Tag Archive | death is certain

Letting Go

I might as easily have chosen to highlight my gratitude for the Bibiliofillies, but I am grateful today for letting go. I’m grateful for the capacity to quit reading a book, or watching a show, or otherwise removing my attention from one thing and turning it to another. This is the very essence of mindfulness, the ability and willingness to choose where we place our attention.

Tonight, the Bibliofillies met on zoom to discuss our month’s selection, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, by George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, which we read awhile ago. The latter was a work of fiction; tonight’s subject, an academic analysis of numerous classic Russian short stories, and the arts of writing, and of reading. (I can’t tell you how many stories, because I didn’t get past the first chapter.) A few fillies loved it; some were almost neutral; the rest of us, well, to say we despised it would be an exaggeration, but needless to say the various opinions made for lively discussion. This is why I’m grateful, at least once a month, for the Bibiliofillies.

I bristled at the author’s (a middle-aged white man) initial assumption that he knew what I was thinking. From there it went downhill. Though I did find some redeeming features in what I read, I did not want to keep reading, one of Saunders’ essential criteria for a successful short story. My perspective aside, (for what does it matter anyway?), having this safe place to express it, laugh about it, adapt it, is… priceless.

It’s essential to adapting to be able to let go. There is so much to let go of every single day. I’m grateful that I can let go of attachment to ‘my’ point of view more and more often these days.

Life is so much easier now that I’m simply letting things be as they are, instead of trying to control them. I also used to bristle when people told me, “You think too much!” Turns out they were right, but for the wrong reasons. And if I didn’t hang onto an emotion, I couldn’t consider that it mattered. Letting go was never easy for me. So I clung to, among other things, my own judgements, expectations, mistakes; I harbored grudges, fed them with repetition. Michael was right: I did have a ‘victim mentality.’

Death is certain, time of death uncertain.

I’m so grateful that I’m learning to let go, of everything. Emotions can actually flow through, and that doesn’t make them less real or less valid. The faster I let go, the faster I learn the lesson. The lesson I learned this month was that I don’t have to finish reading every book, or watching every episode of every season of a show, or a movie to the end. I don’t always need to know what happens next: as in a bad dream, I can take my attention by the hand and walk away. I can choose where to spend my precious attention. I don’t know how much I have left. I’m grateful for letting go of things that don’t nurture me.

I’m grateful for the salutary effects of prednisone, which have given Stellar new strength to walk to the canyon. Today may have been the last time; or maybe not. Living in this strenuous uncertainty requires focus almost as complete as blowing glass: anything you drop could be catastrophic.
Stellar was excited to see his buddies at Boyz Lunch today, as they were to see him looking so lively. I’m grateful for the option of gently, comfortably, letting go of this magnificent life that has graced my own for nearly fourteen years. And grateful for the geezers, too.
I’m grateful for endless cherry tomatoes from the garden this summer; grateful to still have the stoneware bowl my mother made fifty years ago that holds them; grateful even so to know that if the bowl one day breaks I can easily let it go; and grateful for the imminent relief of letting go of garden maintenance, as we approach a hard freeze six nights away from now.

Tomato Paste

Many of Thursday’s tomatoes, above, turned into paste today. These Amish Paste tomatoes ranged from a smallish Roma style to a fat, almost-round fruit weighing half a pound. I grew three of these vines, but one died halfway through the summer. The other two are still ripening fruits, though most of them went into this batch of tomato paste.

I spent most of the day with tomatoes, all the while keeping an eye on Stellar. After our sunrise walk, he slept until after one, napped through the afternoon with a few forays outside, and only since it’s been dark a few hours has he become a bit restless. Meanwhile, the paste tomatoes roasted… then cooled, and then got pureed. Paste is the easiest thing to make–you don’t ever have to peel the tomatoes, just roast, cool, puree, then roast again–but it does take the longest.

The first roast is just halved tomatoes, for about an hour and a half at 350℉. Then the puréed mash roasts another few hours, with stirring every half hour. The mash concentrates over time…

…to a tangy, salty (just a sprinkle of kosher salt on the first roast, but as the tomatoey goodness condenses the ratio changes), sweet tomato essence. The easiest way to preserve and later use it is to freeze it in an ice tray. Once they’re solid, I’ll pop them out and seal them in a freezer bag to use one or two at a time. Each cube is around a heaping tablespoon. I’m grateful today for tomato paste, which kept my mind occupied, my hands busy, and my heart calm. I was present with the process, but it was straightforward enough that I could be equally present with Stellar as he lived through another one of his tenuous last days.

After his scary seizure last night (now his right eyelid droops, too), he slept soundly til morning, and woke eager to walk. His remarkable resilience propelled him to the canyon rim, and he seemed to have the good sense to avoid the very edge. The cottonwoods are half-turned, the ground is dry, and morning air is brisk. Stellar has made it to his thirteenth autumn. I’m grateful to have been present for his puppyness, his magnificent prime, his aging, and with him now as he approaches the far edge of life. He continues to exemplify benevolence, acceptance, loving-kindness, and all the other virtues I aspire to, as he demonstrates the path of presence.

Allowing Joy

I’m grateful today for allowing joy, in the face of sorrow, in the simple things: making a batch of salsa verde with tomatillos and peppers from the garden; eating some on a burrito with fresh chopped tomatoes and sour cream. I’m grateful for having the burrito in the freezer from when I made it a few weeks ago, to pull out for a quick, delicious, healthful meal at a moment’s hunger; grateful for all the implications of that gift.

I’m grateful for finding delight in the creative work of others, being joyful for their success. I’m grateful for camp, for British humour, for the return of the Great British Baking Show, and Season 3 of Drag Race UK; grateful to surrender my grasping mind occasionally to the entertaining delusions of being human. I’m grateful also for an increasingly healthy relationship with death, and all the ramifications that carries for a more meaningful and joyful life; and grateful for my soul sister who sent me this article about precisely that. I’m grateful for my growing capacity for allowing joy in this world of impermanence, of constant, inevitable loss.

This Precious Day

I’m grateful for so many things today, but mostly for the fact that I came to the end of it still alive. I’m grateful for walking after rain with Stellar and Topaz, for their sweet friendship, for golden September light.

There was no particularly extra danger to my life today, except that I drove twenty miles to town and back, and went into the post office and the grocery store. Even pre-Covid I’d have been aware of the slight uptick in risk that entails: anyone can get killed in a car wreck a quarter mile from home. But since Covid, these minor everyday risks we all take without giving them much conscious headspace feel magnified a hundred times. Just going into the grocery store for half an hour feels like sticking my neck out way beyond comfort. There’s a somber air in the aisles these days, a fraught undertone. I’m not defiant like those who put us all at risk, but I feel equally defensive. The public fisticuffs of last fall lurk just beneath the surface in the silence as strangers pass without smiles. A sense of relief when you recognize and connect with someone you know.

So I was glad to get home this evening, and walk again in the woods, again after rain; grateful for another few tenths of an inch in a lovely intermittent drizzle over the past twenty-four hours. Grateful for no dramatic thunderstorm with lightning’s fires. Grateful that out of all possible random misfortunes that can befall a human life, my good fortune and my body held up for another day. My heart kept ticking, my lungs kept breathing, and beauty continued to stream past me. I’m grateful for this precious day.

Grateful for a simple pleasure at the end of the day, of a beautiful ear of fresh corn with butter and salt. So simple, so delicious!
Grateful for a beautiful late-night surprise, rain-sparkled blue grass in the headlamp.

Curiosity

I looked up rattlesnake pole beans. I had assumed, like many of the references, that their name derives from their purple-speckled skin, but I found one article that mentioned it comes from their propensity to wind themselves around the supports or their own vines like a snake. And then I found this one! I’ve picked quite a few that were twisted around the fence wire, or their own coiling stems, though mostly they hang straight down. I’m grateful that my curiosity about their provenance led me to find out this tidbit, and then find a perfect example of it.

I’m grateful, as always, for Stellar Stardog Son of Sundog. He spent a lot of time outside lying on his bed in the shade under the deck, which is kind of unusual. Something seems to be turning in him. His back end was as weak throughout the day as I’ve ever seen it, maybe the worst consistently. Maybe he’ll rebound again, and maybe this is a new normal, or the beginning of the end. I’m so grateful for this bonus year we’ve gotten to spend together, and for all the good days he’s had. I’m grateful for the curls of his ruff, and the way he sees me.

Another thing I’m grateful for today is that the prep for a colonoscopy has improved a lot since the last time I got one twelve years ago. This doctor at Delta County Memorial Hospital offers her own recipe, which includes a super sour sickly sweet 10 ounces of magnesium citrate–I chose grape, because lemon-lime is intolerable from past experience, and cherry is just icky no matter what. That went down ok. Then she has you add 238 grams (8.3 oz.) of Miralax powder to a gallon of Gatorade, your choice just not red or purple. I chose orange because for a few years in my younger days, I really liked orange Gatorade, in the context of a hangover cure: that, and a bag of salty potato chips, brought me right back into my body on the too-frequent mornings after.

This prep was far more mild than I’d expected, though the first few cups of it bounced right back up all at once. I hope I managed to keep enough of it down to do the trick. Yeah, it’s gross to think about, but a) it’s apparently important that we get this done from time to time, and b) the whole time I was drinking this two-weeks’ worth of laxative, I was watching the news of Haiti and Afghanistan, and I felt really lucky. Also, I set my mind ahead of time to engage in the process as if it were a meditation, committed to just being present in the midst and flow of it, observing my bodily sensations, being grateful for the effects, and optimistic for the outcome. Bringing a kind curiosity to the process has been a huge help in managing legitimate anxiety: An old friend did her first screening colonoscopy at 50 like they tell us to do, and they nicked her colon, and she died of sepsis.

“That’s exceptionally rare,” I’ve been told by many people. And yet it happens, and why would it not happen to me? I am not invincible, though my childish mind insists that I’ll always come home from whatever outing I undertake. This amazing human capacity for denial: It can’t happen here, it won’t happen to me, etc. Silly denial; and yet, the reality can be terrifying. Death is certain, time of death uncertain. I’m ready to face the music tomorrow, when I’ll be grateful for my chauffeurs Rosie and Deb, and pray that I come back home to Stellar, Topaz, Biko, and the glorious garden, unscathed and healthy.

Auntie Rita

I’m grateful for my Auntie Rita, who died a year ago today. Here, we stopped by her friends’ house at happy hour, but they weren’t home. So we sat on their chairs out by the Rappahannock River on a blustery fall evening, and she pulled out her snakebite kit. I’m grateful for the many zany fun times I got to have with her. I’m grateful that her daughter asked me to write a eulogy to read at the memorial service today, which many of us family members joined by zoom. Here is what I shared with her surviving friends and family.

When Rita was trying to decide where she would move from her last house, and considered leaving Kilmarnock to come up to Knollwood, I said, “But Rita, all your friends are down here!” She wasn’t worried: She told me, “Oh, you make friends wherever you go!” And she was right: She made many new friends here, and she found old friends from as long ago as high school: and here many of you are today.

Rita made friends wherever she went. She kept friends once she made them so that wherever she moved to she carried old friendships into her new ones, building relationships among many people. She was ebullient and generous, funny, playful, and above all, she was authentic. She loved fine things, luxuries, and comforts, yet she adapted with courage and resilience to losses of all kinds, from losing almost everything in a flood, to the death of her son, and so much else in her 93 years. 

She loved sleeping late, rum and cokes, taking naps, reading, doing her nails, Jeopardy, creating art… She didn’t like: pictures of herself, chipped fingernails, swallowing pills, being ‘incarcerated’ during Covid, or meanness in any form… 

Leslie remembers her creativity, generosity, and humor, recalling that when she was young, her mother happily made all her clothes because she was too small to fit in store-bought; and she remembers her putting cotton balls inside homemade fudge drops to give out on April Fool’s Day! She recalls Rita as ready for anything, any time. 

One of our more remarkable cribbage hands…

Robin remembers her aunt as giving the most fun and appropriate presents for every occasion, keeping her company when she was sick in bed, and that she was always up for a game of cribbage, any time, anywhere.

Rita taught me so much about how to be in this life, throughout her life. When I was a child, I learned more during one meal at her dinner table about how to treat animals than I did from anyone else: she treated their dog Duchess, who may have been begging just a little bit, with such tenderness and respect. I watched her through the years turn this utter devotion toward all her dogs and cats, toward her friends and family, and even to her houseplants. 

Many would be reluctant to have dogs on their furniture, but Rita made them welcome on beds, couches, chairs…
Raven and Stellar on her good couch…
Stellar shares his chair at Rita’s house with Amy visiting. Any friend of mine was a friend of hers, and vice versa…
Rita (center) with her old, dear friends Polly and June.

When I was a teenager, she modeled for me as no one else, how to be a strong woman: One of the most magnificent things I ever saw a woman do came after a big family dinner at her brother John’s home. John took all the men upstairs for cigar time, and Rita became impatient, wanting to spend time with her new husband Ford. She changed into her tennis outfit, opened the door to the study, and smacked three balls across the room. “Tennis, anyone?” she asked with a sweet smile. 

As an adult, she was my favorite drinking buddy—she was many people’s favorite drinking buddy, perhaps even some of you here. One time when I had over-partied at their island home, and she found me in bed in the morning still drunk, she didn’t judge: she comforted and revived. She never judged me, or anyone she loved, fully accepting us with unconditional love just as she did her animals. 

Rita (left) and Ali on a double date in their late teens

When I was an older adult, and helping her sister, my mother, through a grueling dying process, Rita was my strength and my sanity: We provided mutual support during this devastating loss for both of us.

Through my whole life until she died last summer, as she did for so many of us, she provided inspiration, refuge, boundless love and countless laughs. It is a source of lasting joy that I got to spend many months over the previous fifteen years visiting her in the Northern Neck. Some of the happiest memories of my life come from these times: simple lunches, jigsaw puzzles, quiet cribbage games, deep talks, spontaneous adventures, sunset cocktails along the bay or the Rivah at the beautiful homes of her many friends, even if her friends weren’t home! She always kept a snakebite kit for emergencies, pulling out a couple of airline hootch bottles as needed. 

With her perfect fingernails, assembling my first Liberty puzzle after she introduced me to them.

Her gifts to me, and to others, were boundless, and live on in the values of compassion, unconditional love, joy, mischief, humor, strength, and acceptance that she modeled for me and for everyone whose life she touched. 

I’m not alone in my adoration of Rita. To know Rita Wherry Cleland Stephens was to love her. I speak for her daughter Leslie, for her sister-in-law Clara, for her nephews and nieces: Leonard, Bruce, Robin, Gary, Jack, Bill, and Amanda, who knew her all or most of their lives. She made each of us feel special with her love and attention, and she will always hold a singular place in all of our hearts.

After struggling for months to recover from a debilitating stroke, she courageously chose to relinquish her attachment to living. She was at peace with her life ending, and made time to say goodbye to as many of her beloved family and friends as she was able. In death as in life, she was a remarkable person, wise, courageous, adventurous, ready for anything.  

She would have hated this picture, but I love it. Always in my heart, favorite auntie…

Michael Soulé

A portrait I made of Michael in 2013.
I’m grateful for my dear friend Michael Soulé, who died a year and a month ago. I took this shot when we traveled to Yellowstone together. We were enjoying a nice picnic in the vast wilderness, not another soul around, endless views… when… absolutely nothing happened. This was my first photoshop ever, in 2003: I used the image of a grizzly from a bookmark I got at the visitor center book store.

Michael and I hung out together for about a decade, between his second and third wife. He was smart, funny, sensitive, deep, spiritual, thoughtful, and many other superlatives, in addition to being globally known as the Father of Conservation Biology. He was naughty and mischievous, also, and great fun to be around. I’m grateful to be able to call him friend. He suffered a massive stroke last summer, leaving his bereaved bride of ten years, a valley full of friends, a beautiful extended family, and a world full of friends and colleagues, all of whom miss his warmth, brilliance, humor, and dynamite smile. Tonight, a few of us, finally able to during this break in the pandemic, gathered at my house to celebrate his life.

I’m grateful for everyone who helped put together the party, and contributed from afar. I’m grateful for all the stories and insights that were shared to celebrate and honor him, helping each of us know him just a little better through the eyes and hearts of others. I have a soul full of history with him, and few words to share it.

Michael and I frequently discussed death in its many incarnations, including ‘the coming plague,’ which he lived to see the beginning of with Covid-19. He practiced Zen Buddhism, and inspired me to deepen my study of the philosophy that became my guiding light. I told him several times that when he died, I would shave my head in his honor. The opportunity arose this evening. I’m grateful for all our friends who took a swipe at my pate with his electric trimmer, and I’m grateful to June for offering it to me afterward. I was honored to accept it.

Much fun was had by all removing my locks.
Much fun was made of my perfect whorl. As The Colonel used to say, “It’s nice to be the object of innocent merriment.”

Awareness of Death

I’m grateful today and every day for awareness of death. The mindfulness program I’m getting certified to teach in encourages us to consider three thoughts upon waking each morning:

  1. We have an incredible life with opportunities and leisure that many others do not have.
  2. Life is impermanent – death is certain and the time of death uncertain.
  3. What is meaningful to you now, and at the time of death, what will be important to you? Is it all the things in your life, or is it how you responded to life?

Much of my life has been both hampered and motivated by fear of my own death, which has kept me from doing some things and colored my perceptions of others. Yet it’s also occasionally moved me to make courageous and fulfilling choices, knowing that life is short and I could die any minute. Between the wisdom of age and the Mindful Life Program I now have a healthier relationship with death. The knowledge that I’ll die someday, as will everyone I love, as will we all, death being an ineluctable feature of living, is no longer a motivation solely for big decisions like should I choose this school, should I move from this town, leave this job, should I buy this land, take this trip…. Awareness of death now shapes my values and informs my daily decisions, helping me choose wisely where to place my attention moment to moment.

I’m grateful for the teachers and students who have helped me explore the three thoughts over the past year, and for the delightful mug that was given to me today to remind me with every sip of morning coffee that death can be a friend and ally rather than a foe.

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.”

the Full Moon

Technically, it’s not full until Saturday sometime, but try telling that to tonight’s moon!

I’m grateful for all 745 full moons that I may or may not have noticed in my life thus far. Certainly over the past thirty-few years I have paid a lot more attention to the moon than I ever did during the previous decades when I lived in cities or suburbs. Since I’ve been living in rural America, I’ve been blessed to be tied to the rhythm of lunar cycles. My internal tides flow with the moon’s, rising and extending energy during waxing and full moons, settling and drawing in during waning and new moons. Or so it seems to me. And as Joan Didion famously said, “As a writer, it doesn’t matter how it was – what matters is how it was to me.” I think that’s how most of us feel. What matters is how it was to me.

I sing with the moons, I create with moons, I dance with moons. I used to bleed with the moons (I’m grateful I’m done with that! Fat lot of good it ever did me). I plant with the moons: I plant root crops after the full moon, when energy is pulled downward into the earth; and leaf crops after the new moon, when energy is pulled upward. I walk outside at night in the full moon without a flashlight, with only a dog and his extra senses to guide me through shadows. I’m grateful to live in awareness of the moon as a tidal force, a light source, a constant companion through 745 months of living. Seven hundred and forty-five… that’s not all that many… how many more full moons will I live to see, I wonder. Death is certain, time of death uncertain. Everything changes all the time, just like the moon.