Thursday, February 28, 2013

Falling apart.

I've sat down to write this post numerous times, my struggle to craft it and finish it pointing something out to me. It seems that, for me at least, the experiences in life which are most crucial to write about, the ones that call out for it the most, are also the ones which often stubbornly defy the reins of words.

In January, my world changed, in so many ways. In that completely synchronistic way that spawned the old adage, "when it rains it pours," a storm of difficult circumstances manifested in my life, knocking me down, challenging me, breaking me, and setting flame to so many carefully constructed buttresses in my life.

Luckily, I've experienced this before. I've come to learn that when everything goes wrong, when I feel the most vulnerable and devastated, is also when I'm the most ripe for transformation, growth, and change. The way I like to think of it is like a forest fire- during the conflagration of flames, the heat is painful, the destruction scary and saddening. But afterwards- there's so much space- space that can either be felt as frightening emptiness, or as liberating vastness. And from the charred earth and the ground made fertile by ashes, newness begins to stir. As contemporary author Mark Helprin writes, "Sometimes a storm rises and flattens the reeds to open the world to the sky."

Me as a reed, being flattened. A moment of surrender.
It was a sad month, very much so. I cried and wept and mourned fiercely; I became a priestess of tears. I watched as, with almost methodical accuracy, the ground beneath my feet was pulled away, my reference points removed. With more than just a little bit of awe, I observed as one of the most important relationships in my life ended abruptly, as travel plans that I had wholeheartedly been anticipating for half a year were canceled at the last minute, and as I learned of small yet painful deceptions and betrayal. I observed as illusions were shattered, as my grandmother died, as my own mortality was reflected to me with furious splendor. I surrendered as a nagging injury finally won over my willpower, putting me out of climbing for an undetermined amount of time, and then hundreds of dollars worth of sentimentally significant climbing gear was stolen from my car. The ground kept falling away. I dealt with the very real possibility of a major illness. I looked impermanence, death, and the fragility of human life directly in the face. Sometimes I couldn't muster the bravery to do so, and I had to run and hide. Other times I stayed in the fire, shaky and scared, until the flames released me. All within the brief span of a month.

Despite the difficulties, in retrospect, January was a beautiful and entirely beneficial month. I found myself reminded of what is most important, reinspired to live more devoutely and definitely more kindly. The gratitude I have for the people who showed up for me during this challenging time is limitless- I was so thoroughly cared for, held, comforted, and supported by my friends and family- I couldn't ask for more loving reinforcements.

I also have tremendous gratitude for being able to witness my grandmother passing. My last remaining grandparent, Freda Copperthwaite Ware, was 96 years old, and had voiced on numerous occasions that she was ready to go (she often repeated to me in her very manner-of-fact way that in her opinion, no one should live past 90). She had survived and outlived all of her siblings, one of her children, nearly all of her friends, and her husband (who had died almost three decades ago of a heart attack, next to Freda in bed, as she performed CPR on him until the paramedics arrived). She was tough, generous, opinionated and resilient.

I drove down to Los Angeles to say goodbye to her after learning that she had suffered a stroke and was fading. During the six hour drive, I told myself that I was prepared for what I was about to experience, that I didn't have expectations, that I would show up with curiosity, love, and awe. Upon arriving, I quickly realized that although I thought I had no expectations, I actually did. I expected her to be weak, to be foggy (I knew she was on morphine for the pain she was experiencing), and to not be able to move or speak very much. I had expected to sit by her bedside, quietly, in a measure of peace mixed with sadness. Although these things were true, it was completely different than I imagined. She was in incredible pain for the entire time I was with her. She was moaning, squeezing my hands with a strength that defied the weakened state she was in. Her suffering was so utter and intense that it baffled me, especially because there was nothing I could do to abate it. It felt to me like being in a storm.

Hands of two women, my grandmother and me, with 69 years of age difference between them. 
Freda was my father's mother, and although I feel like my features are a pretty consistent blend of my father's genetics with my mother's, I could see my bone structure and features so clearly in her face as she lay dying. I could see myself as an old woman, on my own death bed, letting go of everything that I had lived, seen, experienced, and been. In her face, I could see my own, as it will be someday, when every moment of my life has already been lived and all that lies before me is the ultimate unknown. When I'll have to let go of everything, everyone, all of it. This reflection was so stark that I couldn't look away. Overwhelmed with compassion for my grandmother, for her pain and her passing, overwhelmed with the impermanence of life, both hers and my own, sad yet elated by the power of what I was witnessing, I sat and watched her die. 

27 years.      96 years.
75 years.    6 years. 
95 years.    25 years.
"Come back to square one, just the minimum bare bones. Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things ends, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time- that is the basic message."       -Pema Chodron

My grandmother has given me a lot throughout my life, but undoubtedly the greatest gift she gave me was the experience of being with her as she was dying. One of her final lucid moments was when I arrived to see her and the nurse told her that her granddaughter was there. She opened her eyes, and when she saw me, a light shone in her eyes as she managed to say my name a few times. I could tell how much pure joy it brought her that I was there, and this touched me indelibly. This was the last moment I shared with her where I felt like she was completely aware. It's possible that seeing me was the last entirely clear image of her very long life on this Earth. What an absolute honor for me. 

I wasn't there for her very final moments, but her daughter, my aunt Mary Ann, flew in from Hawaii just in time to help send her on her way.

Goodbye, Grandma Freda. You are loved, missed, and remembered. 
Leaving LA wrapped in the cloak of such a powerful experience, I drove in the opposite direction, towards the fog and old growth forests of Northern California. I stayed with a friend at his remote and utterly beautiful home surrounded by trees and mist. There, in the pristine serenity, I began to process what I had just witnessed and to reconnect with some integral parts of myself that have lain dormant for quite some time. While I was there, he took me to visit the Redwoods for the first time. Entering the primordial power of those forests, where life and decay share the space so symbiotically, felt like being washed clean. Again, I felt tremendous gratitude. 

Driving into a sea of fog. 
After Northern California, I flew to Boulder to reconnect with my roots. The plane ride there was without exaggeration the most beautiful one I've ever been on- perfectly clear skies the entire way, flying over the bay, then desert, mountains, and plains. As the sun began to set, we were flying over a mountain range blanketed with snow. The vivid reds and oranges were reflected as a glowing purple by the snow covered peaks, and I swear I could see the curvature of the Earth. It seems so obvious to state that we're on a planet- everyone knows that- but to really feel it on a visceral level is so humbling and awe inspiring. I was enraptured the entire flight.

Leaving the Bay. 

While in Boulder, towards the end of January, I was sitting in a doctor's office, stunned. I had just been told by two specialist doctors that I most likely had a tumor that would require immediate surgery- only to be told hours later that I was in fact, completely fine and healthy. Later, when the whole ordeal was over, in the parking lot of the doctor's office, I slipped on a banana peel and fell. After everything that had happened that month, all the devastation and collapse, all of the overwhelming seriousness, to actually slip on a banana peal seemed so completely ridiculous, so preposterous, that for a moment, I could no longer take myself seriously. I remembered the humor of the human situation, that, along with the fragility and preciousness of life, frames our lives. It may sound strange, but this was a moment of deep release, of surrender to the changing circumstances of my life, and the beginning of healing. 

Still, I couldn't undo the effect that this experience had impressed upon me. In the few hours that I sat and waited for test results, believing that I had a tumor that would require my body to be cut open within the next few days, something within me shifted. My mother, a breast cancer survivor, perceived the change, and likened it to something akin to a loss of innocence. I think she may be right, and that even though it turned out that thankfully I am healthy, the innocence that I lost was one of thinking that that kind of thing could never happen to me. It shocked me to the core. Especially after witnessing my grandmother die and having the reflections brought on by that experience only a week or two prior. More so than ever, the reality of my impermanence, my fragility, and that of all those around me, became blazingly clear.

Later that day, it snowed, and I immersed myself in the quiet serenity of the mountains in white.

Oh how I've missed the snow.  
Blue skies from the top of Bear Peak the next day. Classic Boulder weather. 
Returning to Oakland, I managed to squeeze in some time for exploring the pockets of nature surrounding the Bay area. I'm always impressed by the array of the very California brand of beauty to be found around these parts. Starfish on jagged beach rocks, sunsets sinking beneath the level horizon of the ocean, eucalyptus trees with their cleansing scent, moss covered forests, and mushrooms peeking up through the detritus of leaves, bark and dirt... the myriad variety of appearance is mesmerizing. 

Velvety tree fungus.
So now another semester has started, and I'm back in the often abrasive rush of the city, thrown back into the frenetic rush of things. I'm still processing everything that took place in January, still nursing a broken heart and metabolizing my grief. Still a little shaky, still tender and raw. It's something I work with and confront every day, and this, I believe, makes me kinder and softer, while simultaneously giving me strength. 

I'm so utterly thankful. To be alive, to be healthy, to give and receive love. 

Sunset in Marin.

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.

Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth

That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,

Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.

God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.

The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:

Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.

But when we hear
He is in such a “playful drunken mood”
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.

- Hafiz 


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