06 December, 2012

No Regrets Living

In her article, Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse, reported asking her patients their regrets as they faced their last days.  She cited the five regrets that were most commonly expressed. 

1.  I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me 
2.  I wish I didn’t work so hard. (Every terminal male patient she had nursed expressed this view.) 
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4.  I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.  
5.  I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This article struck a particular chord with me.  When I was seventeen, I started to work with the Visiting Nurse’s of Martha’s Vineyard.  They had a new program they were starting and offered me the opportunity to work with them as a nurse’s aid; it was called Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard.  We had weekly sessions to discuss Death and Dying. We read Elizabeth Kubler Ross, author of On Death and Dying. What was most important was that the small group of us were part of a new focus dedicated to caring for the patients and families of those who had been identified as having terminal illnesses.  If life has chapters, that chapter of my life was one of the most formative.  I spent the summer of 1976 through the Spring of 1980 working with dying people.  The first three months were the hardest.  I had five patients.  I lost five patients.  I was the one who stayed by their beds when things got messy, when they were scared, when no one else would feed them or listen to their fears.  I was willing to ask, “Are you afraid?”  “Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?” Sometimes, patients answered with mechanical adjustments like plumping a pillow, bringing a book, baking a cake. However, when they were feeling low or angry, I found that they simply wanted me to be there.  I worried about being paid to sit, but one of my early patients, Nettie Allen, told me that she was paying me and I would do what she wanted me to do.  Some days, I canned fruit or weeded her garden under her direction. Some days, I sat next to her on a bench and we listened to bird calls.  Her feisty spirit waned, but her lessons did not. I learned a lot about dying over those years. I observed that people die as differently as they live.  Some fight hard, but go quietly, others seem to have given up, yet linger.  Some people talk about the past and their mistakes, others focus of leaving things in order for their families. There is an intimacy borne of death. The questions that may have gone unspoken without the impending sense of leave-taking may be asked openly.  The one I asked every patient was, “Would you have done anything differently?”  It was that question that prompted me to label the kind of life I hoped to lead as No Regrets Living.  The biggest takeaway that those years working for hospice -- first on Martha’s Vineyard, then later, in western Massachusetts -- gave me was a belief that each of us should strive to live in a way that we do not harbor regrets. I asked myself, “What if we lived life large?  Took a risk to do exactly what we wanted to do with our lives?” I wondered if regrets could be nothing more than an acknowledgement of our mistakes.  Are they an inevitable result of life?  After all, part of life is failing. The more important part is getting up again. Did my patients have regrets because they were misinformed, too afraid to choose the path they desired or because they simply did not get back up when they failed?  No matter how regrets are defined, these patients were unanimous in their message to try to live as close as I could to a No-Regrets Life.  This imperative has been a compass rose for me.  Faced with life’s hardest decisions, I still pause to ask myself, “What would I do if I knew tomorrow was my last day? Would I regret this choice?” This strategy has stood the test of time.
Bronnie Ware did a commendable job summarizing the five regrets most often expressed by people who were dying.  If only we could heed the message contained there in, we might be better equipped to live a No-Regrets Life.  For now, maybe I will just print the five regrets on card stock and hand them out to everyone I meet. If one person, just one, changes the direction of his or her life because of the sage advice of moribund patients, the strategy would be worthwhile. We will all have earned a spot on the stage to sing alongside Frank Sinatra...  “Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”
Bonnie Ware’s essay may be found at  http://www.inspirationandchai.com/Regrets-of-the-Dying.html

18 July, 2012

On the Island

dee~ July 2012
On the Island
On the Island,
Water holds history
haunting lore of pasts
hopeful tales of tomorrows,
--Please, excuse me, make way,
c o m i n g  t h r o u g h
with urgent scents, sounds and sights of 
Soak in the sun, drink in the rain, breathe in the beauty.
The Island is for all of us,
is all for us.

12 July, 2012

Chestnut Mountain Viewed

written 10/2010
Years ago, the cover of a newsstand magazine caught my attention.  Headlined in the August edition was the 1996 Better Homes and Gardens Home of the Year.  Ever since then, I have kept that magazine preserved in a manila envelope covered with large bold words in red ink; SAVE, SAVE, SAVE.  The plans in that magazine changed my life.
Back in August, 1996, my husband, three children, two cats and one bird were pushing out the boundaries of our 2200sq. foot restored farmhouse.  We were at a cross-road; we needed to expand our living quarters, build or purchase a new home.  The plans in Better Homes and Gardens captivated our attention and claimed out hearts.  I mailed a check for the architectural plans and we allowed our dreams to blossom.  We searched six months for an appropriate lot that would meet our budget and construction requirements.  Our efforts were not fruitful.  Reluctantly, we shelved our desire to build the 1996 Better Homes and Gardens Home of the Year.  We put our one hundred year old home on stilts, dug a full basement, constructed a solid foundation and added a family room and a library.  We loved the property we rebuilt.  We had a comfortable home, an in-ground pool and over an acre of land for privacy. And yet…
From a box, under our bed, in an envelope labeled SAVE, SAVE, SAVE, our future whispered to us.  By tacit, unspoken agreement, we kept a six-year vigil for the hillside property that might accommodate our house.  My husband stumbled upon it in a casual conversation with an insurance client.  The property on Chestnut Mountain had proven difficult to develop and the client wanted to sell it.  
Together, my husband and I hiked up the remnants of a logging road that disappeared into an overgrown tangle of thicket.  After climbing 400 feet up Chestnut Mountain, we took to trails left by deer and other fauna of western Massachusetts.  My husband gained purchase of the view by shimmying up a tree.  I climbed on until I reached a rock-roped ridge with a stream of water trickling down it.  My heart beat loud and fast, whether from exhilaration or exertion, I was not concerned.  I had a strong, sure sense of coming home.  Unfolding below us was the wide, expansive vista of the rolling hills and mountains that lend the geographic identity to this region.  The Connecticut River Valley coursed through it, threading its way south toward Springfield, toward the sea.  
The land transaction was readily accomplished.  What followed was anything but easy.  We endured a two-year legal wrangle with the local Zoning Board who were invested in flexing their muscles on our project.  Less committed dreamers may have abandoned their dreams, but we had a secret inspiration.  We had a magazine with a full photo-shoot of our dream house as it would rise from the end of a 1200 -foot long mountainous driveway.   
We moved into Chestnut Mountain View in December, 2005.  Today, numerous projects are still underway, including:  landscaping, constructing the wrap-around deck, finishing the first floor space.  Time, energy and resources have been at a premium.  These factors in no way diminish our deep sense of gratitude that we live on ten acres in a home that can only be described as a hallowed place: we live perched between earth and sky in a spacious and light-filled home once featured in Better Homes and Gardens.

Letting Go

from October, 2011
I stood in a ten by eleven foot room this afternoon wailing.  I hadn’t seen it coming.  These sobs from deep in my belly rolled up and out.  My nose ran and my eyes rained tears.  Loss seemed to have multiplied in black body bags.  I was surrounded by five contractor size garbage bags of my father’s life.  For three hours, I pulled items from his closet, from his desk from one of his four brief cases, from his bookcase, from his stereo cabinet and from boxes stored under his desk.  I salvaged more than I intended.  Four boxes of records dating back to the late 1800’s.  A suit, a shirt, two ties, for the day he might require them.  A collection of tape recordings made over the past 25 years.  Several touching notes and letters written to my sister and me for such day that I was doing such a heart-breaking task.  My father’s relocation to the Holyoke Soldier’s Home will provide him a new start on life.  He left behind the detritus for my sister and I to sort out.  The visceral pain of touching the pieces of his life that he treasured most were what was most difficult.  My great-grandmother’s sepia photograph wrapped in a velvet sack laid alongside money from the mid to late 1800’s. It was hard to ponder what brought these items together.  The batteries and pens and stationery and the stamps on letters never mailed were inventoried and sorted.  
My brother-in-law and I had spent hours and hours over the weekend right here in the exact same spot.  We had removed close to a ton of clutter and cast aways from the house already.  I tried to steel l myself to it.  I tried to apply my very exceptional skill to sort and organize like and unlike items (learned from playing hundreds of games of solitude, I am convinced) without the emotional burden of being present  - while I toss an entire refrigerator filled with half-eaten food.  It is not easy.  Loss always seems to declare itself as I finger a book, turn over a photograph, gather up items for the Thrift Shop.  Letting go, no matter who, no matter how, no matter when, is simply never easy.

13 May, 2012

Teaching Principles of Motherhood

Whatever we teach our children, we teach ourselves.
Teaching Principles
molly lemeris and dawn elise evans
To teach our children to practice tolerance of others and self-acceptance.
To teach our children the importance of self-discipline.
To teach our children that there is a greater force that guides them and to trust in the unseen.
To teach our children that liberty means freedom for all.
To teach our children that to give is to receive; that giving comes from the heart.
To teach our children to look for, and appreciate life’s many miracles. Use tenderness regularly.
To teach our children to celebrate life whenever possible.
To teach our children that light is possible because of darkness.  Live in light.
To teach our children that love is given unconditionally and that love drives out fear.
To teach our children to relinquish making demands on others and of life.  Focus on intention instead.
To reach our children that peace is found first in the heart.
To teach our children that truth is paramount.  “Be still and listen to the truth.”
                              This quote is from A Course in Miracles

04 February, 2012

Hope Springs Maternal

Somewhere in my files of abandoned essays is an essay entitled, Hope Springs Maternal.  I started writing the piece about fifteen or twenty years ago when my children were irrepressibly curious and impossibly busy.  I was acutely aware of my failings as a mother.  I  regretted my short, critical words, my lack of patience, the missed moments of connecting with my children.  I mourned my ineptitude as a mother and held on to the notion that tomorrow, tomorrow, I would be a better mother. A particular incident still stands in sharp relief in my memory.  My four-year old daughter called me into the kitchen.  Her three-year old sister was napping and her brother had not been born.  I was the harried mother of two.  Hannah came into the kitchen with pure joy on her face.  She had something else on her face as well. From check to check she had drawn a red slash of lipstick that covered her lips and an 1/2 an inch all around them.
 “Oh my, what did you do?”  I cried.  In her hand was my broken Estee Lauder lipstick.   Her look of proud joy and thrilled excitement deflated into misery with my harsh words. 
“I wanted to be like you, Mommy!”  I felt dreadful for having hurt her.  Hannah’s eyes welled with tears that she fought to keep back.  Mine did, too.  Immediately, I regretted that I had been thoughtless.  There were so many ways I might have handled the situation in a positive, teaching manner. Instead, in that moment, I crushed her spirit. Truly, I tried to recover and from there, I think I handled things well.  However, as I laid in bed that night, I ruminated.  I distinctly remember the feeling of deep regret.  I promised myself that tomorrow I would do a better job, tomorrow, I would be a better mother.  Remorse is a heavy load.  I discovered that remorse and regret smother hope.
I pause to reflect on this today, the anniversary of the most difficult year of my life.  It is worth noting that against all odds I have survived whole and in tact.  Upon hearing the list of hardships my family has endured over the past 365 days, one long-lost friend remarked that Job has nothing on us.  The same friend offered to drive me to my next doctor’s appointment as some form of meager recompense for not helping more she said. I grasped her outreached hand. 
It is these kinds of generous acts of kindness from others that have illuminated my path and given me hope through the darkness.  Hope.  In the recipe of life, hope shares equal measure with love.  They are, to my mind, inexorably tangled.  Against all odds, hope has wheedled its way into a life that had been nearly crushed by sorrow, fear and pain.  
The descent into despair is not sudden.   I imagine the slippery sides of a cavernous hole disappearing into the ground.  There are handholds of persistent weeds, small outcroppings of rock, and convenient ledges to grasp as the descent begins.  It is a manageable climb with a bright blue sky still stretched above like a taut blanket.  There may be voices calling down echoing and not-quite audible in their encouragement.  At some point, the plunge no longer seems a good idea, but there is no reversing the motion down, down, down. The walls become slick, wet; there are short, terrifying moments of free-fall until an abrupt and unexpected arrest on no more than a toe hold of rock.  Whispered prayer and quiet determination prove no match against gravity for long.  A head over heel tumble through black space suspends thought and feeling.  It ends in a painful HUMPH as the lungs are forced to release their air.  The body lies broken and still while the mind seeks its bearings.  No rays of light touch the walls of this dark prison.  Perhaps there are some muffled sounds from above, but they are hard to too hard to discern above the lupdup, lupdup of the heart’s relentless urge to beat.   
If I were an Edgar Allen Poe aficionado, the story might end here, with a nod to The Tell Tale Heart. Poe wrote, “It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night.” Lying at the bottom of this grave-like pit with only a beating heart for company, one’s thoughts drift hauntingly in dangerous directions. 
However, a single brilliant ray of light can penetrate the deepest darkness.  Emily Dickinson brought us this thought, 
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches on the soul
And sings the tunes without the words
And never stops at all.  
Hope is what fills the body with light and lifts the weight of sorrow before it can crush the spirit.  
As a junior in high school. I read Dantes’s Inferno.  So much of its symbolism and meaning escaped me simply because the landscape of my life had not yet been populated with that kind of sorrow and strife.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translated Dante’s work with a colorful and rich prose and descriptive imagery.  In the early 1300‘s, Dante succeeded in describing his own view of darkness that was no different than Longfellow’s in the 1800’s or our perspective today:  
He wrote, 
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Thirty-eight chapters later, Dante reached the end of his journey through the nine circles of hell.  He ascended on Easter saying,
Hence we came forth to rebehold the stars.  
From the fiery gates of hell, a place that represents infinite despair, Dante emerged above ground to witness the shimmering light of distant stars and the promise of hope..  
William Styron made note of this optimistic message –often lost in the telling of Dante’s Inferno – in his book about depression called Visible Darkness.   Stryon’s volume is a small one, easy to hold open in one hand.  The generous chairs at Barnes and Noble provided me with a comfortable resting place to read it, cover-to-cover in one sitting.  Like any great writer, William Styron changed my view of the world with that book.  Not only did I better understand the demons with which he had wrestled for so long, I better understood myself.  
I was never diagnosed with depression, but I felt more than a passing acquaintance with the subject of depression as Styron described it.  Perhaps, unwittingly, I have been wrestling with some demons of my own.  What I did know after reading Styron was that from the time that man has walked upright, he has been seeking light. What I did know was that anything that fosters one’s belief that tomorrow might be better than today is what instills hope among the downhearted.
Whether it’s a penlight, a flashlight or the blinding light of day, when light penetrates the cavernous pit in which the forlorn are entombed, a seed of hope is born.
Hope Springs Maternal
Dawn Elise Evans

Hope is never a leap.  It’s a small series of little movements that hardly qualify as steps.  
Hopes comes unbidden but unceasingly. 
Hope is irresistible and seductive. 
Hope looks like sunshine or a ray of light, a smile, an hour in the garden.  
Hope is a friend’s call and offer to visit.  
Hope is shaped and molded by memories of the past. 
Hope, like love, when accepted and encouraged, can lift and sustain us.
Hope comes dressed as the promise of a tomorrow.
Hope trumps despair.