I was too young to know it was unlikely her death would be the peaceful kind you see in the movies where the dying person takes a last long breath surrounded by the ones she loves.
I hear him talking the caregiver through the bath, instructing him on each little move to make. My dad, the carpenter, the builder, the detail guy, talks his way through everything. The caregiver today, a young man, is patient with Dad, exactly what works well. He barely says anything, a simple question to confirm what Dad wants, a nod here and there. I hear Dad complaining of being cold, there in the steamy bathroom with zero ventilation and the caregiver sweating.
Dad emerges looking confused, but not enough to forget the towels need to be replaced. The caregiver leaves and Dad says, "What am I doing?" I suggest maybe he wants to comb his hair and shave. "That's it . . . now how do I do that?"
I bring his wheelchair so he doesn't have to stand in front of the mirror and he puts a little VO5 lotion on his hair. I comb it and he waves me off.
He wheels to his easy chair and looks at it for a minute. A big long sigh. "It's sure dark."
"Do you mean dark outside?"
"No, I mean it's dark in here." He points to his forehead.
As we settle, I ask him if he wants some coffee. "Coffee schmoffee." And then, a bit later. "Where's my shaver."
I recently discovered the work of Stephen Jenkinson. Jenkinson authored a book called Die Wise and was the subject of the documentary Griefwalker. He spent years working in palliative care, even directing a program at a large hospital in Toronto, Canada.
So smitten with the words he wove together, effectively enticing me to consider my own death in order to more fully contemplate and appreciate my own life, I read this to my class on Friday.
I finished the introduction to Die Wise and immediately searched on YouTube for video of him, eager for knowing his voice and the cadence to more easily read the book. When words haven't been combined in unique ways, it can feel like reading a different language.
In my search I found the Griefwalker documentary, an hour-long sonnet to the way we can enrich our thinking about our end.
Everything Jenkinson says throws the pain management and 'stay comfortable' mantra of palliative care and hospice into question. And, frustratingly for many, in a similar way to the Feldenkrais Method, Jenkinson gives no recipe for what we do when we are suffering or a loved one is suffering or we are simply considering our end.
He challenges the patient-centered approach of giving all the decisions to the person who is dying, questioning the wisdom of assuming the newly diagnosed person has suddenly acquired all the skills necessary to plan an enriched ending to life. I heard him suggest death should be at the center of any conversation about endings. We should plan for it, prepare for it, like we would a banquet or a sixtieth birthday or a wedding.
If you're as intrigued as I was and am, you can find many more talks on YouTube. This one has many nuggets worth considering that the documentary couldn't cover.
You can begin your self-studies with this material and use your keen eye for attention by observing your posture as you read these words or watch the video. Your posture likely holds a portion of the story. Let it speak.
In the Pacific Northwest, some bear hibernate. They disappear into a den and re-emerge in the spring. While it must take quite a lot of preparation to get ready, I fantasize it’s worth it. I fantasize about going into a den for a long weekend (or better yet, a full week), literally storing up my energy reserves for the coming spring.
There, the veins on the ferns. There, the ducks squawking on the pond. There, the willow branches draping, dipping delicate leaves toward the water. There, the world draws me outside, out of the cocoon of my bungalow.
These days my little dog lingers on her bed, longer than last week, and longer than the month before that. She peers out at the wet and dreary day and pulls her shoulders closer to her ears. She turns back inside and heads for her bed.
It'll be a solo walk today.
I roll out of bed in the morning and my feet connect with the floor. I pad to the bathroom to relieve my bladder. I get to the teapot and begin heating water for green tea. All with barely a thought as to how I so easily move.
My father swings his legs out of his bed and sits on the edge, waiting for the caregiver to help him get dressed and ready for the day. His cane with the four feet sits close by and he uses it to make his way slowly to the bathroom and then to his wheelchair where he wheels himself to breakfast. On a good day, he manages without too many wobbles in his step and without aches and pains that slow his progress.
I walk my dog, sailing merrily down my front porch steps on the way to the park or around the neighborhood, sometimes even running an errand on my dog walk. I nimbly get over the old curbs in my neighborhood, the ones that haven’t yet been modified to accommodate a wheelchair. I think nothing of it, nor does my agile dog. She can correct course mid-air and miss stepping on a grating in the street.
My client carefully navigates down my front steps on her way to her car. The first few times she hugs close to the side of the porch in case she needs to steady herself. These days, while she’s careful, it’s clear she feels more comfortable and goes faster down the stairs. I no longer have to ask how she feels at the end of a session with me, I just watch how she’s moving as she exits.
A child who can’t stand and walk gets around on all fours. Carpet or no carpet, he is quick. I hurry to keep up with him as he navigates from living room to dining room. He’ll walk some day and I’m eager to see how he benefits from improving of his ability to turn and fold and side bend his torso and what it might do for his balance in standing.
This walking thing. We take it for granted. Unless we don’t have it. Unless we’ve lost it. Unless we may never walk.
If one can walk, one can walk even more gracefully, even more elegantly, even more smoothly. Perhaps, one can even glide, slide, saunter, or sashay.
Last Friday, November 11, 2016, three days after the presidential election results were announced, I knew I couldn’t just jump into teaching my class as usual. I asked my students to get comfortable, I wanted to comment on the role of our Feldenkrais® methodology in our day-to-day lives. They settled and listened, and here’s a recap of what I said.
I don’t want to talk about what happened, or should have happened, or could have happened. I want to talk about what we can do now. I want to talk about how we can continue working with our integrity, finding our stability, and acting from a place of our resilience. I know this sounds impossible, but we’ve been practicing, some of you for months, some of you for years. You know how to shift your attention, you know how to hone in on one aspect of the movement and to shift when you feel stuck to investigate that place in your movement.
What we can do today is no different than that. What we have available to us is our finely tuned attention and our ability to shift so we take in more and more of the picture even as we stand firmly in our skeleton, inside our skin, to meet whatever is in front of us, whatever image we see, or article we read, or wherever our imagination takes us. We are experts in awareness and we can use that to enhance our own lives and the lives of those around us.
I’ve long thought of the Feldenkrais work as the perfect tool for balancing the nervous system, the struggle between action and restoration, the dance between go-go-go and pausing for reflection. A most vital aspect of us, our parasympathetic nervous system controls our respiration, our heart rate, our blood pressure, and our digestion. This balancing act is a primary and often overlooked benefit of the Feldenkrais Method. If it is all we gain from honing our Feldenkrais muscles, we are lucky.
But there’s another incredibly useful aspect of the Feldenkrais work. The ability to improve our posture and therefore our health. Our focus on the skeleton. Our attention to the details of how we stand on our feet, how we settle into the pelvis, and how we give the work of moving the body to the legs so the arms and hands and head can do the business of holding, carrying, and hugging. We build awareness and hone discriminations of finer and finer distinctions.
I’ve heard the story that Moshe Feldenkrais taught many lessons specific to what he called The Five Lines. The five lines refer to one line representing each leg, one line for each arm, and one line for the spine that connects them. Add a circle on top representing the head and most of us recognize the basic line drawing of a human, as drawn by any child anywhere in the world. Feldenkrais is known to have said (I paraphrase) that when you can keep your sense of the five lines of your body, when you know precisely where you are in space, you can stand in the face of anything and keep your sense of self, i.e. integrity.
For myself, I use this idea over and over. Not simply as an image, but with a keen felt sense of where I am in space. When I’m in the middle of a heated discussion, I track my five lines. When I’m struggling to keep focused, when I’m feeling rushed, and when I’m brokenhearted, I keep track of my five lines.
I ended my comments with my students by telling them I’d share a list of resources I’m using these days to keep focused, calm, and ready. Ready for whatever may come. Here’s that list, feel free to share.
Articles about Leonard Cohen (who’s death followed the 2016 election). I also listen to his music when I’m blue. It’s a perfect accompaniment to not feeling like I’m forcing myself to feel better.
- Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting (Brain Pickings)
- Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker (New Yorker)
Podcasts that address the potential of the future or illuminate the past. There are so many others.
- On Being, with Krista Tippett: The Big Questions of Meaning
- Revisionist History Podcast, with Malcolm Gladwell
Return to the Elders. Visit with your older neighbors. Listen to our elder statesmen and stateswomen.
Renew your library card. Read more. Consider that one of the most subversive things you can do in 2016 is teach a child to read.
Support the office holders doing work you appreciate. Whether it’s your city council member, your mayor, your school board member, let them know you value their service.
Walk. Run. Bike. Contemplate the nature around you as you do.
There are so many things we can do. Staying inside our five lines doesn’t mean retreating into the hinterlands and coming out when things go the way you want them to go. It also doesn’t mean you have to go on the front lines of protest or be exposed to violence.
Whatever path you take, whether it’s supporting more women getting into office, teaching a child to read, or picking up garbage on your walk to get groceries, you can contemplate your five lines. You can track where you are in space. You can track your progress toward connection to others. You’ll know when to stand still and not reach out. When to lend a hand. When to take a nap. And when to get out of the way.
My students thanked me. They breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn't ignored the situation. We weren't there to talk about politics, but they were grateful for the reminders of how to navigate a life with awareness, continuing to resist old patterns of worry, anxiety, or over-doing.
I urge you, listen to your lines. If you don’t know how, learn.