“Letting go” has been coming up in conversations recently. I’m so grateful for letting go. I never used to be able to. I hung onto things like the proverbial dog with a bone, all kinds of attachments and most of them unhealthy, like grudges, the need to control, an outcome that was beyond my control, rigid and narrow ideas of right and wrong. you name it, I couldn’t let it go. Maybe it’s a function of age, lessons learned, disappointments, or just wisdom, but I credit mindfulness training with a lot of it: these days I let go of way more than I cling to. In this moment, I can’t think of anything I cling to, besides the idea, the hope, that I’ll wake up alive tomorrow to enjoy another day of known and unknown experiences.
When I first moved here, and discovered several old dump sites from the 1930s and 40s, I was gung ho to clean them up! I thought I’d have time someday to gather up all the broken glass, crockery, rusted metal, porcelain knobs, and whatnot, and — do what, take it to ‘the dump’? I really meant to. These dumps along the canyon and a couple other places were an eyesore. My disgust of them was tempered by some fun with an older friend investigating them with ‘archaeologist’s mind,’ especially when she found some hairpins like her mother used, and we were able to date some other artifacts. Also, there were a lot of other more pressing demands on my time.
I did pull out some pieces of a large crock, and figured I’d be able to glue it together once I found enough of them. Just for fun, my ‘puzzler’s mind’ at play. I let go of that idea when I realized I’d collected fragments of two different crocks. These pieces have sat along the rim now for more than twenty years, collecting their own microcosms of forest floor; and here they’ll stay at least until I’m dead and gone. Eventually I completely let go of the cleanup plan, and what a relief! Goodbye resentment, farewell guilt. These dumps are a historic part of the landscape at this point, their contents at rest here for nearly a century. Under each plate shard, each canning jar curve, live perfectly content micro-creatures. Who am I to disrupt their habitat?
I’m also grateful that I’ve let go of some self-imposed limitations, like the label ‘can’t handle the heat.’ I’m not going to crunch down on a Scorpion pepper any time soon, or this first Red Savina to ripen (above) on a stocky bush full of them; I am, however, going to make some really hot sauce and sprinkle a few drops here and there. But what in hell am I going to do with a bushfull of Red Savinas? This particular pepper once held the world record as ‘hottest pepper‘ until the Ghost Pepper eclipsed it (though by now the Ghost Pepper lies at the low end of the world’s hottest peppers). Nevertheless, the Red Savina comes with a caution: “…can cause severe burning sensations and numbness for days if proper care isn’t taken.” Rest assured, I’ll take proper care, as I have with the Scorpions. Eeeee.
And now letting go of the letting go theme, a bit of cool respite. Tiny crabapples load the tree below altocumulus clouds preceding the storm that brought a cooling drizzle late afternoon. I’m grateful for this precipitation, as usual, and anticipate a good rain tomorrow. The moisture brought out the vibrant color of desert four o’clocks shimmering with internal light under full cloud cover just before sunset.
Topaz is much happier this evening than she’s been in a month. At five a.m. I startled awake to her hissing and growling at the kittens in their crate downstairs. I tossed and turned for awhile, and tried to call her upstairs. Eventually she came, and let me rub her belly (and finger comb an awful amount of weeds from her fur). It soothed both of us back to sleep. Later in the morning, I delivered the kittens and all their belongings to a shelter staff member who met me in Hotchkiss. I hope Topaz doesn’t think she accomplished this by hissing at them this morning. It was in the works for days.
I’m grateful that mindfulness kept me from locking into a judgmental, agitated assessment of the shelter. Last week I was finally able to speak with the director, who was appalled and apologetic to hear of my unfortunate experience with the foster coordinator, and let me know I wasn’t the only one with complaints. We were able to have a clear, open conversation about all that went awry, and appreciate each other’s honesty and grace. Once the director reassured me that my experience with FC wasn’t characteristic of the shelter as a whole, I was able to examine my motivations and assess more accurately the reality of keeping either or both kittens.
I reflected that when FC had said I should bring them back when they’re two months, because “people are always coming in wanting a kitten,” I had a knee-jerk reaction to the way he had just manhandled them, and thought No way am I bringing them back here. So part of my motivation to keep them was to protect them from him, or from any abuse. Part of my initial motivation for fostering them had been to maybe end up with a kitten, but that was purely a selfish longing. I was able to admit that the one I fell in love with, and would have kept, was the one who died, and I realized as I continued to care for the others, and cuddle them, that–cute as they were–I wasn’t feeling the same connection to them. Also, to think that I was the only person who could give them a good home was just ego.
At the same time, I considered carefully my attention budget and my energy level, and realized I didn’t have enough of either to take on longterm responsibility for another little life. There were numerous pragmatic reasons–including Topaz–to let them go now that they were weaned and active enough to need, and deserve, a lot more space and interaction. Finally, I thought about attachment. It came clear to me that spiritual growth is my highest priority; simplifying my life and letting go, my path.
Buddha advises us to relinquish attachments, knowing that all things are impermanent and that clinging brings suffering; and knowing that at the end, whenever that comes, we all have to release our attachment to our own life. So by practicing letting go of attachments as we age, especially to things we care about, we can practice for the ultimate letting go, and die with grace and ease rather than fear and suffering. With this in mind, I’ve already begun giving away some valued heirlooms to younger family members, and being more generous with other things as well. So I looked hard at my attachment to having a kitten (or two), and it vaporized. I looked at my attachment to outcome, also, and understood that even if I kept I could not prevent them from coming to a sad end (like Ojo). Understanding the shelter conditions and policies–they would be housed together and given daily affection and enrichment activities (like training to high-five), and there is a comprehensive vetting process for adopters–I was able to release my fears for their future.
And so it came to pass that this morning, on my way to get my second Covid booster, I handed off the precious little beings with sincere gratitude for all that I learned from the experience, from how to bottle-feed kittens (which might come in handy some other time) to the importance of understanding, patience, and letting go, and lots of insights in between. I am at peace having made a wise choice, Wren misses them, and Topaz is delighted. I hope she doesn’t think she can get rid of Wren the same way!
I’m so grateful for all the X-rays, sonograms, mammograms, echocardiograms, CT scans, MRIs, and other diagnostic imaging I’ve had in my life; grateful for the technicians who performed them, the radiologists who interpreted them, the medical schools and personnel who taught these people how to make these images and read them; the doctors and nurse practitioners who’ve shared my results with me. I’m grateful for the various machines, and all their tiny, complicated components, and the decades, centuries, of scientific investigation by thousands of humans whose names I’ll never know, that led to these machines being invented and improved.
And I’m grateful for the nameless lives of various creatures, maybe humans, lost ‘in the interest of science’ as these inventions evolved. This doesn’t mean that I condone testing on animals; simply that I accept that it has been done in the past (and there may be occasions when it’s still necessary, but certainly we’ve come far enough that most of it can be avoided), and I appreciate the sacrifices, willing or unwilling, that test ‘subjects’ have made through centuries. I can feel sorry that some things have happened, and still be grateful for the ramifications of the outcomes.
Anyway, back to the list: I’m grateful for the specific people that work in the Delta Hospital radiology department (and I know I’m not the only one) who consistently show such professionalism, efficiency, and compassion in their work. I’m grateful that my recent brain MRIs show only average signs of ‘aging.’ And I’m grateful that my cervical spine MRIs don’t show anything imminently life-threatening. I could whinge about the catastrophic evidence of: degeneration in the vertebral facets, “reversal of the normal cervical lordosis,” “moderate to severe left foraminal narrowing due to left-sided arthropathy and hypertrophy,” and “central canal stenosis with ventral cord flattening.” It doesn’t sound good, and certainly is enough words to explain this ongoing, worsening neck pain.
Oh well. It is what it is. Accepting this, now I can move forward taking into consideration options, making informed choices on the best ways to minimize physical and mental suffering, adapting my lifestyle with diet, appropriate postural adjustments, exercises, and therapies to improve my health. Yeah, it wasn’t great news, but it was more information than I had before, and reassuring in some respects: I don’t need surgery right now, for example, and there’s no cancer. While my brain may be a little older than the years allotted me so far, my spine might be fifty years older than that. One thing, though: my heart keeps getting lighter and younger every step of the way. Too bad they don’t yet have diagnostic imaging to evaluate consciousness; mine would show I’m getting better every day.
I’m grateful for these spectacular flowers whose delivery midday from the Paonia florist startled me. My cousins in Charleston sent them in hopes they “might make you smile and know you are loved,” which they certainly do. I’m grateful for the love that keeps pouring in from friends and relations these past few days, soothing my sorrow, making me smile, reminding me that I am loved. I’m grateful to remember that everything changes, that this loss will soften over time. I’m grateful for ongoing support, and grateful for the opportunity to help a neighbor. I’m grateful for a long, close talk with my dear friend whose dear mother also died last week.
I’m grateful that little Topaz seems much improved this evening. Her pupils have unfrozen, and she’s moving at a more natural pace, though still seems to be investigating everything as if seeing it for the first time. I’m grateful for rain, and homemade vichyssoise, and roasted root vegetables. I’m grateful for another day of living, feeling a rich range of sensations and emotions, joy and sadness, empathy and wonder. I’m grateful for memories, and for not clinging to them; grateful for letting things arise, and letting things go.
I’m grateful for another easy day with Stellar. We have diminished his meds and supplements as of last night to purely palliative, and implemented belly-band use full time as of this afternoon. He was so busy trying to keep himself clean that he was starting to lick sores on the inside of his perpetually damp leg, and a bedsore was starting on his left hip. It was past time to escalate from pee pads. The belly-band keeps his legs and hips dry; without the need to lick obsessively he seems much calmer, which is also easier on me.
Today there was less mobility than yesterday, though I did manage to get him outside to his garden bed for a couple of hours midday, in the unseasonable warmth. I’m grateful for that bit of time outside in sunshine, and for his restful sleep most of the day. I’m grateful for another day to pay attention to Stellar past and present, remembering and cherishing his brief, sentient life. I’m grateful for support from a Buddhist friend for the course I’ve chosen for his transition, and grateful to be able to experience this as a natural transition rather than resisting, and turning it into a source of more suffering for me; and I’m grateful for the presence of mind to savor the lessons I’m learning during this extensive, existential, letting go.
I’m grateful for the products available to manage his incontinence. I’m grateful he had a pretty easy day with little agitation, grateful today wasn’t the day. Each day, each challenge, offers another opportunity to practice patience, compassion, and unconditional love. I’m grateful that I have this precious time, these hours each day, to lie beside him on the floor and remember with him the travels we’ve shared back and forth across the country, our joyous life together here for almost fourteen years. I’m grateful for the perspective that allows me to settle more deeply each day into this process of surrender, of letting go: grateful that when it’s over, I really will be able to say I brought my best self to this passage of our lives.
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 today for the satisfaction of doing what I had to do, for work, for dogs, for the house and yarden. Grateful for curiosity which has allowed me to slow down and observe without attachment. Grateful for the satisfaction delivered by a BLT with leftover chicken. Grateful to go to bed after a long day, without being too hard on myself or anyone else, and with only some minor regrets. Grateful for mindfulness practice.
I’m grateful that I made choices along the way that led me to be in this life, right now, right here. I could have done so much worse for myself. I could hardly have done better. I’m grateful for so many things in this life, friends, this community, this place. I’m grateful for all the amenities I’ve mentioned before, for the ancient forest around me, the animals both tame and wild who’ve shared my world. I’m grateful for the teachers, the ancestors, the fruits of their labors and of my practice. I’m grateful for this life in which I can make time to lie in the garden with my old dog for hours as he finds his way out of this life. I’m grateful for this life in which I have come to know patience, acceptance, surrender, and joy in the face of suffering.
Tonight, as I reflect on them, I’m grateful for all the dogs who’ve died on my watch. There was Sam, the pregnant stray I picked up in college; Knobby, who picked me up at a campground; Mocha, renowned for her sweetness; serious Mr. Brick, the golden bobtail, my first puppy; mischievous Raven, who died in my arms. Each of them died a different way.
I see growth over the course of this progression in my understandings of life and death. Karmically speaking, I can only hope that by the time dear Stellar dies, I’ve been able to purify the negative karma I incurred when I had Sam put down. The memories still traumatize: She won’t feel a thing, they assured me. She bucked and fought on the table, the whole time glaring at me in wide-eyed terror. It was the most horrible thing I’d experienced thus far in my young life. And the reason I did it? I’m ashamed to admit it, because now, knowing about no-kill shelters like Best Friends, I would never have even considered it. I rationalized it as the most compassionate thing to do, and it was the most compassionate way I knew at the time.
The object of my thoughts for days has been whether or not I could ever euthanize Stellar. During his seizure Sunday night, I was perhaps too willing to let him go, prematurely welcoming relief of my own suffering (and inconvenience, I have to admit). All this morning I perused online Buddhist perspectives on euthanasia. I spoke to his vet around noon, and she thinks he may have a bladder infection that’s exacerbating ‘everything else.’ So I drove to town this afternoon to pick up antibiotics.
I’ve had a couple of dreams in the past six weeks after which I vowed I would not have him put down. It’s never gone really well. The best deaths have been those rare affairs when a beloved dies on their own. A local vet came out after staving off Knobbydog’s time for a week; I ended up sleeping outside on the patio with him his last two nights before she came with the shots. A friend had helped me dig a grave down near the canyon rim: I’d never have had the courage to buy this land without the security of Knobbydog. He had a fast-growing cancer in his mouth, and was half dead by the time we took that last walk. As the vet strode briskly ahead down the trail, chatting, Knobby stopped to sniff the base of a juniper. After what seemed to me sufficient time (for his last long sniff, really?), I hurried him along. To his death.
We stood on the lookout rock together, the three of us, the vet chatting, Knobby sniffing the breeze and looking his last look into the canyon, I so sad. She gave him a sedative. After a few minutes she suggested we should walk to the graveside before he fell asleep. There under the Ancient One, I sat on the ground and held his knobby head in my lap, my arms around him, while she gave the lethal injection, chatting all the while about people I neither knew nor cared about. ‘Just shut UP!’ I kept screaming in my head. I have always regretted that I let myself feel rushed, and rushed him along. Also, I vowed to never have that vet come kill another pet for me.
So I had Doc Vincent come put down Mocha, when she could no longer rise for walk or food due to kidney failure. He was the exact opposite. He strode through the gate while I explained to Brick and Raven, and by the time I got inside he’d already wrapped the rubber around her leg. She, objecting, had crab-walked across the living room to get away from him. I gathered her into my lap on the couch and held her, cooing, while he finished the process. We had a communal funeral for her and Michael’s cat Luna, burying them both in the hole I’d dug to plant a peach tree the following spring. While that death went more smoothly, it still unsettled me. I happened too fast, and she was frightened. She didn’t understand.
Mr. Brick… I tried to let him die on his own. It was in the low twenties night after night, and he wouldn’t come inside. Paradoxically I both feared and hoped he would freeze to death, but he just hung on day after day. After days of pacing, he chose a favorite spot down by the pond and didn’t get up. But he didn’t die. Raven required a midnight run to the ER vet in Grand Junction. Stellar was a puppy and needed a lot of attention. I was exhausted. By then I’d come to believe that if I was going to do it, I should do it myself. So I consulted with another vet, gathered up my mom’s leftover morphine, some sleeping pills a friend kicked in, and my own Lorazepam prescription, and mixed up a brew, which I fed him with a syringe. But still I was impatient. It felt like hours and still he didn’t die. I feared then that he might wake up and keep living like a vegetable. I can’t write what I did next, but again, my intention was pure. Though again, tinged with concerns about convenience. Anyway, it worked, and I felt like he never woke up, though his head thrashed. Ack.
How much negative karmic imprint have I incurred so far? This is why Raven’sdeath was such a gift.
Some of the things I read this morning suggested that we listen to our pet; some argued that euthanasia is the compassionate option, others that it is the easy way out. Some raised the question of whose suffering are we trying to relieve? Many referred to the Buddhist precept of ‘no killing, not ever,’ and also used karma as a basis for ruling out euthanasia, both the pet’s karma and the person’s. Karma aside, since I’m still not clear in my understanding of nor faith in it, there was one argument that has stuck with me all day: The sense of betrayal and confusion a pet might feel when the loving hands that cuddled become the hands that kill. I thought of Sam, of course.
As I lay beside Stellar tonight, my forehead against his, stroking his soft ears, his thick ruff, his thin legs, it came clear to me. Just thinking about euthanasia had thrown a wall between us, was robbing my attention from whatever life remains to him. I chose to reaffirm my dream-inspired vow not to kill. There was an immediate sense of relief, a letting go, a flood of love released. We both relaxed. I reassured him as I did during the seizure that I will do whatever it takes to make sure he’s comfortable, and be fully present with him until his journey’s natural end. I committed to attend him with boundless patience. I felt deeply the true value of his precious life; understood viscerally for a moment the meaning of sentient being.
Maybe the antibiotics will slow down his inevitable demise, give him a few more walks in the woods, slow down the flow of pee and make him more comfortable; maybe not. He’s in doggie hospice now either way. Between the seizures and his deteriorating hind end it’s clear his neural pathways are failing. My mission is simply to ease his transition. I’m grateful for all the dead dogs that led me to this realization, and for the mindfulness practice that enables me to receive it with equanimity.