Sunday, December 27, 2015

Family Circles

While in L.A., I went with my grandson, Oscar, to see The Happy Dinosaur. It’s a beautiful Pixar (I love Pixar) movie about a dinosaur family.  With the animation in Pixar, so much of what is said is presented through facial expression and body language.

Arlo, the youngest and runtiest of the family, strives to be like everyone else in his family. He struggles to achieve what he perceives as a demonstration of love and acceptance, and, ultimately, to ‘make his mark’ in his natural world, especially with the members of his family of origin…the world of his parents and siblings. He searches for ways to prove himself to others and struggles with the natural events in life that jeopardize that pursuit.

According to Developmental Psychologist Eric Erikson feelings of acceptance and love develop within the first 5 years of life. Initially, our relationship with mother determines our sense of trust vs. mistrust in the world. Both parents are influential from 3 months to 6 years for our sense of autonomy and our development of strong will.  Our relationships with mother and father, brothers and sisters, sometimes even grandparents and aunts and uncles, reflect the development of confidence and self worth that initially drives our psychological development and grows our sense of purpose and efficacy in the world. Virtues of hope, will and purpose are determined during these early years.

The Good Dinosaur portrays a graphic illustration of family. In the sandy terrain of the desert, Arlo and his new acquaintance and buddy, Spot, draw a circle around the members of their families. Within Spot’s illustration are two large branches representing his father and his mother. Himself, he shows with a small twig. Arlo places two large twigs and three smaller ones, each lined up according to size, with himself showing up as the smallest. Once Spot knocks over his two largest twigs, suggesting that they no longer exist, Arlo sadly does the same to his largest branch, his father, who had died during the latest storm.
As we sit watching this scene in the theatre, I feel Oscar’s little body leaning forward and I can sense his head twisting 45% until he’s looking directly at me. That I am uncontrollably weeping, I know, is not the only cause of his attention.

Rather, Oscar is remembering two days ago when he and I were sharing time together and talking. At that time, he asked, “Safta, do you always carry your journal with you?” “Yes, Oscar. I do. And if, for some reason I don’t have it with me, and I have something I want to write, I write it on a scrap of paper or a kitchen napkin, and when I am with my journal again, I glue it in.”

“What else do you have in your journal?” he asks with sincere curiosity. “Oh, lots!” I reply, and I go immediately to grab my journal to show him some of the things that are inside. Photographs, an admit ticket to see the Dalai Lama in Vancouver, a red autumn leaf that a friend gave me recently to remind me of the beauty of autumn. I showed him the lists I made, diagrams I created, mind maps and circle graphs and pictures. I showed it all to him.

“What’s this about?” Oscar asks as he points to a diagram I had just recently created. It was of 3 circles, each one within the other. The outer circle, I explained to Oscar, represents my family of origin. My mother and father and siblings are all part of that circle. The next inner circle, not far from the first, is me and all that I am. That means, daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, wife, friend, colleague, From there, all the way to the centre, I describe as my family of creation. Here are all the children who make up my offspring…all those to whom I have given birth, or adopted, and all their children too. That’s where you fit in, my Oscar!”

I tell Oscar, during our conversation, that I needed to draw this diagram because I was feeling something I could not describe in words. “What does it mean?” he asks.

“Well” I said. “Now that your great grandma (my mother) has died, I no longer feel sense of my family of origin. The outer circle is gone. I, now, am that outer circle. There is no one and nothing that tethers me to the outside now. It’s something I must do alone. I have my own integrity and morality to help me determine how to live and how to be. I have myself to attend to, with a heavy understanding of the effects that my behaviours have on my inner circle and beyond. I feel different now…less stable, less secure, more vulnerable and cautious. And alone.

At the end of the movie, Arlo recognizes his triumphs even before he receives his reward. It is Arlo, “The Good Dinosaur” who learns to appreciate himself, even before others do so. That is my struggle now too. Love begins from within, however we are able to initiate that process. Seeking approval and love from others doesn’t always work. I hope Oscar gets to learn that early, and still maintains humility, grace and compassion so that he can share what he knows with others. As for me…I’m still working on it. That’s my vision for 2016!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Pushing Through

My Yoga practice informs me on ways that I can manage my life. At times, I avoid getting onto my mat. I’m too busy, not in the mood, waiting for an important phone call, too tired. When I push through my reluctance and ease in to some form of engagement, Yoga becomes my teacher. The inspiration it offers becomes the focus for the effort to engage. At times, simply forging into my practice provides the reward and satisfaction I need.

I always remember the first time Sajee, my Yoga teacher in India, taught me how to get into a scorpion pose. I thought I would never be able to get there. “My balance isn’t good enough.” “My shoulders aren’t strong enough.”  “My body isn’t stable enough.”  “I’m too old.” “I’m too tired.” “I’m too hot and sweaty.” Sajee would hear none of it. He ‘took my hand’ and walked me through the journey. In days I was up in an inverted scorpion. It hurt some. I kept getting back up each time I toppled over. It was frustrating, frightening and humbling. I needed to persevere. And I did! Now I’m able to keep doing it years later. I’ve addressed it, faced it and accomplished desired results. My body remembers. I might choose one day to take it further, (putting my legs into lotus while inverted), but for now, I’m satisfied. I can live with it the way it is. I’m comfortable. When I’m not anymore, I’ll consider changes.

Sometimes intense changes in life happen simultaneously! Lately, for instance, I have been confronted with several life and death events, serious changes that profoundly affect my existence. My mom’s death, two grandchildren being born in two different cities, changes in primal relationships, easing into aging, adjusting to work responsibilities, these are all issues that I have had to integrate, all at the same time, over the last eight weeks. I don’t get to choose which ones I’ll deal with and which ones I’ll put aside. They are all necessary now! It’s how I choose to engage with each of them that makes the difference.

Much of the time, feeling good is easy! Giving thanks for the simple things in my life readily and often occurs.  The acuity of my senses, my connection with nature, relationships with my kids, social time with friends, my job and my openness to take time off, my extraordinary life partnership with Paul, and my ability to work through issues are all things I appreciate regularly. The challenge comes in finding the good even in the midst of hardship and pain. Settling in to the pain…accepting the hurt…welcoming the changes that come from growth all require different energy. Obstacles present an opportunity to push through, perhaps, or even just to accept that things aren’t always good and easy. Using recreational drugs and alcohol, keeping our selves busy, always having some event planned, socializing constantly, or clouding the boundaries between work and family, are all ways we evade having to soul search and connect to our inner child.  We try to run from discomfort, stuff the conflict, distract ourselves from the pain that we feel and just “carry on”. Ultimately these very obstacles provide the material to expand and grow and make us more resilient and stronger. Finding the gratitude in these toughest times, though way more challenging than ignoring them, allows me to become more of who I am.

My life is blessed! When I take the time to imagine how my life might be so different, I remind myself to appreciate that I do have what I have and that I am who I am! It could be different. Everything I have could be taken away at any time. The challenges I face sometimes bring me to my knees. I am not faultless. Not everything is laid out perfectly for me. I am meant to struggle and battle. Facing humbling experiences and rebuilding myself regularly reminds me to reflect more clearly about the kind of person I want to be. And through this work I keep coming back to the gentle lessons of forgiveness, compassion, respect and acceptance because, when it comes right down to it…. that’s exactly where I want to be. So today, when I approach my balancing postures, which are sometimes impossible, or my handstands, which require so much arm strength, or even my simple crow posture, which necessitates calm and focus, I welcome the challenges that these postures bring me. I identify, concentrate and struggle to achieve my goal. I can only try, and accept wherever I land…. for now.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Waiting For Death

The nighttime darkness has yet to lift even though the clock on the ceiling says it’s morning. The rain continues to pound on the roof and sides of our yurt. It’s been raining through my intermittent sleep. The crackling of fresh fire replenished from last night’s embers provide warmth, and flickers generously. I am about to face another day. My first cup of coffee. My new computer.  Fresh opportunity to receive what comes. My mother is still dead.
It’s been a challenge.  Remembering my 11-day vigil at Norwalk Hospital, being with her as she transitions from life to peace, has become a comfort and gift to me. Together, with my brothers, making a decision to discontinue artificial nourishment and hydration, meant the eventual demise of my mom’s living system. Without food or drink, the journey can take up to 3 weeks. In hospital, with incredibly devoted nurses, doctors, patient advocates and Hospice specialists, I too, want to protect her and comfort her as she passes away. I set up camp next to her bed, and engage in every bit of her activity.

I watch her as she lay on her comfortable, crib-like bed, slowly shifting one leg at a time to one side or the other. She seems to want to climb out. Where would she be going really? Doesn’t she know she doesn’t have to do anything? She can rest now. Death will be coming for her. Death will do all the work.

I think she does know. Mom lies in her bed engaged in 
animated and spirited conversations with her angels. With eyes wide open, a fine, cloudy layer of film separates her from this world. She
dramatically engages with others with whom 
she plans to be, arms gesticulating and hands waving freely towards the ceiling until, finally, in prayer fashion, she rests her clasped hands tenderly on her heart. She speaks continuously. It’s not language that I can understand. But, for sure, ‘they’ do…her angels. Together, plans are being made. Plans to finally let go…. release her worldly commitments…be free!  I promise to be with her until the end. 

Occasionally, the babble is interrupted with some familiar words. “Where’s the fire”? pops out in the middle of a babbling monologue. Or “Let me ask you a question” which startles Paul and me. That was something mom would say before dementia complicated her speech. Sometimes I think I hear familiar patterns like, “….just go through the kitchen…” or ….Moshe….”.  Moshe was her father’s name.  I laugh sometimes when I listen to her soft babble. Her intonation modulates as she reaches, and her tone changes depending on the plans she is creating with her angels. I am comforted by this. Mom is moving on to join her angels. She might even reconnect with my father!

Mom does not eat or drink. Her body and brain are no longer communicating. She lies in her bed, struggling to breathe. Her eyes are mostly open, staring up towards the ceiling, and I suppose right through to the heavens. She waits. So do I.

My 61 years with my mom haven’t always been easy. Leaving home at an early age allowed us to recreate a new relationship. From various long distances, over the years, we talked always, visited with each other often, fought and laughed and shopped and shared. There are some places in the world we explored together, sharing adventures and new experiences. It wasn’t always easy…but she was always my mother. No longer bottle feeding me, or doing my laundry or making my meals. She no longer takes me to theatre or grabs me for a quick movie. She hasn’t called me on the phone in 10 years, and she sometimes doesn’t even know what my name is. But…. my mom was always my mom. She changed. She no longer serves me the way she did in my childhood (maybe that’s actually a good thing). But Roberta Hirsh Block was my mother. Always! Right until the very moment she took her last breath.

I love you mom! And…crazy as it seems…. I miss you too!

The nighttime sky is still dark. The clock on my ceiling has progressed, but the morning light has still not arrived. Maybe today will be dark. Maybe tomorrow too. The sun might take some time to brighten my world right now. I will give in to this…to sit, to cry, to pray and to remember…at least until the sun shines again.