Good Words for Minding the Harrow

Yes, we love our work, but there are times when the well runs dry, weariness settles in the bones, or there’s an ache in the heart. In case you had an August (and July…and June…and, oh hell, year) like me, you might, also like me, rely heavily on other writers who know the score to ease your troubles and give you courage to keep working. These are teachers, authors, colleagues, friends, and maybe even a saint or two, that have helped me get by.

I’m sure you’ll benefit.

C’mon, there’s a schedule to keep and people to help. Chin up. And:

“None of us are completely present. So don’t feel guilty. This is the ideal, the enlightened moments that come now and then. But we do know that when we are manipulating, changing, controlling, and fixing, we are not there yet. The calculating mind is the opposite of the contemplative mind. The first is thought by the system, the second by the Spirit.”
Richard Rohr, from “Everything Belongs

“When I was in a craptastic, humiliating, vulnerable position I said ‘I can’t get cold cocked again. I am entirely out of resilience.’ And I meant it. I got the mercy I needed. I don’t miss my pride.”
— Allissa Haines, from Writing a Blue Streak, “Well, hello 39.”

“We have to learn that healing is not a function of the therapist or any external agent like a vitamin or an antibiotic. Healing and control are with the client and are functions of the client-therapist relationship. Knowing that, knowing I don’t control the process, I avoid efforting. And knowing the client also cannot force change at a deep level, I encourage the client to drop efforting.”
— Ron Kurtz, courtesy of D. Lauterstein’s “Deep Massage Book” FaceBook page

“If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” — Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

“We don’t take care of each other. Half of what’s wrong with us human beings, I sometimes think, could be headed off if we just still hunkered down together picking lice, imaginary or real, out of each other’s hair, of an evening, the way all the other primates do: just touching each other kindly, huddling close, and tending to each other.”
— Dale Favier, from “Body in the Parking Lot

“A wry sense of humor helps a lot when things get hard. So does a great affection for oneself…Throughout all this worry, I reassured myself with Simon Gray’s words: “Worry is just love in its worst form. But it’s still love.”
— Tracy Walton, Teaching and the Worst Form of Love

“I got used to saying ‘I have depression.’  Although I did catch myself averting my eyes a bit when I told someone new recently. Probably gotta work on that a bit still.”
— again, Allissa, again, “Well, hello 39.”

“I used to walk around thinking I knew how other people could be happy: now I know that I don’t. I don’t know that. Oh, I can see it clearly enough: ‘you are locked into your suffering’ — as Leonard Cohen crooned it — ‘and your pleasures are the seal.’ But diagnosing is one thing: curing quite another. It’s probably good that I no longer think I have anything to offer people.”
— mole (again, Dale) “Dangerously Full

“I am not a hero; I cannot fix you. I am not strong; I cannot save you. I am weak; I cannot melt the frozen, broken places in you. I am insufficient; I cannot heal your pain. But I have hope, because I can do much more than that. I can love you.’
— Kate Bartolotta from “We Are Not Here to Fix Each Other

“What do we pray for?…Finally, alchemy. It is NOT up to you. I wish it was, but it’s not…the body contains all of the healing substances it needs already. The person contains all the healing substances it needs, they just don’t notice it. We are there to just help them become aware. I want people to realize they’re miraculous.”
— paraphrased from David Lauterstein’s Deep Massage class, Oct. 2013

“Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted – i.e., keep on fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone. You are in the right way. Walk — don’t keep on looking at it.”
— C.S. Lewis, from The Collected Letters Volume III

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
— Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:10

 

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You are the Light of the World

Does it ever occur to you – as it does me – the classic Nativity is an Instagram photo, a freeze-frame, a screen capture? Every creche, every painting, every re-enactment gives us quiet, well-behaved adults, properly dressed (in some depictions, quite ornately) with holiness and adoration their only agenda.

This sanitized moment is as blisteringly bizarre, to me, as anyone who knows what shenanigans occur any time you try to get “a good shot.” Before and after the perfect picture of the whole Engleblart family on their couch (everyone wearing red and green) or the tasteful sepia-tone candid of Janet and her dog Esther, you and I and everyone else knows there was high-pitched yelping, pinching, groaning and biting, especially between the Engleblart twins. Big fat catastrophe. Not much “calm and bright.”

It would have been wholly surreal to Mary, I’m sure, or Joseph, or anyone involved in that most holy of nights, for their story to be epitomized forever by tranquility, ease and cleanliness. The Christmas story starts with injustice and upheaval (Augustus Caesar forcing everybody to pay tax in their hometown), with some healthy doses of illegitimate pregnancy, poverty, homelessness, abject terror, and giving birth in a stable (=messy). Some time after, gaudy rich guys show up and give over-the-top gifts: and hundreds of babies are slaughtered as Jesus and his mom and dad (?) sneak away into Jesus’ vastly under-reported childhood. Next thing we know he’s twelve.

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

But the only part most of us envision is the squeaky clean versions that involve sane, rational people, which we know have disappeared from the planet, much like gifts of myrrh, swaddling clothes and wise men.

I am not ever surprised by the amount of selfishness, sorrow or rage we feel during this time. Nothing takes a break during the “happiest time of the year”: not heartbreak, poverty, bad weather or, perhaps worst of all, our expectations of what we should be doing and what we should have. If we start to feel like we’re being gypped in any way, we are tempted to lash out.

Christmas is about getting what we want, after all.

It’s as if every single person you run into is planning a wedding, and everyone’s wedding is the 25th of December. Think about it, that’s how Christmas is sold to us: an event, not a state of the heart.

I think we aim for the creche and forget everything else that came before, during and after: pain, fear, murder. We want a Christmas montage, where even the bad things that happen aren’t all that bad; and they are funny, in a “Doh!” Homer Simpson way, not tragic, like a Slaughtering of the Innocents way. We’re supposed to be happy, and in our modern minds, happiness equates perfection: which leaves no room for error: which is why we feel so crazy.

Our lives are full of mistakes, bad judgement and failure: they are also full of success, good calls, and lovely moments, but during the Christmas season we just want it all to go perfectly and for nothing to get effed up. That’s not possible, not even on a normal day, but especially not when we’re staring right at it, insisting that it be so.

As a massage therapist I see the toll this season has on everyone: emotions bottled up, ignored, shoved aside only show up in other places, like trying to hold a balloon under water. There is rampant fatigue, me included: I am always grateful for the camaraderie of my officemate Jean, but never so much as this time, when our peer counseling becomes essential to sanity. Everyone’s tension is literally right under the surface: muscles like ropes torquing under the skin, pinched faces, caved-in chests, cold feet.

What a relief, to me and my clients, that something can be done about that: massage therapy rekindles the dwindling fires of courage within each person. A bad day gets sloughed off with the loofa brush of triumvirate goodness: communication, depth and intention. Strength and motivation is restored. “A light has come into the darkness.”

I feel the great blessing of putting my hands on people and giving them wordless reassurance that everything is going to be okay: oiling their skin, working their muscles. “Fear not.”

I am reminded that – as far as the Christian God was concerned, and as much as you believe this kind of thing – one of the best ways the Divine could help us understand how loved we are was to show up in a body. “The Word became Flesh.”

Sliver the snapshot: explode the creche. Darling though they be, they can’t hold a candle to our lives just as they are. Be completely open to everything the holiday season brings, which includes pain and discomfort, feeling lost and alone, feeling forsaken and poor, and also being treasured, rescued, maybe even adored. This is the real Christmas story, because it is everyone‘s story: yelps, groans, bites and all.

And He Laid His Hands Upon Them

I never wanted to be a massage therapist. There were many scattered, lively things inside me that massage therapy answered, so when I did find it I thought “Ah-haaaaa! Now we’re gettin’ somewhere!”

But as a career I wasn’t interested. Most I associated it with an intrinsic nurturing, healing mentality, which when I was first considering school – in my late 20s – I didn’t have an abundance of either. I got into massage therapy, quite frankly, because I hated the job I had. Pure and simple. (Working the high tech corridor outside Boston, sequestered in a cubicle for hours, bored and horrified me.)

The most beautiful occupation is the one that births you – the real you – to the world, so service doesn’t feel at all like a chore, but more effortless and relaxing than you ever thought possible. And that’s what massage therapy did for me. I have more compassion, patience, intuition and love now than when I started doing the work. I have not mastered any of these qualities but they are real energies in my life, which I can only attribute to my years of hoping they would show up for real.

Now my effort is in encouraging them, like helping small children grow. Doing massage therapy brings my deep, intrinsic qualities to the fore: the ones that are natal to every soul: the ones we all have, but forget.

I never set out to be a “healer” of any kind and still shrink from the title, should someone choose to dub me as such. What I do, for my job, is rub human bodies so they hurt less. To me, there’s nothing plush or magical or even ennobling in this: it’s basic human care, something we’ve been doing for each other for thousands of years, to help each other out.

My friend and colleague Rowan Blaisdell writes eloquently about this in his post “More About How I Got Here“:

I loved the idea of caring for another person in such a profound way. Before this I’m not sure I ever thought much about health care or healing. I don’t mean “Healing”, as in “I will Heal you”. I mean the kind of healing we all do each day (or should) for ourselves and those we love. The mending of hurts both physical and emotional.

And have you read the work of David Lauterstein? David’s writing and teaching have been hugely instrumental to me in not only becoming a better practitioner, but more curious and imaginative individual, filled with wonder. I don’t even know where to begin on how wonderful David’s writings are to me, except to share a portion which dovetails what Rowan said quite nicely : from Lauterstein’s seminal work, “Putting the Soul Back in the Body: A Manual of Imaginative Anatomy for Massage Therapists

Resting stroke: although not commonly taught as a stroke, what is meant here is just placing your hand on the person , making contact. It may be said to be the basic stroke of some disciplines such as polarity, Jin Shin Do, Reiki, etc. But it needn’t be esoteric. We all know how helpful a simple hand on the shoulder may feel when things get a little rough. That hand says “I care about you, I’m here, it’s going to be O.K. ”

At the beginning of each massage I use this stroke, not with the pretense of “Here’s Mr. Healer,” but simply as a way to introduce myself to the person’s body, oftentimes while we’re lightly conversing.”

The healing of massage happens, I feel, not because the practitioner has all the answers for this client, nor because the client has something wrong with them that has to be fixed. Healing happens with first contact, and lasts through the whole session, when both meet in that holy nexus of professional know-how and profound care.

In this way, yes, it is up to me to be the healer in session: but all that means is that I bring my best human qualities to the fore: being there, touching with consideration and compassion, listening deeply and well. Healing is a natural, effortless offshoot of this endeavor.

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #16.

Bad Reiki.2

( Cont. from Bad Reiki.1) …Pardon me already, for sounding angry in this installment. Like I said, I have a history with people who think they can save me or that I need to be saved. What I’m tapping into is a lot of my own stuff, but maybe there’s something here that could/should be said, and perhaps it will resonate with you as well.

People who lay their hands on someone and feel capable of removing someone else’s toxicity are either on the mark – which I utterly and completely accept – or totally crackers, with an overweening sense of self and their healing powers, and shouldn’t be making people feel diseased, malformed or deficient without loving them into wholeness before they leave that practitioner’s room.

It is unconscionable, in my feeling, for a Reiki practitioner to tell someone they have blocked chakras, have evils spirits following them, or have dark matter in their aura (all thing I’ve had Reiki clients tell me that other practitioners told them they had) without then being accountable to that person for their healing, in a loving respectful way, so they don’t walk around feeling powerless and woeful in their own lives. Reiki should make people come to a full realization of their own wholeness, their goodness and strength, not corroborate the individual’s fears.

I’ve had some bad experiences from both Christian and Reiki healers who thought they could see or sense things in me they wanted to rid me of, either in the name of Jesus or through the awesome powers of their Reiki-ness. What infuriates me about this is the complete lack of human kindness and regard this connotes. There’s no respect for the person: how it might come across to them, how it might make them feel to be surprised with (or, in certain circumstances, have confirmed) how leprous they are. The practitioner cares more about Doing To the client, rather than Being With the client.

Are You SatisfiedAnd let me clear about what I mean by “Bad” – the energy behind both forms of healing are both 100% wonderful, pure. There is no such thing as “Bad Reiki” at all. But boy oh boy.  None of us are perfect, and dangle the carrot of power in front of any of us, we’ll make a lunge. Even if we try to make it all casual and stuff; a surreptitious lunge, perhaps, an off-the-cuff lunge. An “Oh I’m being a healer it’s all okay” lunge.

What makes Reiki “bad” is when it’s used to exploit weakness, betray good faith, create unhealthy dependency and in general makes it impossible for the person to think for themselves without that practitioner around, calling the shots for them and giving advice.

If someone is truly sick –  if someone is suffering, shrunken, beat down – they need deep reassurance and Love. In the presence of Love, what is misaligned? Aligns. What might not serve this person, WILL be cast aside.

Over and over and over again: the question is: what is the most loving thing I can do for this person? How simply, purely, kindly and respectfully can I give this person all the best healing energy they deserve in this moment?

When I was given my Reiki Master training from Lindsley Field in 2003, she started the class by telling us, in no uncertain terms, that becoming a Master was not a title of power, but one of servitude. “You are saying to the universe, ‘Here I am. Use me.’ It is the path of the Bodhisattva: one who, through compassion, does everything they can to save others.”

The greater, the farther we go, to help and serve others, the more humility we need and the more deference we should show to what pours through us. I am not the source of Reiki: I am a conduit. I seek to be the best damn conduit I can be, basically by getting myself and all my pride out of the damn way. Those who heal, in the name of whatever deity they choose, do it not on their own strength, but by making way for Something Greater to happen.

Let us truly heal by being our client’s companion, not their arbiter. We don’t know really know what someone needs. But we CAN make sure we are available, open, and ready to make it possible for them to have it in session. That’s Good Reiki. That’s good…anything.

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #4.

Be Still and Know

Sometimes we create intentional, interesting obstacles to what we know is good for us. Besides the obvious answers – resources scarce, time spent – we also prevent ourselves from partaking because we’re afraid. Afraid to relax: to lay down.

My friend Jen Clark Tinker had a horrifying experience when she was a young teen: stuck in mud, sinking in farther and farther, family out of hearing distance, and darkness fast approaching. She is a Christian, and so she prayed for help, and the Lord told her, “Lay down.” As she heeded this dubious, divine advice, it was the thing that saved her: by going belly-first in the muck, her weight was redistributed, thus allowing her feet to gradually lift up and out and free. She could then crawl to safety.

By lying down, her life was saved.

Right now, I can tell you that I am being given the same advice and I’m fighting it for the same reasons: it doesn’t make sense. The July heatwave in Maine has led to fitful sweaty rest, filled with husband snores and cat yowls and horny owls caterwauling in the trees outside our house. I am fatigued today, and saying only semi-coherent things to my clients. I have a spare hour! But I’m caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: filled with an insatiable need to write, and also to just stretch out on my massage table (one of the perks of the biz: ideal set-up for catnapping) and have a snooze.

Kitty is resting...and waiting for inspiration. Or, maybe, just hoping I'll give her more kibble.

Olivia has the right idea. Resting, and waiting. Probably for kibble. But at ease, nonetheless.

The physical act of lying down means surrender. With so much to do, the thought of being still in repose, as a choice, appears an embarrassing waste of time. Behind the “I’m too busy” veneer there is a real fear that if we lie down, we’ll lose our edge, lose our chance. (Mary DeMuth’s “Chose Rest” addresses our need to fill our lives with activity.)

Lots of us, me included, want to marshal our forces as much as we can, for as long as we can, as hard as we can, to try to “get somewhere.” I blame it on the human condition: we are ambitious. And, from time immemorial, we have disliked being with ourselves. (The practice of meditation is hummityhummity years old? Thousands? We’ve been trying to get away from us for that long. At least.)

The first thing we start up in the morning is our phone or computer, and the tapping starts. It’s thrilling, addictive: the sense that you belong…no matter that it’s all pretend, folks (and I say this as a devoted Twitter and FB user, smartphoning away). I got into this line of work because I wanted to spend more time with souls than screens, but social media only feeds my instinctual hypervigilant, type A personality, and I’ve backslid. I have to put my phone away from me all the time, like someone trying to quit smoking who just can’t.

We’d far rather check in with — even a made-up reality? – before we check in with ourselves. It’s that bad.

So “Lay down” is not what we want to hear. We want to be rescued while we’re still flailing. We want to be told to just try a little harder and we’ll make it. We want everything we’ve been doing up to that point to have counted for something.

I don’t know about you, but I need help, climbing down from the cacophonous heights of aspiration and agenda, into cool pools of quiescence, where the Still Small Voice Within has a sparrow’s chance of being heard. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering wisdom or even poignant insight: I’ll even take just a small slice of silence to dial down my chattering, distracted, ego-driven mind. To quote lyrics from “Chicago: The Musical” – I can’t do it alone.

Massage therapy is an elemental bridge over troubled waters, the great vessel that conveys us from one reality to another, even if just for a brief while, and brings us back into our lives much better people, ready and able to grow and serve. It is the route around and past our reactive selves, into our basic humanity: touch, sensation, breath, rest.

Our need for this goes far beyond merely being blissed out. As a species, we are dying on the vine, naked shivering baby birds in the nest, crying out for food that either misses the mark or does not satisfy. Touch feeds. Touch sustains. Not just any touch: meaningful, intentional, professional, educated, and dare I say loving, touch. Massage therapists offer a prize meal: lay down. Receive. Arise, and go forth: stronger, clearer and renewed.

“Massage therapists turn out to be the mid-wives to the re-entry into the real world,” says David Lauterstein, and this requires recumbence, even when – especially when – it might not make sense. It might not save you any time. But it could save your life.

To hear Jen’s account firsthand, please give her first podcast a listen: “Where is God in the Muck?”

Ministry of Touch

Sometimes even the casual observation of a virtual stranger can wake us up so completely we feel nearly slapped. I’m thinking specifically of the conversation my new client and I had on Friday.

There he sat, in his Maine Celtic Celebration T-shirt, talking to me exuberantly about the upcoming bike trip he was planning with his wife and kids. I was slightly phased, in that his kids were probably my age (i.e. possibly fortysomething). I was not surprised, however, that he would consider such an undertaking: from even the first few minutes of interacting with him, I could see he was aging healthfully, with wisdom, strength and joie de vivre. What a delightful person.

He was also gathering information on me, as our next exchange made clear: we were discussing the benefits of massage and how it makes us feel after the fact.

“I try to fight sleep during a session,” he said. “I feel like if I fall asleep the next time the therapist wakes me up it would be 24 hours from then. I just melt.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “I often wish I had a room next to my office labeled ‘recovery,’ where someone could go after a massage to just collect themselves and re-enter the world gradually, peacefully, at their own pace.”

“You could have that!” he responded, “A little coffee shop in the back too, and everything. You could have your own little ministry.”

There aren’t many words that can create a hiccup in my professional flow quite like “ministry,” and while I continued to take notes and inquire as to what kind of pressure he prefers in session, and whether he likes to start prone or supine, there was a part of me that stopped when I heard that word, and never quite picked up again…and hasn’t since. Oh happy hiccup!

What about the word “ministry” stops me? The word, defined, is:

a. The act of serving; ministration.
b. One that serves as a means; an instrumentality.
c. a person or thing through which something is accomplished

Some MTs aspire to a medical model. Others, a massage session should be luxurious, pampering, highly relaxing in nature. Other offer massage for its own self, as it can and should be a way of fixing long-term postural issues, chronic pain and tension. I’ve never known how to define the work I do, but my new client  did: ministry.

How so? When I first began my career as a massage therapist, I felt early on that I was an instrument of something greater. I seek to serve. Coming up with an effective plan for each session is what I do. But just as important is listening, with my ears, heart and hands.

And, to get as much help as I can in the time I have, I also include prayer, which is both a form of supplication on the client’s (and my) behalf, but also seeking the bigger picture: looking for What Is Going On: hearing what isn’t said. I don’t know how else to describe it other than “prayer” – except, well, “instrumentality” is also pretty good. Yeah, a lot of times I feel used…in a very good way.

I come by all this honestly: my dad is a minister. Church leadership runs in my blood like athleticism or farming runs in others. I’m the product of hundreds of years’ worth of preachers, deacons, elders and song leaders, on both sides of my family. (Joseph Funk is one of mine.)

To be outside the church has been a terrific but sad liberation for me, and while I find myself increasingly engaged with faith and those who work at it with far more discipline than I, genetically I’ve been confused, and so it doesn’t surprise me (in fact, it delights) that I have found a form of church life in my line of work…sneaking in the back door of faith, as it were, and finding divine love in the kitchen.

Courtesy of the FaceBook page  "Our Mother of Perpetual Help"

Courtesy of the FaceBook page
“Our Mother of Perpetual Help”

When I first started my practice, I had a tagline: “Meeting you where you are.” I’m curious about the person who’s with me: I long for them to feel met, understood, heard and cared for: on a cellular level. I don’t see myself as a fixer: I see myself as a companion. Who’s doing the healing? I do, the client does……and the Something Else does too, the something I pray to, that I assume is there, because I have felt it countless times over the years and so have my clients.

(When is it Reiki? When is it prayer? Where a river meets the sea, I can’t separate out the brine and fresh riverwater, can you?)

The hardest part of massage therapy as ministry, for me, is the side work: I’m more dependent than ever on rituals to keep myself “in the loop” so that when I go into session I’m primed. You would not dream of telling a major league pitcher to go out and start a game without having warmed up his arm, his whole body, first. I consider prayer, meditation, reading inspiring texts, yoga and/or journaling my time in the bullpen, before I lay my hands on anyone.

I know there’s only one thing that my client is really paying for, and that’s a good massage. So, I give the best massage that I can, while all these other things are working alongside me in support. It’s the thing that my clients pick up on, while also noticing that I did that deep tissue work they asked, plus I got to their hands like they hoped.

I’m not a licensed minister of religion and I don’t have a church, but I am professionally licensed to touch others and I care for my clients as if they were parishioners. My massage therapy office is sacred space. “It just feels good in here,” is a comment I’ve received often through the years, and I attribute that not only to the careful way the room is put together and how often I cleanse it (whole ‘nuther topic) but how many ardent prayers for healing I have offered while I work with the person on the table.

Pastor and author J.R. Briggs encapsulates it perfectly:

“…As ministers we have to be yielding and listening. Yielding to the work of the Spirit and listening to God’s desires for the life of the person with whom we are journeying.”

A little ministry of my own? I couldn’t aspire to better.

Lux Perpetua

I became a hospice volunteer because death was on its way. A rare life, mine: no one close to me had died, and then one of my clients perished. I was wracked for how it happened (ALS finally turned off the juice to his lungs), the loneliness of his end, his end in general, and the fact that I didn’t like him that much and wished I had liked him more.

For all these reasons, I cried for days and got tired of it. Someone steered me to our local hospice organization, since obviously I needed help. Connie took my phone call and listened to me blub; Flic listened to me blub too and then gave me a book or two to read. Two months later I gratefully attended the six-week training program run by Hospice Volunteers of Waldo County here in Belfast, Maine.

Touching people professionally has led me to wanting to touch them, no matter what: to be close to them, not as a last resort but first option: to see them all the way, when everything that sparks and animates them slowly leaks out and disappears. Words fail. Touch doesn’t.

Massage therapists can make great deathbed pals. We love humans, as a rule, and so we can be there for them even as they literally fall apart, with good will and gentle humor. We see what might be hidden, and hear what isn’t said. All of these things make us natural friends for the dying.

Most MTs are okay with vast tracts of silence: this is how we get our work done: it is also how a soul unweaves itself from its body, and by bearing witness we can make it easier for someone who’s trying to let go but who is afraid. Our very presence equates wholehearted endorsement of whatever happens.

It was my hospice training and subsequent volunteering that got me linked up with Gwen. She wasn’t a hospice case when I met her: just a house-bound elderly woman who needed someone to take out her trash and bring her a gallon of milk on Mondays. Connie and Flic heard about this and in their great wisdom decided she and I might be a fine match.

When I found out she had been a Pentecostal minister I wasn’t surprised: she had the confidence and repartee of a career woman, spoke easily and well from years of presenting the gospel. I was also not surprised because it seemed just my dumb luck: I am the daughter of a minister, myself, but left it all behind me years ago. Now I was assigned to attend a saint’s needs, weekly. I implored the heavens to be spared her inevitable proselytizing and prying questions.

Her generation still knew the social grace of the classic “visit,” and when you’re doing this, you sit and talk. Despite my attempts to hide my personal life from her, bits of it came out over time. She finally found out I didn’t go to church, and that Nate and I were living together, not married. In my experience with classic evangelicals (and Gwen certainly was one of these), if you don’t behave like what a Christian is supposed to behave like, you don’t get dibs on faith. They don’t take you seriously: you look too much like a sinner. Your little attempts at following Christ are pitied. I mean, c’mon. Can’t even get to church on Easter? For shame.

I certainly didn’t think my prayers would have meant a brass farthing to her, coming as they did from the likes of me, a veritable Mary Magdalene. Maybe, just maybe, she had that relationship with Jesus that I’d heard some people had, where the Almighty was forever breathing his holy light into her heart and speaking to her constantly in a language that only someone who prayed and sought the Lord as fervently as she did could possibly understand.

Maybe Jesus told her I really was a good kid and not to give me too hard of a time. The day she said “I pray for you every day. And I am so glad you pray for me. I need it,” I thought I was going to fall out of my chair. I fished around inside my purse, instead, and snatched out a hanky, because I realized I had started to cry.

Last summer, she spent a week in the hospital and after she got home, confessed to me, “I thought I was a goner there for a while.” I thought she might have been too. But she rallied, and in October we spent her 85th birthday together. I got her Chinese food, per her request, even though I knew it was wretched for her high blood pressure, diabetes, edema.

This past April she developed shortness of breath that wasn’t solved through medication adjustment. “It’s just a nuisance, more than anything else,” she consoled me, after I’d given her a look of unmistakable concern. Six days later Joyce, her housekeeper, called 911: she had found Gwen practically incoherent, not knowing where she was. Fourteen days later Gwen was dead. Renal failure.

While she was in the hospital I went to see her, but days went by between my last visit and her passing, and so I never did get to see her just once more. The word “rue” fully expresses the feeling I’ve had about that and continue to feel. I may never get over it, in fact.

Joyce, however, had been with Gwen the night before. “Even then, she was still telling me about the foot rub you gave her.”

She mentioned this casually while we stood next to one another at the funeral, and it wasn’t just the bright sun and heat of the day: my mind reeled. I couldn’t remember it at all: had I rubbed her feet? When? Why wasn’t it coming back to me? Then, suddenly it did: people were in her room making small talk. I had my full attention on Gwen’s dear face, slack and losing light, as she barely maintained consciousness enough to add a few words, and then fall back into a struggle-filled sleep.

Because words didn’t fill my mouth, my hands took over, as they are wont: her feet were closest to me: I held one foot at a time, gently working every toe, muscle and bone, down to the heel and back. At one point I looked up at her, and she was staring at me almost without blinking. Then she was out.

With relief I also recalled that some of my last words to her were, “Sleep well,” and “I love you.” And I know she had said to me, “I love you too.”

Through her loss comes the startling realization that I am glad to be sad. And I am willing to let my heart break over and over again as those close, closer, and even closer to me fall away and end. Wherever they are, there is now a bottomless silence filled with light that never fades.

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail! – from the Heart Sutra

She points out her birthday cards.

She points out her birthday cards.