Winter, February 13, 2014

Winter, February 13, 2014

Lately I’ve found myself lost in grieving the unusual number of deaths that have touched me during the last month or so.  It started with Pete Seeger, who became a part of my life when I met my husband. Bill played the guitar, sang, and was deeply immersed in the folk music movement in the sixties and seventies. Pete was one of his heroes and his voice could be heard in our home every day through recordings or the words Bill sang. When Pete died, my daughter, Lisa, noted that she had grown up with him and indeed she had. Pete was an important part of the antiwar and peace movements in this country and we all know his role in politics during and after the McCarthy hearings. He was a great man and thankfully we have his music to keep us company as we travel down our own paths. To pay homage to him and other folk heroes of his time, we rushed out to see Arlo Guthrie, live here in Charlottesville last week. Arlo celebrated both his father and Pete through song and story telling. I was rolling  in the aisles with laughter and tearful, remembering those good ole days.

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died days later, I was in shock. I had seen him live on stage several times and appreciated his range and versatility in the roles he played both on stage and in film.  He was my favorite actor of all time. I last saw him in “Death of a Salesman,” as Willie Loman, on Broadway a few years ago and he was brilliant. When I first heard that he had died of a heroin overdose I was angry.  I thought, “What a waste. How could a man who could bring out the the deepest of humanity through the characters he portrayed so perfectly, be so stupid?”  But then I remembered my own time of learning about addiction when I discovered that several of my family members were addicted to alcohol and drugs. I spent time in rehab supporting one of them and religiously went to  ALANON, trying to wrap my head around the idea that some of people I loved were addicts. Those were life changing times for me that I’d forgotten about as I tried to make sense of Hoffman’s death.  But, he was just another human being with a disease and no better or worse than the rest of us.

On a more personal level, one of Bill’s high school classmates died a week or so ago. He like Bill, was in his seventies and akin to the rest of us entering old age, we expect to see old friends occasionally moving on to another world. It was not a pleasant piece of news, but it is the way life is and another reminder of our own mortality.  I felt comforted to see so many of Bill’s friends come together via phone to reconnect and celebrate an old friend’s life as well as their own.

During the snow storm last Thursday more sad news came as our neighbor across the street died at age 95.  It was expected.  He suffered from congestive heart failure. He was a beloved music professor at UVA, and is deeply mourned by his family and untold numbers of friends and students who studied with him over the years.  As a neighbor I will miss the occasional walks I took with him around the block and our wonderful conversations. Boots always made others feel as though they were the most important people in the world. He never forgot that I was working on a book and just a few weeks ago, when Bill went over to help lift him out of a car, he asked Bill how my book was coming along.

The hardest news of all came a few hours later from a friend telling me of the death of one of the members of the meditation group that I had once hosted at my home. I was stunned, especially because he died of an apparent suicide.  He was a lovely man in his forties, and though I didn’t know him all that well, he was for me a very special person, someone I enjoyed being with and deeply respected. He always had wise words to share at our meetings and I’ll always consider him an important teacher.

At the memorial service held for him on Valentine’s Day evening, I sat with two other members of our group. We sat in silence, sharing our tears, not one of us able to understand why he took his life.  As with Hoffman, using heroin to escape his demons, J. must have been a victim of some unbearable pain that he could no longer live with.  I can not judge him for what he did. He, too, was just another human being like you and me. I can only be grateful that I had the opportunity to know him and to share discussions about life with him.

Death is simply another stage of life. We all must face it and though it scares me, I, like everyone else, confront it over and over again every day of my life. We are born each morning into a new day, and die each evening as we fall asleep with the day coming to its own end. I’m still learning to take each day as it comes, cherishing each moment, grateful for having known all of those around me, sharing sad and happy moments in time.

Power, Loss, And Impermanence

Loss is a fact of life.  Impermanence is everywhere we look.  We are all going to suffer our losses.  How we deal these losses is what makes all the difference.  For it is not what happens to us that determines our character, our experience, our karma, and our destiny, but how we relate to what happens.    

Lama Surya Das

 A week ago last night, Central Virginia was hit with a Derecho, a wide-spread, straight line wind storm associated with a fast-moving line of showers and thunderstorms.  We were not alone.  Maryland, the DC area, and West Virginia also were hit hard.  Trees fell on houses and cars, killing two in our area and thirteen people statewide, leaving millions without electricity for days and days.  Some are still making do in their unlit homes.

My son, Mark, lives out in Ivy, a small community about seven miles west of here.  He finally got power back this morning.  He, his wife Jane, along with Max and Fergie, their two Scotties, stayed in a motel for a couple of nights and then went home to their cool basement.  Jane has since gone out-of-town to visit a friend.  We invited Mark to come and stay with us, but he just likes being home, even though he had to read by flashlight and couldn’t cook much except on the grill.  I understand.  I’m the same way.

Bill and I, on the other hand, were watching a movie when the storm hit.  The wind seemed rather wild, but not as terrible as it apparently was.  The lights and TV flickered on and off for about half an hour before we gave up and went to bed.  In the morning, we discovered that the power had been off for about an hour during the night. There were lots of leaves and branches down in the yard and one huge branch from a nearby Sycamore was blocking the road.  It was removed a couple of hours later by the City work crew, and we went about our lives, doing what we normally do, feeling extremely fortunate.

We’ve also been living through a heat wave for about two weeks, with temperatures in the high nineties or over the one hundred degree mark, with the heat index at one hundred and five to one hundred and nine degrees. It’s not comfortable to be out or indoors if you have no power.  People up and down the East Coast, as well as throughout the Midwest have been suffering.

While we were comfortable in our air conditioning, out in the county, acquaintances of ours hunkered down through the storm.  He was in the last stages of life because of cancer and Hospice would be arriving to help keep him comfortable as his body slowly shut itself down.

The storm had wreaked havoc in their area, blocking off their driveway and the roads to town.  They couldn’t get out and nobody could get in.  With no electricity and air conditioning, and with the situation being what it was, friends arrived and cleared a path so that they could get to town.  Our neighbors, good friends of theirs, and ours, away for the summer, gave them access to their home as long as they needed to be there.  On Thursday, the power at their home was finally restored and they went back.  Within a few hours, Jay died, peacefully in his own bed.

It’s interesting that we call the electricity that warms and cools our homes and lights the dark, Power.  Perhaps it is one of those things, along with bombs and rockets, that has made our country so powerful in the world.

But we really don’t have power or control over much.  We can make threats to take out those who wish to disrupt our way of life, but in the end everyone loses.  To me, the only real power exists in the forces of nature.  No matter how much wealth we have, nature will have its way with us, bringing destruction in the form of tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes.  It can also bring rebirth in a gentle, soothing rain that waters the crops that we depend on for food and sustenance.

In the end, the only power we possess is in the way we respond to the destruction and loss we all, in one way or another, experience. To step forward in a time of crisis and help those in need is power.  To fight the fires now burning throughout the west is power, whether there is loss of  life or not in the fight.  It is nature’s way.  We are all born into the blood and gore of life and we all die the same way, whether we have ten million dollars in our pockets or not.  A starving child in India is no different than Donald Trump.   The only difference is in the way they spend their time between birth and death.

I send blessings and thanks to all of those who have and will always help in times of need.   I live amidst a large group of heroes.