Life is strange and wonderful, joyous and painful. I often wonder if death is the same. I listened to a podcast the other day where a neuroscientist explains that the human brain is not equipped to understand the end of our own "self". What I can say from my own experience and journey with others in life, is that when we are faced with death - our own or someone close to us - it changes us. It's a suffering beyond anything we can ever imagine. I've also witnessed the other side of this suffering. People who begin living more fully, more compassionately and people dying peacefully and more whole.
The day before yesterday I started having pain on the left side of my head, it moved up and over the top of my head until I finally felt pain and intense pressure behind my eye. My eye started to feel itchy and when I looked in the mirror, almost the entire white of my left eye was blood red. I've seen burst blood vessels in people's eyes before so I didn't panic. I tried flushing my eye in case something was in it, but quickly realized the pressure was behind my eye. When I was 31 years old my mother had pressure behind her left eye. Her eye started to bulge, so finally she went to the doctor. They found a mass behind her eye. Weeks later my family and I gathered for a lovely dinner out in downtown Toronto, and the next morning she had surgery. I'll never forget the surgeon coming out to say that they found a tumour the size of a grapefruit in the space between her eye and her brain. How is that possible that something that large could hide away in her head like that? It was unfathomable. We knew she had to have part of her face removed. She was all bandaged up. It was an intensely difficult time for us all. I remember one day her telling me that she had lived a very full life. She died less than six months later just before her 62nd birthday.
Back to the present day situation and you can understand why I decided it was best to have my eye checked. After seeing a doctor at urgent care then an eye doctor the next day, it's likely that the whole incident was brought on by my sudden sinus pressure. I had mowed and weed whacked the day before. Perhaps that was the cause. Time will tell.
What I can tell you today, is that I had already begun preparing for my own death. Not in a morbid way, but with a sense of clarity and purpose. If I had six months left to live, how would I like to spend it? I've been through this process before and, in fact, it's a practice of mine. Officially in Buddhism it's called Maranasati, but I had been practicing this mindful awareness of death ever since my mother died 28 years ago. It's why I started going on retreats, and being sure that my children were not completely dependent on me. I had a very strong urge to be "dispensable" and to this day, it affects how I choose to be in relationship with those I love, how I run my businesses and how I live. I have always used the term "loving detachment" because I'm a person who is fully immersed in loving people, the planet and life while at the same time preparing to detach from any of it at any time.
In the end, my surrendering to the reality of death is what led me to want to be fully alive. I am a spiritual director, a retreat facilitator and a mindfulness meditation teacher as a result. My hope is that all of you are finding your way to live into your truest self, your most authentic way of being. It's never to late to begin. Even the end is a beginning.
Originally written: August 20th, 2022 while preparing to travel to see my children. It was a wonderful reunion. We laughed, we cried, we shared memories, we created new ones. I made it home safely. I am grateful.
My family and I lived a block from the church we attended every Sunday morning when I was a child. It was an Anglican Church. The Anglican church originated in England in the sixth century. In my small Northern Ontario town, the church’s formal architecture, repetitive prayers and steadied hymns invoked a feeling of being part of something ancient and reverent. I remember waiting with anticipation for my family to head out the door, down the sidewalk and up the steep steps to the large wooden doors of our church. I’m not sure that I was particularly religious, but having freshly curled hair and getting to wear a Sunday dress with gloves surely sweetened the deal.
The sounds of the organ beckoned us through the doors into the sanctuary. The dark, smooth, wooden pews were a familiar comfort as I would slide across them and squeeze into place with my family. Across the street was the Catholic church. It was bigger than our church and had way more steps! As a teenager, my Catholic friends told me that they had the option of attending mass on Saturday night so they could stay up late and not have to get up early for church. I remember thinking that sounded like a pretty cool church, offering a service for those who needed to let loose at the end of the week. I went to the Catholic church a couple of times with my friends, but wasn’t allowed to go to the front for the bread and wine. Who wants to sit on a bench all alone while your friends are partaking of the body of Christ? My option was to covert to Catholicism, which involved a lot of classes. I kind of liked the idea of seeing how my father would react to the news of my conversion, but not enough to follow through on it.
There were only two churches in our town between it’s inception in the mid 1940’s until the late 1960’s when the United Church of Canada established a church on the other side of town. Everyone seemed to be either Protestant or Catholic in those days. I don’t remember one being seen as better than the other, although I do remember my father saying that the new United Church wasn’t really Protestant. He said they were “doing their own thing over there,” and I was always curious what that meant. The one time I got to go to the United Church, was when a group of my friends were in the Christmas Eve service and asked me to come. We all got to dress up and sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. "What's that got to do with Christmas?" my dad admonished me before going, but my mother understood my need to be with my friends and I got to stay for the whole service. I loved it. In later years, I returned to my hometown to raise a family and joined the United Church with my children. It was a church that was deeply engaged with the community and issues of justice, inclusion and environmental stewardship. I guess that was what my father meant by “doing their own thing.” I loved it even more.
Growing up I never knew of any people in our town who were Athiest, although looking back I know there were, of course. I would guess there were people who had perhaps a spiritual life rather than a religious one, or who had no attachment to either. The people that stand out in my mind were all good people who contributed immensely to our community life and cared about the land around us. Many of them gave much of their time to young people as teachers in school and for outdoor activities throughout the year. It was only recently that I realized that quite a few of them were of Eastern European descent. Interesting.
In the early 1970’s, a new church came to town. Well, it didn’t actually come down into town, but established itself about halfway up the four mile long steep road into our town. I don’t remember how things began, but sometime around my nineth birthday, my father announced that we were joining a new church. Some people had arrived from the United States of America and the Baptist Church was going to be built. My father said that we were going to help them build it and would be a part of their congregation. I have no recollection of how I felt about that. I do remember my mom assuring me that I could still go to Brownies at the Anglican Church. I was outgrowing Brownies anyway, and had already decided I didn’t want to “fly up” to Girl Guides as it would take too much time away from my bowling team and playing outside. Besides, I was always one who loved adventure and the pastor had told me I would get to go to summer Bible Camp and learn archery. Woo hoo!
Over the next months and years, the pastor and his wife came to our house for dinner many times. Other times we would go to their house and I would get to play with their adorable kids. They had a big window facing the forest with bird feeders everywhere and a basement where we would gather for services, Bible Study and Sunday School while the church was being built. Sometimes we had programs there after school with kids who weren’t a part of the church. We got to invite them to come, even if their parents didn’t go to church. We were supposed to “witness” to our friends about taking Jesus into their hearts, to save them from their sins. I learned that we were all born sinners and that Jesus died for our sins. I didn’t quite understand how God sent us into the world with sin then sent his son to save us from sin. To me it seemed that he could have saved himself alot of trouble by just sending us into the world without sin in the first place. But I was a kid, what did I know.
I asked alot of questions as a child. In Sunday School, my incessant curiousity was often answered with a verse from scripture which I was told to memorize. I know a lot of Bible verses. The Anglican Church had been nothing like this new church, so it was all a bit confusing. I’m a fairly adaptable human and was an impressionable child so despite my questioning, I enjoyed much of what this Baptist church had to offer - singing, art, potlucks, meeting new people and Bible camp! I loved it. Years later I was officiating at the funeral of a friend’s mother, a long-time resident of our community, originally from Eastern Europe. I hadn’t seen my friend in many years so what an honour it was to preside at a celebration of her mother’s life. As we talked about our childhood life together she joked about how many times I tried to save her from Satan. Really? Oh yes, many times she assured me. My childhood friend from the United Church chimed in, nodding in agreement, “Many, many, many times,” she laughed, adding, “we got used to it and you had a good heart.” Thinking about this later, I imagined my nine or ten year old self trying to save my friends. It didn’t surprise me. I was the kind of kid who wanted everyone to feel included and still am.
In the five or so years that I was part of the new church, I took Jesus as my Saviour about fifty times, or so I would guess. I suppose I thought I needed alot of saving, especially as I was liking certain boys more and more. I also said the “f” word one night outside the skating rink, when one of the girls in my class pushed me down and forced me to say it. I figured that Satan had a hold of her, but I don’t remember ever trying to save her. She’d have to find Jesus some other way. As for myself, apparently I had plenty of reasons to believe I was a sinner, as I approached the ripe old age of 11.
The pastor often talked about “God’s Plan. We were taught that God had planned out our whole life even before we were born. The pastor told us that he and his wife had been sent by God to our little town to save us. That made me feel very important. I’m not sure what everyone else thought, but in my mind this meant that we were a special part of "God’s Plan." I never completely understood what "God’s Plan" was, but I envisioned that it was very complicated having lots of pages with lines crossed out and new words written above. I imagined that "God’s Plan" also included maps and travel. Since Jesus was born in Bethlehem, way over the ocean near Africa, in a country where everyone road camels in the desert and now he was coming again, but this time to the United States of America, where people drove in cars on roads. It seemed to me that maps and travel must definitely be involved. I loved to travel.
One day in our church after-school program, we were ushered into the new church basement to watch a movie. The pastor explained that this was a very important film called “The Rapture” and had been sent to us from a far away place called Des Moines, Iowa in the United States of America. It seems that the people of Des Moines, Iowa knew more about "God's Plan" than anyone else so they made a film about it. The pastor always added that all things are sent by God, so that really raised the bar! I remember feeling so excited to be part of something this big. I was being let in on a secret that no one outside of our church would know about. Was I even allowed to write about this in my diary? The hymn “How Great Thou Art” often came into my head at times like these. The pastor’s wife and sister-in-law would sing this song at church and it gave me chills, especially when they hit those high and loud notes in perfect harmony. The unfinished basement was dark and bare. With nothing but fold out chairs and a projector in the room, we all took our seats and over the next hour watched the unfolding story about the end of our world on a grey concrete wall.
The film "The Rapture," from Des Moines, Iowa, affected me for years afterward. If I came home and there was a pot on the stove, but my mother wasn't there, I would should "MOM!" just like the girl in the movie. My mom would come around the corner, "I'm right here," and I would breathe a sigh of relief. Even though my mother didn't quote scripture and try to witness to people, she was the most caring and loving person I knew. Surely, Jesus would take her up during "The Rapture" in the end times. If only I could be a good as she was. Sometime around the age of 12, I began to regularly question everything I was being taught at the church and by my dad. Things just weren't adding up. Some time around my 13th birthday, I wanted to attend my first school dance. The pastor told me that I wasn't allowed to go, because dancing was Satan's work. My quoting of the scripture verses about David dancing naked in the street did not amuse him. I was going to have to choose God or Satan. I went to the dance and never went back to church, youth group or Bible camp after that. I guess I made my choice. My father had slowly been backing away from the church anyway. I think all of the judgement was even too much for him. My mother seemed fine to leave and I know she wanted me to dance.
The pastor and his wife eventually went back to the United States, to Michigan, where they were originally from. Later in life I discovered that there were many different "Baptist" churches and the one established near my town was perhaps more extreme in it's teachings than most. I really don't know. What I do know is that this five year period, from age 9 to 13, had a profound affect on me and the direction I ultimately chose in my life. As a child, I soaked up all that I was taught both in church and at home. As a teen, I rebelled against all that I was taught in church and at home. As a young adult, I sought understanding beyond what I was taught in church and at home. In midlife, I grieved for the parts of myself that had been lost or buried by what I was taught in church and at home. It's fifty years later and I am no longer that child. I am a grown woman with a much more expansive and inclusive view of spiritual life, now living in the United States of America, only 7 hours and 31 minutes from Des Moines, Iowa according to google maps....or God’s Plan. Wink wink.
I have loved writing since I was a child. I still have my very first diary. It reads like a list of chores and activities with drips of emotion oozing out between the lines. I remember how much I looked forward to writing at the end of every day. It was my secret place to share my thoughts about whose hand I held at skating or to complain about the (almost cool) new outfit my mother convinced me to buy for school. I had told her about the jeans called Landlubber. They had a crab on the back pocket and I just had to have a pair. We had to drive three and half hours to the big city to buy any special school clothes that weren't in the Sears catalogue. Landlubbers were definitely not in the Sears catalogue. Trips to the city were a big deal. I loved every minute from the time we left our house early in the morning to our return late at night. I'm guessing we didn't stay over to save money, but we always got to have dinner in a restaurant and pick up donuts to take home with us. The malls themselves were pure entertainment for me. The sights, the sounds, the smells - a smorgasbord for the senses. So many people and I didn't know any of them!! Being from a town of 2000 people you mostly knew, this was a big deal. "These ones are half the price," my mother said, holding some jeans up and pointing at the back pocket. "We can buy two pairs!" she exclaimed, trying to convince me that I was really getting a great deal. She was really, really good at that by the time I came long - the last of four children. "Spider, crab, what's the difference. No one will notice," she assured me. All was forgotten once we were in the car, bellies stuffed from the buffet, bodyminds slipping in and out of slumber, the sweet smell of city-baked goods wafting through the car all the way home. I would be too tired to write in my diary that night, but I would have an extra long entry the next.
I stopped writing sometime in my teens, except for poetry in times of emotional upheaval. A good dark and stormy poem was my go-to form of expression when my world was rocked upside down. It still is. As a teen-adult teetering on 20, I was introduced to "journaling" and quickly realized that I could still have a diary!! "Oh no," the workshop leader admonished, "it's not a diary, it's a journal." Secretly, it was my diary and I began to write again. I was more of a binge writer in those days. Someone would give me a journal as a gift, I'd write an opening entry, "Today was a difficult day. This seems to be a time in my life where I am being challenged from every side. I will use this journal to sort and sift through the chaos of my life." I would begin, something like that...every time. Several days or weeks later, the writing stopped. A year or more later, the cover of a journal in a shop would grab my attention and I'd have to buy it! I have an entire bin full of half-written diary-journals. Some of them have various years in them due to not wanting to waste paper when I was inspired to write, so "I'm going to have a baby!" shares the same journal as "I think I might be starting menopause." And, of course, all my journals have a healthy heaping of new year's resolutions. I have loose leaf paper writings, poems written on napkins(sounds cliche, but I do that), school notebooks with notes for an exam, procrastination doodles and the first chapters of several books. Small pocket worthy notebooks crammed with ideas, short poems and funny things that my children said, are stuffed into the corners of the bin. The bin itself might be considered a metaphor for my life. Hmmm, must write that idea down somewhere. If I am a real writer can I write it on a napkin? My mother's words of wisdom reassure me, "Napkin, paper, what's the difference. No one will notice." Suddenly I'm smelling her homemade donuts and fresh baked bread and know that all is well. I am a writer.