Hanging by Threads

Once upon a time we lived in the foothill mountains just outside of Boulder, CO, three and a half miles up a canyon. We loved it there; the blessed quiet, the stark beauty, the night sky and animals. Many a morning we would awake to the coyotes passing by on their way to mischief, or the rare sighting of a bobcat, shy and gorgeous. The wild turkeys would amble by, till they caught wind of our dogs, at which point, they would spread their massive wings and against all odds manage to fly awkwardly skywards to at least the safety of the lower branches of the Bristlecone pines that are abundant in those parts. There were the occasional but fleeting and thrilling mountain lion sightings, and many up-close encounters with bears.

It was our notion, or maybe just our wish, that we would live the rest of our lives up there, away from the maddening crowd, but close enough to have access to all we would need: shops, hospital, restaurants. Retaining as I do, a modicum of idealism, coupled with a massive amount of practicality I realized that as we aged, certain aspects of living away from the simple things we relied on would prove more cumbersome. Watching my mother age in place, I learnt what not to do, as well as many things that worked well enough. Isolating is never a good idea. Having to provide all aspects of care for yourself as if recreating the wheel, also not that helpful. So, a loose community was formed with friends within easy walking distance, who too relished the idea of closer community collaboration, as well as the idea of aging in place. We were a motley crew of recovering as well as active therapists, an organizational consultant, an ex-engineer, a trust fund baby or two, an artist and none of us relished the idea of the more traditional path to aging.

We researched different ‘Aging in Place’ models, and realized that although all the models provided some viable aspects, our best bet by far, was to get to know each other, like each other and care for each other as people. Then it would be natural ourselves to each other. Who’s going to town today? What do you need? What can I pick up for you? Who needs a ride? Etc.

One day we asked the sage Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to address us, he being the wisest elder any of us knew and all of us respected. Rabbi Zalman talked of age, of service, of community. He was very supportive of what we were about. He also spoke of the tendency towards ‘organ recitals’ for older folks as bits, bobs and organs began to ail and fail. He advised us against that as a baseline conversation since the privilege of being alive surely offered more than all the bits and pieces that didn’t work that well.

My old analyst used to suggest similarly, that whatever complaints I have been harboring on any particular day, I get out of the way on the front end. He, also being uncommonly wise would allot me five minutes for this ‘kvetch fest’ at the beginning of a session. Usually, he would cut me off after just two minutes. If I objected to having three minutes of allotted ‘complaint time’ shaved off my day’s allowance, he would smile sweetly and suggest we just move on to more interesting things.  I have taken that teaching to heart since it’s easy enough to get lost in the sad and sorry tale of the many ‘un-fixables’ forgetting that the sun does still shine, that we are still alive to see the wild turkeys strolling across the grasses, that in spite of all that ails this planet and these times, there is still amazing beauty to behold, and we may still be able to love some or many aspects of our lives.

The negative result of this stratagem is that I will sometimes ignore or minimize something until it has become something noteworthy and treatment essential. While the old adage of ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ is sound, I have tended to ignore it when it comes to my body. That’s how it now comes to be that I have one shoulder that is sufficiently compromised as to be just a few intact rotator cuff tendon threads away from severance, rather than a mild tendon repair which would be a much less invasive/traumatic procedure.

For the four months between now and the commencement of treatment, this particular tendon will be hanging from a few threads. How loving and carefully will I need to treat these few brave remaining threads, in the great hope and that they will hold steady and hold on. Hearing these terms explained to me feels like a metaphor for so much at this junction in time of raging pessimism, fierce loving activism and just plain head burying that is acting out in our larger world. Opening the New York Times each morning in bed, is an exercise in ‘fear moderation and anxiety control’ at best, and by the time my feet actually hit (or even tap the ground), Wordle completed, I’ve already had a rather intense emotional workout

Israel and her neighbors are having yet another lethal flare up. Sri Lanka is exploding; Ukraine is in a tragic brutal war with no end in sight. Tensions are mounting with China who is bearing down on Taiwan. The great E.U. collaborative is beginning to show its first signs of strain. The U.S. is coming apart at the state seams, another two shooting massacres within the last month with no gun mitigation in sight, inflation is eating away at the slight gains made by a tight labor market. The CO2 levels keep rising as regulations are earnestly made then actively ignored. Species keep disappearing as heat keeps rising too, the IPCC newest report screams RED. The big boys are flexing their nuclear muscles, fingers getting dangerously close to those buttons, meanwhile the Taliban have managed to eradicate the last 20 years woman’s rights in a mere 10 months, while in the citadel of freedom of the US of A, woman’s reproductive rights are being hacked away, one at a time, eradicating 75 years of progress as we humans continue to live as if we are the only species worth preserving.  It’s a shit show out there and we all quaking away appropriately, often immobilized by a sense of impotence or futility.

America and indeed much of the western world is on the move, trying to find a place where the oceans will not rise, the tornadoes will not make ground, the floods will not drown us, the sun will not bake us, the hurricanes will not blow us away and the latest virus will not kill or sicken us. That’s a lot to ask. Asking for safety when we are hanging by threads.

I’m inclined to feel that what we attempted up in our mountain neighborhood was a good track to pursue, although we didn’t get to test it out, so we will not ever really know, since one by one, all but two sturdy souls left the mountains. Health issues, fire issues, divorce issues, life issues. We went our own ‘off the mountain’ ways. We had been there for 16 years and it’s hard to imagine a more wonderous place to have lived, at least until there was the annual, which all to soon became the bi-annual evacuations due to fire. Until the mountains were lit with fire and the airs were thick with smoke and we scuttled down the mountain with all the other creatures and critters who could. Paradoxically, that neighborhood is still standing while many others much closer to town and deemed much safer, are not. Go figure! It seems to be a crap shot, a roll of the dice or the vagaries of the wind’s caprice at any particular moment.

They say you teach what you need to learn, you write the edges around which you yourself are grappling, trying to get your heart and head in some alignment with the way you perceive your world.  So here I am, writing yet again about what it means for us to be hanging by threads, living and loving in a time of loss and great uncertainty, and what it means for us to commit to the ties that hold and bind, while the larger world continues her great tilt and our nation states fracture and fray, and our bodies fracture and fray. We, the generation that thought we had safety nets, the generation that took our freedoms for granted, our sturdy connective tendons holding us to our decency, our goodness, our hope for more and better, our strengths and our care.

One of the ways I divert from the real possibility of a contraction into fear, is to feel the ways in which I am not alone. We are all here tottering on the edge, whether it is completely apparent, conscious or not. We are dangling, hanging, grasping, swinging and sometimes just letting go.

When we keep peeling down, under the organ recitals, the issue is not only the reduced functionality, but the advent of our end days and our dead days, personally and collectively.  I find it more interesting to simply talk of death than all the big and small indignities along the way, about which we may have little or no control, until we get hit with the full-blown organ symphonies.

When I was a much younger woman from my mid 20’s till later 30’s I was part of a spiritual community renown for its vibrant, bold, embodied, sexually open community. We were so energized, odd and magnificent. There is a Facebook page devoted to the honoring, the memory, and the deaths of the first wave of members from that community. I get to see people I may not have seen for decades, usually there are photos, then and now and well as death bed photos. Old friends, old lovers, some I barely remember. I can see the shift of light in their eyes as they prepare for the last leg of the journey. Sometimes the eyes are still so fierce as they jump out to catch me, encircle me one last time. I pause, I ponder, I look at, I turn away.

I dive into this moment that is mine to live and bring them with me, if only for a few moments.

My mother used to say with the same bravado with which she lived her life, that she was not afraid of dying, “why would I be, I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s natural”. I was inevitably struck by the notion that death was not to be feared if you haven’t done anything ‘wrong’. This coming from a non-religious, non-believing person, at least for all the 57 years that I knew her. She never however reckoned on the time before death. The small and large indignities, the organ symphonies that tend to ramp up.

Last night I spent a delicious two hours talking to one of my oldest, dearest friends who like me shares a traumatized familial Nazi past, and unlike me, a harrowed challenged earlier life. We talk like intimates can, of our children and grands, of our lives. We take our two minutes of kvetch time if we need to, then we circle round to our crazy joys, our unexpected wonders, and also what our creeping middle of the night fears are that don’t always allow us to fall back into the comforting arms of slumber. We cover the waterfront and the rainbows. She speaks of her trust in the continuance of consciousness after death, I speak of my lack thereof, even though both our beliefs are rooted in similar earlier out of body experiences, yet our ‘take aways’ were wildly different. We speak of our fears of becoming reliant, we speak of ‘exit’ pills, we laugh, a lot. We remember back and imagine forward. We talk about what we might both most yearn for before we die. Speaking them makes them feel both possible and deeply comforting. We vow to have a weekend together this winter. That night I sleep like a baby.

For me, it’s the time before letting go, before death that scares me, the gradual incapacity or loss of independence, the potential isolation.  It’s also the aesthetics of our end days that I just have not found a way to come to terms with, even as my brain and intellect tell me that this is the preparation, the requisite stripping that allows us to let go of the beauty and glory of this life. Yet, I have two outrageous friends, both well into their 90’s whom I learn from. One called the other day to tell us that he has just fallen in love, and is happily in the throes of a new relationship, while the other is traveling and walking the town for many of her errands, so that catching her to arrange a date takes a moment or two.

I leave my desk to walk in the garden and am so enamored by the play of colors, the way the purple lavender bounces boldly next to the bright orange of the Californian poppies who generously volunteer each year, the play of late afternoon light, the vibrancy of springtime unfolding in all the ways she still does. I look away, then look back, and marvel at the many ways we fray and hang on threads, and the many ways we root in love and nature.

Much gratitude to my brilliant friend and filmmaker Bill Weaver for the generous use of this amazing four minute video he made in conjunction with Terry Tempest Williams. It’s a gem. Feel free to pass it on to many with Bill’s blessing.