Tag Archives: Ash Wednesday

Throwback Thursday: Memories as clear as smudge

In honor of Ash Wednesday this week, I’m dredging up this semi-entertaining entry first published Feb. 22, 2012. Seven years ago? Only? If you’d like to read the original entry, complete with an image of my ash-strewn forehead, click here.

# # #

Music is a powerful catalyst to evoking a memory.

Someday, when I’m 102 and sitting around the social hall at the nursing home, some old fogey who’s retired and out volunteering but not yet old enough for my chair will come in with an antique electric guitar and start playing “Beth” by Kiss, and I’ll start chattering on and on about some short boy named Chris and how I slow-danced with him while he stood on a chair in the junior high cafeteria during a Friday night dance in seventh grade. “Where’s Chris? I don’t want to dance with a short boy. And why are the lights on? Turn off the lights!” And then I’ll start singing along: “Beth, I hear you calling but I can’t come home right now. …”

And the nurse’s aides, who are 20something and standing around eldersitting us, will roll their genetically engineered eyes and text to each other, “God, I hate it when we play the oldies around here and the old ladies just won’t shut up.”

Something like that anyway.

While I was sitting in Ash Wednesday service tonight, we sang “Just As I Am, Without One Plea” and I was suddenly struck with thoughts of my sister. Not sure why that hymn reminds me of my sister who I would describe as a God-loving Christian who is, at best, lukewarm about going to church.

I think she had to learn that hymn as a child for some public event having to do with church or school, and she wandered around the house for weeks singing those lyrics. I called her to get the 411 (“Good for you for going to church,” she said), and she can’t remember either, but she immediately started reciting the lyrics.

Music is like that. I can remember all 50 U.S. states because of a song. I know the words to 1 John 4: 7-8 because I learned the verses set to music at Lutheran Island Camp when I was 12. And I think of a freakishly short kid named Chris when I hear Kiss.

At least I think his name was Chris.

crater lake without one plea

Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

~ Charlotte Eliot

# # #

In observance of Ash Wednesday, I’m asking big questions about life and death this week on Minnesota Transplant. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a six-week season during which Christians focus on the life and, in particular, the death of Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, a celebration of a life.

Advertisements

Bearing witness

Is this heaven

If you think meditation requires sitting cross-legged and chanting “Om,” you might be surprised to learn that’s only one way to practice meditation. Dozens of contemplative practices exist including everything from sitting in silence to dance and many acts in between. One of them is bearing witness, defined by Jules Shuzen Harris as “acknowledging that something exists or is true.” He suggests the Buddhist perspective of bearing witness “is to embrace both the joy and the suffering we encounter.”

For the past six months or so, I have been participating in a meditation practice with a small group of women at a nearby church. Last month, we met in my church (that is, my house, which used to be a church). After we rang the church bell, we meditated to the sound of bells. It was lovely.

But today I’m thinking of bearing witness as a meditation because I did so earlier this week when I spent a few minutes in silence holding a dying man’s hand. Without getting into the sticky HIPAA details of who this man is and whether or not he is actually dying, let’s just stipulate we all are dying. But we’re not all breathing with a ventilator in the critical care unit of a hospital. This man was. If you’re a more hopeful sort, you might argue this man was recovering, not dying. To-may-to, to-mah-to. Unless you’re a baby, we’re all in some state of disintegration.

This experience has clung to my consciousness like Pig-pen’s dust cloud, not in a haunting way but in a solemn, reverential way; it seems appropriate with the observance today of Ash Wednesday, which I associate with one’s path to death and resurrection. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. For dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”

In between the hullabaloo of a number of visitors checking on this man’s well-being and the nurse washing his face and pressing various buttons on his monitors and intravenous drips, I was left alone in the room with him for about 20 minutes. Cell phones were not allowed in the ward. Food wasn’t permitted. There wasn’t a TV in the room. Only the man, carefully arranged in a hospital bed, and an array of machinery. Instead of seeking a distraction, I paid attention to the moment.

I took the man’s hand and was surprised to find it warmer than my own. I held it gently because he was so frail.

I considered singing a lullaby, but he is hearing impaired and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be heard by anyone else or that I could remember whole verses. So I sat in silence listening to the ventilator do its work.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

Every breath is a miracle if you think about it, but it was even more special in this setting. This is exactly what one might do to center one’s mind during meditation, only one would be concentrating on one’s own breath instead of someone else’s.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

Though mostly unconscious, it was clear this man was suffering. Occasionally, he would open his mouth and grimace. But he would also sometimes turn his head and smile. There was small but real joy in these fleeting moments. He was warm. He was breathing. He was alive. Life, being a gift, should be celebrated even in the midst of pain, I believe. Sitting there with him, this is what I bore witness to.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

I did not consider the future. I have the luxury of being emotionally separated enough from the man that his state did not disturb or worry me. I was in no position to help the situation or control it or even speak words of comfort (he couldn’t hear me anyway and with a tracheotomy, he couldn’t speak either so conversation was not an option). I could just be. Holding his hand. And bearing witness. See him in the moment instead his past mistakes or all the machines in the present or what the future might hold.

According to Harris, bearing witness has psychological and spiritual benefits for the bearer: “It enables us to connect with a place of real empathy. It also provides a kind of catharsis, a release from our emotional reactions of pity, shame, or fear. Spiritually, bearing witness invokes a sense of interconnectedness, of oneness, a direct realization of the wholeness of life.”

I felt these benefits while sitting with this man. For a few minutes, I let go of my shame and pity, and in bearing witness to his joy and suffering, I felt fortunate. My private moments in that room were a blessing to him, I hope, and to me. It’s not every day one observes so intimately the process of living and dying.

# # #

In observance of Ash Wednesday, I’m asking big questions about life and death this week on Minnesota Transplant. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a six-week season during which Christians focus on the life and, in particular, the death of Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, a throwback with a lighter perspective.

A less selfish first question than ‘How did he die?’

Ash Wednesday dandelion

I firmly believe that practice of reading obituaries is more about the reader than the dead.

When I heard Luke Perry died yesterday, my first thought was not about him or his family. It was about me.

“Only 52? I’m 52! How did he die? Stroke? What causes strokes? High blood pressure? High cholesterol? Diabetes? Obesity? Smoking? OK, I’m good. I don’t have any of those. Oh, too bad about Luke Perry. Well, I didn’t watch ‘Beverly Hills, 90210′ anyway.”

I’m just being honest. If you’re 52, this is what you thought, too. Unless you watched “90210,” in which case you thought, “Oh, another piece of my youth. Dead.” It wasn’t about Luke Perry. It was about your own youth. Or its demise. Or your health problems caused you to think, “Uh-oh.” Again, it was all about you.

I can’t quite believe all the news coverage Luke Perry is getting about his death. Poor Margot Kidder. I didn’t know she died last year until I saw the Oscars’ “In Memoriam” tribute, and then I had to look it up: The 1978 “Superman” star died by suicide on May 13. Three weeks later, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade took their own lives, and everyone was talking about the epidemic of suicide. But Kidder’s cause of death wasn’t announced until August, so maybe that’s why I missed it. And, she was 69. Not so uncommon to die at 69 as at 52.

All too often, the first question someone asks when they hear of a death—whether its a celebrity or a relative—is, “How did he die?” What’s really being asked is “Could I die like that?”

A less selfish first question, after you offer condolences or at least consider the dead’s loved ones, would be “How did he live?” Being interested in what the deceased person offered the world, instead of the odds of whether I’ll leave this earthly plain in a similar way, would have been a more gracious and generous way to receive the news of Luke Perry’s death.

I’m going to blame my journalism background here. I once wrote obituaries for a living, and just about every obituary begins the same way, “Claim-to-fame So-And-So, age, died day of week of a cause of death”: “‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ heartthrob Luke Perry, 52, died Monday of a massive stroke.” How someone dies is a necessary fact in a complete report of death.

Pragmatism. My excuse for rudeness.

Still, in the future, I’m going to try to ask “How did he live?” before I ask “How did he die?”

# # #

In observance of Ash Wednesday tomorrow, I’m asking big questions about life and death this week on Minnesota Transplant. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a six-week season during which Christians focus on the life and, in particular, the death of Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, bearing witness.