DSC_0550E.’s grandmother is in the hospice. The head of her bed faces a small wardrobe with family photos taped to the pressed wood, and a large window that gives her a view of the tops of a few birch trees, and an expanse of sky.

We arrive just after the nurses’ aids have delivered her evening meal: a smoothie, a cream soup of some sort, and one piece of bread cut into 4 small squares, each with a dollop of a different kind of jam. But she says she has no appetite.

Remembering now, I almost write, “she sighed”. But that would be wrong. She was having trouble breathing. Speaking a single sentence was as exhausting as it would be for me to run up a steep hill as fast as possible. Or more so. Her chest rises and falls, with difficulty. And more rapidly than one would expect. Like a small bird–yes, the cliché.

She recovers slowly. Then asks about the weather. A single, careful sentence that costs her.

E. tells her that his mother had remarked earlier that afternoon that the day reminded her of apple-picking. His grandmother smiles and nods. She stares at the blue sky through the window. “An autumn day,” she says.

She has pain in her legs. In her stomach. She has trouble straightening her head on the pillow and needs to ask E. to help. To touch her on each side of her thin face and gently move it, just enough, to release a neck muscle that was gripping out of habit.

I stare at the mystery soup in the Styrofoam cup. I try to smell it, inconspicuously. But the other scents in the room are overwhelming: the mushroom smell of cleaning cloths, and spongy smell of green soap.

E. settles her head on the pillow. She closes her eyes. A few moments later she asks again, “So, it’s nice outside?”

Again, at a cost.

E. says yes.

I become aware of my feet in my too-tight dress-shoes; my hand in E.’s hand; I think about how I had commented earlier on our run, about the “bite” in the air. It had been a mindless complaint between strides.

I see now, through the window in her room, the jewel-blue sky and the cotton-ball clouds. It’s beautiful. And I want to be out there again, out in the biting wind that carries Jæren’s round/sharp smell of livestock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few years ago, over a long lunch, a friend was telling me about his morning – about driving to work. He was stuck in traffic, and felt himself getting angrier and angrier. Twisting himself in knots, and becoming increasingly upset about how his day was off to a lousy start.

IMG_20150623_081436Then the ambulance passed by.

His story still helps me put my own frustrations in perspective. I keep his story in my head like a post-it note on the door to the room where petty annoyances go to fester. It works for me surprisingly often.  I’ve been able to  turn daily inconveniences into a practice of gratitude: a reminder of what goes right, what works out in time, and what is ultimately important.

One of the great things about getting older is that lessons actually begin to take hold. This summer I was standing in line at a grocery store and watching the woman in front of me lash out at the cashier. Then at her elderly companion. But I was having a good day, so I could take a step back and I realised that it must hurt to be her. I’m sure I’ve been her. And just few years ago I would have made a snarky remark – if not to her – then to the cashier to let him know I was “on his side” of the conflict. I would have helped define the drama. Made a scene. Created a real-world narrative that would have involved two sides.  His and hers. But this was on her. I let it be with her.

I smiled at the woman as she left, smiled at the cashier, and told him it was a pretty day outside. I said I hoped his day improved, and that he would be able get out to enjoy the sunshine.

I have no idea what this woman’s story really was. But I chose to assume that she was under stress. Maybe she’d just come from the doctor with very bad news. Maybe the elderly companion was her Alzheimer’s-stricken father, who had just beaten her mother, who was now in the hospital.

(I have always had an active imagination, and can quickly tweeze out an intricate drama.)

I seriously doubt that these are the kind of compassionate thoughts that Buddhists want us to have when we are focusing on loving kindness for all people. I mean, I see that it is almost fantasising as a form of revenge. Not even “almost”. It is.

I haven’t been able to let go of this woman. Not like I should. But at least I haven’t held on to the anger.

This is where I am right now in my spiritual development. Working from the outside, in.

Trying to put good into the real world. And keeping the rest of it to myself, as fiction.

11821293_1650321128515024_1613060457_nSitting on the train today, on the way home from work, I listened to Jimmy Carter’s press conference, and cried.

And I felt foolish, crying for a man I never met.

I’ve spent the afternoon wondering why this touches me so deeply. Why this ache is vaguely reminiscent of the feelings I had when my grandfather lay dying 2000 miles away, and the nurse on the other end of the phone patiently pieced together my sob-staggered phrases  to understand my questions, and answer them.

There’s no cause for that kind of parallel: I have no claim on Jimmy Carter. I never sat with him in the evening, watching Hawaii 5-0, and eating chocolate ripple ice cream. He never grumbled at me, telling me to hush in church, only to be ribbed himself – just minutes later by my grandmother, for snoring.

I was 10 in 1976. My mother and my grandmother voted for Carter. There was grown-up talk in the living room, that I parroted in the schoolyard with friends. Not deep conversation, not in either venue, but emotional. There was a rare earnestness and conviction in the air. It was the Bicentennial, and earnestness was in fashion. Americans wanted to believe again. We were painting fire hydrants, and celebrating democracy. Carter was a symbol of adulthood and responsibility. I saw, in him, the grown-up for the grown-ups in my life.

This was a few years before Christopher Columbus fell from elementary school grace, and America changed.

But Jimmy Carter never did change.

While the rest of us moved on to irony and cynicism, he literally kept the faith. He was ridiculed and mocked for it. Yes, people would express admiration, but with a fearful kind of foot-in-the-door when it came to his goodness: an assumption that his compassion went likely hand-in-hand with naiveté. “A good man, but a not-so-good president” was a phrase I heard often. As though compassion necessarily went hand-in-hand with weakness.

But he has been around all these years. Is still here, as a reassuring background in (I suspect, nearly all of) our lives. The hum of his humanitarian work has been constant presence in the news, in the world. He is a part of the good I’ve clung to from my childhood memories. The good from which everything else “grown-up” (the cynicism and scepticism) seems to stand out in relief.

Settling down for the evening with a glass of wine and the computer, I lounge on the couch with the old lady. She’s here for two weeks, and it has been more than two years since I’ve had her with me this long. Next week my ex will be back in town to pick her up and take her home with him. To the garden where she has lived her whole life, where she is happy.

But tonight, I’m rubbing her stomach. She smiles. (I can tell).

I can feel the tumours in her teats. They are still growing, but slowly. I rub her shoulder blades, and find new places I’m not allowed to touch her. The arthritis affects more than her hips now.

She’s well over 15. Over 100 in dog years. She rarely complains. And on walks, she still stops in open spaces and challenges me to a game of tag. And she, still, never takes shit from other dogs.

Vulnerability is not weakness. I see that when I look at her.

Right now, she is the reality that makes real the nearness of death. Not Jimmy Carter. To claim that would be an insult to his family and to the people who do know and love him, to those for whom he is not a symbol, not a background hum.

What frightens me about Jimmy Carter’s illness, about his leaving this world before too long, comes from a selfish and cowardly corner in my spirit: when he is gone, there will be no more grown-ups out there for me, maintaining that white-noise goodness. Daring to believe.

I am not sure I am ready to take over that responsibility.

People say that hope and faith are for the young. They are so wrong.

Now, before bed, I’ll go pull Jimmy Carter’s book of poems off the shelf and read it. Again.

I took a lIMG_20150807_141840ot of photos this summer. And spent a lot of time thinking about what can’t be captured in a photo.

Mostly, I was thinking about cicadas. Along the trails outside of Boulder, Colorado in the States. In the trees lining the narrow roads of Perugia, Italy. Electric. There is something other-worldly about these creatures who leave their bodies whole behind every seven years or so, clinging to the branches; and whose buzzing is so loud it pushes into your sleep. Home a week, and I hear them still.

And, still, the melodies of Russian and Italian. The interpreter’s soothing voice, Italian sliding over into English words with no change in melody. No pause to garner attention. Pay attention to it all: how the body speaks, too. The inhalation before. Or the slight shift of weight in the hips when it spills from one form of expression to another.

Going back to the U.S. is always odd. The hyperawareness of sitting between chairs. I am never sure which “we” I belong to. I have a duel identity, and none at all. “America” is loud and lovely, and not. And the people there find it odd I use the word lovely so often. After all, I live in Norway, not England. I have a stilted, halting musicality that sometimes struggles to express its own, self-contained logic. I gesticulate in the wrong language. I shift when everyone else inhales.

In Perugia, Bogdanov spoke about melody every day. How we all have it within us, continually: rhythm, melodies. It is how we move. I have meditated on this. Tried to be honest about it with myself. But I move with words. Staccato or flowing, there are no violins in my head. There are voices.

In a closet in a gym in Perugia, I found roller skates. I can hear them on a wooden floor. I hear, indistinctly, the chirping of my three girlfriends at 12 years-old, voices seeping through the walls from another room of my life. Drowning out the opening melody to “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

And, in case anyone is wondering, I am still loud. Feeling too often like a muffled trumpet, I slip: You can hear me on the trains, a coarse rhythm and a disjointed melody. Electric. I’ve left bodies behind, after all.

Whole bodies.