Saturday, December 26, 2015

Happy Holidays, Family & Friends

Happy Holidays, Family & Friends
Another lap around the sun and here we are again, celebrating life and growth while mourning what has passed. What can be learned from this test? Things happen. Life is hard. Life is short. And sweet.

Zelda moved into her first solo apartment in the heart of Clintonville, with her cat Nora the only roommate. She joined a rowdy bunch of co-workers on the McGraw-Hill soccer team and established her street cred by running in the annual downtown 5k Beer Run.   

Jessi traveled to Peru with his friend Leah in September, trekking around Machu Picchu and checking out the local culture in Lima. His band Magnets toured the South and Midwest in July, then returned to New York and promptly split up. He joined a jazz-inflected punk band Spite House and moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood Cypress Hills.

Gven has maintained a demanding schedule of stitching, walking the dog, and teaching people to sit and breathe. She was site coordinator for two Art Quilt Network retreats, in April and October, and continues to teach yoga all over town.

Sven was re-organized from Policy Analyst (aka editor) in Risk Management to Servicing Guideline Control Analyst (aka editor) in Change Management at MegaBank. He recently joined a meditation group at St. Mathew’s Episcopal church around the corner from his base congregation at Java Central.

Gven and Sven enjoyed an early-summer week in the UP visiting old friends and getting to know Grand Marais, Michigan. They celebrated a late-summer birthday weekend with Jessi in New York, walking East and West Village neighborhoods, exploring the Metropolitan Museum and Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and eating Bengali, Caribbean and Ukrainian food. 

In the garden, habanero peppers, hosta, geraniums, and redbuds flourished; roses, tomatoes and peaches, not so much. Om Shanty, our little house on the prairie, has a new roof, windows, door jambs, and a new dining room table. Many more projects still to come! Our motto: Om is where the art is.

Sadness followed upon sadness in the Golly clan when Sven’s father Charles breathed his last breath in March. Sven’s brother Rock and Rev. J. Archer spoke eloquently at the memorial service at Fairfield Glade United Methodist Church, and there was not a dry eye in the house. He was Grandpa, Dad, Charles, or just Golly, depending on who was talking. He was strong-willed, loyal, judgmental, loving, methodical, tender, tough, playful, practical, tenacious, frugal, generous, critical, competitive and patient. What can you say? It was his time. All things are transitory, and old soldiers never die, they just check out of God’s hotel.     

Best wishes for a warm and bright holiday season and a year of abundance to come. Work hard, play hard, and then take a nap.

Peace on Earth, Gven and Sven

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Running Journal 25: Notes on Grieving

A practice-driven theory of death and dying, including the stages of grief (18 and counting), based on a very limited (sample population of 1) participant-observation conducted over a period of several weeks. Initial symptoms include an acute desire to write but little or no actual writing, an obtuse desire to talk to other humans about something other than the death of my mother, and a need to face and sometimes embrace the necessity of doing just that.

Empirical evidence and magical thinking commingle in the everyday experience of the most mundane details. Chance events can be seen as either coincidental and meaningless or synchronous and weighty. For example, I didn't run on Sunday, as I usually do, because my nephew Greg was in town for an event at Methodistville College, and we went out for an early dinner at Thai Grill. Then, for some unrelated reason, I skipped my Monday morning workout and pain in my hip for the rest of the day. Classes at Whetstone helped, but I was off my game. Then came the news of Mom's hospitalization for pneumonia, and her likely respiratory failure weighed on my mind. Any connection between these seemingly unrelated events, ex post facto, is likely a construction of my mind.

To prepare for a worst-case scenario and the possibility of a funeral as early as the coming weekend, Gven and Jessi and Zelda stayed in touch by phone and text. Meanwhile we exchanged calls and emails with the bank to finalize the terms and procedures for refinancing our house, possibly closing as soon as next week. On Tuesday, Mom's 93rd birthday, I ran into Lauren, Jessi's friend from fourth grade through high school and a really nice person, on my way to the rec center, chatted briefly as she locked her bike and headed for the weight room, and I couldn't help but wonder whether she is 'single' (like who is, really) or 'in a relationship' (like who isn't) while conjuring visions of multiple generations and their significant others congregating for a memorial service. I spent an hour at Eclectic Alternative Fashions in Clintonville and bought a dark blue suit, again thinking worst-case scenario.

Like William James's buzzing, booming confusion of everyday phenomena, there is way too much going on to pay attention to all of it and make rational sense of anything. So what most of us do most of the time is select the incoming information we want or need or can stand, which comprises and shapes our sense of reality. So there is a lot of filtering involved in the scheduling, problem solving, and ordering of an ordinary day in the life.

Like William Burroughs's seemingly random cut-and-paste method of piecing together a narrative from fragments written, disassembled, disordered and then re-assembled intentionally in order to read and re-imagine the story, we can change things around before, during and after the fact. Reconstructing while moving forward is Pandora using an algorithm to choose what piece of music to play next. It's choosing which tunes to include in my personal soundtrack. It's being selective about which family group catches my eye with their shoes, their hair, their discourse, or the fit of their jeans when they happen to walk in the front door of Java Central.

Like Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, we're all cherry-picking the data all the time. It's not just NPR or Fox News or the Texas history textbook written especially for the Texas high school market or your favorite source of factual, unbiased, credible information. Cognitive dissonance filters out a lot of the content, prior learning and indoctrination filters in quite a bit, and the desire to maintain a stable grasp on a comfortable level of sanity does the rest.

As time went by irrevocably, and events unfolded as they must, it became more difficult to compartmentalize the big and small concerns, and yet we did just that, because we had business to transact. Gven and Sven signed the new bank's permission to pay off their existing mortgage and scheduled a closing to refinance on better terms. Sven went to work as usual and published a list of mortgage banking policies, Gven taught her normal schedule of yoga classes, and they otherwise took care of business. Calls, texts and emails went back and forth with three sisters and a brother to plan visits to help Dad watch over Mom's declining condition.

By Friday there was no significant change, and she was still relying on oxygen 24 hours a day. She was moved to hospice on Saturday. Around midday Sunday her breathing became more labored, and Dad called to say it wouldn't be long now. I was hesitant at first, but Gven talked me into going, so I drove to Tennessee that day. By the time I got there, she was already gone. My brother and two of three sisters were there with Dad at his apartment. It was decided that a memorial service would take place in a couple of weeks. We talked about hymns, obituaries, burial of ashes, a reception afterward, a lunch to follow, and who on the Committee would do what.

The time of instruction: when respiration has ceased, prana is absorbed into the wisdom-dhuti, and luminosity free from complexities shines clearly in the consciousness. If prana is reversed and escapes into the right and left nadis, the bardo state appears suddenly, so the reading should take place before the prana escapes into the right and left nadis. The length of time during which the inner pulsation remains after respiration has ceased is just about the time taken to eat a meal. (TBD: GLTHB, p. 35)
Monday we went to the funeral home to make the arrangements for cremation. While Dad and my sister Jean met with the funeral director, I spent a few minutes in a side room where Mom had been placed on a table for 'viewing'. Her skin looked smooth and tight on the bones of her face. She was cold to the touch, of course, but everything else about her was familiar, expressionless, restful. The high forehead, prominent cheekbones, and especially the long curve of her nose, which I clearly inherited. It was plain that the life-force had left her body.

The need of some body always exists, except for the non-dualist who believes in a bodiless (Videha) Liberation (Mukti); and each of the four religions affirms that there is a subtle and death-surviving element – vital and psychical – in the physical body of flesh and blood, whether it be a permanent entity of Self, such as the Brahmanic Atma, the Moslem Ruh, and the Christian ‘Soul’, or whether it be only a complex of activities (or Skandha), psychical and physical, with life as their function – a complex in continual change, and, therefore, a series of physical and psychical momentary states, successively generated the one from the other, a continuous transformation, as the Buddhists are said to hold. Thus to none of these faiths is death an absolute ending, but to all it is only the separation of the Psyche from the gross body. The former then enters on a new life, whilst the latter, having lost its principle of animation, decays. (TBD:ADEBP, p. lxviii) 
Later the minister came over to Dad's apartment to discuss the service. He listened attentively and took notes as each of us talked about our remembrances. When his pen ran out of ink, he thanked us and left. When Dad and my brother and sister went to dinner, I got in the car and drove home to begin the grieving process that I knew would go on for some indeterminate time. Maybe it had begun some time ago, when it became apparent that Mom would likely not be going home from the nursing home.

Days went by. Work got done. Classes met, and household chores were attended to. I made some calls and wrote obituaries online for Mom's hometown newpaper in Minnesota, the neighborhood weekly in suburban Detroit, and the local paper in the Tennessee town where they retired. I wrote and re-wrote in the hope that it would bring closure. 

I dug out an old paperback copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and read it on my lunch hour to try to wrap my mind around what happens to a person when the body stops working. The language seems ill-equipped to explain it, so I hoped that other sources would expand my dim understanding of the phenomenon of death. I went to the library and checked out other translations, looking for additional metaphors or interpretive language to come to terms with the fact that Mom was no longer "with us".

I haven't read Kubler-Ross, but I understand (from secondary or tertiary sources) that there are recognizable stages of grief that need to be experienced in order to complete the process. Denial, anger, and so on toward acceptance, repeating stages as needed. It's like one person dies, and everybody else has to recover. My own idiosyncratic observations over the next few weeks follow roughly in the order of their occurrence.

The wrathful deities represent hope, and the peaceful deities represent fear. Fear in the sense of irritation, because the ego cannot manipulate them in any way; they are utterly invincible, they never fight back. The hopeful quality of wrathful energy is hope in the sense of a perpetual creative situation, seen as it really is, as basic neutral energy which continues constantly, belonging neither to good nor bad. (TBD:GLTHB, p. 26)
1. Dazed by present events, unprepared by prior experience, and ill-equipped to really know how to go forward. I am unfocused, unclear and slightly stunned, even though I "know" in the objective, left-brain sense that death is inevitable, and this death was predictable; we all saw it coming sooner rather than later, yet the immediate reality is something else.

2. Impatient with other people and intolerant of their stupid habits and thoughtless behavior; I seem to be surrounded by idiots who either have no idea that their actions might affect the people around them or they don't care.

3. Tired, just tired. Think how tired Mom must have been at the end, just trying to get some rest.

4. Irritable: Aside from a few sincere expressions of concern and attempts to comfort, console and connect, people are generally annoying; my neurons respond quickly, shortly, reactively; there is nothing on TV worth watching.

5. Vulnerable and uneasy at work and in the world, everything I do is subject to the whims and decisions, actions and inaction of others in carrying out even the most routine responsibilities.

6. Raw, exposed and thin-skinned; today I was introduced to a new co-worker, and his manager said I was a rock. And yes, I am a rock.

7. Martyred: Poor, poor, pitiful me, so sad, so self-sacrificing, so unfortunate, and so seeking comfort, solace and reassurance that everything will be alright.

8. Blue: There really can be beauty in the downward cycle of existence, the low point of life's ups and downs, and the gravity of our all-too-human condition. Like watching flowers wilt or leaves fall, being a witness to grim reality is perversely satisfying; there is a resolution of the struggles, however successful, in our ultimate demise. 

9. Healing is indeed possible. With time, with rest, with effort, and with attention, recovery happens; a sustainable strength can develop, and with it the knowledge that the most difficult things can be endured.

10. Business as Usual: Just leave me alone to do what I know how to do, so I can stubbornly stick to a strict routine of structured activity and predictably productive work, solving small, discrete, contained problems as a welcome escape from the real stuff.

11. Boredom: There is nothing much worth doing and nothing much of interest. In regard to those things that can be done, like Bartleby the Scrivener, I would prefer not to.

12. Disgust: This place, these people, and this business are all distasteful and gross; other people's voices, appearance, habits, language, and clothing choices make me slightly sick; mine aren't so great either.

13. Disdain: The only choices that make any sense are to renounce, turn away, dissociate and distance myself from everyone and everything in my immediate environment. Whatever it is, no thank you.

14. Compassion: "Ah, look at all the lonely people, where do they all come from? Ah, look at all the lonely people, where do they all belong?"
15. Alienation: Good bye to the past, good bye to my known familiar comfort zone. Is this what freedom feels like?

16. Transitoriness: Everybody knows this and usually ignores it, but let's face it, everything changes all the time. Seasons change, people come and go, things ebb and flow in waves of creation and destruction, and holding on is futile. And that's the good news.

18. Possibility: This story is still being told, and further growth and change are possible. Leaving behind what is most precious in the past is a kind of invitation to become something else, and today is the first day of the rest of your life.

All phenomena appear as lights and images; by recognizing all these appearances as the natural radiance of your own mind, your own radiance will merge inseparably with the lights and images, and you will become a Buddha…whatever you see, however terrifying it is, recognize it as your own projection; recognize it as the luminosity, the natural radiance of your own mind. (TBD:GLTHB, p. 68)
Few surprises here. The same stages and symptoms of mourning a personal loss can be observed when fatigued, hungry, upset, out-of-sorts or off-balance. A bad reaction to a drug or life event doesn't cause despair or paranoia, it just triggers what was there all along, waiting to come out.

Life events come at you sideways. At the Church of Java Central, I talk about my book instead of reading it, because my friend Theresa asked about it, and it's not my usual kind of book. Mike sat down and asked how my Mom is, so I had to answer that she had died two weeks ago, and we spent the next two hours talking about our parents, grandparents, siblings, our kids, about growing up and making decisions and learning as we go. A good conversation is something of great value. Let's have more of those.

Andy, our unofficial minister since he works there and serves the coffee, had a card for Laura, whose husband died suddenly that week, so we all signed the card, and when Laura came in for coffee as usual, Andy gave her the card, and she sat down with Theresa and Kathy for a while and then left. Chris came in on his way to his own church. Megan came in, and the whole club was together for a little while before we all went our separate ways.

On Sunday, my wife comes in the side door of the cafe, touches me on the shoulder and bends down to kiss me, then introduces me to her yoga student, who came with her for a meeting. They order their drinks and go to the back room, leaving me at my own little table to read and write in peace. Only a few of the regulars are there to witness that intimate little scene, but I feel a new phase has begun in my membership in the Church of Java Central.

From the moment of death and for three and one-half or sometimes four days afterwards, the Knower, or principle of consciousness, in the case of the ordinary person deceased, is believed to be thus in a sleep or trance-state, unaware, as a rule, that it has been separated from the human-plane body. This period is the First Bardo…. When the First Bardo ends, the Knower, awakening to the fact that death has occurred, begins to experience the Second Bardo…and this merges into the Third Bardo…which ends when the principle of consciousness has taken rebirth in the human or some other world, or in one of the paradise realms. (TBD:ADEBP, p. 29)
I didn't sleep well and woke up with a vague sense of dread, unsure whether it was dread of the funeral in two weeks, the necessary arrangements to be made leading up to the funeral, or just going back to work on Monday. Sore all over from a simple bike ride to the library, taking the long way around by way of Flint, Ohio, past a lovely little half-acre lot (for sale) with an exquisite scotch pine in the middle, half a block off the main street that runs past the park, the carry out, and the railroad tracks.

Of Phenomena: ‘All phenomena are originally in the mind and have really no outward form; therefore, as there is no form, it is an error to think that anything is there. All phenomena merely arise from false notions in the mind. If the mind is independent of these false ideas, then all phenomena disappear…’ (TBD:ADEBP, p. 227)
So I get it, at least in the abstract, that some things in life you don't get over, you just cope, you get through it, and if you're lucky they change you in non-destructive ways and come out of it a grown-up.


1. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo, by Guru Rinpoche according to Karma Lingpa, commentary by Francesca Freemantle and Chogyam Trungpa, Shambhala, Berkeley and London, 1975. (TBD:GLTHB)

2. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or The After-Death Experience on the Bardo Plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering, W.Y. Evans-Wentz, ed., Oxford University Press, London, 1960. (TBD:ADEBP)