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. 


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