Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Zen of Jigsaw Puzzles

Keeping this blog is finally becoming a pleasure, rather than a project I think I should pursue.  Selecting the quotes and photos, organizing my thoughts, crafting the content, checking to see how well a post is being received, all enjoyable. That is, once I select the topic for the week.  Most often, I churn,  debating ideas, mulling a title, fretting about the opening line, wondering whether this is of value to anyone other than me.  This week, therefore, I decided to put all that on hold and to trust that an idea would simply emerge.  It did.

Last night, I woke at 3 in the morning, a common occurrence of late.  I got up to go to the bathroom and returned to note, again, how grateful I am that John no longer snores.  A result of his stem cell transplant years ago.  I tossed a bit, tried a couple relaxation techniques that sometimes help to lull me back to sleep, and then, unsuccessful, decided to heed the advice of sleep therapists to get up and do something else. 

I padded into the kitchen, intent on getting something to drink before settling down with a mystery and spotted the jigsaw puzzle I have been working on for the past couple days.  A great puzzle with sturdy pieces, an intricate and whimsical picture, bright colors and just the right level of difficulty, challenging but not frustrating.  And close to completion.

For 90 minutes I persisted, patiently and calmly.  I would pick up a piece, examine it carefully, scrutinize the picture. I noted tiny details I hadn't noticed before, variations in texture and subtle differences in shading.  And the more I noticed, the easier it got.  I could pick up a piece and put it down exactly where it belonged.   With a surprising sense of accomplishment.  If not, I would simply place it back in the box and choose another. 

Patient, calm until finally done.  

If anyone had seen me then, standing over the finished product, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, I'm sure she would question why I might take such satisfaction in completing a jigsaw puzzle. And she would have been missed the point.  For I was grinning with the sudden realization that, for 90 minutes, I had been fully present to the task at hand, fully engaged. Not grappling with why I couldn't sleep.  Not chastising myself for not having taken a sleep aid.  Not worrying how I was going to manage today.  Not stewing over this week's post. Above all, not wondering if this is my future, waking, alone, at 3 in the morning to do a jigsaw puzzle. Engaged. Present.

My grin almost dissolved into tears.  For 90 minutes, I hadn't worried about John's health or dwelt on the state of the nation, or chewed on the daily challenges I am confronting with my own aging.  I hadn't turned on TV nor checked Facebook.  I had simply become engaged with something that required attention, complete attention in the moment. Simple, granted not easy, but always available.  Like a good book, or a foreign film with subtitles, or deadheading roses, or really listening to a friend.  Presence, my topic for this week's post had emerged.

Now, I have no illusions that having this experience means I can call it up again on a whim. I have been here before. It's just so much easier to dwell on past memories or future concerns. Easier to be lulled by distractions or caught up in the cacophony of the latest breaking news. Easier to get swept up in emotions (mine or others') or the internal chatter I sometimes confuse with thinking.  Easier, but not very satisfying.

I have no illusions that at 76, I can develop the same ability to dwell in the present as a Buddhist monk who has meditated for decades, or a yoga practitioner, but I am determined to improve.  To at least notice when I am somewhere else and to return to now, the present moment, the only moment in which I have some control.  To restore focus and calm no matter the existing circumstances.  Maybe jigsaw puzzles can become my meditative practice?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Help Wanted

I went to a support group for the caregivers of cancer patients yesterday - the first support group of its kind that I've ever attended.  I almost didn't go.  Used all the reasons I've used historically. "I'm not a group person. I'm strong enough, smart enough, I ought to be able to handle this on my own. I don't know these people.  We've done this before, my own cancer, John's non-Hodgkins lymphoma, his skin cancers."  Reasons I've used to avoid asking for other kinds of help.  Reasons I've used to deflect help when it's offered.  

I had the postcard inviting me to attend in my purse, just in case I would decide to check it out. But first, brunch with a friend, herself in the throes of cancer.  As we chatted, I heard myself sigh a sigh of relief when she told me that she was getting the counseling support I'd been encouraging for months.  I heard myself say, "in such extraordinary times, even the strongest, most capable of us need extraordinary help."  And in that moment, I decided.

Now, I need to admit that I still questioned myself the entire way there, almost backing out when I saw the door to the meeting room had been closed.  And I can't share what happened there, other than to say that the topic was emotions, the support was great, the group leader skillful as well as compassionate, and I will be returning next month.  Most important for me, however, was coming home to reflect on how I think about asking for help and the possible consequences for both John and me.

To help me clarify my thoughts last night, I turned to David Whyte's Consolations, the extraordinary volume of his reflections on the underlying meaning of everyday words, and there was the essay, 'Help', underlined and tagged.

  • "Help is, strangely, something we want to do without, as if the very idea disturbs and blurs the boundaries of our individual endeavors, as if we cannot face how much we need to go on."  
  • "Not only does the need for help never leave us alone; we must apprentice ourselves to its different necessary forms, at each particular threshhold of our lives.  At every stage we are dependent on our ability to ask for specific forms of help at very specific times and in very specific ways."
  • "Every transformation has at its heart the need to ask for the right kind of generosity."
  • "It may be that the ability to know the necessity for help; to know how to look for that help and then most importantly, how to ask for it, is one of the primary transformative dynamics that allows us to emancipate ourselves into each new epoch of our lives."
Underlined and tagged, read and reread.  But understood this time more deeply, more profoundly.  For this is an extraordinary time -  we have other friends who need our help even if only to listen, even as we are pressed to help each other, and every day and virtually every hour we receive phone calls and e-mails requesting support in some form - surveys, petitions, more money.  Every day and virtually every hour a message appears on the TV or computer of someone, some group in need.  

And we are older, we have less energy, we have decisions to make with less information than we want or need, less assurance that our decisions can make a difference.  

So, duh!, (ok, not very literate), although I may be strong, and I may be intelligent, and I may have faced other challenges well, this is a new challenge in a new environment, at a different time and place, at a new threshhold.  So, I want to go back to the drawing board and determine the very specific forms of help I/we need, not just physically and logistically, not just intellectually but also emotionally.  I want to determine who can best provide that help for me and for us - a friend or a professional?   And I need to gather my courage and, yes, humility and ask.  

For I believe that most people are willing to help, but they need to be asked and asked specifically. They are not mind readers.  And most people will be honored to be asked, especially if you have helped them.  And most people will feel acknowledged for their competence and caring, just as we are when we are asked for help that we can provide.  At least most of the people I know.

I have placed Consolations on my bedside table, beneath the tablet on which I've begun my list of specific requests for help.  I've blocked out some time to work on this project, accepting that I will need to revisit it in the weeks, the months and, hopefully, the years ahead of us.  For, "even in the end, the dignity of our going depends on others' willingness to help us die well; the sincerity of their help often commensurate to the help we extended to them in our own life."

And, yes, I will be going to the next support group meeting.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Looking for the Silver Lining

For as long as I can remember, song lyrics have popped into my head at the strangest times - a chance remark, a memory, someone's story, or even for no apparent reason.  I'm used to it.  Have come to just let it be when it happens, and trust that if there is a meaning or reason for its appearance, eventually I will make the connection.

Given both the current political climate and our personal challenges, it hasn't surprised me, therefore, that "Look for the Silver Lining" would be echoing in my head for days now.  "Look for the Silver Lining", for folks who haven't heard of the song, was introduced to the world in 1920, made popular by Judy Garland in 1945 and revisited most recently by Tony Bennett in 2015. And though many people may not know the tune or lyrics (which I include later in this post), the exhortation to "look for the silver lining" has become a common phrase used to support people through trying times. 

So, I've taken time to look for the silver lining in John's illness.  Clearly, we would much prefer not to be fighting cancer yet one more time, not to be facing something currently incurable, hoping that a breakthrough will occur, will be offered the next time we see the doctor.  We would much prefer that John have the energy and stamina he used to have. We would prefer he not need regular blood transfusions and chemo.  But having said that, there are other very real, very special side effects that we might never experience without this challenge, and that's the silver lining.  

Of course, there is the obvious - we are more present in the moment, more conscious of how we speak to each other, how we spend our time, the choices we are making and need to make.  As we have been through other crises, yet seem to forget once the crisis is past. We are also more affectionate, more intimate.  More so than we have ever been.  With little gestures, and at odd little moments.  More appreciative of the life we have had together, the homes, the friends, the memories.  We enjoy the little things, the simplest things, like laughing at Paul Harvey's antics on Family Feud, or deciding which judge a contestant should choose on The Voice, and are conscious, in the moment, of our enjoyment.  Then there are the everyday things too easily taken for granted, like the desert sunset or a glass of B and B after supper, the call or e-mail asking how we are doing, the thoughtfulness of the service people who have taken up the slack for us, a favor we do for each other without being asked.

I'm sure there are others who have learned to live their lives this way without incurring a disease or experiencing a disaster.  I'd like to think we might have evolved this level of consciousness and appreciation over time, but I'm not sure that we might just as well drifted along, most days only semi-conscious.  I also am aware that some people never see the silver lining, never look.  For us, this is the paradox, the contradiction, the both/and.  We are fighting for John's life and we are blessed.

Look for the Silver Lining

Look for the silver lining
Whenever a cloud appears in the blue
Remember somewhere the sun is shining
And so the right thing to do is make it shine for you

A heart full of joy and gladness
Will always banish sadness and strife
So always look for the silver lining
And try to find the sunny side of life