OCTOBER ELEGY

By Paul Lewis

As a kid in upstate New York, I always had mixed feelings about the month of October. We were back in school again, and that part wasn’t so good. As such, “the Good Nuns,” as my Irish grandmother always referred to them—who never seemed so good to me—were lording it over us once more. Even so, the horrible shock of the September return to school was over and you were beginning to remember again how best to hide behind the kid in front of you, so as not to be called on in class. All this meant that at least you were getting used to things once more, after a summer of freedom.

On the plus side, there were the trees, which were glorious. In my neighborhood alone, you could see the brilliant red of brash, almost arrogant Sugar Maples, the soothing yellow of tall, wispy American Elms waving in the autumn wind, and the browns of less showy, but always stalwart Sycamores, dropping leaves that rustled like bits of dried paper that crunched as you stepped on them while walking along the street. And the air! Leaving behind the dusty, depressing sultriness of still-warm September, the October air had become crisp and clean and invigorating. As you went outside and walked down the steps of your stoop and looked up, you thought that the sky had never seemed so deep a blue.

There really was no escaping the feeling that something miraculous was happening, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on, but which was so magical, so otherworldly, and so elusive that, if you could somehow manage to capture it, in that one instant you knew your whole life would change. You would become this massive being of light and spirit, free of the cares of the earth, living an evanescent and ethereal life beyond that of any ordinary mortal being. And if the feeling lasted only for a moment, at least it gave you hope, a kind of assurance that you would not always be a child, utterly powerless and tossed about by the vicissitudes of dread and the fear of failure, and that someday you would grow into adulthood and make your own choices. And if you believed those adult choices to be free of the crippling contortions of restrictive rules and binding regulations that you felt so keenly, so much the better. A good thing it was, probably, that you hadn’t yet come to realize how life at every age brings its own enormities of limitations and confinements.

Remembering those Octobers within a soothing haze of romanticized nostalgia, it’s easy to forget just how murderously complex and full of gripping drama life could also be: my father’s anger and his drinking; my mother, always worried about money and how to make the next payment on an endless list of bills; and my own dread of the horrors of grammar school, a place where I never failed to feel incapable of keeping up with its continuing challenges. But then October would suddenly come once again to the rescue, at least temporarily. In the town where I grew up and in those years of the 1950’s, by mid-October the plate glass windows of the larger stores were painted over in Halloween scenes created by local high school art classes. Each group outdid the next in more frightening depictions of witches, zombies and monsters lurking in darkened cemeteries, where enormous and ominous full moons loomed in the night sky, framing the silhouettes of owls that looked down on headstones leaning and sinking into the crumbling earth of newly dug graves. There was a kind of magic in the air, and an anticipation of something to come. And while Halloween was never my favorite holiday, it did announce the not-far-off coming of Thanksgiving and Christmas—festivals of light and love and a kind of comfort.

For the moment, though, death seemed to be everywhere. As lovely as the trees themselves had been in early October, by the time Halloween came they had become bare, twisted skeletons. Here and there a single dried leaf might cling tenaciously to a branch, all the while writhing in the increasingly chilly wind. And afternoons, soon after we were let go from school, a cold darkness would begin to fall, even before we were called in for supper. No one doubted that, soon enough, the snow would fly, though not before trick-or-treaters ventured along darkened sidewalks, and brash teenagers threatened soapy windows, or worse, if candy wasn’t quickly handed over. Even at that age, I sensed that a mask worn by someone could transform that person, a friend or a classmate, somebody from just down the block, into a wholly different persona, a menacing and aggressive figure that had lost all sense of right and wrong; unrestricted, such a hidden presence was capable of anything. Maybe what I really saw was the wildness of my own burgeoning urges and desires, things I knew I had to control at all cost, lest I lose my own way, offend the Church, and wander forever in the wilderness.

October was like that. It could on the one hand lull you into thinking that you were made of light and of spirit, and then the next moment show you the untamed, savage side of who you were, a side that masked all you thought to be exquisite and unearthly and that risked dragging you down into the freshly dug grave of your most base and craven desires. The Druids of old celebrated the Festival of Samhain beginning on Oct. 31st, a liminal time when the veil between life and death became thin, and fairies, witches and demons freely roamed the earth. Food was typically set out to placate them, an obvious precursor to the treats later handed out that day, so as to avoid an encounter with life’s less welcome tricks. Shakespeare, too, likened this time of the year to death. In his sonnet number 73, he lists a long line of harbingers of the end, everything from falling leaves to the setting of the sun to the glowing embers of a dying fire. And yet, he ends with this hopeful couplet: “This thou perceives, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

October reminds us of our mortality and warns us of a difficult winter to come, a time when we may have to struggle more, work harder. It begins in beauty, and ends in barrenness. Its opening days are still warm and filled with sunshine and light, and its last days are dark and promise yet more darkness to come. But it also shows us the glory of color and of clean, crisp air, and a light that somehow never shows itself at any other time of year. It brings to mind equally that beauty—as we normally think of it—is glorious, if fleeting, and that darkness and even death will surely come.

Living in the moment, seeing all of life as fecund and robust and full of its own kind of energy is what is called for. Was that the magic I sensed in the crisp air all those long years ago? What I didn’t know then, but I do now, is that the passing moment can be experienced in fullness. What seems ephemeral isn’t, at least not necessarily; instead, it can be eternal. Maybe what I saw that morning back then was a glimpse of eternity, showing itself in a second of time. Like October itself, such seconds can be their own kind of mask; or they can be a rich and luminous gateway, revealing what is, what was, and what always will be, forever and ever more.

GRIEVING AND GROWING POTATOES

potatoes IMG_5212

by Kevin L Miller

Dad died six weeks ago. I had been with him and Mom three days every week until his last, and then it was every day. Somehow I still managed to plant my garden in April and May, because I had already prepared the 16 big raised beds with amended soil last summer. But as the needs of my 88 and 91-year-old mother and father increased, there was no time for the garden. And when Dad died, it was time to plan and execute a huge memorial service over a period of a month. He was an ordained minister, educator, dean, vice president, and university and seminary president in our little subculture, The Church of the Brethren. He was well known and highly respected. More importantly, he was a saint – a deeply good, humble, generous man – and everyone loved him. Over many decades, thousands looked to him as their mentor, role model, and friend. So did I, especially during these final years, when he was so accessible and open. I am doing my best to help my poor mother cope with her bewilderment and grief. Three weeks from today would have been their 69th wedding anniversary. They knew each other for over 70 years and were devoted to one another. Dad utterly worshipped my mom, and she was born to be adored. It was and is my privilege and honor to serve them as they come to the end of their lives on earth.

Sadly, some things just aren’t getting done. The wild berries on our 12 acres in the woods were not picked this year — at least, not by us — and the weeds took over my garden. I ventured into that jungle just a week ago to see if anything could be salvaged. There may yet be hope of some yield of okra, heirloom tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins. Maybe a turnip or two. And I still have lettuce. But so many other crops failed due to neglect, bugs and weeds, and the garden is generally in tatters.

I myself have been feeling at loose ends lately. Now that Dad is gone and the big memorial service and luncheon are over, what’s next? The answer is obvious: I promised Dad during the final moments of his life that I would take very good care of Mother, just before she arrived at his bedside to stroke his cheek and tell him how much she loved him, as he took his last two breaths and left us. He waited for her… and he is waiting now. Mother is relatively functional, but needs lots of help anyway, because her memory is disappearing quickly, and she has serious medical conditions, tons of medications, and weekly doctors’ appointments to be managed. We play Scrabble and Boggle when we can, and she almost always beats me resoundingly. She was a school teacher and an editor of children’s text books. The creeping dementia has not yet taken hold in her language centers, but she cannot remember her best friends’ names or her two stays in the hospital last summer, or who came to visit yesterday. I serve as her memory now.

But sometimes I wonder what comes after this intense period of getting to know both of my parents so much better than ever before. It continues to be a profoundly valuable education. I had already discovered that when one spends time with high souls who are approaching death, the veil between the two world becomes thinner and eventually almost transparent. Sometimes the curtain is drawn back and allowed to flutter in the cosmic breeze for just an instant. Then, occasionally, it is possible to catch a glimpse of Heaven. There were holy moments like that with my father, and I’m sure there will be with my mother as well. But I ask myself, after all of that is over, what will I do with the rest of my life? Then I’m embarrassed by the question, because all is well. I’ve had a productive career. I am happy and content. The world may be collapsing around us, but nothing is amiss for me. Surely, it’s not so much about WHAT one does with one’s life as HOW one does it. Still, there is a feeling of potential… some impending destiny or assignment or adventure just around the corner. I’m having visions of paintings again. Maybe that’s it.

The first time I visited my overgrown garden, I noticed that my once lush 4 x 10 ft potato bed was completely devoid of greens where there had been a thick cover of them just weeks before. I assumed insects or animals must have destroyed all the potatoes. Then it rained hard a few times, and I spied some round tops of potatoes sticking up through the bare soil. So this morning I went into the garden with my three potato spades and began excavating. Two and a half hours later I had a very respectable box of potatoes ranging from smaller than a penny to baking size. Whereas I had recently assumed the potato patch was a total loss, I was fascinated to discover that a lot of the potatoes were growing much deeper than I had thought. I settled into the dirt and really began enjoying my search for hidden treasure. I noticed that some of the best and biggest potatoes were pressed up against the walls of the raised bed, as if they wanted to challenge the boundaries of the potato universe to expand their own individual identities. I couldn’t help thinking what a fine metaphor this potato bed was for life and the development of consciousness in general. I had thought that nothing was happening in the potato patch while I attended to more pressing duties, privileges and honors — taking care of my beloved parents. But it turns out that potatoes of many different sizes and types were growing there secretly, unseen beneath the surface, all along.

So, I’ve decided not to worry about what comes next. I’m happy in the present moment, doing what I am doing now, and isn’t that what matters? While I was sitting in the dirt digging out those potatoes in the sun, I was convinced that no other activity could possibly be more satisfying or fulfilling than finding potatoes in the ground. I could have done that for the rest of my life. And perhaps I will. But maybe… just possibly… some of those more mysterious potatoes growing deep under the surface and pressed up against the walls of their world… some of those unruly potatoes might contain surprises. In fact, if the past is any kind of template, they almost certainly will. But if not, I’ll be happy just digging in the dirt. After all, I realized after two and a half hours of hard labor had yielded $15 worth of produce, that it was not the potatoes I needed… It was that invaluable time in the dirt.

 

 

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO DIE A NATURAL DEATH?

BY PAUL M. LEWIS

How best to care for elderly relatives is an issue many people are struggling with these days. It’s a subject close to home for my partner and me, as well, given that his mother is in hospice care and has been for the past six months. In addition, we know at least half a dozen others, good friends, who are struggling in their own ways with taking care of elderly parents, whether they live close by or at a greater distance. We are, ourselves, some 500 miles away from my partner’s mother and make the nine-hour trip there at least once a month. Another friend undertakes a seven-hour drive to see his mother every week, arranging to work a full-time schedule in four days and compacting Mom’s care, plus the 14-hour round-trip, into his Friday-to-Sunday weekends. Yet another has his 93 year old mother living in his home, with him as 24 hour-a-day caregiver. And one other close friend is overseeing the care of both of his parents simultaneously, one of whom is in a skilled nursing facility, while the other still lives, at least technically, on her own, but needs almost constant care. Additionally, there are still others who have it much worse, those who have to combine eldercare with raising small children, for example, or those who are struggling with their own physical ailments, while attempting to deal with the illnesses of aged parents.

In one sense, this is not entirely new. To an extent, families have always dealt with taking care of the elderly. At one point in our history, it was not at all uncommon for grandma or granddad to live in the same home with a grown daughter or son and their family. People simply contrived to take care of the older person, as he or she got sicker and closer to death. What has changed, however, and changed dramatically, in the last few decades is the length of time that people have been living. Not so long ago—certainly within my lifetime and in the lifetimes of many of my contemporaries—common diseases would have caused the death of many an elderly relative. In my own family, both of my grandfathers had died before I was born, and neither of my grandmothers lived much beyond their mid 70’s. During the 1950’s and 60’s, when they died, that was relatively common, and simply seen as part of the rhythm of life that comes to its expected end. I am not suggesting that the loss of a loved one was any easier, or less traumatic, in those years. The point is only that it often happened earlier in that person’s lifespan, and consequently in the lives of their offspring and caregivers.

Today, diseases and other ailments that, only a few decades ago, might well have carried off an individual are now regularly treated by modern medicine in such a way as to prolong the lives of those suffering from them. I am speaking of afflictions such as heart disease, stroke, pneumonia, even some forms of cancer, to say nothing of helping those seriously injured in devastating accidents that at one time might have very well brought about death. Again, I want to make it clear I’m not at all suggesting that this is bad. Of course, we all want those whom we love to go on living. What I am saying is that the longer a person lives, especially into what we now think of as extreme old age, that is, the nineties and beyond, the more difficult it becomes not only for them, but for those whose lot it falls to to care for them, particularly as their quality of life becomes more and more compromised. And the burden of this care can be a heavy one, physically, financially, emotionally, and simply in terms of time and energy.

Ultimately, the larger and more overriding question may be this: What does it mean to die a natural death? Many people have decided that they do not wish to live on life support and have issued what is commonly referred to as a DNR—a Do Not Resuscitate order. Both my partner and I have done so, as has his mother. Even so, the question is not as clear-cut as it may at first seem. There are endless gradations involved, gray areas, in between places when it falls to the person who is acting for another to decide if “this is really it.” If an elderly mother, for example, has a stroke, who is to say if she can come back from it and regain much of her strength and mobility? Or if a father in his 80’s has an abdominal aneurysm, should he be operated on in order to relieve the potentiality of it rupturing? Of course he should, many of us would say. And yet, this was exactly the case for a good friend of mine. It turned out his daughters decided for him, as his mind was already somewhat compromised and he had difficulty fully understanding the ramifications of decisions. Yet, after the operation, he slipped more and more into a world inaccessible to anyone, and lingered for another year in that twilight state. This is not to blame his daughters, who did what they thought right, but was it what my friend really wanted?

At what point do we decide, either for ourselves or for those we are looking after, that no more medical help ought to be given, other than palliative, non-curative care? And what of people who have decided that the time has come, choose hospice care, and yet somehow still cling to life, in essence forgetting that they may have made such a decision? And if they made that decision while in sound mind, but now appear to no longer be capable of making fully informed, rational judgments, what then? What are we to do if, having made one decision, they change their mind again, back and forth sometimes even from day to day, or from week to week? These are questions that cry out for answers that we do not always have at the ready.

Could we even say that the very notion of a natural death has been so changed by the advances of modern medicine that we no longer exactly understand what we mean by it? I can offer myself as an example. Nine years ago, after having had a second heart attack, I underwent angioplasty. The doctors miraculously inserted two stents into the arteries of my heart, and I seem to be fine today. If they had not done so, there is every possibility that I might well have died long ago of a heart attack, as my mother did in 1970, at age 50, much before such things as stents were even dreamed of. It could be said she died a natural death. Or did she? But what of the fact that she smoked for most of her life, that she worried constantly about everyone, her children in particular, and that she worked hard in a factory much of her adult life? Didn’t all this contribute to her early demise, and if so, how “natural” is that?

Still bigger, in a sense more global, questions could be asked. What about poverty and its consequences, such as lack of access to medical care, living in overcrowded conditions and susceptibility to infectious diseases, the inability to buy healthy food and have clean water to drink. Even lack of education can affect a person’s lifespan, as we have seen when women tend to have fewer babies the more education they get. Is it natural to die while having an eighth or ninth child?

And while this may seem to have led us relatively far afield from the topic of eldercare, what I am suggesting is that it all contributes to our understanding of the overarching question of what it means to die a natural death. Indeed, in the world of the 21st century, it is more of a conundrum than ever. Do not resuscitate, yes, of course! Few of us would wish to linger on life support, while living essentially in a coma (although even here there are exceptions, as many of us may remember from the Terri Schiavo case).

All too often, the choices are not cut and dry. It is difficult enough for each of us to make choices when it comes to our own lives. Do we opt for chemotherapy, for example, if diagnosed with cancer, given its terrible side effects and the likelihood, or not, of its working? And it is even less clear when needing to make such decisions for someone else. Should we have told the emergency room doctor to do everything possible for Mom or Dad after that stroke? Is their current quality of life enough to have justified that decision, even though a DNR was on record? And add to this the fact that such decisions must often be made on the spot, amid the terrible haze of emotional trauma, when one’s own judgment may not be as clear and dispassionate as we might otherwise wish.

There are few clear paths through the maze of such questions. It may be that the best any of us can wish for in taking care of others is to follow our hearts, with the hope of an informed intellect and, with luck, perhaps even some clarity and wisdom. We all wish that, when the time comes to shuffle off “this mortal coil,” as they used to say in my Catholic youth, we may not linger, and instead exit with a measure of grace and dignity. Yet, no one is assured of what might be called a clean and clear-cut ending. Do we get the death we deserve, or the one that we need? Should it be conscious; or do we hope for a silent slipping away while asleep?

Maybe the best preparation for a natural death is for us to not be so concerned about it at all. In Hindu thought, there exists the notion of God’s “Lila,” the idea that all of creation, including life and death, is part of the divine play, with Spirit being the only true Reality. There is comfort in this view, and perhaps even great wisdom. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Mourn not for those that live, nor those that die. Nor I, nor thou, nor any one of these ever was not, nor ever will not be, forever and forever more.” And if that is the case, then, in the end, maybe death itself ought not to matter so much.

 

DON’T COUNT ON NOTHING

By Paul

Philosophers have deliberated for centuries about whether nothing exists. If nothing does exist, one argument goes, then it is paradoxically something. Otherwise, how can we say that it exists?

This is a topic where language begins to break down and trip us up pretty quickly, because if we then say that nothing does not exist, we come out to mean that it must somehow be something, since a double negative cancels itself out (as in the phrase, “It’s not that I don’t want to go,” for example). However, note that when a double negative is used consciously, and grammatically, the meaning does not always exactly equate to its positive counterpart. After all, most of us do recognize that there is some difference between “It’s not that I don’t want to go,” and “I want to go.” In the latter case, it’s a simple affirmative; in the former, we are hedging, hesitating, and saying that we would want to go, but something (perhaps our own real feelings, which we may prefer not to share) is keeping us back from doing so. And to make things even more complicated, the phrase “I don’t not want to go” may perhaps have yet another shade of meaning.

But we probably ought to admit up front that most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about nothingness, until and unless our own mortality, or that of a loved one, comes into play. What I am suggesting is that the thing that terrifies us most about death is this very concept of nothingness, more than any sort of suffering in an afterlife, the nature of which Dante so graphically depicted in his Inferno. Indeed, Dante lays out an entire world of pain for those accused and convicted of everything from lying to lust, from gluttony to avarice, from anger to sullenness, violence, thievery, and to those labeled as panderers, seducers, and even simoniacs, schismatics, and heretics. But where is his nothingness? All of his poor, suffering souls indeed possess full consciousness. Could it therefore be that even Dante was unable to imagine a horror worse than the utter loss of everything, including the very consciousness of being?

But let us think for a moment, if there truly were to be nothing at all after death, then does it not follow logically that there would also be no one there to witness it? Because, to experience nothingness, something must be there, if nothing other than our very selves. As such, could it be that what people fear most about death is not nothingness, since no one would be there to know its emptiness, but aloneness? Perhaps the greatest fear that humans can envision is that of being alone for all eternity.

Still, all this is not getting us very far in regard to the idea of nothingness. All we have seen so far is that the concept is most confusing. Perhaps we ought to approach it another way. What if nothingness were so empty, so void, so without form, shape, content, or limitation whatsoever that it actually impinged upon somethingness? This may seem ironic, not to say oxymoronic, but I bring it up because the very definition of nothingness appears to be brushing up against the limits of somethingness.

Take space itself, as an example. We know it “contains” all the stars, the planets, the countless galaxies, as well as myriad and untold amounts (if that is the proper word) of both dark matter and dark energy. But even if these things did not exist, even if we could imagine a universe empty of them, would there still not be space, as much as we might think of it as emptiness, the limitless void? In fact, it is true that, so far as we know at least, space has no borders. There is no center to it, and it contains no edges “out there” somewhere. Although there are physicists who posit that spacetime is both finite and without boundaries, a concept I frankly find difficult to wrap my head around. If something is boundless, it seems to me, what else could we say about it other than that it simply goes on and on, as it were, endlessly and infinitely? And does that not begin to sound a little like what we were saying above about nothingness?

It would appear that there are no good answers to the question of whether or not nothing, or nothingness, if you prefer, exists. Maybe nothingness is a corollary of somethingness, similar as we were saying to the difference between the use of a positive and a double negative in grammar, whereby the one seems somehow to contain at least some of what its normal antithetical opposite would suggest. If you remember, in grammar, a double negative (properly used, as it were) does not necessarily mean the binary opposite of its antecedent. Instead it can take what the positive form would be, twist it around a bit, and add a different shade of meaning (e.g., “I like him,” is not fully the same as “I don’t not like him”).

Is there, then, a yin-yang kind of complementarity, a bit of nothingness in what we think of as something, and a little of somethingness in nothingness? After all, speaking from the somethingness point of view, do we not all enter into nothingness every night in the utter unconsciousness of deep and dreamless sleep? And from the opposite side, scientists now believe that quantum particles can and regularly do appear out of nothing.

It could also be that there are no final answers to these kinds of questions. That we do not understand, nor will we ever experience, the true meaning of nothingness. Precisely perhaps because it has no meaning? Or is it just that we cannot currently imagine such a meaning? After all, just because we cannot see something in our minds, picture it, or in some way conceptualize it, does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Again, though, we are smacked up against the notion that nothingness cannot exist, because if it did exist, then it would (by definition) be something.

Which brings us more or less back to where we came into this motion picture in the first place. A mystic might say that there is no contradiction in any case. That is because God, Infinite Intelligence if you will, is surely both manifest and unmanifest. He (She, It, whichever ultimately inappropriate pronoun you may wish to choose) is surely capable of both form and no form, of material manifestation and unmanifest Spirit, of discernible and indescernible, of visible and invisible, of somethingness and nothingness.

Personally, I do not count on nothing, either at death or any other time. Unless by that we mean the nothingness which is beyond the manifestation of something, but which in the end it also contains, at least in potential. I think of Krishna saying to Arjuna: “Who, holy in act, informed, freed from the opposites, and fixed in faith, come to Me; who cleave, who seek in Me refuge from birth and death, these have the Truth.” I think, too, of William Butler Yeats, who in his Celtic wisdom writes:

“Birth-hour and death-hour meet.
Or, as great sages say,
Men dance on deathless feet.”