The Turnpike opens before me, lane lines illuminated by dawn light, red tail lights blinking. I am on the road again, suspended between chapters. In meditation we talk about the space between the breaths, the breathing in and breathing out. Stillness holds the world together. Driving a car is freedom. It is the space between. On one end, home and my life there. On the other, wherever I am going today.
Around the late forties or fifty we begin to experience a radical shift in our inner state. It demands attention because it is an immense change in perspective. This is the beginning of the “second half of life.” The more consciousness we bring to this time and this process, the more we reap the harvest of our life.
We always laugh when we first see each other, throw our arms out for a hug, and laugh again. This is our yearly visit.
She looks at me with curiosity as the light from the window illuminates her face. I notice the lines and bone structure of the face of my friend of 35 years. She is in no hurry and folds her legs up under her on the end of the couch. I sit on the opposite end with legs stretched out and crossed. My knees hurt so I can no longer sit on them, but I appreciate that she can. I have always loved her simple, unadorned beauty. She looks older in a most delightful way. Her full head of hair, laced with grey, jumps from around her face.
I remember hitting a tennis ball against a back board with intensity as a young teen, all alone. I hit the ball whack on the backboard, smack on the racket and ran around reaching for each shot with focus. Then I began to hit wildly. One ball went soaring over the fence. Then another plopped right into a hole in the backboard and disappeared. In a burst of frustration I ﬂung my racket towards the backboard. It hit hard and fell to the ground. Suddenly embarrassed, I looked around to see if anyone saw me. Then I sheepishly picked up my racket and began to hit the ball again.
I love and resist practice all at once. That experience remains vivid in my mind. I had to regain my composure and continue to play or drive myself crazy. Practice is vital, but it can be frustrating at times.
I wake up slowly to the sound of birds outside. My eyes ﬂutter open, and I sigh as the mind kicks in. Blah blah blah, it sounds like, as I roll along on an old theme from yesterday. How quickly the chatter begins. I grab onto several options for the morning, a weekend day. Ahh, now I’m in trouble. Too many choices.
I stretch out, pick up the bedroom, then sit to meditate. Actually, to pick up the bedroom, something concrete, is a strategy that grounds me, much as I resist. Chores are often at the bottom of my priority list. When I can just do some, they act like medicine to my possibility of clarity. I sit to meditate in a spot in the bedroom with a view of the trees out the window. Birds chirp, the warm breeze rustles the leaves and slowly my mind begins to turn inward. The stillness is right there. Can you feel it? So illusive is that quiet stillness that you could swear it is not possible. Try it now. Take a breath. If there is a window, look out the window with soft focus. Without effort relax into yourself. Feel your body sitting, breathing.
To practice is to refine a skill. Athletes practice. They do the same moves over and over in preparation for the moment during the game. Musicians practice. Meditation is a practice, a practice to be present to ourselves, to be in the ﬂow, to embrace our lives in the present moment.
The great thing about the still mind, the practice of meditation, is that it is a mystery. And it is a paradox. How can it be that in order to take clear action in life we need to seek quiet and stillness inside? Yet it is true. It is almost too simple. To take time, really take time to be quiet and meditate and turn inward each day creates space for creativity and clear action. Think about it. Have you experienced this?
Practice is vital to athletes and musicians and for many skills. Musicians practice over and over: scales and chords, the same little challenging line within a piece. Have you done this? Do you know what I’m talking about? Practice itself stills the mind. Have you experienced that? To practice intently can provide a focus which quiets the mind.
Meditation is an inward focus and like any skill requires practice to provide access to the still mind that is always there.
Why meditate? The essential question of life, from youth to old age is, What am I doing here? What is my purpose? How can we feel or know it if we don’t get quiet within ourselves?
I sit for meditation on this morning. I feel myself slow down. It is subtle and quiet and I breathe a deep sigh. In fact, after twenty minutes I slowly open my eyes and know I don’t want to do either of the possible things I considered earlier. I will write for three hours. It is a deﬁned amount of time within which I have the space to explore. I smile at myself, at the simplicity of that insight and am grateful I did not force myself to decide earlier.
There is another thing about meditation. It taps into love. Yes, love in the largest sense. In a meditation intensive many years ago, I experienced a blasting open of my heart. But first I was frightened. There was a long meditation session and my mind sped up. I felt fear and intense images of myself as a small child who missed my daddy. My mind went so fast that it was almost comical. Suddenly, it was like that speeding mind blew itself out and a wave of love burst from my heart. Tears of relief spilled from my eyes as I was transformed to a light and open place like nothing I had experienced before.
Here is a paradox. We do meditation practice for many reasons. One is to reduce stress and to be clear- minded and centered. To take it a step further, meditation can transform us to be more loving, understanding people living in the moment.
The paradox is simple and not simple, easy and not easy. Trying too hard will backﬁre. It is not about trying but about being. Meditation practice is truly practice for transcendence and in the big picture contributes to our transformation as fully realized human beings. This is the work of the second half of life, the time to refine our self awareness and digest our life experience.
The gift of the quiet mind is that it reflects and helps us absorb the depths of realization and insight. This is not accomplished in a few sessions and done. The practice itself is the point and to engage in it day by day works the mystery more deeply into us so that when we are finished with our time on earth, this place of stillness is very familiar.
Thus the words of Lao Tzu, spoken long ago, echo this simple, paradoxical truth.
Charm City Steel, the five piece band, pick up their sticks and in rhythm tap out a fetching tune on their huge steel drums. This is the preamble to a special program to celebrate and remember my mom, who died of advanced dementia at age 87 in my home. The music lifts me as people wander in.
It is Mom’s memorial service and she asked for this. It was ten years ago out of the blue between steel drum dance tunes in Maine. She pointed at me from across the village green and said, “I want a steel band at my funeral!” No matter that she never brought up death or dying before or since. At that moment the heavens opened and she delivered her wish to me. And I said to her, to myself and my daughter Amelia, “Done.”
I am to MC this memorial service. It is daunting and an honor, to welcome people to a venue where mom came into her own at City College High School in Baltimore when I was a teenager, the oldest of three who would soon be going to college. She would make sure we all had the chance to go by challenging herself to do something bigger, something that was important to her and that would earn money for the family. She was the head of the guidance department. What a gift financial necessity can be.
Mom had a potter’s wheel in the basement of our campus row house. It was a kick wheel which meant that she had to kick it to get it going so she could throw a pot. Now people usually have motors on their potters’ wheels. She was determined and just had to have a way to make art. She made pots, cups, dishes and even heads of all her children. She had a kiln to fire the pieces in. My mother was first an artist. When we dismantled their home of thirty five years and took apart her studio, we found stacks of drawings of us as little kids on paper that was thin and falling apart. She even drew on newspaper sometimes when nothing else was available. Mulling over Mom, I remember how she loved that potter’s wheel and can see her now leaning over it in the dank basement, balancing and centering. Now that Mom is gone, I relish the kind glances that came in the very last days and weeks of her life which is now complete. I know her more through her massive amount of art work: pottery, drawings and water color paintings, even poetry and journal entries. I have a new view of this person who was hidden from me.
Was her life as an artist not similar to what she did as a guidance counselor? Is it too obvious a metaphor? She had to earn money to send her own kids to college so she got her Masters and was hired at a school where she helped to give those students a chance to shine. She shaped them like pots on a wheel. It takes work and is a challenge to rise to the occasion in this world. Mom had some hidden pain and self doubt. At times it ate away at her. Sometimes, it made it hard for her to be there for her own kids. But she was driven to create in whatever way she could. She was masterful at creating opportunities for high school students to learn how to be responsible and fulfilled adults by placing them in internship positions in the community.
Who is an artist? Someone who takes what is in front of her, using good tools, to make something beautiful or interesting or engaging. Someone who takes the kids that came through the door, listens to them, assesses their strengths and weaknesses and puts them into challenging situations where they have to rise to the occasion.
Moms in this world provide something to fight against and rebel from. I’ve learned as a mom myself that this is a personal challenge of the highest degree. We learn who we are and understand more over time while also parenting. Mothering is a challenge worthy of fortitude.What a task! This goes for dads too but now I am looking at “mom issues.” Isn’t this a familiar term, mom issues? We have to break away from “mom,” be our own person, after being totally dependent and gradually more independent over a number of years. It is revelation to learn that our mothers were actual people before they mothered us.
The simplicity with which mom ambled through the last months, weeks and days of her life was an inspiration to me. She was childlike in her fascination with beautiful, or even ordinary rocks, leaves, anything that caught her eye, including small children. She walked up to toddlers and almost got down to play with them, not self conscious in the least. Her face brightened and she beamed out of the depths of her dementia. It was as though the loss of cognitive function took with it any scrap of anxiety, of which she had plenty for much of her life.
For me, who had my healthy share of “mother issues” as a teenager and young adult, it was profound to be with her during this time of cognitive deterioration that people tend to assume is tragic. In fact, her blue eyes often shone in wonder at things she saw, and some glances at me and others, especially my dad, were full of uninhibited tenderness.
I sat with her on the last night, when everyone else had gone to sleep. Her breathing was fast and loud until I got up close and held her foot in one hand and her arm in the other. Then she quieted and her breathing slowed. Gradually it got slower, stopped a few times momentarily, and then just stopped. I was stunned and grateful all at once. She was so peaceful. I sat in the stillness of the middle of the night and observed her face grow more relaxed and at ease.
I have the urge to walk in the forest almost daily now. Just yesterday I had the feeling that the trees were leaning in toward me and I smiled in thanks. I remembered the lively command, “I want a steel drum at my funeral” and thought how she was the mom I wished for and only found I had all along at the very end of her life.
I am sitting in a Chinese coffee shop in the Sheep’s Head bay part of Brooklyn, around the corner from Amelia’s apartment. This is my break from being grandma to my bright eyed, head-full-of-hair newborn grandchild, Carmen. Amelia and Carmen’s Daddy, Brent, are bonding by immersion in parenthood. How engaging to have such an aware baby who is yet so helpless and in need of their and my protection.
We sit around the large round table off to the side in the memory unit or “Gardens Pavilion.” Dad, me, hospice nurse Karen, and death doulah/friend Jane.
Mom is barely awake at the moment and is weak and thin. She does not appear to be uncomfortable. In fact, last night, Jane met her for the first time as Mom shifted in her bed in a semi-sleep state. Jane, who has accompanied many people on their crossing the “threshold” as she calls it, kneels on the floor so she can get close to mom. She rubs calendula cream on her elbow, red from friction with the sheet. She takes her time, slowly watching Mom’s movements and her facial expressions. Mom smiles momentarily, looks pensive, then asleep.