The Honesty I’ve Learned From Grief

Family photo,  circa 1960 - me, my father, grandfather and great-grandfather

My father is drifting away, a slow dissolve into dementia that will take months or years. I find myself grieving in several ways.

I am grieving the loss of my father as an intelligent, capable man. A math and physics major, he worked 38 years for the same company as a quality engineer, constantly finding and fixing problems. He taught me how to work with wood and build furniture. He could fix any plumbing or electrical problems around the house. It’s hard to watch a man whose mind was so strong and active struggle to hold a spoon and feed himself.

Coming into his room on any particular morning, I don’t know if he will recognize me, and it is wrenching to know that the days he does are dwindling. Seeing my father drift this way is like watching a flowing river empty out onto a large plateau, meandering into a web of broken streams, petering out, coming to rest in a marshy lowland.

There is another layer of loss I am grieving, and that is the relationship I had hoped I could have with him but never did. Dad was an introverted thinker. I was a hyperactive fidgeter. He, a cognitive processor; me, a swirl of passion and emotion. When I was fearful and sought reassurance, he would look for the problem that needed fixed. I wanted relational, he offered rational.

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From Unity to Separation to Unity

The spiritual journey goes from unity to separation to unity

I want to let the false narratives, the tired stories I’ve told myself about myself, to fall away. I want to touch my true nature, the core that holds my inherent goodness and connects me to the Cosmos, and let it shine.

That’s what the spiritual journey does. And when it hits the sweet spot, it takes me to a mountaintop where I can see farther and feel deeper. I am changed for having walked the miles below.

But if it’s so good, why is this journey so hard? If my spiritual desire is so strong, why am I constantly knocked off the path by the problems, challenges, and distractions of daily life?

Maybe it’s because the spiritual journey is embedded in the physical journey. Maybe we don’t walk the path to escape the woes of the physical world, maybe the physical and the spiritual are woven into the path together, interdependent vehicles that enhance each other so that our walking takes us naturally from unity, through separation, and back to unity.

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Faith Is the Bird That Feels the Light

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”

Rabindranath Tagore

I feel the light, too. And I am sometimes confused by it.

The light I feel is good. It is goodness itself. I want to be immersed in this light, drenched, consumed. I want to open my chest and let it enter me, to unfold myself in its brilliance and fly or sink to wherever it is going.

I trust the light without knowing why. Without good reason, without proof, even though it makes no logical sense, even though I can’t be certain. But my trust is stronger than knowledge or reason or proof or logic or, most brittle of them all, certainty.

Living in the modern world, I have been taught to believe in the power of knowledge, reason, and logic, and to strive to make things certain. I acknowledge the value of these human capacities and I express abundant gratitude for the many benefits they bring to modern life:  electricity, indoor plumbing, antibiotics, chemotherapy, communication satellites, bridges that don’t fall down. And because my trust in the light is more intuitive than logical, more felt sense than geometric proof, I am sometimes confused that my trust is so strong.

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Living Life With an Open Window

I spend too much energy trying to curate my experience, as if I could choreograph my days to linger over the pleasures and hurry past the disappointments.

This is perfectly understandable. Our human tendency to shy away from discomfort and gravitate toward pleasure is universal. But blindly following this instinctual drive has a cost.

It lessens my contact with the world by building a shell between me and the throb and pulse of life. It decreases my sensitivity to the full reality of the objects, events and people that show up around me. It fosters a false belief that I can distance myself from what I don’t like and embrace only the sweetness of things.

Over time, it distorts my perception, stunting my perspective like a sapling bent by the wind. It programs my antennae to look for threats and predisposes me to judge each experience according to my preferences, directing me to approach or avoid.

There is a different way to be.

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Finding My Father

“Dad, I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

I strain to hear my father’s voice. He exerts himself to speak, wrinkling his forehead and the muscles of his face. He has something important he wants to convey, but his speech is garbled, a burble of feathery sounds with only an occasional word I can recognize. I move closer, listening to his whispers, scanning his face, searching his expression to garner some sense of what he’s trying to say.

My brother found dad on the floor of his apartment, incoherent and unable to get up. A CT scan at the ER showed that his brain was bleeding from a subdural hematoma, the blood pooling inside his skull, squeezing his brain to the side. Emergency surgery drained the fluid and relieved the pressure, but the damage has accelerated my father’s dementia. I flew into town to visit him and spell my brother, who lives nearby and handles the lion’s share of his care.

Dad’s dementia journey has been an up-and-down biplane ride through the clouds of the wild blue yonder. Synaptic waves climb and descend through different altitudes of lucidity. Sometimes he recognizes us, other times not. When he is occasionally clear enough to realize where he is, what is happening, that his wife of seven decades died three months ago, he demands to return to his old apartment, forcing us into heart-crushing arguments with him about why that can’t happen.

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This Poor Gray Ember of Creation

From where I’m standing, the slope of the land falls away in waves, the silver tops and knotted trunks of olive trees growing smaller. At the bottom of the drop, the ground rises again and then curves out of sight into a second shallow valley before angling steeply to a ridge in the distance, where I see the ruins of a temple, its columns, frieze, and pediment crisp against the sky. The Greeks built a line of temples here to honor their gods twenty-five hundred years ago.

Today, we call this ridge the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only one temple and the bones of a few others still stand, the rest have been tumbled to the ground by earthquakes, plundering, and the erosion of time.

I take in this wide vista from the doorway of my cottage at the Villa San Marco, a slice of heaven Linda and I have fallen into by pure chance.

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Walking the Path of a Modern Mystic

Walking the path of a modern mystic

I want to live fully engaged with the vibrancy of life. And that means something has to change.

I recognize there is a part of me that resides primarily in the physical world, which I call my ego self. It protects me, looks out for my interests, helps me achieve my goals, and serves me well in navigating the details of daily life. I honor and cherish this part of me, and I realize that life in this body would not be possible without my ego self. I like him (most of the time).

But I also recognize a larger dimension of my being that extends beyond the physical, my higher self, which guides my aspirations beyond surviving and succeeding in the world of form and connects me to the Source of all life. I want to live more fully from the depth of my higher self and less from the frantic, distracted worries of my ego self. I want to move freely in response to the spiritual impulse to connect with the Sacred.

That is what I want to change.

But how to move, in what direction, by what guidance? Living in modern society, I am given two mainstream approaches to these questions. Neither is spiritually satisfying to me.

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Wise Words – By Our Love, Not By Our Thinking

By our love not by our thinking

“By our love the Sacred may be touched and held; by our thinking, never.”

The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 6

Thinking is not wrong, it just gets too much air time in our hyper-productive, over-stimulated society.

When applied to problems it is good at, its answers seem complete:  How many grams are in a cup? When is the next solar eclipse? How much weight can this bridge design hold? These are questions with definite answers, and logic is ideally suited to deliver them. This leaves the false impression that thinking is a superior pathway to understanding. 

But we humans are multi-dimensional. For all its usefulness, logic cannot reach the parts of life we hold most dear:  the waves of love we feel holding our newborn child or grandchild; the subtle smile in the eyes of our spouse or partner; intuitive bursts of creativity; an inspired refrain of Bob Dylan or Beethoven; the upswept majesty of entering a cathedral. These are sacred experiences and no logical explanation of them is complete or fulfilling. They need to be embraced by another dimension of our being.

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My Mother Is in Hospice

On a normal morning, my regular practice made sense. Stretches and meditation were part of a comfortable routine. The world seemed stable, perhaps hinting that small corners of life were controllable.

But since mom fell, nothing has been normal.

For the past month, my days have turned upside down. My mother, 86, has not recovered well from her broken hip and pneumonia. Despite steroids, antibiotics, and respiratory treatments, the infections worsened, her lungs filled with fluid, and her breathing capacity eroded to a shallow spot at the top of her chest.

The fall and the hip surgery were traumatic; the struggle with pneumonia has been tortuous; and now the decision to enter hospice has been a gut-punch, hitting my father the hardest as he watches his sweetheart of 70 years slowly recede. This family emergency has me flailing to find a handhold.

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A Place Where I Could See

There are times in life when our eyes are opened, when we cross a threshold into a new way of seeing.

That happened to me when I was a boy, climbing the towering silver maple behind our garage. I had a moment when the big world seemed to coelese and became smaller, more understandable. These moments can happen at any time if we are open to them.

A Place Where I could see

I should have been afraid, but friendly holds 
made easy climbing, even for a small boy.  
I looped my leg at the highest limb,
hooked my foot against the trunk and watched my town
soften in the dusk.

Head above the canopy, I had a view like Cortez, or Galileo,
beyond the school, the railroad tracks beside the
church, the spider webs of roads and cars,
the banks of trees in folding light lost in waves 
across a Midwest ocean.

Next morning, walking into school, I looked ordinary, 
no one suspecting I knew the secret way things really look.  
High windows and heavy doors took on their true proportions.
I’d been to a place where I could see how light expands and 
where the world curves over. 

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash