A Search for Meaning

I woke up this morning, this early Summer morning, at 5:21am, with the sun beginning to stream through the tall, thin pines in the forest behind the house. No curtains and festooned with three cats, I felt locked into place; prying eyes inside and out. There were no prying eyes outside; backing up to a forest affords us a certain set of “passes” that the urban dweller just cannot get. The moment my eyes open, the cats, with their keen sense of another’s consciousness, let their growing hunger be known. It was time to “rise and shine.”

I stumbled into the bathroom and get my glasses, herded the cats toward the kitchen with promises of love and kibble, and thought, do I really want to make coffee? The spouse is away and I gazed at the coffee leftovers from yesterday. It’ll do. I’m up, but inherently lazy this morning. I had to write a speech for an upcoming event, send a few emails, and do the morning necessaries. I glanced at the open library, sitting there, begging. I can’t, I thought. I have things to do.

Whenever the spouse is away, I am very quiet. I try to figure out what I want. What music should I play? Bath or shower? Do I want to eat breakfast or just wait for an early lunch? To game or to read? To write or to walk? It seems like it’s a time of exploration, and most of the time I just end up writing. It’s a fallback love. No, it’s a forever love.

I just wrote another blog on walking in someone else’s shoes. What does it mean to try to find empathy? What does it mean when you find it? Does it mean anything? I’m surrounded here by very smart, dynamic, energetic people with large vision and good hearts. I love my community and my chosen family. We don’t always like what each other does but we certainly enjoy who we are when we are with them. We shape each other to be better people. It’s nice to be older and mature enough to slough off the shackles of societal confines and just be…me.

Sometimes, though, even now or maybe especially now, I wonder who “me” is. I don’t want to be anything other than I am, and I am always questioning who I am. No, that’s not right. I’m not questioning it. I’m digging into it. I’m discovering it. I’m testing it. What do I like? What don’t I like? What is good for me and what isn’t? Job, family, friends, food, exercise. There’s a lot to think about and some of it doesn’t need thinking. Some of it just needs being. Some of it shouldn’t even be a question.

Sipping my warmed-up-leftover coffee, I flip through a recent article on global warming. Climate change. I think back to the conversation a group of us recently had on climate change. It was a civil conversation, no name calling, nothing divisive. People stated what they had read about (which was indefinable at best) and what they deduced. It’s difficult to have an opinion on science. Science is, well, science. There were lots of good pieces on why it’s happening and how some of it may *not* be human induced. Some of it may. It’s hard to take all the factors into account. When asked how I thought, I tentatively raised my hand on one side. I wondered if I could have this conversation with all my friends and family. Probably not. I am afraid to be me sometimes in the presence of judgment. I’m not as strong as I appear at times.

We tend to think of the meaning of life in terms of our deaths. How will it be when it all ends for us? What traps did we live in and how do we know what is right, wrong, or the purpose? Should we blindly put our heads down and plunge forward with “work,” or do we have a reason behind our work? Is it important that we know? Will we know once we’re done? Maybe our consciousness will just blend with everything else, and we’ll become part of a mass network of consciousness strung out across the stars. Then, will the meaning of our lives really matter?

When I think back on life, my life in terms of, well, my life, I think about all that I’ve done. It’s thin. There’s a lot of should in my silent, mental vocabulary. There’s a lot of how come I don’t have the energy to do that, or shouldn’t I be better at that now, or why don’t I already have that skill mastered. I feel failure often. I listen to others and think how wonderfully smart they are, how skilled a living, how joyous, how full of energy and ideas. Perhaps I spend far too much time alone. I have a secret thought, sometimes, and that is that I’m not fully baked yet. I’m not done being ready for whatever I’m supposed to be doing. That seems weird but there it is. I’m voicing it for the first time, and maybe the last. So, then, what do I need to do? What is the meaning behind me? And what if I’m wrong?

This all sounds dangerously nihilistic. I don’t think so. I think that we determine our lives, and if we don’t, the circumstances of our existence will. How we lived is our life’s meaning, even if we disregard it as important or even relevant. That is, in the end, we will have lived something and someone will review that something with a critical eye, good or bad, and learn something from it. A friend. A family member. Maybe this is why we have funerals and wakes; they teach us to learn something from everyone. The more people attending, the more education we’ve provided to a thirsty world.

We Americans live in a very thin society; the need to fill ourselves with things, experiences, and feelings. The drive to achieve success, defined by some 94-page magazine or celebrity TV show. The ability to achieve success with a rant and rage on Facebook or create an app to solve a perceived problem. We send money to organizations to do the work we’re unwilling to do – we don’t have time, we’re exhausted from commuting or families, no time for community or fraternity. We are children who get upset that someone took our toys and then move on to the next incident. The strong prey on our inability to focus. We’re an ADHD country. I don’t know what we are as a society but I do know that finding true meaning in all of this is difficult. True community. True work. True progress. These latter are slow, plodding, eventually successful but they take patience. I think it takes fewer of us, too. We can’t make change nationally; we can’t make change by ourselves. Small, concentrated groups make change. It seems we can only make change, and perhaps find meaning, in our smaller communities and states. Therein lies a greater identity. In the small, we find greatness.

I stare out the back window of the house, across the stairs, to the two bird feeders, hanging from iron rods near some trees. I sip my coffee and hug the cat that has climbed up onto my shoulder, and is now purring contentedly. My mind wanders across the view. A squirrel is hanging, upside down, from the feeder, eating happily. A raven, beneath him on the ground, is scooping up the dregs. The sun is bright in the east, above the hills, and creates a crisp view across the dark brown floor of the forest. Nature has no need for meaning; it simply is. Maybe I start there, with my community and family, and just remember that I can just be whatever I am at that moment, and perhaps that is meaning enough.

-TDD

Moment of Breath

There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from. – Elizabeth Kubler Ross

At the end of the year, I always do my goals. Always. Since 1984. Really. I tend to think back to what some of those first goals were: “learn how to cook,” “learn how to cook well,” “spend time with family,” or the ever elusive and completely ubiquitous, “get fit.” At the time, I was 21. Over the years, things have gotten more complex, and easier. I actually know what a “goal” is and what a task is, and how to set them better, for myself and others. I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff, probably more than is normal or healthy. I think about achievements and setbacks, I think about what ifs, and how could I do whatever it might be better. I love this time of year. Autumn to Winter is for reflection. 

This year, I spent a great deal of time thinking about death, and life, for all the obvious reasons. I think it’s healthy to think about our own mortality. And, let’s be honest: we all think about it at some point. When I was 13 or 14, I was terrified of dying. I would stop and think, someday I’m going to stop breathing. I’m going to not have my heart beat like this. My mind will not be…churning, thinking of goals. I will cease. If we’re honest with ourselves, that is scary if we have no other prospects. I won’t have this life any more. I think I might have said all of this before, but hang in there, it goes somewhere else I’m pretty sure. 

Fortunately, I was in an English Skills for College class, and Mr. Curran was adamant that we learn how to write a term paper. I used this as an opportunity to write that paper on “Life After Death.” I delved, plunged, and sunk into everything I could find about death other than what I knew from the standard, suburban bible studies. I read Elizabeth Kubler Ross, a pioneer in death and dying in the modern age, as well as the Bardo Thodol or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Raymond Moody, another life-after-death pioneer. I listened to psychics and read “What Dreams May Come.” I read about near-death experiences and talked with religious people about what they believed via their religion.

What I found is that once I had an idea of what I felt, intuited to be true, I came to conclusions and beliefs that suited me. I wrote that paper with passion. I wish I still had that paper; I let Mr. Curran keep that paper for future classes. My pride overrode the thought of any future reference. Yet, the future reference was inside of me – I had integrated that into my mind and heart, and thus began my love affair with philosophy, death, religion, and spirituality. It also taught me that those that are most of afraid of death and dying do not contemplate it until the time is upon them, at which they have no construct to explore. In their horror, they simply cease to be. So, yes, I felt pretty stable about what I have come to believe for myself. 

Until this year. I’ve known and loved people that have passed before; my mother, JB (a co-writer with me), my grandparents, school acquaintances, beloved pets, and work colleagues have all left my life. Some I have cried for my own loss, and some of the loss to the world. For some, I never cried and in my detachment, I had wonder at that. I think the difference, now, is that I’m closer to my own mortality than I had been previously. I’m on the other side of my life, rather than on the uphill climb.

Had I been smart and conscious, I might have realized that I could have died at any time. Poof. Gone. Now, I know. Now, I think about it. Dad went relatively fast, from life to non-life. Faster than I might have been ready to deal with. And for a person who has handled so many things, been in charge and in control, it was icy water splashed in my face. Hey! WAKE UP!

In a 2015 article in The Atlantic, the author discusses life and death in relation to parents and children…

The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?” he wrote in his Discourses.

Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.

“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”

At the same time all was happening with my father, I began rereading Epictetus and Zeno – the Stoics.  I realized a while ago that while I love neo-Platonism from a spiritual perspective, I feel more like a Stoic. I think that my basic way of being is more stoic. People in my past might be laughing right now. That’s fine. I was not very thoughtful as a young adult – I was much more animated and, as HR likes to say, “passionate” about things. Now, the pendulum does not swing so wildly. My breadth of emotional response is far smaller. I feel, of course. I just don’t emote as…fervently. However, emotion isn’t all there is about stoicism. There are some principles of stoicism that authors have examined. The interesting thing is that none of the philosophers who we acknowledge as stoics have listed these principles in some sort of writings. Perhaps the closest is Marcus Aurelius, followed by Seneca.

I particularly love Marcus Aurelius…

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to mine, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of divinity, I can neither be harmed by any of them, nor no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my brother, nor hate him. For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

In essence, it’s about what we as humans can control. Many of us, including me, are fond of saying that we can only control ourselves. However, most of us do not. We think that by thinking and worrying and emoting, we can actually change those things around us. A very good book about this is “The Untethered Soul,” by Michael Singer. He wrote a follow-on, autobiographical book titled “The Surrender Experiment.” I digress, sort of. We cannot change the fact that we will die. It is a foregone conclusion. That we know of it makes no difference; it will happen at some time as we are flesh. All we can do, to quote Gandalf, is “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

So, I decide by writing goals. By deciding how I want to leave the world, how I want my one moment of breath in the long scheme of living beings in the universe to matter. I don’t want to spend my time thinking about the latest pop song, what some scheming politician has or is doing, or what I’m going to wear to look “presentable” for something. I want to be who I am and I want the long term, the big vision, the whole heart. I do think about those small things that happen around me almost as a matter of course. My brain picks them up and stores them, for some unknown crazy reason. But what I think most about is how the world will look in 5000 years, or 10000 years, and what will humanity’s path be, and what will be left after the earth rebuilds itself from our mark. I also think about 10000 years ago, and how far humanity has come, what we’ve invented and what paths we take. I think of this in a very Matrix-like mentality, like it’s a game that we’re all playing. I don’t say that outloud to many people, so you get to hear it here. I do think of life as a bit of a game, laughing at the seriousness with which we all go about our daily lives and emotional hiccups. Laughing at myself for buying the September Vogue and then thinking, really? Let’s think about something that actually matters… then laughing again because that’s just what matters to me. The circle of awareness expands. Maybe I don’t think that way when I’m the depths of humanness, crying for my dying cat or frustrated at family, I admit it. There is a part of playing human that we all have to do. I do, though, find myself lifting out of the depths some times and, like Trinity at the end of the Matrix, lifting above the clouds to see the possibilities of all Life and existence – the great game that we’ve all bought into playing, whether we believe it or not. What we believe is irrelevant, – belief will not let us control the outcome. It is what it is.

All very Stoic.

So, I write goals to play my human part and to participate in the world that we’ve created, nurtured, and sometimes destroy. My goals are lofty and pedestrian, sometimes in equal measure. It helps me keep playing the game and yes, part of that is playing the death part, too. I want us to all be a little less afraid of dying and death. It’s part of the game, after all. If nothing ever really leaves the material universe, we never really leave. We just come back as a new player, a new pawn or queen, knight or bishop, or perhaps the King. Maybe we come back as the board, the air, or the time clock, or maybe all three. Does it matter in the great adventure? Goals tickle my humanity and make it feel important. I know, though, that I’m not. We’re all not. And we are. We’re part of the game, part of the Matrix, and it won’t matter what pill you really take, will it?

That’s how I choose to end this year. On a Stoic’s note, as it were. Enjoy this, and laugh. ( Love this cartoonist… 🙂 )

To all of you, Happy Winter Solstice, Happy Yule, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Mithrasmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy days off, and most of all Happy New Year. May it be filled with laughter and love for the Great Game in which we all play a part, and filled with the Virtue toward which we aspire.

– TDD 

P.S. – I love this wheel of Stoicism, this compass. Sailing on the Sea of Life. 

Care and Self-Discovery

The morning starts with anxiety. Probably dad’s but most assuredly mine. Dealing with this whole estate thing makes me want to get mine in order. Right. Now.

The days are fluid right now, more fluid than I am used to dealing with. Captain Anne Rackham loves order out of chaos. I like chaos, but only when I make it. I’ve tried to work some today but it’s been difficult, running between the hospital, the bank, and home for delivery of beds and what not. Between the printouts of medications, letters to the bank, and calling the attorney, I know I’ll sleep well tonight.

Each morning starts with a check-in from two of my favorite men, Doyle and Michael. Doyle is my ground, my anchor, and my true “other.” He gets the mail and remembers to water the plants, checks in to make sure I took my own vitamins and have slept enough. When lightning strikes, Doyle is my lightning rod. Michael checks in with the emotional and spiritual me. He reminds me to be me, to be my authentic self, which is a little woo-woo, tapping into that unseen part of life that keeps us all evolving.

Out of the fires, a Phoenix

Random people from all my various lives have dropped in. I know that everyone is there, consciously swirling around me like fireflies, giving me shining bits of light in the darkness. It’s not really dark, though, not yet. It’s twilight. The leaves are rustling in the hot summer breeze and the fireflies hover just out of reach. I know they are there, and it is a comfort. Every once in a while, one will land and impart some bit of wisdom to me. Yesterday morning, one of them, someone I have not seen in years, dropped me a line. I find her to be her own voice, a woman of wisdom. She said, “For many reasons, you choose to make this journey with your dad. Be sure to let him know it’s your choice, and remind him of the times he was there for you. He’s going to a place of no sin, no sickness, no death. There is no fear, only peace.”

I thought, at the time, he knows this. I don’t need to say it. Huh. My father’s daughter, for sure. When I went back to the hospice care facility, I sat down and just stayed with him in silence. He hovers between sleep and talking, eating, drinking, and more sleep. Just before I left, I held his hand. I spoke the words she had said, not exactly, but in my own way. He didn’t speak to me. He just held my hand and squeezed it a little. It’s the best that he can do and I honor that.

Michael and I talked about that, briefly today, and gave me the advice that I was doing all I was supposed to be doing, and that’s why all the fireflies are there. I think that most of this lesson, right now, is my own willingness to accept help. I am my father’s daughter. Many people are worried that I will go it alone and for many years of my life, I might have. Support was rare. I think I’ve learned enough now not to go it alone. Dad’s situation has taught me that, if nothing else. Going it alone is how his cancer got so advanced without us knowing it. Going it alone is now why he won’t live to 100, which was his goal. Life is a team sport, I said to Michael, and we all make it to the finish line. Me, personally, I just want us all to do it together – my entire team. As a team.

handsAs I was meeting with the doctor today, and looking at his wounds, I was standing at the end of the bed, looking at him. He was surrounded by women fussing over his wounds, making him comfortable. He loved it. He even told them that. Then he looked at me, standing next to the doctor and said, “Kris, we’re going to make a nurse out of you yet…” I chuckled and said “Oh, you think so?” Then I chastised him for getting out of bed and making wounds in the first place. “No more getting out of bed alone, mister.” I wagged my finger at him. The doctor chucked behind me and said “Amen, sister. Listen to her, Len.”

I left today with a smile, because at least he’s coming home where he’s happy. Now, I know, the hard work begins.

More on That

I do my best to stay away from judgments and unsubstantiated rumors. I shun gossip as it has only gotten me into trouble in my life. It’s cost me friends and given me some sleepless nights. I look for a balance in things, in all things, trying to make sure that what I do is even-keeled. When the pendulum swings too far one direction, I know the only way to stop it from swinging the other way in like manner is to just stop the landslide and get off at the next station.

I also love to mix metaphors.

The current state of the world is challenging my judgements and my balance. It seems like it’s doing that for all of us. I am of two minds, literally. I love the chaos, and embrace it. I think this turmoil is necessary for us to be able to shake it all up, put it back together. It’s not one side or the other that has to do the putting back together – it’s all of us. Mind you – I said chaos. I did not say hate, fear, or anarchy of the government-overthrowing kind, I did not say racism, terrorism, or fear mongering. I said chaos. Is it possible to have chaos without these things? Yes, I believe it is, if you keep your mouth shut and just do the shaking up. Many CEOs have done it. Many industries have done it. Have a plan, have some guts, and cause chaos. Change up the way decisions are made, who is in charge of what, or even try the way out idea no one has tried before. Mix pink stripes and green plaid. Chaos can happen in many different ways.

But don’t, ever, mix it with violence, hatred, fear, fanaticism, and lies. That is not chaos. That is just simply wrong – morally, ethically, mentally, spiritually, and physically. These are diseases which need to be healed or eliminated, like the cancer they are. When the balance is out of whack, too much of one or the other, it becomes debilitating – too much love, too much hate. Both are ends of a spectrum, not either or.

Do I believe in all sweetness and light? Hell no. The world is a messy place and work is hard and people suffer. That is humanity. We get out of it by working, fortitude, striving, hoping, building, creating, crying, ordering, breaking apart, and looking up. Chaos is as important as Order. You simply cannot have one without the other. Like love and hate, ends of a spectrum that need respect and balance.

I said “two minds.” The other “mind” you ask? In that combat against hatred, lies, and fanaticism, it’s hard not to associate the chaos with the evil influences. Many people, including some people who share my ideological views, don’t see that. I analyze and look for holes, and I look for connections, for reasons. I’ve been told that evil needs no reason. Bullshit. Evil doesn’t have a consciousness – we give it consciousness and use it for our own ends. And people – people need reasons. They need a reason to get up in the morning and whether you believe it or not, there is a reason deep down about why they do ugly things. Ignorance? Perhaps. Fear? Generally. It’s the insecurities and ignorance that guide our unthinking minds. But it is hard, so very hard to disassociate chaos from evil. We’ve been led to believe that chaos is wrong, as is evil. Ergo, if something is chaotic, it is evil. Far from it.

I know there are those that would disagree with this statement – but I believe chaos is potentiality. The outcomes we ascribe to it may be evil or good, but it is not the act of chaos which is evil. Intent is everything. I once had a teacher who said that “energy follows intention. If you place your intention into something, your energy, and that of others, will follow.” True then, true now. I think of that when people tell me they can do very little to change the tide of current chaos. I again say, bullshit. I do not think that the current mindset took a year to develop. I think it took decades. And I think it will take decades to move back to a center again.

I’m currently reading Civil Disobedience by Thoreau. Thoreau is no wimp, no mindless, haphazard citizen wandering through his days with nary a care in the world. I love Thoreau for his feisty, fiery, straight-to-the-point statements. There’s no introduction in Civil Disobedience, no prologue, no explanation. Thoreau just jumps in, head first, arms flailing, ready to resist. It seems oddly current.

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.

That is the state we find ourselves in, isn’t? I don’t know that Thoreau is actually advocating for chaos. He is, however, advocating for each person to speak their own mind after making their own judgements about what is right and wrong. One thing we do seem to have is a recognition that we should speak truth. The scary thing is that the people in power have a truth that is vastly different than our own. Forget the newspapers and media- listen to their actual speeches and written circulars. Do these legislators actually represent what we feel is right? Or, are we enamored of the fact that they are telling the “truth” as they see it and, much like a terrible fire in a high-rise building, we can’t help by watch the chaos unfold.

What does it take to shape the American, United States American, will? Does it take a cataclysmic event? If things like Sandy Hook, Columbine, Hurricane Maria, a massive earthquake in Mexico, Hurricane Irma, or Stoneman Douglas High School are any indication, they are hardly a blip on our conscience. Does it take leadership and politicians being corrupt and racist, leadership that is directing the course of our lives? Does it take our entertainment industry being thrown on its head by allegations of abuse of women for decades? WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO MAKE US MOVE THE NEEDLE? Is this chaos? Of course it is. Is the intention behind it evil? That’s for the individual to decide. It is the events which are chaotic and need to drive change. Forget a single man’s reasoning and look at the larger, systemic problem – whichever problem it might be. What is it going to take for us to get on board and change the lives we’re living – the stone dead day to day lives or the nothing-can-happen-to me lives? None of us is really like everybody else. We need to stop acting like the mob mentality and extreme hatred are okay. We need order and chaos. We need light and dark. We need to stop seeing ourselves as separate from each other, and see ourselves as a shared humanity with individual voices. An individual collective. Not mindless. Not soulless. We are both – individual and collective. What will it take to bring our individuals together to make changes? I wish I had the answer. Until then, I will keep searching. And asking. And posting.

-TDD