Monday, June 19, 2017

On big sorrows and golden skies

On Sunday afternoon I got a Facebook alert on my phone from a neighborhood group I'm a member of.

"Dranesville Rd closed for missing teen investigation, both directions between Rt. 7 shopping center & Sugarland Rd, Fairfax/Loundon Co border"

The area is just a couple miles from my house. I visit the shopping center regularly for groceries. I scanned the comments and learned the remains of the teen– a 17-year-old girl– from Reston had been found in a pond a few miles away.

Her name was Nabra.

It's shocking when someone so young dies. Shocking when you learn someone so young was murdered. Shocking when you hear she was beaten with a baseball bat. Shocking when it's so close to your home. Because these things never happen so close to your home, right?

Nabra and her friends had been participating in late-night prayers at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society about a mile from the shopping center.

The mosque hosts prayers at midnight and 2 a.m. during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Frequently, members stop by the McDonald's or IHOP nearby to eat a meal before fasting begins at sunrise, the Washington Post reported.

"According to accounts from police and a mosque official, a group of four or five teens were walking back from breakfast at IHOP early Sunday when they were confronted by a motorist. All but one of the teens ran to the mosque, where the group reported that the girl had been left behind."

I wonder about the kids who made it back to the mosque. How heavy they must feel today. One minute giggling over a late-night meal over the stuff of high school then terrified by an assailant then ... desolate. They are children no more. 

The police arrested a suspect– not much more than kid himself at 22. I find myself making assumptions. Trying to solve the question of motive. They aren't investigating the Nabra's  slaying as a hate crime, the police are quick to point out. Clearing up the easiest conclusion to leap to: She was Muslim and so a target. 

As if that makes the incident any less unsettling.

Investigators believe there was some type of an argument. Some conversation between this 22-year-old man and a group of teenagers that led to Nabra's murder. 

The contents of that confrontation I'm sure will wend its way into neighborhood chatter. Maybe it was road rage, the police say. I don't like to make grand declarations or predictions. But I'll say this– I can all but guarantee whatever was said was not worthy of killing a 17-year-old girl. 

While it might not always be classified as a "hate crime," murder is always a crime of hate. Even if it's not hate of a particular creed or race. It's hate of something at the tip of our tongues of buried deep within our hearts. No one extinguishes the bright light of beautiful, vital person out of love. 

If love is love is love, then hate is hate is hate.

Today I stopped by my neighbor's house. As part of Ramadan, one of their daughters had organized a toy drive on behalf of Syrian refugees living in Maryland through their mosque. I'd been meaning to drop some items off for weeks and finally got around to it today. 

While visiting, I asked if their daughter knew Nabra. They're the same age and ADAMS is the closest mosque. Her mother said she did. Her daughter was really upset.They were all shaken. All shocked. I told them how sorry I was that their community was going through such a terrible ordeal.

The kids always walked to that McDonalds and the IHOP, my neighbor said. I told her they shouldn't have to be scared to walk down a sidewalk to get McDonald's on a well-traveled road. Even if it was late at night. They were in a group. They were going back to their house of worship. 

And you know what, even if they weren't in a group. Even if they weren't going to their house of worship. There's no justification for murder. 

My neighbor said she'd heard the suspect was drunk. That he was probably a college student or something. He's young, too.

She was distraught about Nabra and her family. I could see her holding back tears even while we talked. But she said there were two families affected by what happened Sunday.

"I'm sure [the suspect's] parents didn't expect they'd have to deal with something like this either," she said.

How beautiful that there can be such grace and love in the aftermath of such hate. I admire that strength. The wisdom of mothers.

Before I left we hugged. I'm not sure whether I was comforting her, or she was comforting me. It was probably both.

The Post interviewed Nabra's mother, who's devastated by the loss of her daughter, "her first reason for happiness."

The reporter described how Nabra's mother had loaned her daughter an abaya– a long, robe-like dress worn by Muslim women– since Nabra didn't generally wear traditional Muslim clothes.

"She heard from a detective that when the man in the car started shouting at the teens, Nabra tripped over the long garment and fell to the ground, just before she was struck."

This image of her last moments haunts me. 

I never met Nabra. I probably never would've met her either, had she lived. I don't know her mother or any of her family. Only a few members of her mosque, who happen to live next door. I've only ever driven past the same sidewalks she walked down with her friends.

But I was 17 once. I went on late-night food runs with friends. I wandered dark sidewalks all carefree and giddy. And I'm a mother with two daughters who I look at on days like these, overcome by their sweetness and their fragility while pleading with the creator to keep them safe. To allow me keep them for as long as I'm on this Earth. 

And I'm a human being on this planets full of other human beings. And that should be enough to mourn for Nabra. To mourn for her family and friends. It is enough.


Lily just wandered downstairs– we'd tucked her in a few minutes earlier. 

"Mom, I want to show you something," she said– cutting off my lecture about how it was bedtime. "I was looking out my window and saw the most beautiful golden sunset. Do you want to see it?"

Of course I wanted to see it. 

So Lily and I sat on the driveway and watched the clouds drift and the sky shift from gold to pale pink. We saw blinking fireflies. And heard a bird singing its goodnight song. It started sprinkling so we went inside. 

"I just thought you would like it, Mom," Lily told me as I tucked her back in. She knows my heart as I know hers.

The sky is always so beautiful after a storm. 


My heart is so small
it's almost invisible.
How can You place 
such big sorrows in it?
"Look," He answered,
"your eyes are even smaller,
yet they behold the world. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Buzzards and Magnolias: Discovering Humanity in Nature

Photo courtesy of Mike Lewinski/Flickr

Driving to the grocery store and I spot a buzzard soaring near a strip mall. 

She dives, reverses and glides like a biplane in a flying circus. And I have to believe she is playing. Flying for the sake of flying. Because she can. 

Because she was designed to do it. 

Because it's delightful. 

The same reasons I like to sing and dance– though often I don't because maybe it's weird and maybe people will stare. Maybe I'm not all that good at it.

Watching the bird dip and sway and roll on those invisible sky waves gives me permission to sing and dance.

Does nature realize how wonderful it is?

Does it need to even?

Nature's all self-assured in its ballerina birds and lattice-work leaves and flowers that make painters fall apart trying to capture the exact shade of heaven. 

The giant magnolia tree in our new front yard is in bloom. When we first moved here it made me smile. There was a magnolia grandiflora in the front yard of the house I grew up in.

I find myself marveling at the flowers. The precise way the petals spoon around each other. How when they unfold the flowers are the size of a plate. The stamen the color of cranberries, crowned with an intricate lemony headpiece. How the bugs indulge in the pollen. I watched one beetle, completely enrobed in soft, golden pollen, roll among the creamy petals like a drunkard. Once the flowers bloom they only last a day or two before the petals become tea-stained, wilt and fall away. Nothing so perfect ever last forever, naturally.

I wish I could be like the vulture. Or the magnolia. Or the beetle living inside its divine embrace. I think we humans were meant to be this way. We're part of nature, too. We are all made of the same stuff. 

But we feel so apologetic about it. Or embarrassed by it. Or disdainful.

As if its unseemly or uncivilized to be ourselves.

Humans being our most human selves has become a thing of questionable importance almost. Maybe because it's difficult to quantify. It can't be predicted and put into a data set to be analyzed and used for marketing or product development. Or, maybe because it can and as a result self-expression and creativity feel pointless and unnecessary.

Which is frightening and unfortunate. It threatens our survival, I think. And it makes us devalue the lives all all the other species we share this planet with.

All the things we are doing that don't fill us– really fill our souls and bring us joy and peace– are unnatural. They separate us from the herd of natural beings of which the birds, beetles, flowers, trees and all the rest are part of.

Humans were meant to create. We were meant to tell the story of what happened here. It's what drives us to leave our mark. To carve our names on trees and etch pictures on rocks. To write poetry and novels and to build an internet filled with the history of everything and to keep digging and digging into what else there is to know. To unravel the story one discovery at a time. This is us.


The rest? 

 It's just killing time. And sucking the purpose and meaning from our short lives here in the meantime.

I think about this as I watch what might be one of nature's ugliest birds dancing on the air like Anna Pavlova.

Go outside today. Explore this extraordinary world and rediscover your own extraordinary self. Then dance, sing, write, build, paint. Create, create, create.

Photo courtesy of Jesse Wagstaff/Flickr

Monday, June 5, 2017

Filling my sidewalk with chalk poetry and fixing my heart with gold

Recently, I decided I wanted to inject a little more art and spontaneity into the suburbs. So after listening to something or other on the internet about a poet writing verse on the sidewalks of New York, I decided to follow suit. Not in New York, of course, but in my own front yard. 

I've been keeping an eye out for short poems or excerpts of poems that might lend themselves to sidewalk art (if you have a favorite, please share! Also, you should decorate your own sidewalks!)

While searching for poetry I browsed through past columns Omid Safi had written for On Being– he often includes verse in his writing– whether it's his own or the work of others. I love Safi's pieces– they're filled with wisdom that's rooted in parts of the world I'm unfamiliar with, ideas that challenge me to look past my own upbringing and life experiences. And they're also infused with mysticism– a willingness to play and float and muse in realms we can't quite wrap our grounded brains around. 

I came across a post from back in April called "Illuminating the Beauty in Our Broken Places". I remember reading it the first time– the piece explores the art of kintsukuroi– a centuries-old Japanese practice of repairing cracked cups, dishes, mugs, etc. with silver or gold lacquer. Of finding "beauty in broken things or old things."

Safi writes:

"Give me someone who knows their own vulnerability and sees mine. 
Give me someone whose cracked spaces are golden.
Give me someone who has helped do kintsugi
Give me someone who is open to me doing kintsugi to their cracked heart.
So friends, wabi-sabi me.
Let me wabi-sabi you.
Let’s repair each other.
Let’s seek what’s cracked in each other.
Let’s heal our broken spaces.
Let’s fill what’s broken with gold.
May we emerge more beautiful, more whole, and luminous.
So, my love, come and see the beauty in my cracked spaces.
I see the beauty in yours.
You are not a heart that I will discard.
Do not discard me.
We can emerge from this healing golden, more beautiful.
May all that is cracked and broken
be healed

be illuminated."

I borrowed an excerpt for my sidewalk.

 A friend happened by and read the sidewalk. 

"Brocken?" she asked.

"Brocken?" I replied. 

She pointed to the sidewalk.

"Oh no! Brocken*!" I groaned.

I'm a terrible speller. How I started my career as a copy editor is kind of a mystery to me.

My friend figured the error was just part of the poem. "Nothing a little water can't fix," she told me– all kindness and understanding.

So I repaired my damaged word– though with water, not gold.

And until the sun dried it, the poem kind of looked like a dog had had an accident on it, which I'm not sure is the type of liquid gold the Japanese intended, but was kind of amusing nonetheless.

Today there's a nice gentle rain, washing away all the broken and fixed words anyway. Such is life.

One of my oldest friends stopped by Saturday night and the two of us sat by the fire pit– appreciating the perfect night, catching up on the news of each other's lives and inevitably reminiscing about our long history together. 

Somehow we landed on a discussion about moments in our lives that we were ashamed of. Decisions we'd made that back in high school we never thought we would've made as adults, choices we knew had hurt people in ways we never could've imagined hurting people. You know, those deep, deep cracks filled with dust and spiders that we rarely shine a light in. 

With Safi's words at the front of my brain that day, I told my friend that I thought those choices she'd made, those actions she'd taken, while not something she could take pride in had shaped her into a better person. Someone who's softer and more empathetic. Less inclined to judge. All of which are true.

Those cracks won't ever disappear, but they can be filled and reinforced rather than chipped away at by self-hatred and shame.

I thought about the darker chapters in my own story. How there are chinks, dents and gaping chasms I sometimes stare at in my mind's eye, feeling overwhelmed. Like they are too massive to fix. So I just shut the door on them.

These aren't the wounds caused by others or the things that I can explain away by circumstance, upbringing or other people's cruelties. Those external wounds seem much easier to own and fix. 

For instance, I am more or less comfortable sharing about the scars covering my arms. Sure, they were the result of self harm, but more than a decade removed from them, I can acknowledge the pain they sprouted from wasn't shameful (though the cutting definitely was– we are just such a weird species aren't we?) I can easily picture myself going into a tattoo parlor and asking an artist to gild these physical scars

The road to healing from the things done unto us somehow feels more straightforward than the road to healing the hurtful choices we ourselves have made. Those are more insidious injuries. We don't like to speak of them, so they often lurk within us, festering until we treat them.

Left to seed, the shame and guilt will cripple us– we've all seen this over and over, right? We see it in addiction, in anxiety, in depression, in intolerance, in cynicism, in pride, in self-righteousness– in every post that makes us cringe on Facebook. 

Unlike with kintsukuroi, where there's an outside tinkerer mending what's broken, the work of healing shame starts within ourselves. It starts with forgiving ourselves. Which, what with my Catholic upbringing, feels impossible. But it's necessary. I know it's necessary. Because those dark places stunt our growth. They're the vines and weeds overtaking our happiness, our ability to love, our ability to serve, our ability to live better lives.

And not that I'm any sort of Catholic or Christian now, but I'll borrow the good book in defense. 

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." 

As sinners we cannot throw stones at anyone, including ourselves (I'm speaking of metaphorical stones, of course, but should any of you be casting actual stones at yourselves, by all means, please stop!)

This is not to say you go on your merry way leaving a path of shattered souls in your wake. Only that you allow your moments of guilt or shame to be your teachers. You allow them to change you at a cellular level– because they can. I've seen it, just like with my friend. And while I might not be the best judge of my own growth, I think I've changed, too as a result of all the hard times I've been through and the ugly things I've put others through.

We all make bad choices. We all shift in and out of being people we like to being people we don't like all too much. Confronting the things we're ashamed of is just as capable of strengthening us as losing a job, a breakup, getting sick or losing someone. 

The girls are on bit of a "Moana" kick these days. I could go on (and on and on) about how much I love this movie but the scene that's getting me right now is one of the final ones. Moana walking through the parting ocean toward Te Ka, the raging lava monster.
"They have stolen the heart from inside you / But this does not define you / This is not who you are / I know who you are."

Rather than casting a stone, Moana looks the monster in the eye. She stops Te Ka from destroying the things that get close to her. She forgives her. She lets Te Ka know that she can see beyond her terrifying exterior. She restores her heart and as a result Te Ka transforms into Te Fiti, the Mother Island.

For those of us who need visualizations on what it means to confront our demons, this is as good an example as any. How often do we feed the demons within us that are desperate to be seen and forgiven? What purpose does that serve? Sure, the demon feels strong and looks like a badass, but she'll burn out eventually. 

We're not meant to be lava monsters, I don't think. We're meant to be verdant and life-giving. 

What's more, this is the only way we'll be able to escape this endless cycle of destruction we find ourselves in. We need to start by doing kintsugi on our own broken hearts. We have to be open to others helping us. And we have to be open to helping them, too. In this way, we'll fill all the cracked and broken spaces within us and among us.

* Sidenote: The Brocken is the highest peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany. So maybe my subconscious was trying to fix a mountain or something.

Monday, May 29, 2017

How being the butt of the joke can change the world

Brad and his York Story Slam trophy.
Oh, and a fancy craft beer.
Back in April, just days before our family made its trek to Disney World, Brad headed north to York to share a lecture on the art of storytelling as part of York: Crafted, an event that "gives York's doers and makers a platform to share their experience of what it means to craft, and to be a craftsman."

He'd been invited by the organizer of York Story Slam after he won the title of York's Best Storyteller for sharing an anecdote about the horrors of high school track shorts circa 1992 and the shame of realizing his snake was out of the cage in front of a grandstand of spectators during the 100-meter dash. 

Interested in hearing more about that? Oh, don't worry, it's on the internet. You can watch it right here. Make sure to let Brad know you've seen it ... I mean, if you can still look him in the eye and everything.


Despite having delivered not one but four crowd-pleasing tales at previous story slams, Brad was nervous about participating in Crafted. For one, the format was a bit more structured. Speakers were instructed to use something called the PechaKucha presentation format, which involves showing 20 slides that advance every 20 seconds to help keep the presentation concise and engaging. 

He also felt like the types of stories he shared (you know, ones about passing out on the toilet naked or being mistaken for a guy named Brian or eating spaghetti with his bare hands) were slightly less sophisticated than those of the other presenters, who shared on topics like Crafting Resilient Human Souls, The Crisis of Addiction and The Art of Overcoming Epilepsy.

But he did it anyway. Because after you've told the story about MacGyvering a tie for your manhood out of some spare shoelaces, you pretty much have humility to spare. 

Brad's presentation was overshadowed by Mickey Mouse and Liz Gilbert, which is a shame, because it's pretty awesome.

You should watch it... I'll wait. 


See what I mean? 
I'm so proud of Brad for going outside his comfort zone (What? You ask. Does Brad even have a comfort zone? Didn't he pretty much blow up his comfort zone by telling us that he got mugged in the Barbie aisle?) And his message about what it takes to craft a great story is important– even for those among you who aren't aspiring writers, artists or comedians. Why? Because it's at the heart of how we connect to each other– as family. Friends. Neighbors. A Nation.

While we all want to be a hero– the person who wins every race, gets every promotion, has all the most influential friends, has traveled to the most countries and has the most exciting stories– the reality is, those stories are exhausting. They're the stories of the Joneses whose lives are perpetually Facebook perfect. They breed envy and resentment. And that envy and resentment makes us feel smaller and less worthy. And none of that is the stuff of love. 

The stories we love to share– the stuff of legend– aren't the ones of the person born into privilege who never had to struggle, who never had moments of regret or shame, who achieved all their goals their first time with no resistance, who never had to overcome. 
The stories that speak to our souls are the opposite of all of that. They're the "Cool Runnings" stories. Where nobody remembers your name. Where no one thinks you have a chance. When things don't go as planned. Where you are the butt of the joke. 

They're the ones Brad shares for laughs– those moments of defeat transformed into lessons. They are those moments of vulnerability– someone opening up about addiction or the time they had bed bugs or how they sometimes want to run away into the woods forever instead of facing one more day with a house full of demanding children. Those very incidents that feel like they are going to break us, but end up shaping us into better people. Those are the most human of stories. Those are the stories that we bond over. That we share around camp fires for years to come.

Right now, as a nation we're being told that the only story worth sharing about us as a people is one of might. One of dominance and force. Where our ability to project power is the alpha and omega. Where moments of vulnerability are considered a fallacy, not an opportunity for growth.

I think that message is one borne out of fear, actually, not out of strength. 

And I don't think that is us. 

No, the roots of our stories bear the bones of Brad's stories. The ones where people left countries where they were oppressed religiously, racially and economically in search  of a new beginning. A chance to use the lessons they learned to build a better life. A story full of obstacles, frustrations, mistakes and (I assume) unfortunate bathroom situations. 

And just like the narrative of our human existence, our story as Americans has been fraught with plenty of shameful moments– our oppression of native people, enslavement of black people, suspicion and ostracization of foreigners– even though most of our ancestors were foreigners, too. This is the story we need to acknowledge and grow from. 

We don't need to be the Joneses of the world. We need to own who we are, warts and all, and the world will listen and understand, I think. Because it's their story, too. 

In a recent episode of "On Being" Krista Tippet quoted political theorist Hannah Arendt who wrote "The Origins of Totalitarianism."  
“ 'What prepares men for a totalitarian domination' — and here, again, is what happens in the human heart and psyche and society that makes these things possible — 'is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience, usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.' And if I think about the Brexit experience in the U.K., and I think about this last presidential election in the U.S., so much of the dynamic were human beings who had felt unseen and feel disconnected. It’s that language, she says, 'atomized, isolated individuals.' " 
One way to combat loneliness is with conversation, and conversation starts with finding commonalities or exploring differences. It starts with a story. It starts by being vulnerable.

I know that's a long way to go from Brad's tales of flashing and pants crapping (wait ... was that his or mine? I can't keep up with the familial shit storm). 

As always I start at Point A (share Brad's awesome storytelling abilities) and end up somewhere around Point R (extrapolate a larger message about interpersonal and international relations.) It's just the imperfect-yet-ongoing dialogue in my head - sorting through this life.

And it's Memorial Day and I feel reflective. 

I feel reflective and defensive. Because I know to some I'll sound naive. And I own this. I'm going to own my idealism. I just can't help but think the way we've gone about things is the wrong way – no matter how well intended we are. 

As evidenced by the rows and rows of alabaster headstones in Arlington, and the rows and rows of names reflected on the gleaming walls of the Vietnam Memorial, and the rows and rows of gold stars on the World War II memorial, and the suffering our veterans still face long after the end of combat – we cannot and should not choose the story of force and might as our first and only story – the stakes are just too high.

So, I don't know, let's start writing a different story.

Each of us. Do what Brad does. Write the story of those uncomfortable moments. Then share it with one person. Or a couple people. Or if you're feeling extra brave, a roomful of strangers. That humanity you experience in sharing is real. That's the stuff we are made of. That's the stuff that will save us.

For inspiration (and/or an uncomfortable chuckle), here's a few more of Brad's stories:

 York Story Slam January 2016 "New Beginnings" (i.e. that time no one knew his name)


Brad York Story Slam February 2016 "Sick" (i.e. that time he passed out pooping)

Brad York Story Slam October 2016 "Unmasked" (i.e. that time he went by Brian)


Monday, May 22, 2017

Let's talk about death, maybe

My mother is one of the most adorable people you will ever have the pleasure of meeting. She's like homemade bread straight out of the oven– warm, comforting and often covered in flour. She loves babies, coffee and flannel. Probably in that order. Her laughter is infectious and her shoe collection enviable. 

So it might come as a surprise that periodically, my sisters and I get texts from her like the following:

A few days ago we got this email:
"Hi everyone,In light of our friend/neighbor dying in Mexico this week a thought I have been wanting to share with you and Dad feels the same way is the following. If either of us dies in Colorado– our wish is to be cremated in Colorado. Neither of our dead bodies will be flying in the sky to Va. I am not planning of dying anytime soon but I wanted to make you aware of our wishes.Love mom"
My favorite came a month or two ago:

My sister Laura responded to Mom's text with a "LOL". Sarah, who's an amazing henna artist, offered mom advice on what type of henna to buy and where to get it. I suggested she consider getting an actual tattoo– you know to save her the trouble of reapplying the henna every couple weeks. 

Mom is 70. She's active, eats well and is in good health. Like she writes, she's not planning on dying anytime soon. But she's pragmatic about death– Dad "We're all gonna end up dead one day" Haller is, too. 

When I tell friends about these regular exchanges my family has about death and dying– they look at me as if my face has suddenly sprouted a foot. And I get it. Death is such a taboo subject in our society. I know the fact that my siblings, parents and I have this ongoing dialogue about what we do and don't want in our final moments and what we'd like to happen to our bodies is unusual (most of them want to be cremated and sprinkled some place peaceful and beautiful– the mountains or the ocean. Steve wants a Viking Funeral. I'm kind of digging the idea of this Mushroom Burial Suit). Maybe we're weird. Unsettling. Too dark. All those things.

But I don't think it should be.

I'll put the mushroom death suit and cremation aside for the moment (being flip is just a reflex– attempting to find humor in the inkiest corners). I understand death is maybe too morose for a rainy Monday. I'm a regular person, too, who (like everyone) is apprehensive and fearful of death– the loss of my family and friends– my own end.

But can't we all talk about death without it being morbid? Can't we stop pretending that we're immortal for a minute and acknowledge the reaper in the room?

We'll start with the obvious and inevitable. We are born. We spend some time here. And we die. 

It's the universal narrative of our existence. So short it makes all the middle part seem insignificant (it's not).

We take so much care with the first part. In preparation for new life we read books, download apps, take classes, scour message boards. Track each stage from poppy seed to watermelon with joy and terror. We have endless conversations with our partners and friends and family about what that new life might look like. Who it might act like. What its future holds. There are parties, balloons, cake. Weird games involving melted candy bars in diapers. And it's all understandable and appropriate (well, except for maybe the diaper game). My heart bursts at the site of a new mother and her new baby. Because I know. I know how precious and life-altering it all is.

There's not the same fanfare surrounding death. And I'm not suggesting there should be. It's a different sort of creature. But there should be something, you know. Something ahead of  the wake and funeral. Something after. 

When Elizabeth Gilbert took the stage at the retreat that first night last week, telling us about how ill her partner was. How it seemed the end was near, she pointed out something that stuck with me. 

Rayya is dying. I mean really, we're all dying the minute we start living. But for Rayya, it is closing in. What Liz lamented was how near it was for her dear friend and we didn't have the right verb for it. That moment infants travel from the womb to the world they're being born. But what about at the other end of the timeline? What would that be? Being died? 

We don't have a vocabulary for the last weeks, days or hours of a person's life (those whose death is the result of a long-term illness, anyway, as so many do). We can't locate the words to sort through the enormity of this moment. And so I think we run from it. We duck in an alley. We change the subject. 

But shouldn't we approach death with the same care and planning we do for life? With the same candor? The same intention?

When we avoid the topic, we're throwing caution to the wind. Allowing our death and the death of those we love to be up to other forces. 

I'm not talking about the cause of death– I understand we're not in charge of that. We don't really get a say in when or what kills us. But the "how" of death? The "Where" of it? We can have more of a say in that, I think.

The alternative isn't pretty.

A couple years ago, Mom handed me a copy of Atul Gawande's excellent "Being Mortal" (please, everyone, go read it.)

In it, the surgeon writes: “It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life. As Felix put it to me, 'Old age is a continuous series of losses.' Philip Roth put it more bitterly in his novel 'Everyman,' 'Old age is not a battle. Old age is a massacre.' "

A massacre. 

(Strangely enough, I might have used the word "massacre" to describe the condition of my lady bits after giving birth – but I mean, it was the best kind of massacre. (See: resulting babies))
"The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver's chance of benefit," Gawande says.

He points out that our lives are getting longer– but our ends are often drawn out and painful: punctuated by invasive medical treatment and intervention after intervention. Fifty percent of elderly Americans die in acute care. Passing away in hospitals hooked up to machines– with no agency over their bodies– their loved ones witnessing the final pained moments in the sterility of a hospital room rather than the comfort of their homes surrounded by the familiar smells, their favorite chair, their beloved pets. 

I pray for a death as beautiful as the birth of baby Liam, at home, surrounded by all those who loved him. It's the reverse side of the same coin, you see.

Last weekend Liz Gilbert* recalled one of her last conversations with her friend Richard From Texas (the guy who nicknamed her "Groceries" in "Eat Pray Love"). Richard had told Liz that he'd had a couple of heart attacks.

"I'm just getting used to letting it stop," he said.

So he was ready when his time came. When it did stop for good, Richard was at home. Liz wrote on her Facebook page a two years ago:
"He died peacefully in his sleep, at home, on a quiet Texas evening, after having taken a lovely stroll with a dear friend. He was found sitting in his easy chair, with his big strong hands folded gently on his lap. I have never heard of a more gentle passing. I don't think Richard was afraid to die, either. (I once asked him what he thought about death, and he just laughed and said, 'All I know about death, Groceries, is that it always seems to take everyone by surprise — which is weird, because it is LITERALLY the only thing the universe guarantees to everyone. Death is literally the ONLY explicitly clear item on the contract — but still, it always seems to take folks by surprise.' "
Can we stop being so surprised about it every time? I think it's traumatic for our brains and our bodies to be surprised by death. It literally happens every day. 

(Another aside: The other day we were driving past the cemetery that sits across from Jovie's preschool when I turned to Brad and said, "It's such a lively cemetery!" And as Brad does often in my presence, he gave me the old one eyebrow. What I meant was that there seemed to be a lot of funerals there– and beyond that, a lot of people visiting. Which I thought was really nice. Because, you know, death isn't the end of a person. It's just the end of their physical being on this Earth. They are all still with us. Nanny, Poppy and Bart the cat. Cort who passed away in high school. Gabe a couple years ago.Their spirits survive in time and space and in our hearts and memories.)   

I'm not suggesting that we don't grieve. That we just get over it. Not in the least. But let's talk about it. Let's look it in the eyes and show it the same love and compassion we show a newborn. Death does not mean to scare us. It's just the natural way of things.

There are examples for how we could reshape our dialogue about death. I love the "Day of the Dead" tradition in Mexico– where families clean and decorate the graves of deceased– leaving bottles of tequila, candy and marigolds. They keep alters in their homes as well, shrines to their loved ones. They share stories. I love how beautiful the sugar skulls are– transforming something grotesque into art. Transforming death into poetry. I love the tradition of jazz funerals in New Orleans– the dancing the music. A Dixieland Jazz Band played at my grandfather's favorite bar after his funeral. Even in death, Poppy always knew how to start a party.

And I'm coming to believe that the quiet, steadfast souls who guide the dying from this phase to the next should be honored. The doctors,nurses and hospice workers who acknowledge that all the measures have been taken and it's time to let go. They care for the dying, not by trying to prevent death, but by comforting the dying and their families. 

Did you know there are people called Vigil Volunteers? They are individuals who sit with the dying and their families– sometimes they might sing or read. Often they just sit and listen. Their role is to be present. To witness a soul passing from here to there so no one has to die alone. They are living saints, I think. Their soothing presence a gift.

And people like Liz, too, and my friend, Kristi who told her dear Jim it was OK to go. Those who support their loved ones when they decide to forego the endless treatment, who honor the DNRs other advanced directives. Those who offer steadfast companionship and support rather than insisting that all possible measures be taken. Those are acts of courage and grace. 

Once again, I find myself rambling. I feel like I should've had a better nutgraph (or thesis for those non-journalist types among you). The journalist types would no doubt have cut this post in half and rid it of all those unnecessary commas. 

I'll let my Mom tie things up here. When I told her I wanted to blog about death she was delighted and she shared an email she recently sent to a friend who was lamenting the loss of a friend and neighbor, saddened for the neighbor's now widowed wife:

"Life is so fleeting- I try to reminds myself of the fact every moment is precious because that is all we have. I then asked her if she remembered the song 'Dust in the Wind'. I suggested this song puts life in perspective- one moment there is life and then it is gone.  Makes one appreciate the loves of their life and enjoy them while we have life."

For your listening and viewing pleasure (the hair in this video is astounding– pretty sure my Mom shared it with the stylist when taking me to get haircuts in first grade).

* Eventually I'll stop referencing my weekend retreat probably. But there is still plenty of stuff to mine through, so I apologize in advance for that.

P.S. I created a page on Facebook for My Inside Voices– in case we're not FB friends but you'd like updates from the site. Feel free to give it a "Like".