Archive | February 2014

Thursday, February 20, lunchtime

Miniature daffodil poking up despite last night's frigid temperature.

Miniature daffodils poking up despite last night’s frigid temperature.

This morning I staggered out with my ski poles to check my traps. I have mousetraps in the Mothership and in the yurt, and with this dizziness upon me I have neglected to check them for weeks. Only one mouse among them, which fortunately hadn’t been there for too long. Then the dogs and I walked wide around the outside of the fence along a route I used to call the Breakfast Loop. We walked intermittently across the frozen tops of vast eight inch thick pillows of snow and wide patches of dust-dry dirt speckled with the small green rosettes of wild mustards and tiny chartreuse dots of the weedy alyssum.

When I first moved to this land twenty-one years ago, I lived in a small trailer with two dogs and two cats. Summer mornings I’d get up and walk in my nightgown with the dogs running ahead and the cats at my heels around this short loop through the woods that felt so daring and wild. Then, living in the wild was new to me, and the forest felt huge, the canyon far away. We’d finish the little loop and come home for breakfast. Sometimes, later in the day, we’d walk as far as the canyon. It felt like a big adventure. That was before the house, before the garden, the pond, the fenced yard. Over the next couple of years our morning walk evolved into a much larger loop that took us to the canyon every morning. We, I, expanded to fill the space available, and the Breakfast Loop fell into disuse. My soul now fills these woods, knows every turn in that longer trail even under a blanket of snow, seeks the familiar expanse of the canyon daily as it changes through the seasons.

In recent weeks my outings have been few and short and mostly purely functional: fill the bird feeders, hang out laundry, hitch a ride to the doctor. Day eighteen of this mysterious dizziness finds me losing patience with it, yearning to resume my active life, eager to clean up the garden as it emerges gradually from the snow that covered it after Thanksgiving, longing to hike or ski the length and breadth of the forest. But this housebound month has also been good for me, forced me to really slow down and contemplate some things I’ve been avoiding, distracted by the roller coaster of the seasons outside. What, really, is my purpose? How do I intend to enter old age, alone or in companionship? How can I most effectively contribute to the health of my community and the planet? What do I need to change to improve my own health going forward?

The questions go on and on. The answers remain elusive in the dizzy fog that enshrouds my mind. The best I can do now is eat well, drink water and no cocktails, take one step at a time, and avoid stepping on the buds of spring.

Crocus sprouts popping up under lambs' ears in the spring garden.

Crocus sprouts popping up under lambs’ ears in the spring garden.

Best egg ever. Just for fun, and practicing for summer guests, I bought ramekins just so I could make baked eggs. For one, I cooked one piece of bacon to crispiness, added a splash of olive oil to the fat, sautéed finely chopped onion, garlic, and shiitake, poured that in the ramekin, crumbled in the bacon and some St. André cheese, added a splash of cream, and cracked a local organic egg on top. Baked it at 350 for ten minutes. Perfect deliciousness!

Best egg ever. Just for fun, and practicing for summer guests, I bought ramekins just so I could make baked eggs. For one, I cooked one piece of bacon to crispiness, added a splash of olive oil to the fat, sautéed finely chopped onion, garlic, and shiitake, poured that in the ramekin, crumbled in the bacon and some St. André cheese, added a splash of cream, and cracked a local organic egg on top. Baked it at 350 for ten minutes. Perfect deliciousness!

 

Warmer Days

Suddenly this week the pond has thawed, revealing goldfish still thriving underneath. Amy the Fish still lives! She and her three surviving cohorts are at least four, maybe five years old, and have filled the pond with their progeny.

Suddenly this week the pond has thawed, revealing goldfish still thriving underneath. Amy the Fish still lives! She and her three surviving cohorts are at least four, maybe five years old, and have filled the pond with their progeny.

A few rays of sunlight through the darkling clouds, a wedge of blue sky behind wispies. We’ve all been grateful for the precipitation that’s come this winter, both here and in the high country. It bodes well for our next growing season. But I think I speak for everyone when I say Welcome! to the first glimpse of our mother star in what seems like at least a month.

Elk browse the junipers and winterfat right outside the yard fence.

Elk browse the junipers and winterfat right outside the yard fence.

Ice Canyon freezes and melts with this oddly fluctuating winter.

Ice Canyon freezes and melts with this oddly fluctuating winter.

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Today I walked all the way to the canyon by myself, with the dogs of course,  and with ski poles, for the first time in two weeks. Yesterday I walked there with a friend, and the day before took the dogs halfway. At the beginning of the week I tried, and could only make it a few steps past the gate, but I let the dogs run loose in the woods for awhile because they desperately needed the exercise.

My next try, on Friday, I walked through slush to the first chair, the dogs so good they wouldn’t go farther without me. To get them more exercise I continued a few steps on, but still they stuck with me better than average. A few steps more, I rounded the first corner downhill and found the kindness and compassion banner, strips of cotton, ribbon and paint made by a friend long ago, that had hung at the house for fifteen years until it was faded, bedraggled; I finally hung it in a tree in the woods last year. Whether nibbled by elk or shredded by weather it now lay in tatters on the ground, just the top few inches still intact. I brought it home and lay it in the compost bin, ashes to ashes.

The next day, when my friend showed up to walk, she brought a rainbow streamer, an accidental replacement, which we hung on the same twig where the banner gave up the ghost. It’s the little things that make my day.

The next day, when my friend showed up to walk, she brought a rainbow streamer, an accidental replacement, which we hung on the same twig where the banner gave up the ghost. It’s the little things that make my day.

Two weeks ago I woke up dizzy. After several dark days where I could barely open my eyes or leave the bed, I saw a few doctors, took a few supplements, and it began to improve incrementally after a week. Apparently it’s a virus that comes around every few years, and several others in the community are suffering with it as well. If you’re ever inclined to hurl a curse at someone, wishing them dizzy would be a wicked one.

Friday night, two other friends generously hosted a Love-In for Valentine’s Day, which went over well with a bunch of us both with and without sweethearts. It was a great equalizer and the party was full of love, warm red decor, and delicious food. Old friends were reunited, new friends were made. One couple even brought flowers for our hair. A day that began in dark separation concluded in bright togetherness.

So many of them do.

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Gordon grazes at the hors d'oeuvres table.

Gordon grazes at the hors d’oeuvres table.

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Unhappy Monster

Yesterday was so warm the bees were swarming out of their hive and flying busily about. Tomorrow, more happy thoughts and images will come, but I woke up this morning with a fully formed rant pouring out of me. Bees are at stake, too.

Yesterday was so warm the bees were swarming out of their hive and flying busily about. Tomorrow, more happy thoughts and images will come, but I woke up this morning with a fully formed rant pouring out of me. Bees are at stake, too.

Like many, I was paying attention when news of global climate change first broke, when the science of air, water, and food pollution was young and appalling even then, when the income gap between workers and management began to grow at an alarming rate. I trusted that because the information was out there, everyone else would also pay attention and solve the problems and change the world as I was trying to do.

I worked in the field of environmental education for years, and did my best to awaken the minds of an ignorant public about many of these issues, along with the slaughter and imminent extinction of large mammals like elephants and rhinos   for their horns, the magnificent great apes for bush meat, and illegal trade in endangered birds and reptiles. I also tried to teach people awareness about concepts as simple as not dropping their cigarette butts in the arid desert or dry forests, where pollution at best and catastrophic fires at worst could result. I became disillusioned and depressed over time, finding that people, at least the people I was directly trying to reach, were not responding. Was my approach flawed? Or was it just supreme stupidity and hubris in our species? Or something in between, simple laziness and self-absorption?

I moved to this valley twenty-two years ago to work a volunteer job as an intern at the High Country News for three months, and like a handful of interns over the years, chose to stay here rather than pursue the next item on my agenda, which happened to be graduate school. Instead I turned my focus toward building my own home and learning to grow my own food. I took the first steps in a continuing journey to cultivate peace of mind and equanimity, to live with compassion in an increasingly hostile world.

I admit it. I became a misanthrope, a hermit, and eventually a Buddhist. Yes, I know, the misanthrope isn’t compatible with Buddhism, but living mindfully is a struggle and my hateful feelings about the human species are diminishing with constant practice in compassion. And for a Buddhist to start every paragraph with the word I is indeed ironic. But now I am merely discouraged, disgusted, and disillusioned with myself. The me that turned away from education and activism, trusting that younger, stronger voices would carry on the work, that the tide would change with our accumulated efforts, that slaughter of rhinos would stop, that demolition of rain forests would slow, that the extractive industries on which our greed-based economy that fuels pollution, inequality and war would die out in favor of alternative energy sources, that climate change, which is a fact and our fault as a species, would be gotten under control. Because the news was out! The information was there, here, and now that people knew we would surely change.

My initial crisis of despair came when it became crystal clear to me that none of this mattered to most humans. That we simply didn’t care, and it wasn’t going to change, and we as a species, and the planet as a result, were doomed.

Then I took some comfort in geological time, in the idea that we may die out as a species, but that the planet over enough time, eras and ages, would heal, new species would arise, life would go on on this elegant blue marble spinning through the galaxy, with us or without us. Twenty, thirty years later, much to my dismay, it seems we are capable even of endangering that, with radioactive disasters and chemical aberrations and toxic spills; we are capable even of destroying life on this planet. Who can say that Mars didn’t once support life which got too stupid for its own good?

Many of my friends are a generation older than I am. One of them told me once, talking about this subtle World War III in which we are engaged, that she couldn’t help but feel it might have been averted if she had done more herself. Really? I thought. You couldn’t have changed it by yourself. But now I look at people who are still trying, after all these years, still fighting the good fight, like Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, and countless others, and I understand what she was saying. Maybe if I hadn’t stilled my voice twenty years ago, turned to a life of silent reflection, seeking only inner peace and equanimity, I could have made a bigger difference. Maybe her and my voices together, along with all these others, might have tipped the scale.

Another friend has worked his entire life in the field of conservation. At seventy-seven, he has just learned that his latest endeavor has caught the eye of a billionaire. His dream may soon come into a huge amount of money to make it a reality. I told him it makes me ashamed that I gave up on the movement all those years ago out of pure despair.

I quietly built a house of non-toxic ingredients and powered it with the sun. I gave up my all-wheel drive vehicle in favor of a little Honda civic that got, at the time, the best gas mileage available outside of a hybrid which cost too much. I live a low-impact life with a small ecological footprint. I’ve put 155 acres of land including old-growth piñon juniper forest and a half-mile of wild canyon into a conservation easement, which theoretically will be protected in perpetuity. At least for as long as people are able to keep alive the legal entity that protects it.

But what does the future hold for this one piece of land? For this planet? Why won’t our species accept the hard truths and make the difficult, in some cases selfless changes that are required to save it from certain doom? Despite the hard work and eloquent voices of activists in the conservation, equality, and anti-war movements across the planet, the extinction of elephants, rhinos, and tigers is near certain and countless other less charismatic species have already vanished in this sixth great extinction, caused solely by a complex of human behaviors; income inequality has soared to a truly staggering gap and bigotry continues across the spectrum of human differences; and the war that began with 9/11 spreads and festers insidiously, province by country, across the world, spawning atrocities against untold millions, even billions, of human lives, from murderous drones and gassings to the abolition of privacy.

Why do greed and intolerance continue to cause such misery for our own species and so many others across the globe? Why, in the face of science and realization do we not make the necessary changes in our behavior? What kind of monsters are we?

 

Helping Joanie Die

Miss Joanie with Little Doctor Vincent on her lap during a visit to my house a few years ago. Both of them are gone now.

Miss Joanie with Little Doctor Vincent on her lap during a visit to my house years ago. Both of them are gone now.

January was a hard month for me. A lot of things overlapped, most of them quite challenging. The most challenging was helping Joanie die. Miss Joanie to me, and to most who know her now. Once, she was Joanie D, married, living in Florida with a sailboat, traveling the world with her second husband. Before that she was Joanie G, young and in love, marrying, giving birth to three sons, raising them. Before that she was Joanie someone else, her maiden name. 

Joanie in high school was a cheerleader, and she had incredible legs until she died. I saw them the night before she died, stretched out straight on the bed, her still shapely calves in their loose skin pressing a line of shadow against each shinbone. Miss Joanie used to sit outside in her wheelchair on summer days in shorts, tanning those beautiful legs. All us girls admired them. That, and they, her legs, pleased her, but she was never vain. We laughed with her about our envy of her great legs and she laughed with us, with never a smirk or hint of vanity. And before she was a cheerleader, she was a little girl growing up in the 1930s.

She was my neighbor and my friend for more than four years, and I was her Hospice volunteer for almost three. We played cards a lot until her vision deteriorated too far. For a couple of years I took Miss Joanie to church, until my back prevented me from transferring her in and out of the car. Her son picked up where I left off there; she made a couple of good friends at church, and by the end, one of them told me, people vied to hold her hands in the circle that closed each service.

While I was taking her to church, I watched a lot of well-meaning parishioners come close to talk cheerfully to her, too loudly, too slowly. At first I explained to them that she could hear them just fine, and understood everything they said but couldn’t articulate a response very well. Only a few of them would sit with us at fellowship after the service, drinking coffee and eating an often random combination of food, like brownies, leftover St. Patrick’s Day cake, cookies, fruit cocktail, and cheese and crackers. Joanie loved the coffee and snacks, though she took too-big bites, crumbled the cake everywhere, and drooled. Miss Joanie had PSP, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, the rare brain disease that also killed my mother.

In summer we’d go for drives up into the high country to enjoy the wildflowers, or out along the Black Canyon in autumn to admire golden aspens and red oaks. Eventually all we did was go for drives; her caregiver Ilene would settle her into the car and I’d take her out for a few hours, then bring her home. We’d drive to Hotchkiss or Paonia, stopping to photograph an eagle or some blooming cactus, a stack of old irrigation wheels glinting in the sun or a tangled deer carcass. In town she’d get a chocolate shake and I’d get vanilla, and we’d take an hour or two to drive back home, sometimes exploring up a side road like Minnesota Creek or taking the dirt road up over Scenic Mesa and winding down across the Smith Fork Canyon and back up on that tiny track clinging to the pink cliffs.

We didn’t talk much. It kept getting harder for her to speak and for me to hear and understand her. But we communicated plenty. Every now and then she’d get out a perfectly comprehensible sentence or two: How are your bees? She was fascinated by that endeavor, and so supportive of whatever I was doing in the garden, for work, travels. But when I’d ask how she was feeling, she often lost her voice. Sometimes she answered clearly: I’m afraid I’m going blind, or I don’t seem to be getting any better. And near the end, My spirit feels like it’s leaving my body.

“Are you afraid of dying?” I asked her then. It’s so final, she answered. And then her voice disappeared into a whisper so thin you couldn’t hear it, and finally just a breath.

From the beginning I had promised her I would be with her at the end. During her last month I visited almost every day. One day I asked if she’d like me to read from the book I wrote about my mother’s experience with PSP, and it was as though she’d been waiting years for me to ask. It isn’t a happy book, but I read pieces I thought might help her understand what was happening to her and come to terms with her inevitable death. The next few days, on a lighter note, I read from the rough draft of The Colonel’s Daughter, and after that stories, essays, poems.

“Do you want me to read some more?” I’d ask, and she’d answer with a long, guttural yes. In her last few weeks, we’d sit cuddled on the couch, my arm around her, sometimes reading, sometimes just sitting. When I arrived she would greet me with a searching look from her blind eyes; I’d bend close to tell her hello and she’d touch my face gently, reach for my hair, run her fingers through it.

Her last week, on Monday, I told her stories about things we had done together, remembering all the drives we had taken, wildlife we’d seen, adventures we’d shared. Her eyes were glazed and cloudy, her body stiff and still. She reached her left hand up and out into the room, and leaned forward on the couch.

“Do you see someone?” I asked. She turned to me, curled into me, wrapped her arm around my waist and plucked at the fleece blanket beside me. I covered her and held her. She curled tighter against me, her head on my chest, our arms around each other. We sat that way a long time, until she was ready to go lie down. Ilene tucked her in and I kissed her goodbye.

She got up the next morning and sat for a few hours, though by the time I arrived she was half asleep in her bed. She held my hand tightly as I sat beside her and talked softly. In the next few days, her friends came to sit with her, hold vigil, help her out, say goodbye. On Wednesday, the night of my birthday, I called her friend Millie to let her know it would be soon, and she showed up with a borrowed hymnal, from which we sang together. I kissed her goodbye again and she pressed her lips hard against mine.

The next morning I walked in the house and heard a number of voices singing “Over the Rainbow” back in her bedroom. Marla, Millie, Ilene, the singing Hospice nurse, and Miss Joanie’s son had been singing what they could remember of some favorite songs. From then on she was rarely alone. Between her son, her caregivers, her friends, and Hospice, she was attended by loving presence, comforting her through spells of agitation and anguish, singing softly, reassuring her, encouraging her on her next big adventure.

I’m not sure she believed in “the next big adventure,” and I think she was scared. Letting go was hard. For two days she remained apparently unconscious as we sat and talked around her. Her breathing changed, and changed again. It was short and easy, it was deep and labored, it paused for ten seconds at a time then resumed in gasps. We all thought it would stop any minute.

Her two sons who live out of state called again, and she opened her eyes and smiled to hear them; she also cried. She had a rough couple of nights. On Saturday night when I came, her eyes were open and anguished. She did not move, but I could feel her acknowledge my arrival. The others left for a dinner break.

She lay in a beautiful teal satin nightgown with a lace collar and cuffs, those hands that had touched my hair so delicately a few days before now still and fragile, a tiny figure in her sheets. Her half-open eyes looked toward me, her brows pinching and wrinkling as if she were trying to say something. I picked up Millie’s hymnal and began to softly sing Christmas carols. I sang for almost an hour. Her breathing calmed, her eyes eased shut. When my voice dried up I just sat with my hand resting lightly on her arm, sending quiet love, murmuring now and then how brave she was, what a good job she was doing, what a good life she had lived, that it was okay to let go.

The dog barked. Her eyes popped open. Her son came in the room. He wanted to be alone with her. There were also other reasons I had to leave, the overlap of other challenges. It was the hardest goodbye. I had hoped to slip away while she was asleep. I had promised I’d be with her at the end, and I felt she wanted me to stay. She forced some sounds from her throat; she was trying to speak, I was sure of it. She looked out, knowing but unseeing, pouring out her feeling, It’s so final, her eyebrows mobile and expressive between her frozen, clouded blue eyes, eyes that still knew.

I felt I was betraying her but I had to tear myself away. She was in good hands. I had done what I could. Before I was out of her driveway I was crying. On the way home sheets of emotion rolled through me in tingling waves. I slowed down, unable to see through tears that wouldn’t stop. I cried all the way home and then some.

No one can know what really lies behind the eyes of a dying person who can no longer speak. I have seen three women die, and all three have looked at me with eyes that seem to express unutterable anguish, some dark mix of sorrow, anger, pleading, or confusion. I hated myself for walking away from Joanie’s eyes, for doing what I had to do.

Sunday evening I came to sit with her again, while her son went home for dinner. Her breathing was rough, again with apnea, a fifteen second pause between a set of short inhalations and panting exhalations, sometimes accompanied by moans. In each cycle, her first and last inhalations were softer than the interim breaths, a reliable indicator of the pattern. She had her eyes open when I arrived, was present but not entirely inside the room. She knew what was happening.

Saturday I had left in despair. Sunday I left in peace, knowing I had found something to give her, something I believe eased her on her journey. I gave her a mantra. When my mother died, her last incomprehensible words to me had been asking for a mantra, a way of breathing I had showed her a couple of weeks earlier. I did not get it. I tried too hard, too far and wide, to figure out what she was asking for, and in the end I gave her an accidental alternative mantra that she latched onto and pushed out with each breath for three hours, until her last. As though she needed something for her mind to hold onto as she navigated the unknown transition.

I tried to give Joanie that mantra, starting months before when it became clear she was on her way out, and she tried but even then she could not form the sounds to sync with her breath. As I sat with her on her last night, I did that breath for her until something else occurred to me.

I said metta for her. I began to softly chant: May Miss Joanie be at peace. May Miss Joanie be free from fear and suffering. May Miss Joanie be happy and at ease. May Joanie be at peace, may she be free from fear, may she be happy. Peace, free, happy.

Peace, free, happy. I repeated the words with her exhalations, over and over. Peace, free, happy. She finally closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed. I did not stop. For an hour I repeated the words with her exhalations, and more slowly during the apnea; she calmed, she became at ease, she let go of fear.

Maybe. That’s what it felt like. Ilene came in and gave her some morphine before I started, I’m sure that helped. After her son returned I continued the chant as I left the room. I felt that I had given her that something for her mind to hold onto, a rhythm to carry her out, a prayer that eased her way.

Ilene called me two hours later to say that Miss Joanie had breathed her last. I am sad that I was not there when she left this world. It would have been a miraculous moment to witness. But she was not alone. Ilene was with her, and was amazed by the subtlety of it.

“It wasn’t long after you left,” she said. “Her breathing pattern changed again. The apnea went away. Her breathing got real shallow, and faster. I called the night nurse, then I called her son. He came right over. She was gone just before he came into the room. Her breathing stopped. I thought it was the apnea again, and I waited, and waited, and she just didn’t breathe again.”

May Miss Joanie rest in peace.