says God is love. She concludes by stating that if we want to know where God is in the face of death or any catastrophe  “...look for love.”  It is love that brings family home when a parent is dying or sends the search and rescue teams out to look for a lost child they do not even know. It is love that brings out “all the people in the world” as one worried son said during the search for his mother who suffered from dementia. In the presence of death, it is love that fuels our grief and then helps us heal.

After a long stretch of cold weather, we had several warm spring days. On the first of them I was still grouchy from the angst of tax preparation and weather-driven cabin fever, and I couldn’t truthfully say that it was a day when I had decided to love my life. I did, however, put on a light sweater and carried my lunch on a tray outside to my deck. I sat down at the table with a straight-line view of the bird feeder and beyond to the weeping ornamental cherry tree in full blossom. With a mouth full of sandwich, I lifted my gaze to the tree, but immediately registered a bright yellow blob in the near distance. Quickly shifting my focus to the feeder I confirmed that there was not just one, there were three goldfinches—the first I’d seen this year.  One was eating fresh sunflower seeds I had just put out that morning, and the other two were picking out thistle seeds from the tiny holes in the black feeder where the food had been waiting for weeks. “I’m lunching with goldfinches,” I said out loud as I reached for a pickle. I could have expressed my gratitude and said “It’s a miracle” but I guess it didn’t rise to that level. My mood, however, began to thaw and I feel quite sure that in that moment I truly loved my life. Ben Franklin is right about the certainty of death and taxes, but I can also count on goldfinches at my feeders in the spring and the blessings of friendship, which endure in our remembrance.

*Braestrup, Kate,Here, If You Need Me: A True Story, New York, Back Bay Books, 2008 

Next Post: 05/07/2013

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Pre-Easter Dream and a Train of Thought

The night before Easter I had a strange dream that was obviously fed by a lifetime of the social and political concerns that have interested me since I was sixteen and first became involved with activities motivated by a desire to make the world better. During my high school years in the mid-forties my parents and I often attended a Sunday evening interracial family night at Fellowship House in Philadelphia. It was a safe place where black and white families could come together for meals, worship services, art projects or singing. The people I met there kindled in me a desire to work with organizations that had a positive effect on people’s lives not merely by offering a helping hand but also by changing attitudes.

For the next sixty years I was involved either personally or professionally in one effort after another designed to right some wrong, bring together people with differing views, or let a little light shine in a dark place. Whether it was the Methodist Student Movement, Sojourners, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Episcopal Peace Fellowship or one of many local committees, I was always participating in some kind of service activity. My volunteer jobs were often producing newsletters or writing grant proposals and press releases.

For about ten years after I retired I continued to be busy as a volunteer. By then I had developed a particular interest in health care and worked first with the hospital developing a new foundation and then with the Celo Health Center helping raise funds for a new clinic facility. Eventually the demands of caregiving during Bill’s final year and my own extended illness after his death brought a natural conclusion to that part of my life. Together with my role as wife and mother, working or volunteering as an activist had defined who I was as a person. All of my employment was for non-profits, and the bulk of it was an extension of my commitment to social change.

As time goes by I feel that I’m no longer doing anything concrete to address the problems of our country or my community, and I am often troubled by that fact. Nevertheless I do keep up with the issues that most concern me: the health care, civil rights, justice, the environment, and building community at the local level. I follow the news, read background and opinion pieces, listen to informative radio programs and fill my mind with problems I can’t help to fix.

Now I'll get back to the that dream I mentioned. From one of the articles on brain research I’ve read, I learned a little about the function of dreams. One of the activities of the brain while we sleep is figuring out where to store the bits of memory that have been accumulating while our minds were awake and active. My fanciful picture of this is that we have nearby storage units and deep storage units, and the brain cells have to figure what goes where. I guess they have some google-type mechanism that lets them know what kind of information we call on most frequently. The theory is that the process of sorting and storing memory affects or perhaps produces dreams. In my dream the night before Easter I was attending a conference with a large group of elders who all seemed to be in their eighties and nineties. We were divided into small discussion groups and were meeting in the classrooms of Abington High School, my alma mater.

We were given lists of problems and political issues—starting off not surprisingly with global warming, climate change, marriage equality, gun control, and immigration—and our task was to agree upon the single most important concern of senior citizens.  We had been invited to add things to the list and enthusiastic participants were shouting out less popular concerns like pandemics, mass transit and the slow response of the Veterans Administration. Suddenly in my dream, the time was up and we were given a short break before moving to the auditorium to vote for the cause we would support for the next year. There was a great rush to the bathrooms and lines formed almost immediately. All the other causes were quickly forgotten as people complained about the inadequacy of the restrooms and shared stories of insufficient sanitation they had encountered throughout the world. I woke up at that point and giggled at the dream, appreciating the fact that my brain cells seemed to have a nice sense of humor while they did their nighttime work.

I slept another few hours (without dreams) and wakened in time to tune in to On Being. Krista Tippett’s guest was Representative John Lewis, whom I had been fortunate enough to meet during an AFSC event many years ago. I like his voice, but even more important he uses that voice to speak truth to power. Easter morning he was talking about the kind of study and preparation that was involved in seeking change through nonviolence. In sonorous tones, he spoke of preparing for civil rights marches and sit-ins through study and rigorous role-playing. He described how future participants learned to maintain eye contact with those who might abuse them. They were taught to love the abusers and to remember that inside each one was a spark of the divine. Responding to a question from Krista Tippett, he agreed that the training began as a spiritual confrontation with yourself and you had to grow as you went through the training. Every word he spoke awakened sleeping memories my brain had put in deep storage. That awakening seemed just right for an Easter morning.

A Celo neighbor gave me a ride to Burnsville for the Easter service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The friendly congregation feels like family, and I was happy to be there singing the old familiar hymns and listening to the liturgy.  When it came time for the sermon, the stream of consciousness that started with my dream and was enlarged by Congressman Lewis, continued as I listened to a fresh interpretation of Easter. The resurrection message is not just about overcoming death, our priest Beth said, it is also about assuring that all people have the blessings of life. Our calling is to work toward a world where no one will ever be crucified in any way for any reason. I thought as I listened that one of the ways to contribute to that work is to maintain eye contact and the awareness of that spark of the divine in every person we meet.

The daffodils that thrilled me with their beauty two weeks ago were soon covered by the late season snow, and spring has yet to appear, but the new baby arrived one day early. Miles, Polly and Ginger Mae are now a family. The range of motion in my shoulder is improving with therapy, and I am thankful that my spirit remains open to my life. 

Next Post: 04/16/2013