Five Days

The week after Thanksgiving I was supposed to go with my mom and sons to the Nutcracker. I have been going to the Nutcracker with my mom for as far back as I can remember because she loves theater. She bought tickets for everything; big productions, local productions, community theater, high school musicals - she loved it all. The Nutcracker held a special place in her heart because it was Christmasy, and traditional and just... because. 

This year my mom called on Saturday and said she couldn’t go to the Nutcracker, because she had the flu. 
On Sunday, I went to see her and thought, “maybe she had a mini stroke...”
On Monday she went to the doctor and he thought, “yes, mini stroke.” 
On Tuesday I spent the day with her eating soup, flipping through catalogs, watching PBS Kids. 
On Wednesday she was rushed to the ER.  

She never went home again. 

Five days. Five days and everything changed. 

This is the story I have been telling over, and over, and over again for the past 3 months. It is the story I repeat in my head. Five days and everything changed. Five day and she never went home again. 

How quickly we went from the Nutcracker as usual, to terminal brain cancer.

How does that happen? 

I think about all the things I didn’t get to say, all the things we didn’t get to do. I think about all the things I should have done. 

There are the tropes we say when someone is losing a loved one. We say, “love your family and hug them as if it is was the last day.” We say, “live each day as if it is your last.” 

It is a nice idea, but it is not practical. How do we live in a heightened sense of “pending end” every day? What would that even look like? 

If I lived every day as if it was my last, I would not do laundry, eat healthy, or do the things. I like being neat and healthy, but let’s be honest - I would not do laundry on my last day of life. 

I do the things because I have to live each day as if I was going to see tomorrow. I need to live with the expectation that there will be a tomorrow because I cannot sustain a sense of immediacy. It’s too much. It’s too intense. 

And hugging someone as if it is their last day is gut wrenching. It is sad. It hurts. It is one of the most painful, awful things we ever get the opportunity to do. 

And it is an opportunity, it is a gift. It is. Even though it sucks.

We say, “love them now for you might not get to love them tomorrow.”  And that is true. Love each other now, but not as if you will never see each other again, but because you have the opportunity to do it now. Love and trust that there will be another Nutcracker. And, if another Nutcracker doesn’t come, if you are given the opportunity to love someone through their passing, do that too.

Do both.

Look to this day:
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendour of achievement
Are but experiences of time. 

For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision;
And today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day;
Such is the salutation to the ever-new dawn! 

- By Kālidāsa

Small Moments of Grace

This holiday season, my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. Her tumor is inoperable and advanced, so she has decided against treatment. She is now actively dying. 

My mom has always been a sweet, endearingly charming, and, at times, maddeningly positive person. Throughout this ordeal, these delightful qualities have endured. Her essential nature is hanging on as she slips away. This is a blessing. She is beloved by everyone who works with her. They all gush about how nice and easy she is, how much she brightens everyone’s day. 

But the side that gave her sweetness depth is gone. We will never have conversations about politics, world events or anything philosophical. Her shameless cheating in cards, her sarcastic wit, her frankness; gone. 

I am grateful for the sweetness, but I miss the sour.

I mourn the person I didn’t know was leaving me. Parts of her were swept out of my life before I was ready. It is as if I donated a bunch of clothes but, now, after the van drove away, I am yelling, “Wait, wait, wait! I think my favorite sweater is in there! I need to look through that bag again!”

When my dad died, he was taken suddenly. It was an immediate wound. But this is like a bruise I keep re-injuring. It is a recurring, painful, ache. Each incremental loss needs to be mourned but, I also need to get to know the person she is now. This means mourning and celebrating at the same time. I have to find a way of holding her close, while simultaneously mourning the loss of the person she was. Sudden death robbed me of an opportunity to love. Slow death has given me an opportunity to love more. 

And that opportunity comes with responsibility. I have to be purposeful. If I am not purposeful, I could easily put my head in the sand and hide. I could easily just think “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow” instead of today. The doctors say “months” and it feels like an invitation to drag my feet. As if denying the bruise with stop the pain when I smack it again. I have to get sharp with myself and say, “Hey! This thing is happening now!” and then I have to work on loving that person better than I did and being kinder to myself than I was. Because time is up.

We always have to ask ourselves. “Do I step up now, or do I hang back and hope?” Hanging back and hoping is not an option for me. It is a false hope. My mother chose to not take treatment. My job now is to honor her choice and do this living/dying thing with her.  

What I have learned thus far is that grace is often just this small little thing. It is seeing the sweetness in my mother and enjoying how pure and beautiful it is. It is in seeing the world through her eyes. Enjoying how she sees art and beauty in everything. It is seeing how much grace comes simply by being grateful, by seeing the best in people and expecting that they will do right by you. It is this small, daily dose of nativity and sweetness that is… encouraging.

Friends, I don’t have any decent advice here... Just a wish that you look for the small moments of grace in your day and embrace it. Empower yourself and others to be their very best, most loving self. You might be surprised at how well it goes.

I know I have been. 

With love,

Questions are Never Stupid. Answers are Stupid.

As we head into the final series on managing holiday stress, I have two things to offer you: 

1.     The importance of questions
2.     The importance of self-love

There is a scene in the yoga docudrama, “Enlighten Up!” between Guru Sharan Ananda and Nick, the film’s protagonist. Guru Sharan Ananda sits on an elevated seat. Nick sits at Sharan Ananda’s feet, looking up. Nick’s guide lists all of the Guru Sharan Ananda’s qualifications which intimidates Nick. When prompted to speak, Nick apologizes and says, “If I ask you any stupid question or am in any way offensive -” Guru Sharan Ananda interrupts him and says, “Questions are never stupid. Answers are stupid.”

Questions are never stupid. Answers are stupid. 

As a teacher, Guru Sharan Ananda immediately recognizes Nick as the most important person in the room. His questions, whatever they are, are the spark for understanding. And that spark, is the most important ingredient in the knowledge soup. 

Questions are the pivot point for all learning. In a Socratic dialogue, the discussion happens not from Socrates just pontificating on something, but because a student asks a question. In the Bhaghavad Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna the Dharma because Arjuna asks him questions. In our quest for understanding, the need to know is primary. I mean, without curiosity, what use is knowledge? 

This is an important distinction between what makes us learners and what makes us teachers. A teacher is not just someone who knows. A teacher is someone who can answer a question well. Each time we teach we are being tested. The student is always pushing us to see not only what we know, but how well we can convey it.

Knowing stuff is great. It is empowering. But knowing is not teaching. Being an expert is not teaching. Experts pontificate. Teachers illuminate. 

After this week, the earth will start to shift towards warmth and light. It is a predictable, arduous process towards illumination. Like learning, this happens, not just by brute force of the sun, but by the effort of the earth yearning towards the sun.

The art of teaching extends well beyond the classroom. It is a daily practice of awareness. This week think of what it means to be a teacher in all aspect of your life. Are you listening well? How do you illuminate? Are you appropriate? Are your answers relevant? Is it kind? 

Which leads me to my next point; when you are not, forgive and love yourself regardless. 

This past couple of weeks I have made many mistakes. I have not been my best self. 

And that is OK too. 

The other side of the teaching coin is that you must always, always be a student. A teacher that gives up their desire to learn, is not a teacher. Therefore, treat yourself the way you would the student who is struggling most in your class. Be gentle, be loving, be encouraging, be kind to you.

This time of year is wonderful and hard. It is fun and stressful. And we are humans being, not humans done. So, forgive yourself. Trust that you are enough, that you matter and know that there is a place at the table for you. I know there is a place for me. 

And, if there is a place for me, there is most certainly a place for you. ;)

Wishing you much love warmth and joy.