Showing Up in Unexpected Places

On Christmas Eve, in a pretty church in comfortable Charlestown, RI, the pastor was reminding us that ‘God shows up in unexpected places’.  Among several examples, she spoke of meeting a young man named Emmanuel working a sewing machine in the Luwero Triangle area of Uganda in 1986. A vicious bush war targeting civilians had just ended, the pastor was there helping with development work. Most unexpectedly I had been there too around just that time.

KenyaAfter the service the pastor asked why I had been in the Luwero Triangle in 1986. I just was. I had arrived in Kenya a few months earlier age 24, planning to learn about my late father and his family. I was a registered nurse and it was the time of Live Aid, perhaps I could help starving refugees? Cultural disconnect and my lack of appropriate experience made short shrift of both objectives. My blended Scottish-Kenyan ancestry meant I was neither local nor tourist, I was a tribe of one adrift in a nation of many.

I made friends with visitors from other countries and traveled through much of East Africa. I was in South Africa when the Pass Laws were repealed; a young life guard tried to order me off a (formerly) ‘Whites Only’ beach, until he heard my British accent. I spent three weeks in Somalia, still in the ‘pre- Black Hawk Down’ days but already rushing headlong toward ‘failed nation’ status. The rule of law seemed arbitrary at best and there were guns everywhere. I have never, before or since, felt my own death to be so close at hand. In the first week and already heading with all possible haste for the border, my companion and I found ourselves passengers in an ancient SUV preparing to drive through an ambush. It was a remote location, the only other vehicle shot up, burnt out – still smoldering, and surrounded by pools of blood. I discovered many things in those brief seconds; about myself, my fellow human beings and the nature of life. No shots were fired. There were frightened people by the makeshift barricade, we helped an injured man and traveled on to Mogadishu. The opportunity of the Uganda trip came soon after and, even though I knew the country’s recent bloody history, it seemed a perfectly reasonable idea to go there for a visit.

Why was I in the Luwero Triangle in 1986? What I remember of Uganda is the vibrant fertility of the place, the rich red soil sprouting glossy green trees heavy with bananas. I remember ground nut stews and the elegantly tailored outfits in bold prints worn by the Buganda women. There were child soldiers and road blocks, random gunshots during the night in the capital, Kampala. Traveling in Africa was a series of quiet epiphanies. What it is to be in your mid-twenties, still sure you already hold the answers to most of life’s questions and that you will easily absorb the rest in no time at all! Mostly that year taught me questions. Who am I? What is my purpose in this life? What matters? The conscious mind looks for answers it can process but the soul finds its own lessons.

Along roads lined with heaps of human skulls, among homes ripped apart and painted with racist graffiti the soul lesson was about living. In Somalia I learned that I am not afraid of what comes on the other side of dying. Whoever thinks to claim power over an earthly life, the spirit is subject only to Divine will and needs neither fear nor courage. The people of the Luwero Triangle lived through years that taught the full power of fear and the limits of courage. Yet the atrocities that defied human understanding had not murdered the spirit of hope. The people I met were not trying to reclaim power in their lives through revenge but by rebuilding.  Visitors were invited to witness what hate had done, but also what the human spirit could do. My mind couldn’t fully appreciate what that meant at the time but it is a lesson my soul absorbed and it has shaped my life ever since. Lessons from death are always lessons about living.

Heading through the northern desert of Kenya, 1986

Heading through the northern desert of Kenya, 1986

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The Last Laugh: Dying Matters

I have been asked, “Isn’t it sad – being with people who are dying? The question has as many answers as there are people living. Dying isn’t a personality or character trait, it isn’t even a state of mind although all of these play a part. Be it years, months or only a moment long, dying is a process each of us must live through.
Enjoy some great people living in this 7 minute video from the Dying Matters organization. Warning: Contains British humor!

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What is a Soul Midwife?

A ‘good’ death is an extraordinary, moving, sacred, profound and peaceful experience. And that is, surely, what all of us want.  Felicity Warner, founder of the Soul Midwife School.

Everyone has thought about how they will die, if only fleetingly.  The younger you are, the more likely you hope that you’ll go out in a blaze of glory – die with your boots on, doing something you love.  Your own death is a hard thing to think about.  As we grow older though, and experience the illness and loss of those around us, we become aware that our own dying is much more likely to be a process rather than a cataclysmic event.  Improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of terminal conditions have extended the time remaining for many patients.  Advancements in technology and the medical management of physical symptoms bring new possibilities as well as new challenges to those living in the final stage of their lives.  The hospice movement does vital work in providing care, with professionals and volunteers working in a range of disciplines targeted of improve quality of life.  Information about options such as advance directives and living wills is increasingly available to help the dying and their families make decisions about which end of life services they will use. So what then is the role of the soul midwife?

NurturingA soul midwife guides and supports the dying person, helping them achieve a loving, dignified and peaceful death that is as much on their own terms as possible.  Working in hospital, a hospice or at home the soul midwife provides compassionate care, using complementary therapies such as Reiki, aromatherapy or gentle massage to help alleviate pain and anxiety.  However, it is not only the physical body that prepares for death.  Most of us will have a need for empathetic companionship just when our closest relationships are under great stress.  As we review and prepare to relinquish our responsibilities, support in identifying and fulfilling end of life wishes can bring comfort and emotional healing.  The aim of the soul midwife is not to ‘fix’ or ‘rescue’ the person who is dying but to serve, to empower with knowledge, insight and reassurance.  Each person’s spiritual, religious, atheist or agnostic beliefs and practices are respected.  A sacred space is created where all beliefs about life, death or the afterlife are honored so that each individual is supported in what can only be a very personal journey.

How people die becomes a powerful and lasting memory for the loved ones who remain.  The qualified soul midwife is experienced in providing reassurance and insight during the phase of ‘active dying’.  Guiding loved ones in giving care, or simply supporting them in their vigil with the person who is dying deepens the experience of this special time, creating a sense of peace.  Care for the body after death may be given in a calm, dignified atmosphere.  In many traditions around the world, the body is prepared and a vigil is observed for up to three days.  For loved ones this extended time spent saying goodbye and recognizing the separation of the body and the personality it contained can be very helpful in the grief process.

In a society where the very mention of death has long been taboo soul midwives are needed not only to provide compassionate care but to educate and empower individuals and communities to experience ‘dying’ as a meaningful part of life.  There is more to death than grief and loss.  Embracing the dying process brings unexpected gifts of grace and joy for the person making the transition as well as those who live on.

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At the Threshold

When I turned 50 a couple of years ago I had the feeling, at once overwhelming and uplifting that I had reached a threshold, that I was standing on the doorstep of the rest of my life. Not the venerable granite step of a brightly painted door with a polite brass knocker.  It was more like a busy hotel lobby, a bustle of people coming and going in a commotion of intent and purpose while I lacked clear direction.  I have always treasured these moments, of being poised on the brink of… something!  Preparing to consciously choose a new direction is always exhilarating – be it blissful, just plain terrifying or somewhere in between.

I have encountered many thresholds in my life; leaving home and starting work, setting off alone for Africa, marriage, divorce and remarriage.  Becoming a parent is the most life-changing threshold I have yet crossed, with its twin gifts of challenge and joy.  Both of my children were born at home.  Healthy pregnancies and a wonderful midwife supported my choice to forgo the technology and drugs of the hospital and instead to follow the inner wisdom of my miraculous body that knew just how to bring a new being into the world.  At home, even in the most tumultuous surges of birthing, I had peace to feel the lovely holiness of the door opening between the worlds, to experience the irrefutable beauty of the transition.  Every race and culture on earth celebrates birth with rituals and traditions that honor the beginning of a life.  There is a corresponding threshold of course, that leading out of life – death.  It’s the same door, just a different direction.  Yet in our society we seem to have lost our recognition of it as an unavoidable part of life.  Unhealthy and macabre attitudes towards death and dying are everywhere, while we are losing touch with our inner wisdom and the healing traditions of ritual.

Xmas 2009

Christmas 2009

Death comes to us all.  My father died after long, chronic illness, and my younger brother was killed instantly a motorbike accident.  More recently a beloved family member, Alex left this life in an incredible example of ‘passing’ with flying colors!  Alex, who had survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teenager, was an exceptionally warm, generous and spiritual man.  He had been working in hospice for 18 years when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stomach cancer in 2009.  Over the years that I knew him we had had many talks about death and about what might come next.  Our conversations grew more spiritual as the cancer progressed and his final Christmas, spent with my family was the most meaningful I have ever experienced.  Alex lived every minute of his dying and shared its lessons with all who were willing to accompany him on his journey.

Alex passed away peacefully at home surrounded with love.  His grace in transition made it possible for those of us left behind to experience a gift of holiness, a kind of loveliness even in that most grief-filled of times.  A few days after his death, some of Alex’s hospice co-workers came to visit his wife.  Arriving at the Delaware house on a chilly, damp March day they were captivated by an ‘upside-down rainbow’ in the sky above the house.  A circumzenithal arc, occasionally seen in northern latitudes when light is refracted through ice crystals high in the atmosphere.  A rainbow smile from the heavens.

Alex Smile II keep a photograph of Alex’s rainbow smile on my kitchen wall as a reminder that, at least in the big picture of life, all is well.  Shortly after Christmas 2012 another rainbow smile appeared in the sky, this time over my home in Rhode Island.  It was a beautiful winter’s day that Alex would have loved and I felt so happy thinking of him being with us in spirit.  A couple of days later a new friend was visiting and asked about the rainbow picture on my wall.  After I had told her about the two rainbows I went to the computer to find something she needed.  At once I saw a message that a young woman I knew had died in an accident.  As our community came together in that time of loss, grief and memorial, I was strengthened by my travels with Alex.  The personal threshold I faced was clearing, I began to see that my path was calling me to work in end of life care.  I decided to become a hospice volunteer as a first step to becoming a Soul Midwife.

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Blogging by Heart

I have had a hard time making peace with the social web.  Don’t all those virtual conversations take time away from real-time, face-to-face conversations?  (My actual  experience  - No, they take time away from sleep!)  Can we ever really make meaningful connections online?  (One of the most authentically lovely weddings I’ve been to in recent years, was of friends who met on EHarmony.com).  And who cares about all those people tapping out blogs into cyberspace anyway?

Three years ago, my husband’s brother-in-law, Alex – you might call him the spiritual heart of our family, was diagnosed with gastric cancer.  His sister-in-law’s mother-in-law (marry one, you marry ‘em all in this family), suggested he use CarePages to keep everyone updated on what was happening.  As a hospice volunteer Diane knew of the online service which provides those dealing with illness a private forum for communication.  With friends and family all over the States and in Europe too, this seemed an easy way for Alex to keep us all informed about the tests and treatments he would be having.  Thirty years earlier, at age 17 he had a year of chemo and radiation for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma so he knew the path ahead would be long and convoluted.

Alex was always a natural communicator; warm, funny and honest.  He set up his web log and soon became as butter to freshly popped corn.  His posts rapidly evolved from a diary of hospital visits to being a window on all the joys of his life; food, travel, and Cheri – his “Main Squeeze”.  He regarded the cancer in his posts as the doctors investigated it in his body, seriously and thoroughly but always with his focus on living.  The number of visitors to his page began to grow; co-workers, friends and family.  Each new post was met with a long list of replies; hopeful, thoughtful, mirthful.

Treatment began and with it the dreadful side effects.  As the chemo pumped into him,  Alex shared his thoughts on the role of challenge in the human realm of a spiritual life.  Surgery to remove the tumor was scheduled for the summer and by then the Tyree LoveLine had more than 500 subscribers.  Alex and Cheri headed up to Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York and we sent our love and prayers along with them via the wire.  The post-op news came by blog, and it was heart breaking.  The cancer had proved even more aggressive than expected and had spread beyond his stomach, Alex was in stage IV.

In the months that followed we gathered close as he shared his final journey with us.  He wrote to us from Brazil, Tuscany and Cape Cod about his life and his faith.  In his correspondence he shared meals he could not finish alongside beautiful, hard crystals of truth he mined at the seam of dying.  We also had these conversations during face to face visits but these intimate, heartfelt exchanges traveled most often over the distances of hours and miles via the LoveLine.  Alex took us to his favorite coffeehouse, The Bruhaha, to introduce us to his friends, to each other.  We became a community connected by the replies we posted, responding to each other as well as to Alex with stories and support.  In his 18 year career as a bereavement  counselor in hospice Alex had been passionate about end of life issues.  His blog gave him a place to work through his own experiences, to find his way to what he called true healing.  I have similarly found that writing helps me to find the truths I need.

Alex, with my mother-in-law.

When Alex transitioned to the Big Love in February 2010, we all came together to remember him at his church in Delaware.  Many of his online family met each other for the first time but we were already connected on a deeper level than would have been possible by any other medium.  It seems it is possible to communicate our authentic selves by synthetic means, be it by letter, telephone or computer.  Love, hope and grief expressed online to another human being still connects us to each other, to the Big Love.  I am at peace with that.

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