Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Is Suffering Really Optional?


There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is what the world does to you; suffering is what you do to yourself. Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. This is a concept or a truth that I first encountered during an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class in 2005. I was still grieving the death of my husband Bill and was in the second year of a lengthy illness. The atypical TB (called MAI) that caused the endless coughing, malaise, and lack of energy was treated for eighteen months with three drugs, all of which had side effects. In the face of my skepticism about the optional nature of suffering, the MBSR teacher advised me to take the program on faith, read the suggested books, and establish a mindfulness meditation practice along with the yoga postures and relaxation techniques I had been learning in the classes. I did so and gradually learned how to let go of much of the suffering in my life; I continue to follow the program even though I sometimes drop back into old habits.


Two weeks ago Robin and I flew to Philadelphia to attend the celebration of the marriage of my nephew Gregory Guy and Paula Schwartz. This romantic couple, both in their sixties, had opted for a very private wedding during a Christmas vacation in Hawaii. Six months later in the lovely old Yellow Springs Inn outside Philadelphia about eighty friends and family sipped champagne and ate sumptuous hors d’oeuvres before gathering around Greg and Paula for a recap of their vows and touching tributes by siblings and friends of the couple. That sweet ceremony was followed by dinner, toasts and cake-cutting. Their union was once again publicly declared and enthusiastically endorsed.

Dorothy, David and Donna Jean
This event provided an opportunity for me to be together with my remaining siblings. My brother David and I are the youngest of four children. Don, born in 1920, died in 1995. Our sister Dorothy (mother of the groom) is in good physical shape at age 91, and although her cognition is limited by severe short-term memory loss, she still remembers much of her past. The three of us had not been together for about fifteen years, and David and I hoped we might have fun reminiscing with her. All thirty-one members of Gregory’s family (including the offspring and in-laws) were there plus eight members of his and my extended family. The party was perfect and provided the opportunity for visiting with all these loved ones and to meet some of Paula’s family. The entire weekend, including an afterglow gathering at the home of Dorothy’s daughter Shannon, was joyful, exciting, and nurturing for me. I fully expected to write about it, probably emphasizing the importance of siblings.

It was not possible to have that hoped-for three-way chat about our childhood because Dorothy was obviously traumatized by seeing us there. She told us she didn’t understand what the event was about. It was clear that she was glad to see David, but was somewhat distressed to see me. Although I was saddened by my encounters with Dorothy during the party, it was heartwarming to see her playing with her great-grandchildren and to observe the loving kindness and attention she received from all her family. When I said good-bye to her, we had a tender moment as she told me that she saw my face often during the party as I moved about greeting people. Each time she thought it was her own face and couldn’t figure it out. She told me it was distressing, but finally she knew the face was mine. I had tried several times to sit and talk with her, but always felt that agitation. When she was able to tell me about seeing her face in mine, I told her this story from thirty years ago. “I was in Gimbel’s store in Philadelphia, and a stranger came up to me and said ‘Aren’t you Shannon’s mother?’ I replied that I was her aunt and my sister was her mother. The woman smiled and said that we sure did look alike.” Dorothy laughed, and for a moment she was whole.  I realized that I had dropped into a little sister mode with hurt feelings when I first saw her and could tell she was distressed. It was time to let go of that hurt and make room for compassion.

Three days after the party, my brother arrived to visit me, bringing his wife Anne who is six years into her journey with Alzheimer’s. During the wedding event, she had stayed behind in Oberlin, in the care of her children. David wanted to spend time in Celo before returning home to Wisconsin. At first, I found the immutable march of Anne’s dementia—plus the stress it brings to both of them—draining because I was still working through the pain of my sister’s problems. David has had a lifelong tendency toward getting absorbed in his own little world, but as Anne has expressed feelings of being  “broken” and he has recognized that she can no longer retain new information, he has learned to be patient and to anticipate her needs. When he said good-bye, David told me that they agreed it had been a very good visit, and Anne nodded her assent. Remembering Anne holding my great-grandchild Ginger, taking digital pictures in my garden, or enthusiastically eating her meals, I concurred.
Anne gets a smile from Ginger

After they left, I went to the computer to write, but I couldn’t do anything with the planned essay that sat in my brain like a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces. I had noticed that the foxgloves were blooming and decided to take a break and pick some to bring in the house. The day was muggy, and I saw clusters of little bugs in the air. As I bent over to cut the flowers, I suddenly felt a stinging pain in the corner of my right eye and I wiped out a little black gnat with my finger.

I quickly took the flowers and headed for the bathroom to tend to my eye, which was already red and swelling. Ever since my bout with MAI, I have autoimmune reactions to bites. In no time at all, my eyelids and cheek ballooned.  I went through my first aid routines and at bedtime took a Benadryl, but for the next two days I could not read or use the computer, and work on my essay stopped.  That is when the optional suffering ballooned as fast as my eye.

Falling into that trap of  “people are depending me to write” I felt an unwarranted sense of obligation to write something. Then I began to build my misery heap, throwing in the sadness over dementia, the doubt of my ability to keep on writing, and other physical and emotional concerns— a veritable laundry list of silly miseries. Suddenly I remembered that I had another choice. I started with a quiet time as I focused on my breathing. Next I took a long walk, did some yoga, and then had a long sit on my deck while I literally talked to my soul and let go of all the unnecessary (albeit real) suffering. In that moment I decided to share this experience with you, the readers of my blog. 

I have thought a lot about Dorothy and Anne and how the dementia is not the person. In my mind I bathed them with compassion and praised their indomitable spirits. I’m renewing my commitment to opt out of unwanted and unnecessary suffering and to cultivate my acceptance of the pain. I’m grateful that one of the Schleppers reminded us at our last meeting that aging with grace depends on our ability to adapt to change. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Choosing a Grandmother and Learning to Sit Still

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One of the pleasures of my life is watching my children in their roles as grandparents. Robin and Tammy have two grandchildren; Melissa and Ron have three. All of them fairly twinkle with joy as they set out to spend time with one of the little ones, and they are always ready to respond to the parents as babysitters, advice-givers, or comforters. Meanwhile they are building lifetime relationships with their grandchildren.

My mother’s mother died before I was born, and my father’s mother never seemed very interested in being my grandmother. She told me more than once that she had raised two boys and didn’t know what to do with girls. Grandma Cook was dutiful, albeit stern, and if she didn’t like what we were doing or saying, she didn’t scold, but simply snapped off the hearing aid battery that was stowed in the breast pocket of her apron or blouse.

I was an avid reader from the age of six and knew from all the children’s books I devoured what grandmothers should be like, so I kept visiting older friends of my mother looking for a stand-in. I found the Griscoms just three blocks away from our house in Roslyn. After we moved to nearby Glenside, I took the trolley or rode my bike to visit whenever I could. Everett and Florence Griscom were the strongest influences from my childhood (except for my parents). They might have been surprised to learn I considered them my surrogate grandparents. However they possibly guessed that when I kept turning up to lean on a barrel of birdfeed, chattering as Mr. Griscom made birdhouses, or when I sat in the living area watching the birds and asking Mrs. Griscom question after question. I remember how often she said, “Thee must sit still dearie or thee will scare the birds.” Sitting still was not my long suit!

Florence Griscom was such a modest Quaker lady, guided by principle and committed to simplicity, that she might not have realized she had become a model for my life. I treasured her small house as the most wonderful I had ever seen. I loved her big, round table totally covered with binoculars, bird books, newspapers, magazines, scissors, and piles of clippings. The low light, the comfortable chairs facing the birdfeeders, and the woods beyond—plus the musty, wood-smoke-laden smell—created a setting that encouraged contemplation. The stuffed birds were both exciting and frightening, especially the owl and the hawk. But I felt as much awe as fear, and to this day I cherish the screech of the owl in my woods and stop to watch the hawks as they dip and glide overhead.

My home now is a version of the Griscom house that Bill and I created to suit our needs. It doesn’t have the wonderful walkway to our front door, and our bed is right out in the main area instead of tucked into an alcove. But the walls are covered with pictures, including a magnificent lithograph of owls. I have a tiny kitchen because the Griscoms taught me that I didn’t need a large one.

The Briar Bush Bird Sanctuary that Florence and Everett Griscom called home was the first place I was allowed to visit alone when I was six. It was hard for me to open the gate, and when I walked through, I knew I was in a holy place even though I wouldn’t have known those words. Mrs. Griscom never treated me as a child, and as I got a little older she shared her grown-up thoughts about birds and life, simplicity and governments, tyranny and railroads, and living below the tax line, as though she expected me to understand. I didn’t then, but I do now. My mother explained to me that as Quakers they were pacifists and they were also socialists, two things that merited my mother’s approval.

Before we were married I took Bill to meet the Griscoms when Everett was recovering from his first stroke, and then we returned several months after our wedding when word came that he had died in his own bed. From Florence I first learned that it could be comforting to hasten death by refusing treatment, especially if there is a loved one committed to caring for you until the last moment. She knew it had been a glorious end for Everett and told us of moving him in his bed to a window to see the dawn on Easter morning, and he died a few hours later watching the birds.

“So this is thy man,” my surrogate grandmother had said when I first introduced Bill. In that moment I had the confirmation that indeed he was my man. As she talked about Everett’s death, I knew that if needed I would make that same journey with Bill, which I was called to do fifty years later. When Florence died not long after her husband, the 125-acre bird sanctuary and their assets were willed to the county. The house was torn down, a simple education building was added, and it was renamed the Briar Bush Nature Center. Since then schoolchildren and families have been coming for special programs and to watch the birds or walk the trails, and the wildlife has had a safe place to live.


The steadfast courage to live an ethical, simple life according to one's own lights was the deepest lesson the Griscoms taught me by their words and example. Bill’s and my journey eventually brought us to our special place at the edge of the woods where Robin built us our simple house, and I finally learned to sit still and be silent.