Tag Archives: orphan wisdom school

Quite literally, Ups and Downs

I entitled this piece for a reason. I’ve been thinking a lot about tempering lately. I think there used to be a time when I felt it was of value to maintain a Zen-like middle path where I didn’t want to get too excited and I didn’t want to get to upset. Thrills and depressed… that’s what Anthony de Mello used to say. But, I don’t want that any more. I am fully convinced that this is not the way to learn love, it is not the way to learn how to grieve. It is not the way to grow in our connection to Life and all of life. We have ups and we have downs and neither is better or worse that the other. Perhaps, I can explain.

I did a talk on Sunday about generosity and and brought the full Orphan Wisdom Forensic Audit Method to the teaching. I studied the etymology, I brought in a poet, and I kinda of winged it. Not saying I wasn’t prepared and not saying it didn’t land. But I experienced the full effect of being on the “receiving end.” Here is the down and up of generosity. It comes from the root “gene” which essentially means “stock, kin, and to have been beget.” When they used to say you were generous, they meant your “line” was good. Well, now, few of us know where we really come from and we live in a time of individualism and to a certain degree, miserliness. This is the opposite of generosity, which is to act in such a way as to take into account what “begot” you or what “made” you. Your land, your food, your ancestors, your people… the thing is to let this affect us. This ain’t no “middle path.” This is the down and dirty, learning to “inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully” (as David Whyte writes about), letting ourselves feel down into that and rise up out of it. “Everything comes from somewhere,” I have been teaching the boys.

Since getting back from Canada and Orphan Wisdom School, I have had a number of firsts, each an up and down of a certain kind. Part of my work in the world, beyond the spiritual director/chaplain/community builder, is to help create and do ritual at transition times. I did my first baby baptism, outdoors by the lake on a Sunday morning. The geese, paddling on the water at the edge of our steamy-breath hazed sight, took flight as the ceremony was complete. The most ideal and wonderful witnesses, reminders of the wild goose that won’t be caged. I blessed baby Sawyer, as one connected to the trees, with elements of earth, fire, wind and water… a calling her down into the land even as we lifted her up and honored her place in the family of things.

Not even a few days later, I was asked to do a funeral for a young mother, who had two young children, six and two. This would be the first funeral I had ever done, but it was one of those “can’t go on, must go on” kind of events. Difficult and heartbreaking, devastating even… but necessary and something that I knew I could do in honor to her. This was very much a down even, going down into the sorrow, but yet, as I offered to the community gathered there:

I first met Jana and Kevin, the day they got their biopsy results back… all the way back in March. I was also there, when they heard that nothing else could be done. These could very well have been among the very worst days. Yes, there were tears. Yes, there was shock. But these things do not equal a hard heart. A hard heart is when we stop paying attention. When we shut down. I never saw that in Jana. When I asked her three weeks ago if there is anything she was unresolved with, any questions that were left unanswered, her response was, “Why? Why me?” This is the question that keeps a heart from growing hard, at least if we can somehow consider that there is no good answer, no answer sufficient enough to take the pain away. When we jump too swiftly to fairness and unfairness, deserving or not deserving, even what God has to do with it… I think this stops our open heart. An open heart is a broken heart

An open heart is a broken heart. Or perhaps a broken heart is an open heart. However you want to say it, the truth of it remains. We must let ourselves be affected. Don’t shut it out. If you want to live as a receiver and as a giver, you must draw down and be affected.

One final up and down, and this is my life now, as a dad of a boy with Duchenne. Brendan fell last week. In his room. Just toppled. This something that happens with weak muscles and not good balance, nothing new. But he also doesn’t have much in his upper body to cushion his fall so when he hit his bed frame he broke his arm. I got the call and rushed to emergent care where we had x-rays and he got a sling. He was quite silent throughout the whole visit, no doubt taking in our repeated reminders to the doctor and nurses that he has Muscular distrophy and falls a lot. But when he got that sling, he smiled and did a little dance for the doctor… who proceed to say he had never seen anything like this and told all the nurses. Down and right back up again. Light in the midst of our darkness. I am schooled by a six year old.

I had to pick him up and carry him to school a few days later because he can’t walk that whole way. Plus we were late and his wagon had been left at school. A fifty pound boy with one arm and another that is not strong enough to hold on gets heavy quickly so I pushed it as far as I could, telling him that when we get closer he would have to walk. “But I’ll get too tired,” he said. How do I know when he can do or when he can’t do it? Is he playing me or telling me the truth? Well, he walked because otherwise I would be the one down. We went slowly and I watched at how his left foot hit the pavement at an odd angle. Tight calves, I thought. He isn’t planting his heel first. Another problem with DMD. I felt, too, the slowness of his gait as he lagged behind and I tried to hold his hand. It’s ok to slow down. I don’t need to pull him. Innocent parents unknowingly share that we might not get in the back door, but I know we have a special pass and help him get his coat off and carry his notebook for him. It aches to see the signs, to watch the slow progression and to still find these moments of joy, as in the conversation about the frost on the grass. He reminds me… don’t miss this, Dad. I’m going down, I need you to hold me up. Or Dad, I see you are going down. Let me hold you up.

And this comes to my memory just now as I write… just today, a patient with sepsis, confused and difficult to understand, after ten minutes of indiscernible conversation, says with eyes half closed, “Hold me up… I’m going down.” I can’t make this stuff up. I am receiving it all. It’s my kin and it begets me. Be generous to me, Life, and may I respond generously.

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“Let other people say the hopeful stuff”

“Stuff” wasn’t really the word he used. “Let other people say the hopeful shit” was what he said. “You can leave that to them, and then sometimes you’ll probably want to shoot them between the eyes. Your task now is to feel what this feels like, to be troubled by it, and to get yourself into the meaning-making business. See, everyone wishes they didn’t have to go through something like this, they ask why did it have to happen to you. Well, it didn’t happen to you. You are standing upright and healthy. You didn’t get this. You’re son did, and he didn’t ask for it. This is his life now and you have to walk it alongside him and help him make meaning of it.”

Not even three weeks after learning of Brendan’s diagnosis of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, I traveled to Ontario, Canada to attend the first session of the Orphan Wisdom School 2017. I didn’t go to get more information. I’m up to my eyeballs in information and I have more than enough to live out my days well-enough informed and able to talk like I know something about something. What I did go there for was to learn, and especially to learn from Stephen Jenkinson, an elder in the truest sense of the word. I have been lucky enough (or perhaps foolish enough) to have a keen nose for elders and to know one when I see one. I think it has something to do with the lines in their faces that come from something, or somewhere, more than age. There are those who carry enough intention, clarity, and wisdom that being in their presence is enough for me. Stephen is one of these such elders.

Stephen told us we were there to learn, which he defined as the unbidden and unsought encounter with unwelcome things… things we already know. This learning, he said, is expensive because it is incredibly costly. We were told that we were under no obligation to know anything. We don’t have to know anything in particular to learn. But there was an expectation that we would learn… though tracking with his stories and his roundabout way of getting to the point was an exercise in and of itself. Stephen said he doesn’t care about our inability to feel able. He cares about us, not our disability. The feeling of not being able is an assurance that nothing happens. 

So when I approached Stephen to talk to him about the trouble that I carry with me and the burden on my heart, I offered that it may not be a good time as he had just talked for three hours. But he paused with me and opened the door. I wept (it was the second time that day already). On my better days, or perhaps my worse days, I try to be a hopeful person. I tried to rally my emotions and said, “I know. We have a lot of life left to live. I will still teach him what it means to be a man, will still make many memories, will still introduce him to a village and to elders he can learn from. It’s not over yet.”

And I’m sure, knowing what he was seeing me do, he essentially told me to cut that shit out.

The lesson is that I don’t have to be hopeful. Hope takes me away from the present. It is not real. What is real is what is happening now and the only way to speak of trouble, to make it real and tangible and to allow it to form me, is to let it shake me to my bones. Sometimes our blood needs to run cold just to feel what it feels like and so we can know what it feels like to get warm again.