Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Today Is Different

What carries us when the day is different, harder than it has ever been before?

Making the trip to see my father is often tiring. He has advanced Alzheimer’s and is living at a facility for folks with dementia who have become too aggressive to be cared for safely elsewhere. The staff are highly skilled, patient and caring, often light-heartedly making the residents smile. Still, the six hours of driving and the ache of seeing how the disease is affecting him usually leave me a little weary at the end of the day.

Not today. Today the trip is exhausting.

Often Dad doesn't know who I am. And that’s okay. I don’t need him to know who I am. I want him to be free from suffering, and I cling to the hope that his forgetfulness allows for present-moment-contentment, or at least some freedom from feeling frustrated about something none of us can stop or reverse. When he doesn’t know who I am, I hope and imagine that a moment of walking arm in arm with another or drifting off to sleep with someone holding his hand gives him some pleasure.

Not today. Today when I touch his arm and say, “Dad,” he turns and looks at me. His whole face lights up, and he says, “Oh!” with real recognition.

He’d been shuffling around the room in navy sweat pants and a grey t-shirt, white socks gliding along the tile floor. Always in motion, more agile than most, several inches shorter than I am, shrinking but still wiry strong. He never could sit still for long, always needed to be doing, moving, working.

I touch his hair, white and sparse but well trimmed, stroke his cleanly shaven cheek. As he ages his face seems to collapse like a balloon that is slowly losing air. He must be feeling generally calmer- the staff do not push haircuts or shaving on anyone if they are irritated or resistant. I stroke his arm, take his hand and tell him I love him. Usually he is content to let me walk or sit with him.

Not today.

Today there is something he wants to tell me, something he needs me to understand. “Real. . . . everyone was. . . . where. . . . ladder. . . I don’t. . . ” His tone is urgent. Mini-strokes robbed him of words even when comprehension was better. Sometimes I can tell by his intonation and gestures that he is trying to make small talk, asking about the drive or the weather.

Not today. Today, he struggles with the words, his eyes filling with tears.

I have only seen my father cry once- fifty years ago, when I was eight. On that day, Lassie, the collie who had been his only companion growing up in an impoverished and brutal household, had been hit and killed by a truck on the highway. My father wept at the side of the road. He was thirty. I remember feeling frightened and protective at the same time. 

I feel the same now. I tell him it’s okay. I keep my tone calm. Usually, he is quickly distracted, his attention drawn to exploring some sound or movement in the room.

Not today.

Today there is something he has to tell me, a window of recognition and a need to communicate thrashing against the barrier of a brain that will not give him the words. I move closer and rub his shoulders. I keep looking into his eyes- blue-grey like mine, transformed to green when either of us wear that colour, his favourite. He watches me. “I don’t. . . .” I wait and will my heart to understand what he wants to tell me. It has been months since he has said a complete sentence.

Not today.

Today, he backs up a little and tears spill from his eyes following the lines on his weathered face. Leaning forward he speaks, wrestling each word into being in an impossible act of will. His voice rises, the words becoming a wail of terror and anguish: “I don’t know who I am!”

I step closer. He leans into me, trembling, sobbing. I hold him. Somehow I speak, squeezing words past the sharp rock that has formed in my throat, making myself breathe, keeping my voice steady. I don't know if he understands me or even hears me- he will no longer tolerate wearing his hearing aids- but I pour my heart into my words. “You’re my father. You are Don House, and you’re my father. It’s okay Dad.” My throat closes.

My father has always had the greatest respect for and faith in my social work training and my work with groups and individuals. I can feel how recognizing me has ignited both his anguish and his hope. He is asking me for help, is hoping I will know something that will help him make sense of what is happening to him. And I would give anything to be able to do so.

Not today.

Today I worry that recognizing me has actually made it harder on him, although the nurse tells me he regularly goes through a wide range of emotions pretty quickly. Even today, in between moments of tears and hugs, he wanders away and is happily preoccupied with movement at the end of the hall, or a sound from the dining room.

People who know about my Dad regularly tell me with great conviction that Alzheimer’s patients are working through past life karma, are souls who have chosen the disease to learn something, are truly content in a reality closer to the divine. I understand the need to make sense of something so horrible, the desire to seek or offer comfort by claiming as true things we simply cannot know.

Not today.

Today, my father's plaintive wail pulls me to stay with what I can know. Today, I am with him in his anguish, and later, on the drive home I will remind myself that I do not know whether he will remember or re-experience this heart ache and confusion three minutes after I am gone, whether he has felt it before or will ever feel it again. Today I accept this sliver of comfort from the vastness of what I cannot know.

Today, driving home, I let the tears quietly stream down my face, and I offer a prayer fueled by the ache in my chest: "Help him. Please. Help him."

Today I ask Love to carry us both, because there is simply nothing else I can do.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Blessings of Things Gone "Wrong"

This isn’t the post I had written for today. But yesterday my internet service went down, and after an hour on the phone with a lovely (but increasingly frustrated) man in Bangalore, I was informed that the all service in my area had been disrupted and would be restored in one to three days. So, I am sending this from the public library.

Just before I noticed that my internet service wasn’t working, I’d been wrestling with how to continue my work on a novel I’ve been writing off and on for well over a year. Buried in partial chapters, stacks of notes, and pages of contradictory outlines I’d been all too aware that I was using Facebook and email check-ins as a way to avoid the seemingly impossible task of finding the heart, soul and true direction of the story. I’d been intermittently at it for weeks without much progress. Even as I, once again, moved toward the often lovely but always distracting exchanges on line, I wondered how I would ever get this novel written working on a computer that had internet access.

And then- like a not-particularly-appreciated answer from the universe- my computer no longer had internet access. Even as I started going through the problem-solving steps advised by the service provider’s telephone help line, I was aware that the situation might fall under the be-careful-what-you-ask-for warning.

Tomorrow is the American Thanksgiving. We celebrate Thanksgiving here in Canada in October (and before I am deluged with the annual queries that come in response to this news- no, my dear American friends, we did not have “The Pilgrims,” but we do celebrate Thanksgiving as a time of gratitude for the harvest in all areas of our lives.)

I like to think we can’t have too many Thanksgivings- so even if you don’t live in the United States, why not take advantage of the holiday there to offer thanks for our lives? And by this I don’t mean offering thanks for those things we think we “should” be thankful for- but dipping into the places where, when we give ourselves a few moments of quiet, a chance to take a deep inhale and full exhale and sink down into our bodysoul selves, gratitude naturally arises like a spring of fresh water bubbling to the surface.

Today’s internetlessness prompts me to consider where gratitude might be present for things that on the surface, appear to be difficulties, small snaffoos, things that interrupt our carefully laid plans or our habitual behaviour. Because sometimes, real and unexpected blessings come from things not being as we want them to be. Oh, I’m not talking about major heart-aches or painful challenges- although even as I write this I can’t help but think about all I have learned from the almost thirty years of having a sometimes incapacitating chronic illness- the patience, the ability to receive assistance from friends and family, an appreciation for pain-free moments that make simply being sweeter than I could have imagined.

Still, let’s start small. Let’s start with a loss of internet connection that interrupts my self-distraction from the task that feeds my soul: writing. Last night, before bed, I read and wrote and thrashed around with my novel notes and excerpts for six uninterrupted hours. And when I awoke this morning, I had it- I knew where I had gone off track, what needed to be done to restore the flow, where I was headed next. I lay in bed overwhelmed with gratitude, whispering to the pre-dawn darkness, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Oh, I’m not saying the universe or the god of struggling writers took out the internet service for all the folks in my area just to get me back on track with my writing. But. . . . I’ll receive this blessings with deep gratitude seasoned with genuine humility.

Happy Thanksgiving to my friends to the south. May we each receive what is offered, and allow the gratitude to bubble up and make us smile.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Back-Firing Boundary Boosters

Sometimes, in an effort to say “No,” where it is uncomfortable, or in an attempt to say “Yes,” to something needed by body and soul (but strangely unjustifiable according to some learned and not-so-effective-standard-of-self-care,) we can inadvertently create a hard-to-change identification with limiting conditions that may not be as solid as they seem.

Last week, a friend prepared a gluten-free dinner for me knowing I’d eliminated gluten from my diet since my twenty-five day migraine almost a year ago. When asked how the headaches were going, I told the truth: I’ve had very few in the last year and almost no multi-day migraines. I also confessed that I occasionally missed them and so have to be mindful not to go unconsciousness and nibble a cookie or two.

Why would anyone miss the pain of a migraine or semi-consciously flirt with the idea of inducing one? Because migraine days were days off, days when I could move more slowly, sit in front of the computer less, say no to invitations or postpone obligations I did not really want to accept or keep.

My friend knew exactly what I meant. Having spent some time years ago struggling with depression, she found she sometimes missed the day-in-bed-reading that she’d granted herself as a coping strategy. We both marvelled at how the alleviation of the pain and suffering we had managed in the past meant we had to struggle with our propensity not to give ourselves those valuable days of rest and renewal when we were feeling well and pain-free.

Please do not misunderstand me: I did not get migraines so I could get a day off, and my friend was not feigning depression to justify a day of reading in bed. But, when other causal factors were found and remedied, we became aware of how we needed to cultivate awareness of our right (and responsibility) to make choices and set boundaries- to take a day off, to read for pleasure, to turn down invitations or not make obligations that were simply not a fit for us.

Sounds simple but watch yourself the next time you say “No,” to something. Do you use some other condition as an excuse when it’s simply not the way you want to spend your time or energy?

Years ago, raising my sons on very little income, I realized one day how easy it had become to use our financial status as justification for not doing things that I didn’t really value. But I didn’t want to wed myself to poverty, to develop within myself a solid-seeming identity based on not having enough. Of course I had limited resources but I started saying, when it was true- “That’s just not where I want to put my resources right now,” instead of saying- to myself or others- that I “couldn’t” for financial reasons.

Sometimes we can’t do something we value. I’ve missed many occasions I wanted to attend because of physical illness. This isn’t about going into denial. If we can’t do something that has value for us because of a real physical, financial, or emotional limitation, it’s a good idea to acknowledge this particularly to ourselves so we remain rooted in the real.

And let’s sidestep any naive magical thinking- not using illness or poverty as a reason for not doing what we don’t really want to do, or as a justification for what we really do want to do, will not cure illnesses or bring us riches. But it does help us become more aware of where we might be self-sabotaging our efforts to be well and solvent.

Words have power. Hearing ourselves say, “That’s just not something I am drawn to do right now,” or “No, that’s not a commitment I can make,” (when these things are true) or declaring a “day off” simply because it is what we need to do for our well-being has a huge impact on our psyche. It cultivates a sense of our right to be and our responsibility to live a life that is truly sustainable so we can contribute to the co-creation of our shared life. And it helps us honour others when they express that right and fulfill that responsibility in their lives.

So, I’m practicing saying “Yes,” or “No,” without unnecessary explanations or justifications. Because using limiting conditions of the moment to boost a wobbly sense of the right to set boundaries and make choices might just back-fire by wedding us to conditions that often can and do change.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Fighting For My Life

When I was a young woman I was raped. I've probably been thinking about this because there have been fourteen sexual assaults in the neighbourhood where I live in Toronto. (Police now have a suspect in custody.) In response, many of the local community groups are offering women's self defense courses. I had taken self defense before I was raped, but I hadn't really been able to use it. Years later I did some training at a martial arts and shamanic retreat on the Mohave Desert in the US. One of the things I learned was that to protect ourselves, we have to have a bone-deep sense of our own worthiness. We have to know we have a right to be. 

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But for some of us, that right to be was not established in our early years, and so we must learn to use our strength- physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual- to tend and preserve our own lives. Even after this more extensive training, it was only in being tested that I learned to defeat the inner enemy of believing that it didn't matter what happened to me. Here is the story of that testing and my inner battle.

"At the end of an intensive two week course the women who had been trained were tested by being attacked three times one-on-one by men committed to helping women empower themselves to walk safely in the world. The men wore protective gear, the women did not. We were told that the attacks would be no-holes-barred and would continue until the instructor, Dawn, a petite woman who worked as a bodyguard in Los Angeles, called out, “Cut!” We had to deliver one or two blows to the man attacking us that would have incapacitated him long enough for us to get away if he had not been wearing protective gear.

As we began the women who wanted to be tested stood along the edge of a large matted area. One at a time the men wandered around within the circle watching the women and seeking to attack someone when she least expected it. Shortly after we began one of the women broke her leg struggling with a man who’d grabbed her. We all heard it snap beneath her as she went down heavily. It shook us, but most of us stayed to be tested. Many of us had been raped or beaten. We needed to know we could defend ourselves.
The first time I was attacked I made a slow but steady response, finally delivering a blow to the man’s protected eyes that would have given me time to get away if this had been a real attack. But the second time, the man who attacked me had been wandering around the circle joking. I was laughing, unprepared, my guard down. When he grabbed me and threw me I arched through the air and landed flat on my back in a way that closely resembled how I had been thrown when I was raped. The man participating in the testing didn't know this, but the women on the circle did. Earlier in the week we had re-enacted the rape scenes experienced by women in the group, looking for possible ways each woman could have protected herself if she had had the skills and knowledge she was now being given. The man attacking me heard the sharp intake of breath amongst many of the women around the circle when I hit the ground. He could see I’d had the wind knocked out of me and was badly shaken, but his instructions were to go for it until the instructor told him to stop. So he continued to come at me.
I struggled to fight, but I didn’t want to. I felt as if I had landed in a large tub of warm bath water. Suddenly I didn’t care what happened. It felt like it just didn’t matter. I heard Dawn calling to me as if from very far away. “Don’t do that Oriah,” she yelled. “You’ve been here before. Don’t check out! Fight! Fight for yourself!”
Hearing her voice I struggled to come out of my lethargy as the man landed on top of me. It was like moving through molasses, but slowly and steadily I began to fight and finally, after five minutes of constant struggle, I managed to deliver one of the blows that we had been taught to incapacitate an attacker. 

Shaken at how I’d responded to the attack I hesitated to be tested again but I put myself back at the edge of the testing area. The third time a man grabbed me I flew into action without hesitation, landing repeated take-out blows almost immediately. Dawn had to yell, “Cut!” four times before I heard her."*

I had found a willingness to fight for my own life. I had broken through the lie I'd been taught that it did not matter what happened to me. I felt in my body and  my heart, my right to be. 

Oriah (c) 2012

* This story was presented in book, The Call, by Oriah (c) 2003. Published by HarperONE, San Francisco.