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Stellar’s Last Days: a Stroke?

It was a beautiful morning. I’m grateful that Stellar and I got to enjoy a half-hour ramble off our usual trails, just for a change of pace. He’s doing really well considering he suffered some sort of neurological incident last weekend. You can tell by looking at his left eye, how both lids droop. It was just my best guess, until Karen asked Dr. Dave to check out this and a couple other pictures. His response was:

“The issue would appear to be a neurological one. The two most likely causes are stroke and a viral infection of the nerve supplying the eyelid. Other possibilities are a tumor near the nerve, or a traumatic incident to the nerve. Similar lesions in the brain can cause  signs as seen here. In any case palliative care is probably the treatment of choice as there are possibilities of recovery with no treatment.”

I am so grateful for the support and input from these friends, who despite such busy lives of their own took time to consider my concerns for my dear dog. I’m grateful for the bonds of community and friendship, that can lay dormant for a long time and wake when needed at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile, we’re still contending with the hindquarter weakness, notably in his right leg, which tends to turn out and is often unable to straighten under him. But he’s a stoic, noble animal, and he keeps dragging himself up and out whenever I ask if he wants to go for a walk. Once he’s out the gate his nose takes over, and he joyfully sniffs his way through the woods, intermittently looking back for me and adjusting his course to mine. I’m grateful for his perseverance, his devoted companionship, and his unconditional love and acceptance.

I’m grateful for the beauty around me, whenever I take time to turn my attention to it. This evening, sun lighting the sprinkler caught my eye. Though the camera couldn’t quite capture the glitter of it.
I’m grateful for this and all the other trees I live among. I’m grateful for trees in general, and for all the new scientific insights and understandings currently arising about just how sentient and interconnected they are. As my heart breaks for all beings in the path of wildfires, I feel especially concerned for and attached to the idea of the giant sequoias now threatened by the Paradise Fire in Sequoia National Park. I’m grateful, though, that this little patch of trees where I live survived another day without burning up.

Being Here, Now

I’m grateful today simply for being here. Here, as opposed to anywhere else I might have been on this date, this anniversary.

NPR reported today that a sizable number of people who witnessed the Twin Towers attack continue to suffer PTSD, depression, and other mental health issues. The report mentioned human resilience, also, but what struck me was the limited scope of the research, which surveyed only people in the vicinity of New York City. There must be millions more people across the country, and the world, who still suffer mental health impacts from witnessing that horror. Not to mention those millions suffering the global fallout of the forever wars that started that morning.

I reflected this morning, from the serenity of my garden, that so many of the choices I’ve made over the last twenty years are a direct result of being near the Pentagon on 9/11/01, and watching live both on TV and from the back porch, the explosive birth pangs of this new world disorder. I thought about how far I’ve come, how much I’ve changed, and how long it took afterwards to even begin to claw my way out of the despair that seized me on that day. There were a few hours that morning that I feared I could die there, and never see home again; an interlude of terror when no one knew what might happen next.

My parents lived next to an Army Air Base, and sometime that morning, even as I stood on their back patio watching smoke from the Pentagon darken the sky, the roar of jets and helicopters began just beyond beyond the woods, and continued nonstop 24-7 for the next week as I remained grounded there. I felt I had just experienced the beginning of World War III, or as it’s now more aptly referred to, ‘the Forever Wars.’ The ramifications also took a surprising turn into domestic discord as well. 9/11 is the trauma that keeps on triggering.

Eventually I made it home. I was numb for many years. Eventually, my life took a turn toward toward the mindfulness and gratitude I find myself practicing today, but it wasn’t easy and there were many detours along the way. In this place, on this day, I am keenly aware of how loss and suffering lay the groundwork for kindness and compassion. I am grateful for being here, now, and not anywhere else.

Insects

I’m grateful for insects of all stripes and sizes, from the tiniest kitchen ants to the fattest bumblebee, the most dramatic dragonflies to the most humble butterflies, like the juniper hairstreak–which I’ve seen none of this summer. I miss them. Nor was there a single Mourning Cloak. Ironic. There haven’t been as many moths at night, either. Nor bumblebees, nor honeybees, and the very few dragonflies I’ve seen have been in the phoebes’ beaks. Come to think of it, there haven’t been as many spiders in the house as usual, just the same annoying black flies. And even the flies, those massive hatches that used to happen certain seasons, I’ve not seen for a few years.

I’m grateful that we’ve never had a huge mosquito problem here, and that I’ve never gotten a tick bite at Mirador. Grateful that fleas have never plagued my pets as they used to in Florida. But this recent dearth of insects has me horrified. I’ve mentioned a few times in past years that bees have come later than they used to, in fewer numbers. But with my all-too-human capacity for denial, I’ve noticed, mourned, and moved on to the next soothing delight. Flowers; what bees there are; chocolate…

I’m grateful that I’ve spent a year intensively cultivating equanimity, coming to terms with the future I’ve known my entire life was inescapable. I saw it in dreams when I was still in single digits. I’m grateful that since I was a child, I’ve been friends with most insects, saving spiders and flies from my mother’s swatter, carrying them gently outside; avoiding stepping on ants; refusing to pin butterflies. I’m grateful that through the years I’ve paid attention to insects, noticed and cared about them. I grieve the insect apocalypse for so many reasons. I weep for the wild world, large and small.

Gratitude

Grateful for the desert willow’s resilience, for the doe’s tranquility browsing the yard, and for the fence that protects my garden investments from her.

Have I mentioned lately the point of this commitment? I chanced to have a conversation with a young conservationist the other day, and she mentioned grief. Grief is one of the most appropriate emotions for any of us to be holding, juggling, however we choose to acknowledge it. Gratitude is another. The two complement each other: they are antidotes and catalysts at the same time, grief and gratitude. Whichever one you start with can lead you to the other, particularly if you start with grief. From my particular world view, grief and gratitude are the most appropriate emotions for anyone aware of the climate crisis. [trigger alert: these links are not for the faint of heart.]

So I’m grateful for the mental fortitude I’ve cultivated this past year, and my whole life, really; grateful that I can put myself in perspective with the world at last, after decades of exploring the relationship. I am content to be a small pebble in a small pond, causing small ripples. I am sitting in the teepee, watching the giant blue planet approach. I am grateful for every moment of beauty and grace that I can be aware of, as the moments of this fleeting life flow through me.

I’m grateful for the second clutch of phoebes, chicks about a week old and just today visible above the rim of the new nest, on the right side of the platform.

Each Day

Some days make me feel just as wide-eyed as these little dogs; in fact, most days do, practicing gratitude. I’m grateful today for the opportunity to do chihuahua for a little while; for clearing the air despite the smoke; for getting my hands on some chicks that are all named Dinner; for perspective on some of my less healthy habits; for connection with family and friends; and for the courage to open and play my dusty piano again after years.

I’m grateful that last night’s fireworks over the reservoir didn’t go rogue and cause a blaze, and that no one was stupid enough to celebrate Pioneer Days with home pyrotechnics; I’m grateful that wildfire smoke remains distant and we can still breathe here, albeit with extra sneezing, coughing, and just a hint of nose blood. I’m grateful for each day with breathable air, knowing that fire is certain this summer and location of fire uncertain. A new fire south of Salt Lake has consumed more than ten thousand acres in less than a day, and another four-day old fire near Moab exploded today. Seeing a sky like this evening’s reminds me not only of last summer’s horrendous smoke, but of the tragic summer of 1994, when the Wake Fire in our valley burnt three thousand acres in a couple of days; its impact was quickly eclipsed on its third day by the Storm King fire near Glenwood Springs that blew up and killed fourteen firefighters. Everything we hold dear is so tenuous.

Not only because of wildfire, of course, or the slow-moving catastrophe that is climate chaos, but because impermanence is the nature of all things. Our evening walk was especially poignant in the coppery glow of the smoky sunset: Not only from the oppressive weight of the big picture, but the looming loss of the very personal was readily apparent in dear Stellar’s feeble gait. We turned around before the first gate and he hobbled back in to his comfy bed for the night. I’m grateful for each day that we both wake up alive, and I don’t have to make that horrible decision to call his time. I’m grateful for the mindfulness practice that allows me to enjoy our remaining time together, to recognize that one bad day is often followed by a few good ones, and to accept the inevitable end of both our lives. I’m grateful for the inspiration and motivation that comes from knowing that “Death is certain, time of death uncertain.”

Resilience

Four inches of fresh snow this morning was mostly melted by midday. I’m grateful for spring snows, which bring lots of moisture, and very little stress compared to winter snows, knowing there’s no need to shovel or plow because it will melt soon enough. Grateful Stellar was able to walk this morning.

I’m grateful for resilience, his and mine. Stellar slid into another bout of inexplicable diarrhea that started yesterday morning but wasn’t conclusively an issue until after dark, as usual. Why does it always strike them at night?

I’m grateful that I remembered the potty pads I keep for Biko, and remembered my brilliant idea of a sheet path to the door in time to protect the rugs, and had a brand new case of paper towels on hand to line the path for the next run(s). I stayed up late monitoring the situation, then had to get up a few times in the night to let him out and clean up. I’m grateful I had Imodium in the medicine cabinet from the Shitstorm a year ago, grateful I remembered it was there, grateful it seems to have settled things by midday.

I’m grateful I had brown rice in the pantry, and a box of organic chicken broth, so I could fill his tummy and keep him hydrated.

I’m grateful for mindfulness practice every day, but especially today. Under the tender tutelage of Mindful Life Program founders Mark and Laura since last summer, I’ve been learning more about meditation, motivation, and meaning than I have in all my years of casual study and dedicated interest. I’ve begun to fully embody qualities like patience and compassion, which may come easily to some people but have taken me years of practice. I keep my attention trained, for the most part, on what matters, and don’t let my mind drag me off into what ifs or if onlys.

In this way, I was able to remain calm as the gravity of this episode sunk in, recognizing that it’s happened before, we got through it before, and he was just fine (as fine as possible with his bad back end) before; that it was likely it would resolve in a couple of days and we’d go back to our normal, peaceful routine. I was able to accept that this is how it is right now. Further, I had confidence that if all wasn’t well later, and his health took a dark turn, I could handle it. Resilience. So I didn’t fret, I got up when I had to, slept lightly, did what I could do to mitigate mess and cleaned up when necessary, all with unruffled patience and a heart full of unconditional love for my dear companion. I tended and rested through the day, and by evening, all does seem well, neither of us much worse for wear. I’m so grateful that I could hold this unfortunate event in perspective, respond appropriately, and still enjoy many aspects of a quiet, calm snowy Sunday.

While poor Stellar ate gruel, for example, I cooked myself a delicious huevo ranchero, including homemade tortilla, salsa, and hot sauce, and a Bad Dog Ranch happy chicken egg. Resilience allows me to rise to an unfortunate occasion and make the best of what’s left in a day.

The Vaccines

Grateful again today to see the happy little crocuses blooming more and bigger than yesterday. Soon will be bees!

I haven’t gotten one yet – I’m too young! – but I know a lot of people who have. I hang out with older friends, alway have. I’m an old soul. Hee! Well, whatever the reason, a lot of my friends are over 65, over 70, over 75, and a lot of them have gotten their shot or shots. I signed up on the county waiting list yesterday. The group I’m assigned by age is supposed to start getting shots in the next week or two. I’m not chomping at the bit for it, but I’ll be glad to get it. It will be the first adult vaccination I remember taking. I’m not anti-vax, I got them all when I was young, and I turned out okay. Despite having the measles, Rubella, scarlet fever, and some other stuff. I was exposed to TB quite young, resulting in a permanent positive test and more chest x-rays than were good for me, until I put my foot down and said, No more! It’s just the way it is!

That might have been an early case of my accepting things the way they are: While I still fought most things I couldn’t control, I did accept that I would always test positive for TB, that I couldn’t donate blood because of that, that I couldn’t pursue a Hospice career, that my lungs would always be a little bit more vulnerable than most. Anyway, I’ve gotten my fair share of vaccinations: I remember eating sugar cubes for polio, and how we used to compare smallpox scars on our upper arms, for years, decades, after we got our smallpox inoculations, so much more than a simple stick in the arm! I don’t think I can see mine anymore, can you? But I have never gotten a flu shot, or yet a shingles vaccine. However, I’m getting in line for a Covid vaccination.

It won’t ameliorate my vigilance overnight, or likely ever, but it will give me a sense of some shielding when I have to go out in public. Hopefully I won’t get so stressed about going to the Crawford post office, or the idea of setting foot in Hotchkiss City Market, both notorious for maskless customers. Having the vaccine in me will allow me to relax more when someone comes over for some reason, and maybe let me host a cookout or two this summer, or even some retreats. A majority where I live don’t take it seriously. I do. And I’m grateful that most of my friends have gotten one or both of their shots and are safer, and that I’m next in line, and that science prevailed in last year’s battle of world views, so that finally vaccines are pouring into circulation, and most people I care about have the good sense to get them. I can only pray that our good choices on our own behalf are sufficient to stem the spread of Covid19 and save at least ourselves.

Health

While snow continues to rain soft, wet, sparkly blessings on western Colorado, I’m grateful that the indoor garden blooms gloriously.

This first-person account of long-haul Covid just breaks my heart. It reminds me of how I felt around the time I was thirty. I got some mystery virus, likely (the Vernal doctor said) flea- or tick-borne, a few months after I moved from Virginia to Utah. I had a low-grade fever for nine months, was treated with five rounds of heavy antibiotics, developed a full-system candida infection including thrush, and chronic fatigue that lasted for decades. I’ve never been the same since. And still I’m grateful: that it’s mostly over, that after about a year I was able to function more or less normally, that in the past decade I’ve gotten more energy and more mental clarity, that overall this body is in pretty good shape for ‘over-sixty.’ But I still suffer chronic, migratory joint pain, mental fuzz, and other random symptoms attributed to Lyme and other tick-borne diseases.

I’m grateful it wasn’t Covid, and only upon reading Kaitlin’s story did the misery I lived with for years come back vividly. I tend to forget that it happened. It was a long time ago, and I’ve been learning for years to let go. I felt that there was a primal fear of Covid lurking below my stated reasons for ongoing quarantine, chronic lung issues and a feeble immune system. I hope this helps people understand why I’m so dedicated to protecting myself from Covid. Reading Kaitlin’s account reminded me like a gut punch that I’ve already lived with debilitating chronic illness for years once. Even if I were to survive a bout with Covid, I fear I’d be plunged again into that grueling alternate reality from which I spent decades clawing my way to recovery. May Kaitlin recover fully and soon, and may others with long-haul Covid also; may the dedicated scientists working on it find treatments that will help; may Covid deniers everywhere (including some of my neighbors) finally believe, and make the common-sense efforts necessary to protect their communities and slow down this plague.

Access

I am grateful for discovering the marvel of a rock squirrel burrow along a path less traveled.

Today I’m grateful again for technology, for the access it gives me to teachers around the world. From the Mindful Life Program just across the mountains in Carbondale, which during the Time of the Virus might as well be in Australia, to Catherine Ingram who actually is in Australia, to Stephan Pende Wormland in Copenhagen, Denmark, and a host of other interviews and lessons from meditation teachers to top chefs to health experts.

As anyone knows who explores the world online, you can find out everything about anything whether it’s true or not, so I’m also grateful for education and discernment, which allow me to make healthy choices about what I turn my attention to. After a weekend in retreat, I spent the day catching up on housework while listening to these teachers, including Catherine’s latest In the Deep podcast titled “People Can Be Disappointing.” Each episode includes a short talk, followed by questions from participants, and Catherine’s responses to them. This one felt particularly relevant to me today.

From relationship disappointments to global disappointments, each question resonated with my own experience at some point in recent months. At one point, she discussed the conspiracy theories rampant in the US these days as coping strategies. “There’s some kind of psychological twisting going on in their being… they’re not stupid people necessarily but they believe things that are absolutely bonkers, and huge numbers of them are believing these things…” She speculates on some possible reasons.

And it struck me then that everyday wonders have ceased to engage these people; they’ve cut their milk teeth on high-tension drama in entertainments that celebrate killing and perversions: just look at the content of TV’s top dramas in recent decades; look at the goals of most video games; look at the stimulus-driven ambitions of advertisers. Is it any wonder that people believe they live in these conspiracy theories? By believing, they no longer need to envy contestants on Reality TV, for they have entered their own Reality Show. Like The Truman Show, but backwards. Instead of living in a ‘perfect world,’ the people who believe QAnon and the like are choosing to believe the sickest, most depraved, terrifying fantasies about Others, specifically about people like me, and other good neighbors and decent legislators and even now our current President.

It’s dumbfounding. Why choose to spend your fleeting time on this planet, your one precious life, thinking unthinkable thoughts, when you can find much more engaging entertainment in the miracles of this infinitely wondrous planet with your own senses by opening them to the beauty of nature? Catherine is right: there is too much of something or not enough in the broken souls who let themselves be deluded by outrageous, grotesque imaginings; but it’s not entirely their fault. A materialist culture which has lost its connection to the wild world, Nature, the wisdom in impermanence, and filled that void by streaming the darkest make-believe of human imaginings into our eyes, ears, and minds with traumatizing entertainments, has conditioned many people, Americans in particular, to need ever more shocking stimulation to feel alive.

So the very technology for which I’m grateful today, for giving me access to living humans with great insight and wisdom, is the same technology that allows malevolent delusions to collect enough followers to assume a false alternative reality, because “so many people are living within the shared lie,” as Catherine says. Are there antidotes to these poisonous effluents on a societal level?

We’ll know more later. Give me the silent wonder of a gentle snowfall any day. Give me the miracles in my own back yard, the surprise of an underground burrow, the vast perspective of a starry night, the impossible fragility of a bee’s neck. These are the true realities I choose to pay attention to, to believe in. I am the hoof of the doe, stepping into the stream; moments ripple round me. In the time of long light, I see god in green shadows, and the wheatgrass whispers ‘yes.’

Compassionate Presence

Grateful every day for living here.

Yesterday was challenging for me, as I know it was for many people. The domestic terror attack on the US Capitol shook up a lot of Americans, even some who had been sleeping as the groundwork for it was laid by the president and his enablers. But it wasn’t the event itself, or even the government’s and media’s whitewashing of the egregious double-standard of law enforcement response when compared to crackdowns on Black Lives Matter peaceful demonstrations across the country last year. It was one word that undid me: Proud.

Like many meditators these days, I participate in a virtual meditation group, or sangha, that meets over the phone every weekday morning. I’m grateful for those who were there with me in the beginning more than four years ago, and for those who have joined since, grateful for our commitment to balancing our own minds, and trying to bring balance into the world with our daily practices of stability, kindness, and insight. Our teacher brings great skills to leading us in contemplation day after day, and has a remarkable capacity to respond to the needs of the group in the moment. Some mornings we do checkins, some mornings we jump straight into meditation. Some days checkins can be lengthy, and some mornings we do the ‘two-word checkin’, which is what she asked for yesterday, in light of events in DC.

Those two words yesterday morning from a dozen people included longing for safety, numb, hopeful, upset, startled, grateful, disappointed, anger, disbelief, and proud. The last word was spoken by the only Trump supporter in the group. I spent the whole meditation trying to figure out a positive interpretation of that word, and I couldn’t do it. I was gobsmacked by the idea that anyone could be proud of what transpired at the Capitol yesterday. I spent the rest of the day turning it over and over in my mind and heart, discussing it with a few friends: maybe she was proud of the Capitol police for not escalating the violence? maybe she was proud of… what? else? could she possibly have meant?

I exercised mindfulness skills in directing my attention elsewhere, but I still couldn’t shake the icky feeling that someone I know was proud of the white nationalist terrorists who attacked, looted, and contaminated the Capitol in an effort to subvert constitutional order.

I walked the dogs to the top of the driveway, where our neighbor has hung a Trump flag, and on the way back it struck me, Maybe he is also proud of the white nationalist assault on our nation’s capital… This sinking feeling was amplified this morning when I read that 45% of republicans approve of this terrorist act; but yesterday, I continued to try to redirect my attention, looking for gratitude, making Pad Thai for lunch, digging under snow to find a few feeble tips of green onion, which tasted extra sweet.

… and baking focaccia crackers for the first time. I’m grateful for the magic of YEAST! I’m grateful for fresh rosemary growing in a pot in the sunroom. I’m grateful there are recipes for anything and everything online.

As more clarity comes from the professionals who are unpacking what actually happened at the Capitol Wednesday, I’m grateful for the alert congressional staffers who whisked the certified electoral college votes to safety, precluding even more chaos if they had been burned or stolen by the Republican terrorists. I am now not so grateful to the Capitol police, some or many of whom appear to have abetted the attackers; though I’m still grateful that there were undoubtedly some or many who tried to do their job well in a terrible situation. I’m grateful to R. Hubbell for calling out the truth with this cogent assessment:

The relevant differences are that those who attacked the Capitol are
         White.         Republicans.         Future voters for Cruz, Hawley, Cotton, Rubio, et al.
         … The media are normalizing terrorism by refusing to call it by name.

He goes on to call out the Department of Justice, the ‘Problem Solvers’ Caucus, congressional Republicans, and others, for the same thing, normalizing white supremacist terrorism by refusing to call it by name, when ‘terrorist’ is routinely applied to people of color in more benign protests.

Yesterday, our meditation teacher responded to our two-word checkins with a meditation called “Seeing Truth Clearly.” Cynthia Wilcox rose to the occasion in a way that I can only aspire to at this point in my mindfulness studies. I’m inexpressibly grateful to have reconnected with this high school classmate, ten years ago around our common interest in Buddhism, through the (qualified) magic of Facebook. Grateful for her wisdom and generosity of spirit, for how she can hold the same confusion I have with far more compassionate presence, which incidentally was the meditation she brought to us today. I invite you to set aside about 25 minutes sometime, settle comfortably into a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, and follow one of these meditations. Maybe both. Make some time for mental health the same way you do for physical health, and cultivate balance, clarity, understanding, and compassion for yourself and all beings.

Seeing Truth Clearly
Compassionate Presence