Living With My Desk Skull

In this guest post the “Spirited Crone” Sande Ramage tells us how she looks death straight in the eye with a real skull on her desk!

Amongst the debris on my desk sits a small skull. It’s just big enough to remind me that I’m not long for this world.

No, I don’t have a diagnosis that may make you feel awkward, other than being terminally human that is.

Keeping the end in sight instead of trying to clutch at immortality is life-enhancing; a way to live that enters into the soulfulness of our existence. Put another way, it’s a reality check, a way to figure out what really matters.

I’m not alone in this view. Philosopher Stephen Cave argues that striving for eternity shapes everything, even our choice of breakfast. But that leads us astray and stops us from facing up to the challenges of living life well.

In his book, Immortality, Cave suggests that humans have relentlessly pursued immortality through four paths:
1.      staying alive in the same body – keeping the existing body going
2.      biotech interventions – pills, potions and surgery
3.      resurrection – the religious idea of heaven someplace else
4.      legacy – we live on in our deeds and generations to come.

‘But aren’t you meant to believe in life after death,’ said my colleague, staring at me intently over his espresso.
‘Depends what you mean by that,’ I said, mindful of the physicists who reckon we emerged from stardust and to stardust we will return. Although it’s a sparkling improvement on mere dust, it’s still a hankering for immortality.

The religious writer Karen Armstrong said the afterlife was a red herring that kept us avoiding the real issue.’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘She thought religion was supposed to be about the loss of the ego, not about its eternal survival.’

‘So, when you say you’re about death as a priest you mean death of the ego?’
‘A bit of both, I think. I’m not so keen on destroying the ego, but absorbing it and getting it in better balance.   Moving past the need to be top dog, which is, when you think about it a bit, probably part of the quest for immortality.’

‘What about physically dying then?’
‘I think that’s the last great task of a human being, where all of our existence comes together in a process of reconciliation.’

‘Reconciliation? You mean getting right with God?’
‘If you mean God as a bloke in the sky with destruction on his mind then no. But if you mean God as the great mystery, the unknown, then I’m saying yes to that kind of reconciliation.’

‘How do you do that?’
‘Sometimes, it’s a process of putting things right with the living. That’s why it’s good for family and friends to gather whilst someone is dying. Other times, it’s just letting go of the need to stay alive, to allow it to be finished. Put another way, it’s to quit hunting down life at any cost.’……

Living with my desk skull is a daily spiritual practice. Like the medieval philosophers before me, it reminds me of my impermanence, the need to embrace that and, as a result, step soulfully into my mortality.

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Sande Ramage, also known as The Spirited Crone, writes about spirituality one word at a time on her blog  https://spiritedcrone.co.nz/. She is a spiritual care practitioner in Aotearoa, New Zealand with a focus on the possibilities of spirituality beyond institutionalized religion. Sande also offers spiritual direction to people wanting to chart their own spiritual pathway.

 

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Custom-Made Angels

An African-American patient’s daughter gestured to the angel topping a diminutive Christmas tree in the hospital room and said, “I hope you aren’t offended, but could we have a black angel?” While I as her chaplain hastened to assure her I was not offended, I first drew a blank on what she meant. Her mother was virtually on her way out of this existence, so my first thought, which I fortunately did not say out loud, is that she wanted black to represent grief or death. Then I understood: first I thought about my own stereotype about the color black, and then I realized the actual decoration was as white as you can get. She wanted an angel that was the same race as she.

I was so taken with this, because I have never thought about angels having race or gender. I never thought about their whiteness representing Caucasians. In the Jewish tradition, the idea of an angel is perhaps even more abstract than not having race or gender because we don’t think of them as a class of celestial beings. Rather, we think of them as humans who wittingly or unwittingly have a mission to deliver spiritual messages to others.  Such messengers impart an insight or prediction or warning of spiritual import to the person intended to receive that message. Many of you may be familiar with the story in Genesis where three mysterious strangers tell Sarah and Abraham that they will have a child despite Sarah being waaaay past menopause. And perhaps you have met someone who had a transformative effect upon you that has changed your view of things ever since or who has influenced you to make a life-altering decision.

A scholarly friend of mine named David Schwartz pointed out, however, that if angels can superficially assume race and other attributes similar to the person the message is intended for, the one getting the message might be more receptive to receiving it and letting it “penetrate the heart and spirit”.  I could see where an angel of color would comfort an African-American family and give them a celestial being or messenger they could identify with. (Just a curious note, another friend of mine informed me that until very recently, “angels were always portrayed as male, because the Bible consistently uses masculine names, male pronouns and male attributes.” Okay, one Black female angel for that daughter coming up!)

When the Black angel arrived at the tree I wondered what message it conveyed to that family.  Perhaps it was, “God is not a stranger, but the One who speaks your language, discerns your needs and accompanies you at every step of the way. Especially when your loved one is embarking on a path no longer intertwined with your own.”

Love Story, Hospice Style

An online fiction magazine editor said I could not reprint in its entirety a story of mine published there, but that I could summarize it. Summarize it?  How amusing since the story in question is only 101 words long! God forbid I would cross a publisher’s request and reprint it here, so I invite my readers to see “Beaten to It” in the place it was born (101words.org; November 27, 2018)) and raised (i.e. commented upon). The premise is true, but the rest is fiction:  https://101words.org/beaten-to-it/

An Outdoor Sage

My guest post author this time is my very own husband, Steven Jon Kaplan, a pianist and fan of nostalgic melodies. While reminiscing about a mysterious guitarist in New Orleans, Steve shows us how music can be a salve in times of loss:

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During an evening stroll by the northern end of Jackson Square in New Orleans, I was enchanted by an old man with a long scraggly blond beard playing the guitar. His appearance belied his ability, and on second thought enhanced it, as it created the sensation of a timeless miracle. The tunes were selected to create a mood of melancholy reflection that captured each one of the thirty or forty listeners so completely that each believed only oneself and the old man existed. Proceeding from a bittersweet ballad to a lament of love lost, many in the audience threw dollar bills and sat on the nearby benches to enjoy the concert. As the Mississippi River swallowed up the last rays of sun, the remaining seating spaces became filled, with the admirers forming ever-widening rings of devotion.

Finally, when the crowd had reached an astounding size, the venerable guitarist, who I later discovered was “Grandpa Elliott” (Elliott Small), played “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor. He paused just long enough to acknowledge the mounting bills and coins in his guitar case before continuing on with the next sad reminiscence. If you spent a long enough time with Grandpa, you would hear all of the songs about the endearing folly of the human condition written from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies including: “Yesterday”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, “Cat in the Cradle”, “The Long and Winding Road”, ”So Far Away”, “When I Die”, and “American Pie.”

If you should ever pass by Grandpa Elliott on Jackson Square, be transported into a world of sweet harmonies, where things don’t turn out as you planned but at least the rhymes are working and each sorrow ends with a clear ringing chord.

Raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Steven Jon Kaplan is a financial advisor with a site of his own, https://truecontrarian-sjk.blogspot.com/p/reminiscence-of-week.html. In the personal part of the site given in the link here, he regularly shares reminiscences like the one above.

The Camel Who Avoided A Broken Back

“Previous straws are more crucial than the last one. Take one away and the last loses its power.” (From an old Tweeted proverb of mine based on the much more ancient original proverb about that unfortunate mammal.) I recently realized from my own experience that sources of stress can be like those straws. They pile up in layers one at a time, each obscuring the previous ones yet taking a deeper and deeper cumulative toll. We sort of “get used to” each straw and try to ignore it or shrug it off best we can, especially while dealing with the latest incoming one. We lose track of our tally of how many straws have accumulated and to what extent each exacts its price, and this suppression of our awareness is what threatens our well being.

Let us ask ourselves, How many straws are we bearing now? Perhaps the first one is a family estrangement from 20 years ala Jacob and Esau. The second one might be credit card debt that never is completely cleared from month to month. Others vying for recent provenance might be watching Death stalk a family member, ready to snatch him from behind, or having to discontinue a work or personal relationship that has more and more dysfunction and less and less benefit. And then to top it off, bronchitis might come around to make a call on one of us.

As the straws gather up like the increasing numbers of leaves now stealthily taking over the ground, we habituate to the point that we forget about the first covering of leaves, never mind the ground itself.

No one can advise us which straw to tackle first, but it does not have to be in order of their arrival. Simply becoming more self-aware of the whole conglomeration of ‘em will help us in analyzing which one we should topple off first, making us like the lucky camel.

Folk Philosopher

Ricky, who designed and painted parts for rare cars and motorcycles, proclaimed: “I’m gonna drop dead in two months.” That is how he opened the conversation when I met him for the first time as my patient. Talk about cutting to the chase! Quickly adjusting gears from an opening greeting to this steep fall in topic, I asked if he was afraid of death. He replied, “I am not afraid of things I can’t change. I’m only afraid of things I could change but I don’t.” Ricky was not able to elaborate. He moved off to the relatively lighter topic of the motorcycle he built for himself and decorated by himself but would now have to sell (for obvious reasons).  Maybe he meant by his remark that he was afraid of living with guilt and regrets. Or maybe he meant he kept doing things that made him unhappy.

I can only speculate, but what grabbed my attention was that Ricky feared dealing with choices more than dealing with fate. Usually it is the reverse for most of us, is it not?  Perhaps for him, uncertainty and lack of confidence to better himself was scarier than the certainty of his fate. Can’t control it? Then no responsibility for what happens. There is just sweet surrender.

Maybe a small part of us in some remote corner of the psyche can admit to identifying with Ricky. We can be passive about certain things. Perhaps what we really fear is having less and less control over doing a given thing differently because we have built thicker and thicker emotional walls to surmount. This then blurs the distinction between fate and choice. I trust that our self-sabotage is far scarier for us than any Halloween image we may encounter tonight.

Grief Lesson For Petless People

If you think people say the dumbest things to you when you are grieving for family or friends, just wait until your beloved pet dies. Or if you are the one saying such things to pet owners, you won’t ever again be so insensitive after you read the guest post below by Dr. Dolores Spivack. A tear might just creep out of your eye.

I Miss My Cat    

When your pet dog or cat or bird dies, nobody sends you flowers or donates money in its name to a favorite charity, not even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. If you get any condolences at all, your friends will say at best “Sorry and did you see the game last night?” Some people have even said to me “Your cat died, so now you don’t have a cat.” I miss my cat.

My cat, Mel, died two months ago after living all of her eighteen years with me. She was born right into my hands after her mother’s difficult labor. No bigger than a small potato, I massaged her chest with my pinky finger and Mel took her first breath in the palm of my hand. I then helped her mother clean her and nurse her.

At the end of her life, Mel only had one tooth and was almost totally blind. Because she shook her head so much after her second stroke, her ear shriveled leaving her only one ear. She was equal to about one hundred in human years. But, she could still navigate the house, find her litter box, and jump on the table. If, and when I reach one hundred years old, I want to be able to jump onto a table just like her.

I miss Mel. I miss her faithfully waiting for me to come home, even if all she wanted was her can of food. I miss her underfoot, even though I often stepped on her tail. I miss her scattering of toy mice I would give her as holiday presents. She couldn’t catch the real mice, only the toy mice. That made me laugh so much. The toy mice only collect dust now.

I knew she was important to me while she lived. I did not know how cherished and how vital she was to me now that she is gone. I find it difficult to explain to my family and friends how much I miss her. Often, when I wake up in the morning, I think I feel her cuddled next to me. Then I remember she died. I miss Mel.

My grief for Mel is as deep and sad as any I have ever felt for any human, friend or family. Why is that not acknowledged? For almost two decades, Mel made her presence known in my house; she ate her canned food with me while I ate my meals. While I slept, she cat-napped but for many hours more than me. She greeted me and all visitors with curiosity and a welcome. She was as much a part of my life as my family and she witnessed more of my life than anyone else. Why would it seem strange to mourn her loss so profoundly? All I ask of my loved ones is empathy at best or solemn silence at least.

When Mel died, I waited until I was alone to bury her. I knew I would cry long and hard. I wanted the privacy to cry how I wished. I felt no need to be strong. I placed her in the earth with the same hands that welcomed her when she was born. I sprinkled dirt over her shrouded body and tamped it firmly down while my tears made puddles of mud on her grave. I miss Mel so much.

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Dr. Dolores Spivack started a writing group to motivate her to finish her dissertation about New York City building codes. After successfully completing her PhD in Architecture, she has gone on to write creative nonfiction pieces like the one here. The survivors include a greyhound and Dolores’s husband. They both attend a yearly greyhound convention in Gettysburg. And yes, the owners’ dogs attend too.