In memory of Daniel

I went to sleep last night
to the sound of gentle rain
and awoke to it

Right now
the entire sky is grey
soft rain falls in drifts
raindrops bead my windows

This day could be a poem

My dear friend Daniel passed away peacefully at home on Thursday evening surrounded by those who loved him most. He was just 63 — three days younger than me — and lived less than five months after being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.

He was a big man with a huge heart, a vast capacity for compassion and reflectiveness, and a wonderful smile, who had taken long service leave to explore what he would do with the next phase of his life: painting, sculpture, writing, developing the garden of his five acre block, travelling all called to him.

His wife, Marianne — also a dear friend — has asked me to offer a reading at his funeral, so I was browsing poetry. I’ve settled on this beautiful reflection from Thich Nhat Hanh.

This Body is not Me

This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
and I have never died.
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
manifestations from my wondrous true mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass,
sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide- and seek.
So laugh with me,
hold my hand,
let us say good-bye,
say good-bye, to meet again soon.
We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.

From Chanting and Recitations from Plum Village

 

 

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At the third stroke …

Last Wednesday morning — just a week ago — I was sitting quietly at my dining table writing morning pages as the early sun streamed into my little living room. My ritual pot of tea and candle accompanied me.

Suddenly, the world went silent and I dropped my pen. That’s strange, I thought, tilting my head to listen for familiar morning sounds — birdsong, my neighbour in her kitchen, a faint hum of traffic from the highway. Perhaps a few seconds passed, or a couple of minutes, before I finally detected a single bird call and, faintly, the hum of my fridge motor.

And then I realised my body was feeling weird in an all-too-familiar way — sickeningly weak and unstable. I could barely stand up to stagger to my bed. My thinking was confused in that immediate post-stroke way: is this really happening? if I ignore it, will it go away? who should I call? my daughter? an ambulance? if I eat breakfast, might I suddenly feel okay? But I knew — I was having another stroke. My third in less than three years. Dammit!

I called my daughter who swung calmly into action, calling an ambulance and rushing here herself. The manager of my retirement village came and sat on the side of my bed, feeling my wild, fluttery pulse, listening calmly to me swearing. I was so pissed off! Furious! Not afraid. Just so damn angry that my body was once again tipping my already compromised life upside down.

The paramedics took it in their stride. Such earth angels, these people who choose to do this work. I was, apparently, their second stroke that morning. And it was only 8.30am.

Oxygen, lights, sirens all the way to the too-familiar emergency department of my local hospital. Urgent nurses, registrar, neurologist. Now they’ve allowed Annie and her boyfriend Matt to come in. Information gathering, decision making. Cannulas — two, because the first one wasn’t properly in and hurt like hell. CAT scans.

I am not a candidate for the much-vaunted clot-buster wonder drug, and in any case, there’s no clot to bust.

By late afternoon, I was in a bed in the stroke ward — the exact same one in which I spent nine days two-and-a-half years ago.

Over the next three days, I received excellent care. The MRI/MRA scan showed nothing significant in brain or neck — as usual. And a pattern emerged: the neurologist, who had listened intently to me and to Annie, posited the likelihood that strokes two and three were caused by a brief, radical drop in blood pressure which deprived my already damaged brain stem area of blood flow for a while.

At least were finally getting answers, which is a small comfort in the wild, confusing, distressing scheme of things.

My son flew in from interstate, and together the three of us discussed my future. One of the therapists had suggested I might not be able to continue living alone and caring for myself; suggested I might need to move from my self-care retirement unit to an aged care hostel. But I’m just turned 63. My wonderful children and I worked out all the ways I can be supported to continue living in the home I love.

I was hooked up to monitors that showed my wildly erratic heartbeat was returning to its more usual occasional weirdness. But my blood pressure was often ridiculously — dangerously — low. Medications to raise it would put me at risk of a catastrophic bleed to the brain.

Because there was nothing further the doctors could do besides monitoring me, we spent all of Friday persuading them to let me come home where I would have both my children staying with me and caring for me for the entire weekend. Eventually, once they knew we had GP and specialist appointments in place for the following week, they agreed to let me go.

The walk to and from the car, though very short, was excruciatingly slow and difficult for me and my walking stick — but I’m so happy to be home in my own bed.

This week I’m settling into my newly rearranged life which is, for now, spent almost entirely in bed. I’m propped up with my laptop on a pillow in front of me. The GP has added one more medication, to prevent narrowing of blood vessels to the brain.

The sun has just risen high enough to stream in through the window to my left and I can see rooftops, treetops and clear, pale sky through the window in front of me.

I’m lucky. While I’ve lost more capacity for walking and for sitting upright and standing, I know/hope/trust that with conscientious exercise and physio support, I’ll regain some of that. My cognitive impairment is no worse than after the first stroke, and that’s a huge blessing. And I now know enough about the social isolation of being housebound to, this time, boldly ask friends to visit and phone regularly.

My children are extraordinary and wonderful. As well, I have had a couple of years to learn which friends I can rely on, and they’re a huge comfort and ongoing support. I can still write for short stints, although getting this post together has taken a couple of days. I can read in short, slow stints, and watch movies on my laptop, and crochet.

The fact is, we none of us know what each moment might bring, and I have a renewed sense of appreciation for being right here, right now.

It’s a glorious winter day. I’m in my own bed in my own home. I love and am loved. The physio will probably come today. There is much to be grateful for.

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Passion and joy

A lot can happen in a couple of weeks, even for a woman whose pace of life is very slow and outwardly uneventful.

Since I last posted, I’ve changed my blood-thinning medication, thus freeing myself from dietary monitoring and restrictions. A tiny liberation with significant positive flow-on effects.

I’ve begun organising new glasses, so that reading and computer work will, I hope, be a little easier.

And — most significantly — I’ve experienced a major and exciting breakthrough in my writing life.

Being forced by circumstance to live a perpetually slow, measured, mindful life is a challenging lifestyle that comes with hidden gifts — if one has the patience, persistence and state of mind to allow them to manifest.

For triggering the breakthrough, I’m profoundly grateful to my communities of writers — the monthly workshops led by Joyce Kornblatt; and my writing group, fondly known as Monet.

The weekend before last, I had the rare pleasure of spending time with both. And by the end of that weekend, my inner life and my writing life had been transformed. Since this kind of personal growth is an organic process, it’s hard to pin down one specific catalyst for such deep change. But there was something Joyce said — about prioritising one’s writing — that shook my foundations and set me reflecting on ways I might better juggle domestic and health requirements with writing, given my severely limited energy resources. And then, my fellow-Moneters asked excellent, probing questions about the depth to which I am willing to go with my work on the memoir I’ve been writing for the past many months.

A wild, fierce storm swept through just as that discussion was taking place, blowing a flyscreen into the kitchen of our meeting room and sending us dashing to close doors and windows. My shamanic studies tell me storm energy is transformational energy. An extraordinary coincidence of timing? That’s not how I read it.

I spent a restless, soul-searching Sunday afternoon and evening exploring the issues of personal honesty, courage, imagination, craft and passion that are central to my writing life. Eventually, I arrived at the revelation that if my damaged brain is now capable of addressing the complex structural, content and plotting aspects of writing memoir, then perhaps it might also be capable, again, of working with these aspects of novel-writing.

Hallelujah! I didn’t need to think about which I’d prefer to be doing. My body and heart made it clear: novel-writing feeds my soul, and floods my energy system with an almost euphoric flow; writing memoir, while satisfying my urge to write something significant that might be useful, eventually, for those who read it, is a hard and painful slog.

It’s been more than two long years since the first stroke deprived me of the cognitive capacity to engage with novel-writing. During that time, I’ve undertaken daily brain training on the computer, as well as daily physical rehab. I’ve spent countless hours on the bed — reading good literature, resting, watching TV shows online, and crocheting. I’ve also had a second stroke, and moved into a retirement village. Through it all, I’ve maintained a practice of writing morning pages every day; explored the discipline and delights of writing haiku; blogged when energy and opportunity allowed; and slowly developed the memoir concept and manuscript from a collection of haiku to something much more ambitious and complex.

During those two long, slow and sometimes very difficult years, I’ve also learned a lot about myself. Working on memoir has helped me reflect on long-held beliefs and behavioural patterns, laid down in childhood, that have not always served me well. I’m gently exploring the idea that it’s okay to do whatever I want — whatever nourishes my soul — so long as it doesn’t harm anyone or anything else. That it’s okay to put myself first, rather than always prioritising others. Quite a breakthrough at 62!

In the aftermath of that wild storm 10 days ago the realisation has consolidated: that I am — possibly, probably — once again able to work on the novel that’s been sitting fallow, in completed draft form, for so long.

Excitement bubbles up in me as I type this. My dining table is covered in notebooks and sketchpads old and new that contain past work on character and plot development, as well as the promise of blank pages on which this work can be furthered.

It will take a long, long time and a lot of focus and dedication to produce a new version of the manuscript — I know that. Often, the necessities of daily life will use up all my scant energy.

But I’ve set aside the memoir and returned to the writing form I love — and it makes me feel as joyful and free as a little child.

 

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This precious moment

First thing on Monday morning, I spent an hour with my optometrist, deciding on ‘one or two/this one or that one better’ and performing other optical gymnastics so that he could devise the optimum prescription for my new glasses. He’s knowledgeable, thorough, kind, funny. It was a very successful visit.

When I tried to stand to leave, I had to ask him to bring my walking stick from the other side of the small room. And I knew, instantly, that selecting new glasses frames would have to happen some other time. My real task then was walking the 400 metres or so to home.

The lights on the highway changed while I was just over halfway across. A kind driver waited patiently, her face a picture of concern and sympathy. I knew then I wasn’t going to make it without taking a rest.

Serendipitously, a café has recently opened right there, near the traffic lights. It has comfortable chairs, good decaf, efficient staff and isn’t too noisy. If other patrons thought I was strange, semi-reclining in my seat as I sipped the comforting milky drink, I didn’t notice. And after a few minutes, I hauled myself upright, leaning heavily on my stick, and managed the rest of the walk home to bed.

It’s Friday now — the first day I’ve woken feeling like my usual self again. This has been a rough week, with a lot of time spent in bed doing very little.

As I walked in the autumn sunshine this morning, I reflected yet again on how grateful I am to have been developing a mindfulness practice over the past three decades. How grateful I am for Thich Nhat Hanh, that inspirational Buddhist teacher, one of whose mantras is, ‘Breathing in, smile; breathing out, smile’.

Much is written in celebration of recovery, positivity, and return to one’s former or at least fully functioning self after a devastating accident or illness. There’s less useful material on how to spend one’s time if a stroke (or other debilitating illness) leaves one permanently impaired.

I’ve written previously about the value of deep acceptance; mindfulness — living vividly aware of every precious moment, every tiny delight that occurs during the course of an ordinary day — is another invaluable tool in the survivor’s toolkit.

This morning, as I sat at my dining table writing morning pages, a magpie landed on my balcony railing and burst into glorious song, delivering a long series of perfect moments right to my door.

 

feathered minstrel throat
extended — piebald sun-kissed
benediction hymn

 

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A plea for compassionate awareness

souls mourn our earth weeps
drifty rain blurring boundaries —
may hard hearts dissolve

 

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May light prevail

if not now, when? if
not me, who? each candle lights
a path through darkness

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Deep acceptance

A couple of days ago, the rain began — delightful soft drifty showers with a few heavier falls, especially at night. Temperatures dropped a little. It’s been bliss. It feels as though the big old trees and flowering shrubs and green lawns in the gardens of my retirement village have rejoiced, remembering again how to absorb the life-sustaining water.

Feelings of quiet peace and contentment led my morning writing in the direction of mindful gratitude today, as so often happens of late. And then I realised, suddenly, that aside from loving where I live, and enjoying the rain, there is another reason for my happiness — one I’ve rarely experienced in all of my 62 years: I am completely free of financial stress and worry and of yearning for what I don’t have.

The realisation makes me smile a lot, since I am living on a pension and have very few material assets. My wealth is mostly intangible and immeasurable — precious family and friends, knowing that my children are both thriving, the ability to still do many simple things that nourish my soul, a comfortable home in beautiful surroundings. Increasingly, I’m aware of a delicious sense of abundance permeating my life.

And this awareness leads me yet again to ponder the gifts that flow from deep acceptance, which itself is a profound gift that has arisen from my having had those incapacitating strokes.

If I were still capable of living an active life and fully engaging with the outside world, I’m sure I’d still be yearning for all sorts of things that money can buy: a car, travel, retreat time, tickets to theatre and ballet and concerts, dinner out with family and friends. And I’d still be working conscientiously to fulfil as many of those yearnings as I could afford.

But as it is, thanks to the ‘losses’ the strokes have delivered, I have received a gift that’s surely rare in our affluent society — my needs and wants are all fully met, without stress.

And what has arisen is a more or less perpetual, gentle state of gratitude and, often, wonderment.

 

soft rain filtering
light birdsong electric drill
and this too shall pass

 

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A plea for compassion and open-mindedness on Australia Day

Each year as Australia Day approaches — more jingoistic and commercialised every year, it seems — I become unsettled, troubled. Grappling internally to find a compassionate view of what is happening in and to the country of my birth.

My deep sense of connection to this ancient, precious land, to its vast skies and wild oceans, its life-giving rivers, sandstone escarpments and eucalypt forests remains undiminished. I am grateful every day for the accident of birth that means I am Australian.

But there is abundant evidence that we are at a critical time in human and national evolution. A time when we, as a nation, and a species, can choose exploitative materialism and divisiveness and hard-heartedness; or choose compassion, and sustainability on all levels. It seems to me and to many other Australians that the only viable way forward, if future generations are to enjoy what we have been privileged to enjoy, is the latter.

Brad Chilcott, National Director of Welcome to Australia, was given a Citizen of the Year award this year, for his work in welcoming asylum seekers to Australia. In his acceptance speech, while noting the deep irony implicit in the award, he said:

‘First and foremost I’d like to recognise that we meet on the land of the Kaurna people and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. It is essential that we remember that the privileges we enjoy on this land have come at a great cost to other people and their culture …

‘This award suggests that deep down we all know what makes a good Australian, a good citizen. It’s values like kindness and compassion. It’s the ability to see the common humanity of all people and to work towards healthy communities where everyone can belong. This Citizen of the Year Award is a clear recognition that we know a good citizen doesn’t intentionally teach a nation to fear, doesn’t intentionally dehumanise people for their own political gain, and doesn’t think cruelty is ever a viable solution to anything.

‘We know that true Australians are all about adding dignity to people, not taking it away. Including people not rejecting them. Calling out the best in other people and not denigrating them. True Australians — good citizens — see all people as equal and live in a way that builds harmony and compassion instead of eroding them.’

Dear reader, may this day be one of mindfulness, open-heartedness, peace and harmony for you and for all Australians.

 

Letter to Governor Arthur Phillip

all blood is red, all flesh
and muscle tissue
and plasma
the same
no matter the pigmentation
of our thin, thin coverings

how does pale skin
ordain you, sir, to stride
unmindful into an
ancient, complex world
so far from
your place
of birth?

to plant, along with that offensive
imperialist flag, disease
mediocrity greed a
superficial artificial world
view

so arrogant
so ignorant
such a flawed phase
in the long history of
a clever self-blighted species

consider, sir, your primitive culture’s
assumption that it can
tame nature
outdo the perfection wrought
by the Great Mystery you call
God

centuries later
your legacy, sir, continues
to play out, perpetuating
conflict disharmony
imbalance
pain

requiring us all, now,
if we are to survive
and thrive
to breathe deeply expand our
hearts open our minds
reach out
for reconciliation
for peace
for harmonious pathways
to compassionate embrace

 

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Suburban beauty

mauve deep dusky pink
pale pink — crepe myrtle blossoms
gracing damp grey air

 

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Turramurra morning

magpie melodies —
liquid song greeting dawn’s rays —
divine synergy

 

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