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Changes are shifting outside the world*

9 Jan

As a student of English Literature, I learned that for a narrative work of any kind to be truly engaging, the main character has to undergo a change.

imagesIn the terminology of dramatic structure, going all the way back to Aristotle, there is a climax or turning point that marks a change – for better or the worse – in the protagonist’s affairs. Consider the Shakespeare plays you recall: In the comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, things had gone badly for the character up to this point, and now the tide will turn and things will get better. In the tragedies, like Hamlet or Othello, the opposite occurs, and events shift from good to bad at the climax.

Of course, by the time we learn about this literary device, we’ve already been exposed to it many times, from the earliest fairy tales and stories that were read to us as very young children on up through just about every form of entertainment that is a part of our particular age group’s contemporary culture. We can all name our favorites: I recall being enchanted by Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and Great Expectations.

images-3As adults, whether we love fiction, theater, opera or rock-n-roll, we are most inspired by those works of art in which a transformation occurs. I will find myself quite bored by films in which the main character never “gets it” and conversely reduced to tears by those in which the change the protagonist undergoes is portrayed in a startlingly realistic way. Some random examples of favorite films are The Razor’s Edge, The Darjeeling Limited, Sally Potter’s Yes, and most recently, Jack Goes Boating. Similarly the music which affects me most profoundly – penned by artists like Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, James McMurtry, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle and Vic Chesnutt, just to name a few – does so through its ability to portray characters realizing something transformational.

Joseph Campbell took the Greek notion of dramatic structure a step further to define the common plot element in all stories as the hero’s journey. In any narrative, things are going along routinely, and then the main character is faced with an upheaval of some kind in which all he thought was stable has now changed, requiring him to rise to the occasion and fight a dragon of some sort or another, usually representing a personal fear. It is through this battle that transformation occurs and the hero emerges a new, better, stronger person than before. Think Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Castaway, Avatar, the list goes on and on.

62463I recently watched a film called Finding Joe that expounds Campbell’s hero’s journey concept. It does this through interviews with a dozen or so articulate speakers who have achieved greatness, some well known and others who worked quietly behind-the-scenes to accomplish successful projects. “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” This quote, which might as well be Campbell’s tagline, is one of the main ideas behind this uplifting film, from which you’ll come away feeling like an esteemed squad of cheerleaders including Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood and Laird Hamilton is rooting for you personally.

But to witness another person taking on the ultimate hero’s journey leaves us empty, mystified and lost – because when the final dragon is met and fought with, the essence of what the person was here in this realm of form actually seems to leave us, nevermore to return.

In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes, “The weakening or dissolution of form, whether through old age, illness, disability, loss, or some kind of personal tragedy, carries great potential for spiritual awakening – the dis-identification of consciousness from form. Since there is very little spiritual truth in our contemporary culture, not many people recognize this as an opportunity, and so when it happens to them or someone close to them, they think there is something dreadfully wrong, something that should not be happening.”

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Trying to come to some terms with my mother’s death over the past five months has been like trying to wake up after being heavily sedated. One is so overwhelmed with the grieving process that it’s like being mired in physical, psychological and emotional quicksand. After many months of struggling just to get through each quagmire of a day, finally, strangely, you begin to process emotions and information like yourself again.

A few weeks ago, I was driving through the woods at sunset feeling as if I had been a victim of amnesia and was trying to remember something about who I had been before. It was like hearing snatches of a melody and parts of a lyric hovering just below the mind’s surface, almost reachable and yet, still distant.*

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After chasing my ethereal thoughts for roughly a 24-hour period, a revelation of sorts began to emerge from the clouds, like mist rising from a mountain ridge. It was slowly dawning on me that just because I can no longer see and hear and feel my mom doesn’t mean she is not still on her journey.

Separate wholly from any learned connection between death and religion, the simple truth becoming less and less dim was that, given our limits of understanding, there is no reason to believe the changes do not go on. Changes are very likely still shifting outside the world as we know it.

As Tolle explains, during illness and finally in death, “what is lost on the level of form is gained on the level of essence.”

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The night my mother died, I awoke from a deep sleep having heard some sound in our shared room. When I reached her, she was unconscious but still living. And then I experienced something I never could have anticipated. Her essence, what some would call her spirit, left her body and very rapidly spread out around me with a palpable aliveness. It is impossible to describe this because I didn’t see or hear it or even feel it. (I was actually quite devoid of emotion at the moment it occurred.) I simply experienced it. And when it was over, her body had become a shell, not unlike that of an insect. Her essence went on. It was tangibly not trapped in the shell, which had died.

From that point on, I knew that to honor my mother was no longer to look at or touch her body, for it was no longer her. And so I sat near the body for only a short time, and then left the room and did not watch when it was carried out of our house.

Mother had fought the ultimate dragon; she had faced her fear and gone through the consummate change. Or had she?

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The way we experience time in this realm of form brings a horrible finality to this type of separation from someone we love. But, we need not lose interest in the plot as we might do when watching a movie where no transformation seems to be occurring. Change can still be going on – and who are we to say that it couldn’t be? Maybe the essence that used to appear in the form of my mother finally found the doors where before there had been only walls. For all I know, Mom is now on some level of the hero’s journey that is beyond my comprehension.

My continued closeness to her essence gives me the impression that changes are indeed shifting outside this world and that she is still learning, growing and changing as she has always done.

Nature photography courtesy of Nathaniel J. Miller. Computer generated paintings by Kathleen Farago May.

*The title of this essay is an intentional misquote from the song No More I Love You’s in which the lyric actually reads, “Changes are shifting outside the words.” The Annie Lennox cover of the song written by Joseph Hughes and David Freeman provides the very personal aural backdrop against which this essay was conceived.

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Scrabble in the dark with Annie

2 Jun

Last September, I started a new job. I didn’t expect to get it; I didn’t even apply. It’s not 9-5; I’m on the clock for all three shifts, every day, 24/7. It’s hard, but it’s rewarding. And, thankfully, there are a lot of perks.

I’m caring for my mom, at home, by myself. She has congestive heart failure. Without going into medical details, what I am doing on the physical level is kind of like the first year with a newborn – meals every couple of hours, up several times during the night – except that in this case, what everyone is “looking forward to” is not growing up, but transitioning out of this life.

“So much of our anguish is created when we are in resistance. So much relief, release, and change are possible when we accept, simply accept.”
~ Melody Beattie

Every caregiving situation is different, with a myriad of complex nuances and ups and downs specific to the patient and the family; in our case, I am the only child, so all of the responsibility to meet my mom’s needs and communicate them to others rests with me. “The family caregiver is the backbone of our broken health-care system,” writes Gail Sheehy in her book “Passages in Caregiving.” We do it out of love, we do it because our parents did it for us, but make no mistake, it is work and it is a job.

Social acquaintances see me these days and say, “Wow, you look so tired. Don’t you have Hospice? And didn’t you hire someone to help you?” As if these make everything peachy keen.

Having Hospice is great; it allows me to keep Mom at home where she wants to be and make quick decisions about managing her care. A nurse visits once a week; someone can come if we have a crisis; most of Mom’s meds and other equipment like oxygen are provided. But Hospice does not physically help someone like me take care of an elderly person at home on a day-to-day basis. If I want help – with cleaning, with cooking, with everything! – that part is up to me to figure out.

Mom and I did hire a wonderful caregiving assistant a few months ago, and that does allow me to take some vital worry-free breaks. (Without the respite I have gotten thanks to Paula, I wouldn’t even be able to write this blog entry!) But even families who are well off are hard put to have people working round-the-clock in their homes; we have our caregiver between 12 and 24 hours a week, which is only a fraction of the time I’m on duty. So ultimately, I still have the three-shift job that has been compared to that of a combat soldier in terms of the amount of cortisol produced by the adrenal gland to cope with the stress of a typical day.

I do get to take naps whenever I can squeeze them in. They are usually cut much shorter than I would want – when I hear my mom stirring on the baby monitor – but they are a lifesaver. On Pauladays, I may get to take a walk before grocery shopping. About once a month, I try to get away for a weekend, which requires coordinating several sitters; and all such plans are subject to change if Mom is feeling especially bad. Sometimes by the time I get a break, I’m way too tired to enjoy a long hike or a concert; I just need rest.

HYDRANGEAS, GROSBEAKS AND BASEBALL

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.” ~ Albert Einstein

Before taking on this role, I was an “adventurer.” I lived to travel and have new experiences in exotic natural settings. Now, I am learning to see the adventures, even the miracles, unfolding before me right where I am. Like the amazing hydrangeas in our garden this year. I have given away at least a dozen arrangements of them, and every time I cut one, three more grow back in its place. Or the amazing two-week visitation to our yard of a group of migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks earlier this spring. What a gift it was for my mother to be able to sit on our screened-in back porch and enjoy these special birds. These are glorious adventures for me!

In the few years leading up to this acute stage of Mom’s illness, I was always subjected when visiting her to the incessant Cincinnati Red’s baseball games blaring at me over her radio. I resisted learning about the game and tolerated the noise without paying much attention to Mom’s commentary about her favorite sport. I took her to a game once a few years back, and I admit it was slightly more interesting to see the action live. When Mom got really sick last fall, I decided she needed to be able to see all the Reds games this year on television. We bought a package of some 200 cable channels just to get the ONE: Fox Sports Ohio. And now, guess who’s watching and cheering on the team every night right along with Ruthe, even though she can’t stay up for a whole game these days. I like to think it’s no accident they are ranked first in their division this year.

A STEP BEYOND WORDS
Back about November, a friend turned me on to Words With Friends, an online version of Scrabble I can play on my iPhone with Facebook friends. This became a wonderful stress reliever, especially while sitting up with mom during difficulties in the night. I soon found myself playing lots of games with Annie, a friend from high school that I never got to know very well. We made a good match, enjoying some very close games. When we started chatting, I learned that she, too, was caregiving for her mother, who had the same disease as mine. Like me, Annie found the game a great diversion. We had lunch, caught up and shared our caregiver woes, some similar and some very different. Every night, when things would finally settle down at home, I’d look forward to making my plays in my four or so games with Annie, either in the dark of my mom’s room as I watched over her, or in my own bed just before falling asleep.

A few weeks ago, I was super busy with watering the gardens, friends visiting, getting out for a rare hike in the gorge… and in the back of my mind I kept thinking that I hadn’t seen Annie make a play for several days. When things calmed down, I checked her Facebook page and found that what I feared was true. Annie’s mom had died.

Immediately I began to cry really hard… for Annie, and for me, too. It was one of those rare times, during the hectic day-to-day business of this caregiving job, that I realized fully what is coming, and how completely unready for it I will always be.

I fled to the garden, unable to really see through the tears, and cut all my favorite hydrangeas for Annie; this was the most important step I could take at that moment. I called her later and heard some of her story, feeling new pain because I knew that many of the symptoms her mom had to endure, my mom has also. The next day, I left the flowers on her porch. She wrote and told me that the hardest time is waking up in the morning, and so she has the hydrangeas by her bed so she will see them first thing, and remember that life goes on. A few days later, when I checked my Scrabble games, there was Annie, constant as the northern star.

“Your entire life journey ultimately consists of the step you are taking at this moment. There is always only this one step, and so you give it your fullest attention. This doesn’t mean you don’t know where you are going; it just means this step is primary, the destination secondary. And what you encounter at your destination once you get there depends on the quality of this one step.”
~ Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle, Nate Miller and the Now of Flowers

28 Sep

We receive the gifts we are ready to accept. In the past six months, two powerful entities have made their presence known in my life at the precise time when I could open to the lessons that each of them have to teach. If I could recommend only one writer and know you would read his books, that author would be Eckhart Tolle. And if I could share the work of one artist and know it would be seen, it would be the nature photography of Nate Miller.

Tolle’s seminal book The Power of Now expresses verbally the intuitions I have had from a very young age about life, death, body, spirit, joy, suffering, language, time, “God” and the nature of humanity in the greater universe. A new peace has descended upon me since reading it, not because the book taught me something altogether new, but because it articulates what I’ve somehow known all along but didn’t have the language – or the presence – to say.

I met Nate Miller six months ago today. He has become my closest friend and confidant, and possesses all the characteristics I have long sought in a partner, exemplified best in his simple statement, “If it’s important to you, then it’s important to me.” When I began to see his nature photography, and in particular his work featuring close-ups of flowers, it was as if The Power of Now had been made manifest for me in visual form.

Another of Tolle’s books, A New Earth, begins with an essay on the relationship between the flower and our awareness. “As the consciousness of human beings developed, flowers were most likely the first thing they came to value that had no utilitarian purpose for them, that is to say, was not linked in some way to survival. Jesus tells us to contemplate the flowers and learn from them how to live. The Buddha is said to have given a ‘silent sermon’ once during which he held up a flower and gazed at it. After a while, one of those present, a monk called Mahakasyapa, began to smile. He is said to have been the only one who had understood the sermon. According to legend, that smile (that is to say, realization) was handed down by 28 successive masters and much later became the origin of Zen.”

Nate Miller is a modern day Mahakasyapa. And like the legendary “sermon” to which Tolle refers, Nate is a man of few words. Nevertheless, he did answer me when I asked him what he is thinking when he guides his lens to boldly peer right into the heart of a poppy, hibiscus, lily, zinnia or morning glory: Nothing.

“When I’m photographing, I’m in the moment. I’m not thinking about anything,” he says. “I want to capture just that moment, something that’s even beyond what I’m looking at. Because the moment is beyond everything and also contains everything, it can allow each of us to see things in an extraordinary way.”

That extraordinary way of seeing is described by Tolle in A New Earth thus: “Once there is a certain degree of Presence, of still and alert attention in human beings’ perceptions, they can sense the divine life essence, the one indwelling consciousness or spirit in every creature, every life-form, recognize it as one with their own essence, and so love it as themselves.”

Just as Tolle extols the flower as “an expression in form of that which is most high, most sacred, and ultimately formless within ourselves,” Nate insists his images are merely “vehicles for the presence of the Now.” He views his photos not as art, but as a form of “visual meditation to transport you into the present moment” and hopes that “maybe that shift into a deeper appreciation of the Now through nature will inspire people to see other things in life from a deeper place.”

In The Power of Now, Tolle reminds us that, “In the Now, in the absence of time, all our problems dissolve. Suffering needs time. It cannot survive in the Now.” When I am focusing on the past or the future too strongly, Nate brings me back into the present, through his way of communicating and through his photography.

Nate developed his style of macro photography as “self therapy” more than a decade ago during a time when he was being a caretaker for his father, who was dying of brain cancer. As I write this, I am sitting beside my mother in her hospital bed. She has irreparable heart failure. And my place is with her, doing what I can to help, but mostly just being here… Now. Her grace, Nate’s flowers and the books by Tolle give me new strength each day. I am practicing Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, out of which this essay was born.

Learn more about Nate Miller on his web site.
Read a blog by Cynthia Cusick about Nate Miller.
Follow Nate Miller Nature Photography on Facebook.