Accepting the Unacceptable

I recently saw a documentary called Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (Flooks, Lichtenstein & Tempest, 2018), about the life and death of Teddy Pendergrass.  For those of you who don’t know, Teddy Pendergrass was a soul singer who became popular in the ‘70s. But at 31, at the height of his fame, he had a bad car accident that made him a quadriplegic. Fortunately, he was able to breathe on his own, talk, and raise his arms half-way.

Understandably, he fell into a deep depression. Can you imagine? He went from being a famous, successful star to suddenly becoming some guy in a wheelchair; hardly able to move. He hadn’t invested his money well and didn’t have much to support himself and his family. Talk about changes in identity!

            He ended up going to a therapist who was also in a wheelchair. Session after session, Teddy showed up, but finally came to the conclusion to end his life. His therapist told him that he had a moral obligation to tell his family his decision, and Teddy agreed to have one last session with all of them there.

            When the time came, his family begged him not to take his life, but Teddy was adamant he was not going to change his mind. On the way out the door, he said to his therapist, “Well, I probably won’t see you again, so good-bye”.

            His therapist hung on to the word “probably” and then suggested the most surprising thing: that he set up a time for his family and close friends to get together and stage a funeral for him, during which time Teddy would be covered with a sheet. He was not to say a word while everyone spoke about him as if he were dead.

            After everyone finished, the sheet was lifted and he said, “I want to live”.

            He then concentrated on building up his strength and because he was able to lift his arms, he could exercise his lungs and was eventually able to sing.

            His therapist, who hadn’t been in a wheelchair that long himself, said, “saving his life was like saving my own”.

            I love this story. Not so much because he went on to find fame and fortune again, but because he took his suicidal thoughts as far as he could without actually playing it out. This unorthodox ritual is finally what it took to turn him around and give him the inspiration he needed to find purpose in his life again.

            I wonder what his friends and family told him that changed his mind? What would I say to a loved one in a similar situation? Why hadn’t their desperate pleadings in the therapy session make a difference, but what was said in the funeral did. What would I want to hear if I were playing dead?

            What would you need to hear to help keep you going in the worst of times? Can you tell yourself these things now? How do we accept the unacceptable in our lives? What abilities do you still have, and what can you do to continue to develop them? Can you find purpose and meaning in your life just the way you are? What do you value about yourself? Can you ask your loved ones now what they value about you, what it is they would miss if you were dead?

            This movie, too, reminded me of the book Tuesdays with Morrie, a true account by Mitch Albom (1997). Morrie was Mitch’s mentor who ended up having a terminal illness. Morrie decided that he wanted a memorial service while he was alive, so that he could hear what it was that people loved about him. His thought was: why wait until I am dead when I can’t hear what they say?

            Would you want to do the same thing?

Would I?

Envy

I am seriously envious. My sister just came back from China. She went to a huge Chinese wedding. She climbed a mountain that looks just like the pictures you see; swirling fog at the base of the mountain, steep inclines, wild orchids growing on the side of the cliff. She hiked the Great Wall. She ate exotic foods and met all kinds of people. My sister is 52 but has the energy of a 20-year-old. She lives in Massachusetts and in five days will fly out here to California for 5 days!

I’m bright green with envy. Glowing. You can see me from miles away. I want to travel too. And often. And go just about anywhere. She sounded upbeat and as full of enthusiasm as a puppy. I told her “I wish I had about 1/3 of your energy!”.

I grew up in a family where travel was our middle name. We lived in California 9 months out of the year and 3 months on the east coast. Before I had problems with seizures and severe sleep deprivation, we went to Europe: Denmark, France, Italy, Greece. I went to Jamaica with my parents and Trinidad and Tobago. Guatemala and Honduras. Traveling is in my blood. And now? Now I don’t drive outside of my hometown. If I go anywhere else, I have to have a caregiver take me, and then usually for a doctor’s appointment a half-hour away. I did manage a trip back east last year with two caregivers, but it was brutal getting there: I felt like I had to slay a few dragons to get there.

In my fantasies, I’d like to live back east part of the year. I’d like to travel to Asia – Bhutan maybe? Thailand, Nepal? I’d like to go to Africa, too, but I’m not sure which country. Europe: pick a country, any country. I’d like to go to Alaska and see the Denali National Park. I’d like to go to Nova Scotia – just ‘cause. Costa Rica for sure. Australia and The Great Barrier Reef. Tahiti. The Caribbean. I want to see the Taj Mahal. Machu Pichu. Findhorn. Stonehenge. Victoria Falls. I’d like to hike, swim, zipline, snorkel, scuba, snowboard, hang glide, surf and kite surf.

So… I’m just a tad envious.

Which brings me to the topic of complaining. As someone with chronic illness, I feel like I’m not supposed to complain too much. There are always others worse off than me. So, I should be grateful for what I can do. As a society we love the “super crip”- the differently abled people who not only never complain but are able to do extraordinary things. Someone without legs managing to run a marathon with prosthetics. Someone who is blind who climbed a mountain. Someone who has Crohn’s disease becomes a medical doctor. These are all commendable achievements to be sure, but what about the rest of us who don’t accomplish such feats?

Personally, I think for most of us, it’s a feat just to make it through the day. For someone who suffers from depression to get out of bed. Another to walk from the bedroom to the living room. To get through one more day of pain without thoughts of suicide. To be able to balance a check book, make a meal, sweep the floor. Hold down a job.

 In the middle of writing this, I took a break and walked outside. It’s been raining lately, and everything is so green. There’s the dark green of the pine trees that line the driveway, the ends of which are lighter from new growth. Cattails below the house shimmer a soft green that sometimes darkens when clouds pass by. The tall grass in the meadow is a shiny lime green. Green is a beautiful color with so many shades.

So, are there various shades of human emotion: fear, irritation, rage, excitement, sadness, and yes, envy? It’s human to have and feel emotions. To get stuck in them and have them eat a hole in your stomach or heart is something we want to avoid.

When I came back from my short walk, I felt something inside shift. I sat down and listened to the rain that started falling – a beautiful sound. I glanced at my cats who were sleeping peacefully. And I sat with my envy, green and glowing. It’s a beautiful thing too! A human thing.

And so, when my sister comes to visit, I will hug her hard, and squeeze her hands, and ask her more details about her adventures and look at her pictures on her iPhone. And I will be happy for her. And I will be grateful I have a sister who I love and loves me back.

And I will probably bring with me a touch of green envy. Emerald? Perhaps ivy? I’ll decide then.

Essay: Who Am I?

When I was quite young, I sometimes wondered who I really was. At the time, I didn’t have words to make sense of what I even meant by this. I was called “Katie” by those who knew me. But was this who I was, really? I was the daughter of 2 people called “Lydia and “Bill”, but did that make up who I was? I had a body I walked around in, that got me from one place to another. But my body certainly wasn’t all of who I was. I had developed likes and dislikes: I hated eggs but loved root beer Popsicles. I hated school but loved reading. But those things didn’t completely define me, either.

            These questions, organized around thoughts & feelings & sensations, scared me. If I wasn’t these things, then who was I? Was I nothing at all? That thought really scared me. I knew intuitively, that the adults around me wouldn’t know the answers to all these questions. This concerned me, because usually, adults had all the answers. And if they couldn’t answer this Big Question, then I’d have to walk around with an uneasiness without getting any resolution. I didn’t like that.

            It was not until I reached my 40’s that I realized the questions I had about having a fixed self was called “self-inquiry”. I learned this from reading books on eastern philosophy and some of my experiences meditating. When meditating, I sometimes lost my usual sense of self. Gone was my hold on my identity with my body and mind and all its expressions and projections. I understood that who I was couldn’t ever really be pinned down, but that it didn’t vanish altogether, either. This was a great revelation. It gave me a feeling of great peace and comfort.

            It still does; when anxiety becomes overwhelming, being reminded of a vaster consciousness softens my experience and makes it less frightening. Bringing space to the anxiety begins to relax the knot of tension in my solar plexus, giving the sensations there – room to move. From there, tenderness moves in. Staying with spacious awareness allows the contracted body (in this case, what I’ve labeled “anxiety”) to relax and feel held.

            In writing all this (which took some time), I really had to reflect on all that this brought up for me. So, I asked myself this question: How do I apply this to my daily life? How do I remind myself of vast awareness?

            Letting that idea float in my mind, I put my pen down for a moment and decided to do some yoga. My back has been bothering me for a while, so when I started doing the poses, I paid close attention to those places that felt tense. Ah – I thought – contraction. Yoga places an emphasis on breath, so I breathed into those areas as I went from pose to pose. Breath… Yes – that’s a way to open the body/mind and create space to let those knotted areas have room to loosen up. After a while, some tension was released, and those constricted areas let go a little. When I ended the session in a relaxation pose, my attention was more able to take in the whole of my body, rather than just the painful part. Contraction leading to expansion.            

How about you? Did this post open you up? How did it affect you? What can you do today to bring a bigger perspective into your life – for example, the pain you experience (whether physical or emotional), that’s happening right now? Experiment. And, if comfortable, let me know what happens.

Who Am I?

Who Am I?

Not this body with

its bones and bruises

its weighted stone and brick

Not these emotions

that sink and rise

and tumble on their own

Not these thoughts

that roam and scramble

through the brain

But this Something Else

words can’t touch

that kisses the ocean

and caresses the earth

I am beyond the song

of the red-winged blackbird

the feel of breeze upon the skin

the sweet taste of a peach

and the pink opening of morning

Come find me.

~ Maluma

Salt Heart

I was tired,
half sleeping in the sun.
A single bee
delved the lavender nearby,
and beyond the fence,
a trowel’s shoulder knocked a white stone.
Soon, the ringing stopped.
And from somewhere,
a quiet voice said the one word.
Surely a command,
though it seemed more a question,
a wondering perhaps—”What about joy?”
So long it had been forgotten,
even the thought raised surprise.
But however briefly, there,
in the untuned devotions of bee
and the lavender fragrance,
the murmur of better and worse was unimportant.
From next door, the sound of raking,
and neither courage nor cowardice mattered.
Failure – uncountable failure – did not matter.
Soon enough that gate swung closed,
the world turned back to heart-salt
of wanting, heart-salts of will and grief.
My friend would continue dying, at last
only exhausted, even his wrists thinned with pain.
The river Suffering would take what it
wished of him, then go. And I would stay
and drink on, as the living do, until the rest
would enter into that water—the lavender swept in,
the bee, the swallowed labors of my neighbor.
The ordinary moment swept in, whatever it drowsily holds.
I begin to believe the only sin is distance, refusal.
All others stemming from this. Then come.
Rivers, come. Irrevocable futures, come. Come even joy.
Even now, even here, and though it vanish like him.

Jane Hirshfield

Mandala

When you can’t stand

your life one second

longer, this is what

you must do:

Get out of bed.

Put on clean underwear.

Put on that dress with

The green buttons and

stripes of blue.

Look out at the morning

With its expectant face

and withered leaves

Set your feet down

on the carpet. It

doesn’t matter if the

carpet is frayed yellow

Just find the patch

of sun on it where

you would lay if

you were a cat and

draw a circle around it.

This is your

mandala for the day

Study it.