Speaking with a dear friend, over dinner recently, our conversation turned to her ongoing journey of “adjusting to my new reality”, as she calls it. This new reality refers to a big change in her physicality. In her early eighties, she is still that enigmatic, adventurous, caring spirit whose youthful energy and wise experience are still so alive to me in my heart and mind, I realize that I also need to readjust to my new reality of experiencing her, as she ages. Duh!
She is still able to ride her bike daily, physically and emotionally hone a new relationship with a lovely gentleman, care for her loving, and aging dog, keep her nature-preserve home running and well-kept, and make weekly pilgrimages to see her family, most especially her beloved, adolescent grandchild. This requires a two-hour round-trip and arduous drive on the interstate, which I find challenging when I do it, begrudgingly, once monthly at best. She stays active in her community, always interested and engaging, generous with her time, resources and talents, and ever-available for a smile, a word of encouragement, the latest book suggestion, a meal.
What she can no longer easily do, is balance the rocky terrain around her lovely pond for the daily walks with her dog, which for many years has kept them bonded, fit and energized. What she also cannot seem to easily do is deal with the ongoing and escalating painful nature of walking at all. The condition is chronic and deteriorating, a painful arthritic process for which she’s undergone a wide variety of rehabilitative efforts to slow the worsening, with no greater prognosis than that. I can feel the pain in my ankles, but most especially in my heart, as she describes how difficult it is to stay bolstered and continue the physical therapy sessions that offer only the hope that the worsening will not dramatically hasten. Without effectively noticing any real change or improvement, she is “operating on faith” that physiologically anything is happening at all. I can feel deeply that sense in her that she wakes up with each day, with a heart hungry for a sense of gratitude, all the while her body continues to betray her.
My dear friend has always relied on returning to gratitude as a way of finding her way back to presence, something she puts great value on. Finding gratitude in the flight of the blue herons that land on the pond; the red cardinals that glide and swoop and captivate. Her flower and vegetable gardens; the memory of the sound of so many children’s voices who have lovingly enjoyed this paradise over the decades. The conversations, the connections, the gathering of hearts. The books read and shared, the many retreats and workshops, the wounded and healed hearts who have been loved by this place. She is grateful for the trees planted over the dead bodies of those who once walked these fields, and now nurture life underground. They’re up on the hill, buried the green-way, loved ones lost to the tides of life, and she herself is grateful that she will find her way here to this new world, as life makes its final circle around her. And I will add selfishly, with gratitude and hope, that will be many years from now.
But right now, so much gratitude is a moment by moment stretch. So now, as we sit and talk, I consider which words might be of any use at all, which words might help her to feel both the gratitude and the sorrow, the gratitude and the deep sense of loss. How about gratitude and the irritated anger that rises with so much loss? How about gratitude AND the physically painful reminder that things are this way now, and not the way she wants them to be. And I re-member that this is the only way, always the only way, the middle way: holding the opposites together in one breath, and with great fortune, even in the next breath. Grateful and angry, grateful and sad, grateful and pitiful - one breath, one full experience of holding it all. And I find the way to allow her to come to this knowing is with her own resolve, her own wisdom, her own surrender. I do not do this by holding myself up to be some paragon of ever-flowing wisdom, coming down from the sky on a soft cloud, light and knowing, and oh so wise and endowed with the divine.
I do this by commiserating with how very dreadful this all is, how hard it is, how so very near impossible it is to embrace this all and come gradually and sweetly to gratitude. I recount how close I was, just days ago to a ghastly interior experience of such wretchedness, that I was ready to throw myself into the fire with the rest of the ashes in the heap of hopelessness. And in this moment, she is first able to feel connected and not-alone, and then whole, and then a comfort to a fellow-traveler who also suffers, who also has to climb out of the wreckage of the human condition and back to the sublime. And I understand in this moment, the nature of comfort, the nature of true love, the foundation of true support, the capacity for compassion-ability, and how we can come to it over and over again. How we can lose it in a moment. And how we can return.
We take a step, out of one world as it ends and into another as it begins. Each world ends, and another begins, with every inhale and every exhale, here and gone, the hellos and goodbyes, infinite, eternal and indistinguishable. Our thoughts make their discernments, add edges and zones and borders and boundaries. But our thoughts are the most illusory of all - dying before they are born; worlds ending and beginning. Always ending and beginning again.
The invitation is to leave it alone. To let life be. To know yourself as being lived. That is what is happening here. Life is alive as you, through your breath, through your being. Don't look for it elsewhere. It does you and undoes you, over and over again. You are not the doer. Stop claiming that you are, and your relentless despair of knowing you are not, will dissolve. The belief in the doer, in the future, in something rich and magical beyond this place, is what deadens you, and crushes your heart. The belief in something greater than this has held you captive, left you for dead. And yet you fear death. The only death you will ever know is this lifeless longing. Question these beliefs, awaken from them, and live it out loud. Then you will know yourself as boundless life, as freedom, and your body will age and die fully alive, without regret, endlessly beautiful.
Analisa Domenica is a naturalist minister and mentor, in private practice as a Doula for living and dying. She offers private mentoring sessions, end-of-life preparation & transition support, bereavement, home death, funeral, and natural burial guidance, and laying-on-of-hands for comfort care and pain release. Analisa joyfully celebrates weddings and memorials, according to your faith or secular tradition. She is available to private clients, small groups, and for public education. Find out more about her by clicking here.
'Li' lives and works in Mill Spring, NC, a stone or two's throw from Asheville, NC and Greenville/Spartanburg, SC. She also works globally via phone and zoom. You may reach her by phone at 828.429.0096 or write to her by clicking here.