Being with Dying


(What I really want to call this post is ‘Insanity – everybody’s doing it.’ But I seem to have this thing about one-word titles right now, so I’ll leave it at 'Insanity.')

Seems as though everywhere I look, everyone is living out that oft-repeated definition of insanity: doing the same thing over & over, & expecting different results.

Me too, me too, let me hasten to add!!

I dunno about anybody else, but to me, all the signs point to gigantic cock-ups of every possible description here on Planet Earth. Lots of stuff is happening already, of course, & plenty more seems likely to land in anytime soon. Can massive collapse (maybe even chaos) be avoided?? Doesn’t seem terribly likely to me.

When I look around me at the world (this still very, very beautiful & abundant world, btw!!) & give it some thought, seems to me as though (most of us) live in a world that is essentially a house of cards, built on shifting sand. The sand is shifting wildly; the cards can’t help but fall down!

That’s the way she looks to me! Could be wrong about this; sure hope so!!

The particular insanity in which I am still engaged is environmental activism. Year after year after year. The whole idea was/is to help “save” the world. Inform people, & people would change.

Oops!! Turns out human nature is a good deal more stubborn than that. Most people I know pretty clearly haven’t the slightest intention of changing. Apparently they love their comfy consume-consume lifestyles perfectly fine, thank you very much. This has recently been brought home to me very graphically indeed. I feel almost as though someone whacked me with a 2 x 4, lest the point had not yet sunk in deeply enough.

Of course, I love my life of activism, & my fellow activists – I guess that’s why I keep doing this insane thing of doing the same darn stuff over & over again & … well, if not expecting different results, hoping for them, at least.


Feels to me as though I’m at some sort of change point, though. Yesterday the thought came to me, “I think I am too attached.”

I’m not sure what it is I’m too attached to.

Maybe everything? Life. Friendships. Where I live. Relationships. Activism. A comfortable life. The Earth?

I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to keep musing on this.

Some of the folks I know who consider themselves very “spiritual’ seem quite un-attached to the Earth. Things like climate change & possible economic collapse &, say, potential food shortages, don’t seem to faze them a bit. Me, I feel pretty darn earth-bound, & am definitely a little fazed.

Well. I often seem to find that the things going on “in the world” are pretty closely paralleled in my own little life. As I say, feels to me like a change point.


A book I bought a couple of years ago called Being with Dying – Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death (by Joan Halifax) seems to have sort of jumped off my bookshelf at me again recently. (At the time I bought the book, I was hanging out with someone who had terminal cancer, & it was very helpful.)

Even the book’s introduction is proving helpful. Ms. Halifax emphasizes, over & over again, that remaining present is key. Our feelings may be very unsettled, & unsettling.

My feelings are unsettled right now. (I am even, I have to admit, a little fractious at the moment.)

But it’s OK.

“Notice, relax, and let go – three key aspects of mindfulness.”

& later, “…the radically optimistic caregiver bears witness and gives no fear.”

I am unsettled. Things seem pretty insane.

Notice, relax, & let go.

Give no fear.

Darn good thing relief is always as close as one’s own breath, hmm? Yet how routinely I/we forget this…


p.s. on a recent trip to Arizona, while walking across wet rocks kind of high up, in crappy running shoes with no tread left on them, I came up with this helpful little phrase: "Stay on the path. Don’t look down." Somehow, these simple words help...

Quote of the day with this post: “A spiritual life is not about being self-conscious, or wearing a button that says ‘I’m a bodhisattva!’ It is about doing what you have to do with no attachment to outcome.” – Joan Halifax in Being with Dying – Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death

Elephants. Showing up. Staying out of the way.

<drafted Feb. 4/10>

Ever since the phrase “an elephant in the room”  was introduced to me, I’ve been crazy about the concept. It’s so … useful!!

When Marissa mentioned the expression to me, she was referring to the phenomenon of being at a wedding involving a family of divorce. Everyone skirts around the underlying hostilities, baggage & inevitable tensions – as though there were an invisible elephant in the room. (Sure must use up a lot of energy, ya think?)

Gotta tell you, I’ve had way more experience with elephants than I care to enumerate.

Then too, & oddly enough, I am both a bit of an elephant myself, & sometimes (usually in different locales), an elephant caller. It is not only not particularly easy being in either role, it sometimes seems to make people around me a little uncomfortable too (my poor kids, eh??). Yet very often, people do tell me they enjoy my honesty & openness (I guess I sometimes say the things other people think, but are too afraid to say…).

It is also true, as I am only just now beginning to realize, that in a certain few relationships, when there have been rather large elephants lurking & I did not call them, things later blew up in very messy, unpleasant ways.

So, sheesh! I’m not sure what the lesson here is.

The other odd balancing act I seem to be ever navigating is the showing up/staying out of the way dynamic.

I believe quite passionately in “showing up” – which in my case takes the form of involvement in environmental activism, excessively honest blogging & trying to “be there” for friends & loved ones going through hard times.

Three writers I greatly admire talk about “showing up.” Joanna Macy spoke of the importance of our showing up with respect to the environmental crisis at a talk she gave in Toronto last June.

Elizabeth Lesser speaks of it in her awesome book Broken Open – How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow (the essay entitled 'For Hugo'). Joan Halifax says in her book Being with Dying – Cultivating Compassion & Fearlessness in the Presence of Death that there ought to be a sign saying “Show Up” at her monastery in Santa Fe.

Come to think of it, I’m certain Rachel Naomi Remen says plenty about it in her wonderful book Kitchen Table Wisdom – Stories That Heal – if not perhaps in that exact phrase. Dr. Remen is, after all, all about showing up…

I greatly admire these women’s thoughts & writings & the awesome work each is engaged in – & totally embrace the concept of “showing up.”

And yet, & yet…

My experiences as an elephant in the room – & a frequent elephant caller – but a sometimes not-courageous enough elephant caller keep landing me in sticky, messy, damn-near-tragic situations, relationship-wise.

What is a person to do??


Well. The clouds have blown away & the sun is shining brilliantly & my horrific cough has seemingly calmed itself down, at least for the moment. The act of writing down my thoughts has simultaneously lifted my spirits in the rather miraculous way it so often does. And I am recalling the words of two people whose wisdom often offers me so much comfort.

Elizabeth Lesser reminds us in Broken Open that we are all, after all, just fellow “bozos on the bus." No one has got it all together all the time. (Pema Chödron is also brilliant & sooooo compassionate on this score in her books The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving KindnessWhen Things Fall Apart – Heart Advice for Difficult Times).

We are all works in progress, hmm?

I’ll have to keep right on wrestling with the odd dynamics of being an elephant in the room, an elephant caller, & when to “show up” & when to "stay out of the way.” (I have a horror of being “in the way” that I can only assume stems from my … challenging… childhood years. It’s an ever-present dynamic in my life. Still rassling with that one, for sure!)

Eckhart Tolle’s reminder that “This too will pass” will continue to offer its eternal wisdom, strength & wider sense of perspective.

(& then too, my own phrase “Cut your losses. Go where the energy is” will continue to serve me well – especially when I remember to follow my own good advice!!)


P.S. I’m a big fan of Eckhart Tolle & have mentioned him in several blog posts. If you know nothing at all about him, why not read the postings Pain Bodies on Parade (or Oh, To Be a Duck), Ducks, Unlimited; Humans?? Also Unlimited & Flap Your Wings.

'Quote of the day' with this post: "A dead end is just a good place to turn around." ~ Naomi Judd


Anarchy, Fairy Tales & Freedom

<March 16/10>

I actually wanted to call this essay “Communism, Fairy Tales, Anarchy & Freedom,” but I know how afraid of communism most people are, so I left out that word.

I became interested in communism in my late teens, after a privileged & pretty mixed-up childhood. Money held no fascination for me whatsoever – but the idea of communities & sharing needs & abilities definitely did.

But then I got caught up in what I now look back on as the fairy tale phase of my life, & my interest in communism (politics of any kind, really) just kind of fell away.

At first during that “happily ever after” phase, I had a job in which I told myself I was “helping” people (& who knows, maybe I did even somehow sort of help one or two individuals), but the prince & princess living “happily ever after,” for me, consisted mostly of marriage & family life – which, admittedly, was pretty darn wonderful for quite a few years there. My prince & I “made one another happy” for quite a while – just not “ever after,” alas…

15 or so years into the fairy tale, a passion for environmental work overtook me (to my own great surprise) & this has led to a great many unintended consequences (a phrase I now just love; it covers such a lot of territory, doesn’t it?).

So here I sit, today, writing this on a sun-warmed rock in a lovely outcropping on a pretty hillside in southern Ontario, where I’m living for a while in this current nomadic phase of my life. No set “home” – a “foot in three camps” as I like to joke (‘though I still have only two legs!) – not knowing what may come next, nor where I am likely to land.

The marriage ultimately didn’t work out (though 20 years & two great kids are certainly nothing to sneeze at), & relationships since don’t seem to have, either. Given my own personal life/childhood history, the 5000-year run of patriarchy & its far-reaching & not necessarily well-understood impacts, women & men’s current confusions over relationships & who we are & what we want – & the state of the world in general – this is not so surprising, really.

The solitary streak in me has grown very wide. Years of living alone have made me…ever more solitary. A bit anxious when around other people’s company & routines for long stretches of time. (For some reason too, I have a positive horror of being “in the way” – some weird holdover from that … difficult childhood, I reckon. I’ll do almost anything to avoid feeling I am in the way…)

I live on a teeny-tiny income no one else I know could begin to survive on (or even want to get by on), and since money & things don’t interest me much, I don’t “have” to “work” right now. This seems to really rattle some people. (I wonder, do they resent/envy my freedom? My choices?)

I adore my current freedom – but it has & does come at some cost. Everything always does, doesn’t it? Biologist Barry Commoner(1) articulated “4 Laws of Ecology: Everything is connected to everything else. Everything must go somewhere. Nature knows best. There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Note that last one, hmm? No free lunch. We do always pay for what we get. I pay for my freedom in several ways, trust me. (We all pay for our choices, hmmm?)

Well, for the past few years I’ve begun thinking of myself as a bit of an anarchist. Like communist, the word “anarchist” seems to frighten people. (Imagine grown-ups being afraid of mere words & concepts; a bit silly, isn’t it?)

The Collins dictionary available to me here defines an anarchist as 1. A person who advocates the abolition of government and a social system based on voluntary cooperation. 2. A person who causes disorder or upheaval. Kurt Vonnegut has a character in his novel Jailbird say “Anarchists are people who believe with all their hearts that governments are enemies of their own people.”(2)

Works for me!


All I know is, things on Planet Earth don’t seem to be working too very well. Ya think? Our air is foul, our waters polluted, & much of our Earth now toxic. As the planet sickens, so do we. (Know anyone with cancer? I rest my case.)

A clever quotation I’ve run across goes “There isn’t a problem with the system. The system is the problem.”

Capitalism & “democracy” don’t quite seem to be doing the trick, do they? (Like Christianity, real democracy remains mostly un-tried. (3))

I keep meaning to write an essay called “What is Missing?” & maybe I will finally get to it.

What is missing, in my view, are 2 things:

  1. Deep, deep gratitude for this unbelievably awesome, generous wondrous Earth we’ve been given;
  2. Community. Tribe. Belonging

If we all begin working on these two big pieces of the puzzle that you might call Earth Falling Apart in 2010, I think a lot of pretty cool stuff would start happening. (Of course, lots of cool stuff is already happening!! There are tons of people working away on this stuff as we speak.(4))

Of course, I do not possess a crystal ball. Seems to me this whole shebang could “blow” at any time. Of course, that’s an excellent argument for practicing gratitude, living fully in the present moment, & building community. We might as well keep our focus on what really matters in life, since there are no guarantees about what will happen around the next bend. I have a suspicion that the less we focus now on what really matters, the nastier it’s liable to be.

So sayeth I, your friendly local anarchist. One who is trying hard to bring us all back to the really, really simple things: gratitude, community and circles.


p.s. There are many essays about gratitude on this blog. Only because it’s the primo, most important & perhaps most left-out thing going on Planet Earth. And because it’s free & wonderfully rewarding & liable to lead, when practiced faithfully, to much happier lives & communities & families – & even a healthier planet… No kidding!!

‘Quote of the day’  with this post: “…as the Buddha told his cousin Ananda, the whole of the holy life is good friends. Our relationships – and our love – are ultimately what give depth and meaning to our lives.” – Joan Halifax in Being with Dying – Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death.

My first idea for ‘Quote of the Day: “The aesthetic indictment of industrialism is perhaps the least serious. A much more serious feature is the way in which it forces men, women and children to live a life against instinct, unnatural, unspontaneous, artificial. Where industry is thoroughly developed, men are deprived of the sight of green fields and the smell of earth after rain; they are cooped together in irksome proximity, surrounded by noise and dirt, compelled to spend many hours a day performing some utterly uninteresting and monotonous mechanical task. Women are, for the most part obliged to work in factories, and to leave to others the care of their children. The children themselves, if they are preserved from work in the factories, are kept at work in school, with an intensity that is especially damaging to the best brains. The result of this life against instinct is that industrial populations tend to be listless and trivial, in constant search of excitement, delighted by a murder, and still more delighted by a war.” [Ouch!] Bertrand Russell – June 1921 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

(1) From the Center for Biological Systems & author of Making Peace with the Planet

(2) Jailbird, by Kurt Vonnegut, Dell, 1979. Page 216.

(3) If you think Canada is a democracy, then I think you are not really paying attention! And if you think dumping Harper – the best prime minister oil money can buy – for Ignatieff would make a whole lot of difference, you are REALLY not paying attention… ***** Lots of great quotes about politics & democracy here.

(4) Paul Hawken’s wonderful book Blessed Unrest is very eloquent & inspiring on this score.

Lotus Flowers Grow in the Mud

<Jan. 21/10>

I’ve known for some time now that wonderful things often grow out of seriously cruddy ones; in fact, come to think of it, maybe that’s what my “graduate work” (i.e., my adult life) has really been all about! I keep seeing over & over again how the most seemingly un-fertile & cruddy & horrible circumstances often lead to great growth & breakthroughs & learning.

I was on my lovely long walk today, joking to myself that I have apparently failed Relationships 101 through 501 – at least! And as I said to someone recently, I’ve surely earned a Ph.D. in Loneliness along the way. For sure, I've had my "fair share" of it.

But I also have Ph.D’s in Joy, Gratitude, Friendship & Adaptability. These more than compensate for the bad bouts of loneliness I occasionally suffer from.

My life hasn’t been (& isn’t) much like the lives of most of the people I know. Mine has more change, less predictability, probably more adventure & freedom – & maybe a similar amount of angst?? (I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have angst. We all have our fears & hopes, frustrations & pain, disappointments & losses… & loneliness.)

I’ve been poking my nose lately in a very lovely book called Being with Dying – Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, by Joan Halifax. She shares many, many pearls of insight & wisdom.

She points out that “the roots of the pure white lotus are buried deep in the pond’s dark mud,” & that the mud “nurtures and feeds the lotus, making it possible for the flower to open in splendor to the sun.”

Isn’t that a beautiful (& comforting) image?

Mud & muck make things grow. Certainly lots of the grand adventures & fun I’ve had in, oh, the past 14 years or so, arrived after a pretty dark time in a very muddy swamp. Of course I had to take a little time to haul my arse over to the side of the swamp before any… hmmm...that isn’t true. Even in the very middle of the swamp(s), I took (& take) quite a bit of joy in some things – small things & “bigger” ones too.

Well. I guess everything is really all mixed up together, isn’t it? The “good” things & the “bad” things. It’s all a great big beautiful messy stew.

I know it’s going to be a comfort to remind myself often, lotus flowers actually grow out of mud.


P.S. You’d be wise to pick up a copy of Being with Dying – Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death, if you yourself are dealing with dying.

P.P.S. As I’ve mentioned in other essays, I find Buddhist thought very helpful & inspiring. If I were a little more practiced at it, I would never even use the terminology of “wonderful” things & “cruddy” ones. There really isn’t a need to judge things. They just are as they are…as the Buddhists say. But I think most readers probably understand quite well what I mean…

P.P.P.S. Broken Open – How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, by Elizabeth Lesser, is, of course, another great book to read on this topic. I’ve mentioned this wonderful book in several blog posts. “Broken, or Broken Open?,”  "Lonely & Terrified: Just Another Bozo on the Bus" & "Permission to FEEL Our Feelings." Ms. Lesser is a real treasure...

P.S. # 4: A later blog posting called 'Lotus Flowers & Mud, take II' is here

'Quote of the Day' w. this post: “The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Victor Frankl