Monday, April 25, 2016

A Week of Thomases

I did that dumb thing where I stacked up books with dozens of dog-eared pages and then quickly lost what I wanted to tell you.   I got sick and then Samantha got sick.  The weather turned cold.  Spring in Southwest Michigan is doing this weird, hot-flashy thing where I'm not sure if I need wool socks or shorts from one day to the next.  It makes me cranky, which makes me pause: who am I to tell the earth what she should be doing?

In happier news, Samantha turned two and started speaking in full sentences overnight, and I read a book I've been meaning to read for years: The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch.

Lynch is a poet, an essayist and, incidentally, a funeral director.  It's hard to believe that's his real name, but I'm pretty sure it is.  He writes about the living as he views us after years of handling the dead. 

It was a little surreal to finally read a writer I'd heard about for so long after moving to his state, because I never truly realized where he lived before picking up the book.  It's probably because I didn't realize the state of Michigan actually existed before I lived here, too, so it all serves me right.

ANYWAY.  I'd like to share a beautiful passage from The Undertaking with you.  Concerning making funeral arrangements before you die, Lynch writes:

"We are uniformly advised 'not to be a burden to our children.'  This is the other oft-cited bonne raison for making your final arrangements in advance - to spare them the horror and pain of having to do business with someone like me.

But if we are not to be a burden to our children, then to whom?  The government?  The church?  The taxpayers?  Whom?  Were they not a burden to us - our children? And didn't the management of that burden make us feel alive and loved and helpful and capable?"

I love this concept so much, that we would never in a million years choose - or even wish on anyone we dearly loved - the events, responsibilities, and duties that make us truly grow.  So much of what happens internally while parenting feels too universal, too fleeting, and too human to discuss.  I never want to offer up the "hardest job you'll ever love" kind of crap that makes me go blind with boredom when I hear it, but I live most of it daily and totally understand it comes from. 

And maybe that's how it should be.  True intimacies are hard to put into words without cliche or, worse, jarring, socially-transgressive honesty.  They require long friendships where anything goes, or whole novel plots, stories set up and walked through hand in hand with the writer.

Some things are even too sacred for books, which seems to deposit us right at another book I wanted to talk about: Care of the Soul, by Thomas Moore.  This book has circled my life like a coyote for years, or maybe I'm the dog and this book is the innocent I've circled.  Or maybe we've circled together, Ouroboros-like.  Who cares?  The point is, I finally had occasion to wade into its dense waters and I'm happy I did. 

Friends, it is wondrous, a real education. I wonder if one could ever exhaust its gems.  Like a Terrence Malick film, I'm not exactly sure what I touched as I waded through its darkly-lit poetry, its imagery, its mythical tones, its Jungian exploration of dreams, and Moore's painterly expression of ideas.  There's so much in the book that it's not possible, and I don't want, to sum it up, but I can say that it is about examining the particularities that build a soul, which Moore differentiates from a spirit as a sort of earthly, gravitational pull inside - the part of us that likes, say, cookie-dough ice cream - versus the seemingly sophisticated "elevated" parts of us that want to be "spiritual."  Much like in yoga, where attention to the ground beneath you can become a path to greater lightness and forms of levity, Moore contends that care for these particularities of our soul is what leads to healing, and to peace. 

Warning against fundamentalism of all kinds toward the end of the book, he writes:

"I have said that the soul is more interested in particulars than in generalities.  That is true of personal identity as well.  Identifying with a group or a syndrome or a diagnosis is giving in to an abstraction.  Soul provides a strong sense of individuality - personal destiny, special influences and background, and unique stories.  In the face of overwhelming need for both emergency and chronic care, the mental health system labels people schizophrenics, alcoholics, and survivors so that it can bring some order to the chaos of life at home and on the street, but each person has a special story to tell, no matter how many common themes it contains.

Therefore, care of the soul for such a person must begin in the simple telling of her story."

That's a pretty dense passage, and I'm not sure it's the right one to offer you as a sample of what this book feels like to read.  I guess I just appreciate the dignity this man approaches everyone with, the dignity he implores others to see in themselves which he's convinced (and I agree with him) does not come in big important packages but rather in the simple, humbling moments of being alive. 

I watched a robin pull a worm from my neighbor's lawn this week, watched it stretch long and wet between the bird's beak and the ground, pinking in its center as it stretched and then popped toward  the bird.  How many children's books are about this very thing?  So many of them, and I love them all.  Children's books are, in fact, a great example of Moore's theories, studies in this world's ocean of particularities.  Children are so sure in the moment, demanding without anger.  They tend and it is an honor, a purifying education, to walk alongside.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Obvious - And Not So Obvious - Virtues

I wasn't at all sure I was going to finish Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's book, The Wheel of Life: A Memoir of Living and Dying when I started it.  Kubler-Ross is best known for her work on the five stages of grief, and if her writing is any indication, the woman did not lack for confidence.  It probably helped her as a psychologist and researcher, but as a writer, especially one of memoir, a little humility sometimes goes a long way.  Within the first pages of The Wheel of Life, I found myself craving a lot more humility from the writer, something the book never quite delivers. 

But in some ways, Kubler-Ross's story is so full of obvious virtues, it's easy to forgive its tone.  She writes about volunteering to rebuild villages in Poland after World War II as a young adult, visiting gas chambers and touring a Holocaust facility, and meeting one survivor who lost her entire family there, who told her, "There is a Hitler in all of us."  These stories, and the ones that come later about Kubler-Ross's ground-breaking work with people who were dying, feel so important, so educational and full of compassion, and I feel grateful to have learned so much while reading about one woman's life.   

The thing I didn't expect is how the book and Kubler-Ross's life swerve into psychic territory.  I won't say any more about it, so I don't spoil anything if you read it, except I don't know why a book about a psychologist who examined what dying people could teach us about life for a living shocked me when it veered into the world of spirits, but it did.  It also amused me.  (Life!!) 

I don't quite recommend the book, per say, but if only to learn about the too-recent past where we institutionalized people with physical deformities and treated psychiatric patients with cruel ignorance, I'm glad I read it.  These were practices Kubler-Ross felt strongly needed to change. Her medical interactions, at least those recorded in the book, put the primacy of people's emotional life at the center of her focus, and that is something this Pisces lady can get behind.  (Hello, watery depths!) 

The other thing I loved about the book was how aphoristic it could sometimes be regarding spiritual matters.  For someone who grew up going to church, who believes strongly in the undercurrents of grace that carry us all along, I found Kubler-Ross's intensity a welcome visit to some forgotten themes in my life, or a welcome fervor piling onto convictions of my own.

The following quote comes from a passage about a woman whose child is born blind, a woman who has been encouraged to put the otherwise healthy child in an institution (the practice at the time). Kubler-Ross tells the woman to keep the child and send her to school.  She writes:

"Obviously, I could not offer any miracles that would return her daughter's eyesight, but I did listen to her troubles.  And then when she asked what I thought, I told this mother, who wanted so badly to find a miracle, that no child was born so defective that God did not endow him with a special gift.  'Drop all your expectations,' I said.  'All you have to do is hold and love your child like she was a gift from God.'

'And then?' she asked.

'In time, He will reveal her special gift,' I replied.

I had no idea where those words of mine came from, but I believed them...Many years later, I was reading a newspaper when I noticed an article about Heidi...All grown up, Heidi was a promising pianist....I wasted no time looking up her mother, who proudly told me how she had struggled to raise her daughter.  Then all of a sudden, Heidi developed a gift for music.  It just blossomed, like a flower, and her mother credited my encouraging words. 

'It would have been so easy to reject her,' she said. 'That's what the other people told me to do.'" 

I know the topic of divinity is sensitive for a lot of people, and it's hard to do justice to spiritual discussions on the internet (or in any kind of writing, for that matter), but I love the confidence Kubler-Ross showed when a panicked mother consulted her, and also the extreme, daring compassion she offered as a medical professional.  I also happen to agree with this philosophy of child-rearing.  We don't all need to be good at everything.  We really only need to be good at one or two things.  We can help each other out with the other things.  That's how community works.  I'm not saying I practice this perfectly, but the older I get, the more I prefer to watch wildness unfold. 

Speaking of wildness, RIP Jim Harrison, the man whose prose knew no end of meat, drinking, and poetic, comic truth-telling.  Who will write about prostitutes and bird-hunting on the same pages now?  It won't be me, but Harrison's stunning 1988 Dalva may have changed my life.  I may forever remember discovering his novellas and reading about dog-training and wood-splitting and achy tangled relationships, as I sat against a window in bed, chilled beneath the hooded sweatshirt I had borrowed from my new boyfriend, Tim. 

This not-so-recent but well-written story from Outside magazine is a great primer on Harrison for those who desire one.  At the end of it, Harrison says something that feels so true about being an artist-wilderness-type, and that is he gave up all kinds of opportunities to keep going "outside."  He needed to be able to wander and roam, something that takes time and patience and for him could not be comfortably fit into an academic environment. 

Every time I try to lure Samantha to the car for an errand lately, I am coaxed up our hill and around the neighborhood by her.  Sometimes she sits on strangers' stoops.  Other times we sneak up on rabbits.  Often she picks up sticks and rocks and leaves, not to collect them but simply to handle them.  Yesterday, she identified a robin on her own with glee, and today she stood in front of one and offered it a guileless, "Hi."  I also had to beg her not to sit in thawing, muddy ivy, and I don't think a single plane has passed overhead without her hearing it long before it appears.  This girl is awake and aware and wants to range.  I can't believe I'm surprised.