I Won’t Eat Animals But I Still Can’t Let Go of Lab Rats

 

ear mouse

I have some major cognitive dissonance going on in my brain.  It’s been there for quite a while, actually.  As I’ve gotten older and really tried to learn to look at both sides of every story, I’ve realized that there isn’t always a pat solution that will make everyone happy.  There isn’t always a clear path that will ensure justice for each party involved.

This is probably why I like Taoism so much.  Life no longer seems to consist of black and white decisions, or clear right and wrong choices. Taoism, as my Western mind understands it, says there are two sides to every coin and life must exist in a balance. As Alan Watts has written, “Seen as a whole the universe is a harmony or symbiosis of patterns which cannot exist without each other.”

I have two primary struggles with what balance should look like in life right now.  The first is the balancing act of conservation and walking lightly on the earth versus the amazing benefits plastics and single-use medical devices have given us, and the fact that the latter have led to landfills and plastic-filled bellies of fish and birds.  I’ll talk about that one a different day. The one on my mind today is how on one hand I refuse to eat animals anymore, but I value and am so grateful for the tremendous medical advances we’ve seen because of drug and behavioral testing performed on animals.

I feel like quite a hypocrite, but I’m not sure what to do about it. I gave up eating meat about four years ago, and with it I have worked hard to be as non-violent as possible with my life. I instruct my kids not to killbugs just because they can.  I refuse to set out mouse poison or traps anymore.  A couple of days ago I accidentally smear-killed a bug on my computer screen when I simply meant to flick it away….and I felt a twinge of guilt for flippantly ending a life that was only days long to begin with.

 

But on the other hand, I cannot deny that the sacrificial lives of so many mice, rodents, fruit flies, and pigs have led to the most incredible medical breakthroughs. (I should clarify here that I’m NOT talking about cosmetics testing on animals). In the last decade or so, a novel method in genetic engineering called CRISPR has been developed and has gone gangbusters in the biotech world. It is a method for editing harmful pieces of DNA sequence in genes associated with diseases. This technology is offering new hope for devastating diseases like Huntington’s, hemophilia, and malaria, just to name a few. But at the very heart of CRISPR and other gene therapies and almost all newly developed pharmaceuticals, there are countless animals who have suffered and given their lives. Their lives were taken so we could know when something was safe enough to try on a human.

 

You may be thinking I’m nuts.  They’re just mice. Or, they’re just fruit flies, they don’t mean anything. I used to feel this way. But now, when I see that we are all interconnected, that all of us came from the same stardust, I can’t help but wonder what gives us the right to cage and experiment on other beings.

I don’t have a solution to my dilemma, but I’m beginning to feel very strongly that just like indigenous peoples would pay respect to animals that gave up their lives to be food, so we in the medical and science communities should pay serious respect to all of the critters in creation who have suffered that we might not have to.

 

That just like patients are made aware when someone has donated blood or organs to them, they should be made aware of these other sacrifices made for them.

That when we do ridiculous yet groundbreaking feats like growing human ears on the back of mice, we offer thanks in humility.

That when we clone animals without completely understanding how they will live and age and die, that we still call their lives valuable.

That when our lives improve because of medical and drug treatments, we remember to not only be grateful for scientists and health care providers but also the animals those treatments were first tested on.

I don’t know if there is any harmony at all in the way we are striving so hard to stay alive and free of disease at the expense of other sentient beings. Is it possible to find some sort of balance in this?  I don’t really have any answers other than that I don’t believe at all that creation was simply handed to humans to do whatever they want with. And maybe this is all a part of the journey to increased consciousness. Maybe this is a struggle we must go through to reach the next planes.  Or, maybe there is no ultimate solution, no ultimate way to be.  Maybe the whole point is to be grateful, and humble, and to recognize on a daily basis that life is not all about us.

When You White-Knuckle Life…

peace

Have you ever been in one of those spaces in life where you just try to bull your way through?  Some “thing” is happening that you fear will absolutely fly out of your control and explode in your face if you don’t grip it as tightly as possible? If you can just keep a handle on it long enough to find a workable solution everything will be OK?

You tell yourself that you’ll just try harder. You’ll be more diligent. You’ll create a routine. You’ll strategize. You’ll come up with multiple contingency plans.  You’ll keep asking everyone what you should do. You’ll mine all relevant scientific literature. You examine this thing from all different angles; you analyze it until your mind is exhausted.

But sometimes the solutions never come. No one has written a book that actually speaks to the situation that you’re in. There is no TED talk for this exact problem. Your friends and mentors empathize with all that is going on in your life but they have little in the way of wisdom to pass on to you to make it through this one, relentless thing.

And you find, God dammit!, that this thing just won’t go away, refuses to resolve, refuses to give you peace.

I have one big thing that just won’t seem to go away.  It is here just the same as it was last year, and it has brought me to my knees. I’m left with nothing. No ideas, no understanding, no real expectations.

I have gradually been learning that life refuses to be white-knuckled. It will not be dictated to, and it will not allow us to tell it how things should go. It will not let us grip and control our outcomes. We can wrestle with it and insist on our way, but every time, we will be put in our place until we can come to it out of an attitude of receiving.

I’ve been talking with a friend of mine about how real peace comes from within, and we can’t have true, long-lasting external peace until we reach that place of deep quiet within our individual selves. Trying to create peace in external circumstances or life situations will never really work until we can tap into streams of calm inside of us.

This makes me kind of crazy; I want this THING to be FIXED, NOW!  However, I’ve noticed over the last year, that my responses to this never-ending thing in my life are not quite as frantic, not quite as panicky, not quite as fatalistic as they once were. Instead of rushing to conclusions or solutions immediately when something goes wrong, I have much more capacity to sit in my realization that there is nothing I can do in that moment that will change anything.  It just is what it is.

Ghandi said, “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”  This path of peace begs us to accept each moment as it is, and acceptance requires that we stop white-knuckling for control over everything. We accept this, and now this, and now this.

Byron Katie has taught me that when we believe our thoughts, we suffer.  We suffer when we take the things that life gives us and label them all as this or that, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. Our peace is destroyed because labels require action on our part and the rectification of situations.  But then we concern ourselves with whether or not our actions are the correct actions to take, and we seek only very specific outcomes. When those outcomes aren’t realized, we suffer even more.

As Eckhart Tolle has said, “You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.” When we grasp at life and cling to what we think we want or change our environments or move to a new house or buy a new car, we are only dealing with details projected out of what we believe.  Nothing is really changing on the outside. Nothing will ever change until we allow ourselves to be changed.

I do not claim to understand how this works, but I am coming to live a knowing that what is within me paints my outside world.  If I am stressed and afraid, I only see a scary world.  When I tap into the peace of the divine within me, then I pass peace on to the world.

I don’t know when my “thing” will go away.  Maybe it will, maybe it will go on indefinitely, maybe it will become more complicated. I can throw all the hissy fits about it that I want and none of them will change anything.

But I’m tired of needless suffering over things I can’t control, and so I’m pretty motivated to stop fighting, stop wrestling, stop demanding what I want out of life. I’ve never done this life thing before, as far as I can remember; who am I to tell it what I need and don’t need. So to end with Longfellow, “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”

Receive the sunshine, receive the rain, not white-knuckled and grasping, but hands open, welcoming, accepting.

“To love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”
― Ellen Bass

 

 

 

 

This Is My Greatest Fear… And It Has A NAME!

mirrors
Photo credit: Elsamuko

“Fear can be known as the most virulent and damaging virus known to humankind.” 
― Gerald G. Jampolsky, Love Is Letting Go of Fear

I”m not afraid of dying.  It’s the “being dead” part that I haven’t always been so keen on. Which is kind of paradoxical because in the past I wasn’t always so keen on life either.

I’m not talking about angst over my corpse lying in the ground somewhere, or perhaps my cremated ashes scattered. I’m not really worried about whether or not people will come to my funeral or remember me for any amount of time after I’ve passed.

Like every other human, I don’t know what happens definitively after we die.  Do we join up in a great gathering of souls?  Do we reincarnate? Do we meld back into Ultimate Consciousness? I have fewer and fewer convictions about life after death as I grow older.

In general, what we do after we die isn’t quite as important to me as the “how long” that doing takes.  Does it have an endpoint, or do we just recycle indefinitely?

When I was very young, as I alluded to in my essay, The Surreptitious Subtleties of Space, I began to develop a panic disorder surrounding the idea of eternity.  It all began one evening when I was standing outside in the dark, on the ranch I grew up on in South Texas, looking up into the ebony night sky with its billions of stars. What I first saw as beautiful soon morphed into a terrifying expanse that drove crushing terror into me.

For the first time in my life, I had a real sense of my small-ness; I didn’t possess an understanding of the size of the universe at that point in my life, but it was pretty obvious when looking into space that I’m less than a dot…a nothing when compared to all the Something out there.  At that time in my life, I believed that when we die, we either go to heaven or hell for an eternity.  I had accepted Jesus at a age six, so I wasn’t so concerned about which place I’d end up at, but I was less than thrilled by the idea of “everlasting”.  How could something good last forever? And who really wants to live forever in some static celestial city where somehow God builds us mansions according to our particular preferences and specifications?  The ideas of the afterlife that had been passed on to me seemed dreadful.

My sudden fear of space didn’t help.  If I’m this small compared to all that exists, and there are millions of other people out there, I’m sure to be marginalized by God and pushed to the fringes of heaven.  My poor 7-year-old mind.

These horrible panic attacks stayed with me as I grew up, coming and going in waves.  I only told a few people about them because NO ONE understood what I was talking about.  Most people I was brave enough to tell about my paralyzing fear were dumbfounded, wondering how anyone would NOT want to live forever?  “Is nihilism a better option?” they would ask me. Others would blow me off with trite statements, like “You just need to trust God.”  Anyone who struggles with panic knows that you can not reason or logic your way out of it.

But, as is the case with all secret fears, they become less powerful once you keep speaking about them. As I expanded my understanding of spirituality over the years, the frequency and duration of these attacks gradually decreased.  And to my utter delight, I discovered a few people here and there who panicked over these very same reasons I did.

In the Old Testament book, The Song of Solomon, the writer proclaims that there is nothing new under the sun.  Everything, in general, that happens now has happened before.  This is why I’m now a firm believer that we who have walked through the fire of our fears and come out the other side need to talk about them, so that those who are still afraid know that they are not alone, and so they can loosen the grip of that fear that holds them by learning to speak out as well.

Dealing with big fears seems even easier when there’s a name for them, when enough people struggle with the same thing that they have to describe it with a fancy Greek derivative.  This makes you feel less crazy and less alone.  In my case, I accidentally stumbled across the name of my specific panic attack fear in an article in The Atlantic last year.  Apeirophobia.  I was thrilled…just one more area of my life where I realized “It’s not JUST ME!”

A while back I decided to do a search on Apeirophobia on YouTube, because what can you not find on this platform?  Amazed, I discovered a video where a man described this phobia, and people….it was like he was describing my life and putting into words all that I haven’t been able to say about apeirophobia.  Take a listen – it is SO good:

I still have occasional panic attacks in the middle of the night during periods of stress in my life.  They’ve changed over the years as my belief systems have molded into new ways of thinking and perceiving what is around me.  In some ways though, wrapping my head around the idea of eternity and neverending-ness is harder because of Einstein’s space-time contributions.  If time really is an illusion, are we just experiencing eternity right now, and will time not concern us once we die?  I also think of the Buddhist understanding of the temporal nature of everything.  Ultimately, we are just waves that rise up out of the ocean for a short time and then merge back in, coming up later in another form?  I still have apeirophobic tendencies with these trains of thought, but they sure seem to be much more appealing options than chilling out in my mansion over the hilltop for an everlasting period of linear time.

So, after all that, what is the point of this post?

  1. If you’re terrified of something, it’s pretty darn likely that at least someone, but more probably, many people, are worried about the same thing.
  2. Fears lose their power when you bring them to the light.
  3. Speaking your fears also brings freedom for you, and freedom for others to speak their own.

I’m Pretty Sure I’m Harder On Myself Than You Could Ever Be…

 

shame
Photo credit: Frankieleon

 

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. 

-Brené Brown

You know how Jesus famously told his followers in Matthew 7:1 not to judge? And then how we have only taken that half seriously?  Because we often give others tremendous grace and then lash our own backs with a cat-o-nine tails whip of shame, self-deprecation, self-loathing, and repeated mantras of how unworthy, stupid, and ridiculous we are.

OK, maybe YOU personally don’t do this, but trust me, I’m not the only one out there who judges themselves more harshly than the rest of the world could ever possibly. I meet people on a very regular basis who fight a constant battle against demons within their own minds about their self-worth. I once thought that Satan was a real being. But now I know what the Accuser really is: it is all the lies that we’ve been told about ourselves, and all the traumas we’ve experienced and were never counseled through; it is all of our internalized fears and failures that have never had an avenue for expression and the chance for the light of truth to be shed on them…all of these tangle together into a dark web of, dare I say, evil?, in our minds that taunt us and judge us and hinder us from grasping on to the divine within us.

Some days, like yesterday, I sink into a state of despair where all I can see when I look back on my life is failure upon failure upon failure. It’s the kind of despair that paralyzes your breathing and your mind plays a non-stop reel of memory after memory where you could have done better, acted more kindly, been more patient.  And after the reel slows, you teeter on the edge of panic, knowing that you won’t get a do-over.  Your kids won’t get younger; you can’t undo the decisions you made that have lingering consequences; you can’t ask the questions of your dead loved ones that you should have asked years ago. As far as we can tell on this side of death, we only get this one shot at this life. (Who knows, maybe there are parallel universes where we’re living the same lives but making different choices…I find that doubtful.)

I called my best friend for help; she is brilliant, is a therapist, and knows these places of despair intimately. She reminded me using the rational mindset she always takes when dealing with my life drama, that my despair and self-judging of myself to be a failure is a learned behavior.  The reason my mind can only remember my mistakes and failures in the past is because that is what it was trained to do. The neural grooves of my brain have been firmly set over the years, and so the paths of self-hatred and judgment are much easier trails for electrical signals to travel down then trying to forge new paths of self-acceptance, and reframing, and learning to focus on the things I’ve done right and well.

I am getting better over the years at being easier on myself, and not sitting in self-judgment for as long as I used to. But I still face the same triggers again and again and know that only by being aware of the pain and discomfort that comes with them will I be able to rise against the shadow monster in my mind.

Here’s an example, maybe you can relate:

This last week I had a nursing clinical to attend based on a varying schedule. On the day of the clinical I looked at the schedule twice, but somehow managed to misread it twice, and thus retained incorrect information about where I was supposed to be and when.  I’ve prided myself on the fact that so far in this program, barring ice storms with resulting standstill traffic, I haven’t been late or missed any school or clinical events.

On this particular clinical day I made my way to my afternoon session only to find that I was 45 minutes late – and all the while I had thought I was 15 minutes early.  I made a quick explanation to my preceptor, who I don’t think was particularly thrilled with me….and the self-judgment commenced.

For the next hour and a half I struggled against the lies and self-deprecating thoughts that came flooding down my brain’s pipeline:  “Julie, how could you be so stupid; Julie only horrible people are late for clinicals (this is a stupid thought from the start because I don’t generally judge other people for being late to clinicals); Julie, you’ve just defined your character to your preceptor – you’re irresponsible, have substandard morals, and possess poor character.”

It’s totally like the “devil on one shoulder and angel on the other” image.  My brain projects an untruth out in front of me, and the little bit of me that is learning to discern my true-self musters up the courage to refute those accusing comments.  And it really seems like a battle…I have to force those signals in my brain to go off-road from their traditionally laid paths and forge new connections that are based in new beliefs.  I can almost feel my brain heating up in exertion when I do this.  Anyone feeling me here?  Know that I”m talking about?

The good news is, this struggle is getting easier over time.  If the above scenario had happened to me a couple of years ago, I would have shamed myself for the next three days before finally feeling some relief.  But that particular day I was able to let go of my self-judgment after only two hours, accepting that I had made a mistake but that it offered no real reflection of my true character and intentions. I simply needed to apologize and make corrections for the future to try to make sure similar things don’t happen again.  And my preceptor – she may or may not have formed a poor opinion of me for the rest of my life, but that’s really out of my control.

For the population of we people who are cruel and harsh with ourselves…it’s because we’ve never learned to question our thoughts. We think we ARE OUR THOUGHTS.  But there is a real YOU, and a real ME, that reside beneath our thoughts, separate from them.  Our thoughts are simply streams of consciousness that pass through our minds, random lava flows of miscellany from all the stored up memories, knowledge, and experiences bound up in synapses.  And all of those stored bits and pieces are there in particular forms because of how we perceive the outside world and what happens to us – they aren’t definitive truth and reality.

Back to Jesus and judging…the end of his statement is “lest you be judged.” I really don’t think here that he means God will judge you. And I don’t necessarily think he means that you will be judged based on a one to one ratio for every time you judge.  I really think it’s all about attitude and perspective on life. Even though it may sound a bit woo-wooey, I believe on some level we manifest stuff in our lives.  Or maybe, as a different way to frame it, we unconsciously seek out those things that align with the way we understand the world.

For example, if we believe the universe to be stingy and stacked against us, we will project that onto everything we come across and thus truly experience it as stingy and mean.  But, if we perceive life to be one of abundance and the universe as good, then we will see those qualities in everything we encounter.  The same is true in our interactions with people: if we view ourselves or others through a lens of judgment, we will see whatever comes to us through that same judgment lens.  So ultimately, Jesus isn’t just giving us another injunction to govern our external behavior. He is trying to teach us that how we see the world and approach the world is how we will perceive the world is treating us.

So, if you’re anything like me…if you berate yourself regularly, if you are harder on yourself than any other person has ever been with you, if all you can see are your mistakes and not your wins…you need to commence with some hard questioning of all that comes down the thought pipeline that you grab onto without thinking. A huge help to me with this has been The Work of Byron Katie. This systematic inquiry practice has shown me that if you relentlessly question everything that happens to you, it is easier to see what is really true and what is just the story we believe about ourselves and the world around us.

 

 

 

 

It Takes a Village of Mothers to Raise a Mother

 

motherhood.jpg
Photo credit: BXL ART

 

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and I spent much of the day reflecting on how I came to be the mother that I am. As a mom of three sons, I frequently make some huge parenting mistakes, but I know I also get it right alot of the time, too.  While I take full responsibility for my shortcomings, occasional bad moods, and infrequent but insane tirades of “What the hell are you boys doing?!”, I know that so much of the good parenting that comes out of me comes from the mentoring, examples, and encouragement I’ve received from other mothers.

Looking back, my own biological mother was kind of a Wonder Woman. It took me until years into my own mothering that I actually realized this. She was a college physics professor, a profession she was absolutely called to and which she loved. We lived an hour away from town, so every morning she would diligently get up at 5 in the morning, get my brother and me ready for school, haul us to our school in the neighboring town from which she taught, go teach classes all day, grab us from school, run errands, take the long drive home to cook dinner and clean up the house, just to go to bed and do it all again the next day.  Every few months she would toss in some cross-country jaunt to a physics meeting somewhere that she would be actively involved in.

When I was young, I didn’t appreciate her as much, or her hard work, and could only see her faults. But now, after I’ve adulted for a while, I can see how very hard she worked and how much she sacrificed for my family and her students. She taught me about having a good work ethic, about being a perpetual learner, about not being afraid of science and mathematics, about working hard until the task is done. And, she did so much of all of this while struggling with cancer for the last ten years of her life. She was quite the example of fortitude, and I hope I can instill this same quality in my own boys.

My biological mother hasn’t been my only mother, though. I’m a firm believer that we can find family outside of our relatives and kin, and we’re missing out if we don’t search for those people. Or, in some cases, I firmly believe that God brings them directly to us when we need them. I’ve had women who were mothers to me for short periods of time, just for a season here and there. I’ve also had mothers who have stayed with me for the long haul, who have seen me through thick and through thin.

Some of the best mothers I’ve had were ones who didn’t know they were really mothering me.  I’ve done my own share of mother stalking…you know, where you find a person that resonates with you and you watch their every move, cling to every word they speak, because you know there’s wisdom coming at you from them. I’ve watched women as they interact with their children, and learned so much from them, even if I have never once spoken to them. I’ve learned from women who had completely different parenting philosophies from me, and from those who I knew were kindred spirits.  And even the mothers who may have really been dropping the ball or making huge life mistakes (or maybe just what the world perceives to be huge life mistakes)…they taught me – even if it was teaching me what doesn’t work as a parent.

I think I’ve read just about every parenting book out there, from various perspectives and philosophies. While they are good, they are usually only theory to a certain point, and this is where it is so helpful to be able to look to real mothers for help.  Some of my best parenting advice has come from what I once thought would be the least likely sources.  I keep pestering a friend of mine that she needs to write a book called The Alcoholic’s Guide to Parenting with some quippy subtitle along the lines of using AA’s 12 steps to joyfully and calmly raise children. My friend, who is a longtime sober alcoholic, says brilliant things about being a mom on a regular basis. I’m amazed watching her that someone can face some of the crazy stuff she does without completely freaking out or resorting to grasping her kids with a steel grip.  She freely admits she doesn’t have her life together, but the funny thing is, I trust her advice more than that of alot of people who do “have their lives together.”

Strangely enough, I’ve also been mothered by women younger than me, who have little ones. I see how courageously they guide their toddlers and preschoolers into the currents of a fast-changing world and I’m like, “Damn, why couldn’t I have been that cool and collected when my kids were that little?” But they inspire me to calm my own self, to remember to enjoy my boys because they won’t stay young long. When my boys are grown and think back to the days that I was chill, they have these mothers to thank.

And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how I’ve been mothered by those who weren’t ever biological mothers. Sometimes these are actually the best mothers because they have some objectivity,; they don’t miss the forest for the trees because they have a step back out of the messiness, and food splatters, and dirty diapers, and smart-ass backtalk that gets all of us moms riled up from time to time. Sometimes these mothers can see the big picture when we can’t and they help to show us the path forward.

So on Mother’s Day, I was grateful for the memories of a biological mother who brought me safely to adulthood and gave me so many good gifts. She has passed now and I no longer have her. But I am so very aware that I have not been left motherless; I have many mothers and am thankful for this village that has grown and is continuing to grow me into a better mother for my own children.

 

On Using the Good China and Making Hard Stops

china
Photo credit: Sean

“Life is long, if you know how to use it.”
― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

My Dad has been building a house, literally by himself, for about the last 30 years.  It is a wicked amazing house, set back at the base of a hill between some big oak trees, on his ranch in the south Texas hill country. The process of building started way back when I was about six years old. He and my mom poured over house plan magazines until they settled on one they liked. In the meantime, my brother and I helped him find and gather up all the best river rocks we could to serve as part of the future house’s walls. Big, flat, white limestone rocks pulled from the riverbeds in the Texas canyon where I grew up…we made piles and piles of them until at last my dad was ready to start building.

Over the last few decades, he has worked on this house whenever he could, a few hours here, a few hours there. He poured the foundation, plumbed the pipes, stretched the electrical lines, dug the well, and laid cinder block after cinder block, all by himself.  As far as I know, the only thing he accepted significant help with was putting on the metal roof and having custom kitchen cabinetry done by a local carpenter.  The house is now livable, but still has some detail work to be done.  It is wonderfully unique, well-built, and has a fabulous stone fireplace. It would pretty much take a nuclear bomb to bring that house down.

Truth be told, I have bittersweet feelings about this house, in all of its fabulous-ness, because of how it relates to my mom, who passed away almost five years ago now. That house was my mother’s dream, what she built her future around, and sadly, it was a future that was never realized.  It still kind of breaks my heart.

Being a bride in the 70s, my mom received beautiful china, silver, and crystal bowls for her wedding.  Every so often my mom would pull everything out from the dark recesses of her kitchen cabinets and we would polish the silver as I oohed and aahed over the beautiful pieces.  I would always beg her to let us use the china and silver for everyday use, it was so pretty.  But she would inevitably say, no, this is special…it is to be saved for the “new” house, as though the old ranch house I grew up in wasn’t worthy of beautiful dinners and lovely things.

Mom also talked of the dinner parties and family gatherings we would have when we finally moved to our ranch, away from the ranch that my dad managed. She subscribed to Southern Living and would pore over the magazine pictures, visualizing how she would decorate the new house. And most every time I suggested doing something with the house we currently lived in, she would say, no, let’s wait until the new house.

The china never got pulled out and set at the table.  The silver was never used to serve food at parties or even be displayed.  My mom died from cancer exactly a year after she retired from her college teaching job, just after all the kitchen appliances were installed in the new house, just after all of the custom cabinetry was done, and just after all the downstairs was painted a lovely, calming, buttery yellow.  I still choke up thinking about it. I don’t blame my dad at all for not getting the house done in time for her to live there…he has busted his ass for my family and his employer for the last 40 years, working harder than anyone I have ever known. But it hurts, nevertheless, that my mom never got to have that dinner party.

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I found out this week that a grade school-through-high school classmate of mine passed away.  She was only 37, and left behind a daughter and young son.  The news sobered me and reminded me that life is not guaranteed for anyone.  It is one thing for me to work in a hospital and experience the illness and passing of relative strangers; it is entirely a different thing to experience the passing of people you know, or once knew well, especially when they are still young

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Last week I took my boys up to the southern edge of Lake Michigan to celebrate a friend’s graduation from seminary.  A different friend joined us and we spent the day before the graduation sitting on the sandy beaches of Indiana Dunes. After 6 hours of sitting under a shaded umbrella while my boys dug in the sand and played in the water, none of us were ready to leave.  It was too calm, too peaceful, too thick of the life that we so often miss with our frantic, electronics-filled days that are jammed with commitments and obligations.

Our day on the beach made me recognize something.  I try to squeeze in meditation or contemplative sits into my days, I try to regularly exercise, and I try to keep up with all of my appointments and deadlines to avoid falling behind.  But I know this was not enough. All I have been doing is squeezing in thing after thing into my life, knowing that EVERY SINGLE DAY would involve either housework, or errands, or homework, or clinicals. These things, as important as they are, made every day feel exhausting and creativity-stifling. There are things I really want to do but am never getting to because I always feel like I should be doing something else…something productive, or useful, or adult-ish.  The things that make we want to get up in the morning were just squeezed in here and there as I could, never receiving my full time and attention.

I need regular hard stops in my life. Time to just set aside work and all the “should-dos”, time to really rest and recuperate and have fun and pursue creatively the things that really make me happy – a sabbath, if you will. I’ve known of people who have set aside a day in their week to do nothing other than what they wanted to do. I’ve known of people who even did this while in school, and amazingly, saw their grades improve. And while I grew up reading the Old Testament’s commands to take sabbaths every week and every seventh year to rest, I never saw the need until now.  I used to think the Sabbath was for God; now I know it is for us.

Today is my first hard stop, and I discovered a couple of things leading up to it. I worked harder this week on my schoolwork and other obligations in anticipation of quitting today. Instead of quickly falling behind at the start of every nursing school semester as usual, I am actually ahead. Second, I am not dreading the start of tomorrow and the next week, because I know that I will have another hard stop coming up in just a few days. I gave myself license to sleep in today, and to do whatever brings me joy, and I have experienced emotional and physical rest in that.

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A friend of mine and I got together for coffee a few nights ago. During our conversation, we talked about how we always tend to live our lives constantly reaching for the future, pursuing goals, and “saving the good china” for later because we believe that once we get “there” we will be happy.  But we both had to admit, that being “there” never makes us happier. When we get “there”, there is always some new goal to work towards, some new thing that we feel we need to be happy.  And we tend to find that we are usually never more happy or sad than we were in the past.  Richard Rohr says it this way: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven, and it’s hell all the way to hell.”  Basically, how you do things now is how you’re going to do them in the future.  If you’re not happy and content now, you won’t be happy and content in the future.

My friend and I concluded that happiness is a state of mind.  The only place to live is in the here and now, because that’s all there actually is.   In general, there is never really a “right” time to do things, either.  If we wait to live our lives and pursue our dreams for the “right” time to come, we’ll likely end up waiting forever.  Or, in my mom’s case, our lives will end before that time ever comes.

So this is my grand, or maybe not so grand, conclusion: chase after what you’re passionate about NOW, be grateful for all that you have NOW, schedule in regular hard stops to recalibrate yourself NOW, and use the good china TONIGHT at dinner.

 

It’s Actually An Interesting Process to Donate Your Body to Medical Science

cadaver
Photo Credit: Shannon Carabajal 

Disclosure: For those who avoid morbid light-heartedness and sarcasm, perhaps you won’t enjoy this post.

Over the last year and a half, since getting divorced, I’ve been getting my  “affairs” in order.  I don’t plan on kicking the bucket any time soon, but in case I do, I want things to be in place for my boys.  So, I’ve designated a power of attorney, set up an estate trust, gotten ample life insurance, and set up a living will and advanced directives…you know, adulting kind of stuff.

Having gone to about a billion funerals in my life, and helping plan a few, I realize how expensive and stressful funerals can be. Even the cheapest, absolute bare bones funeral home services and coffin package costs several thousand dollars.  Even cremation comes with a noticeable price tag.

In many areas of my life, I’m pretty frivolous and excessive.  But when it comes to me dying, I have always aimed to be as practical as possible.  Salvage what you can for those needing transplants, and let medical students hack away on the rest of me. Morbid as it may sound, I’ve just never been keen on being stuck in a box in the ground or set in an urn on a fireplace mantel somewhere.

I made my wishes clear to my power of attorney in the unforeseen event of my demise and may have daydreamed a tiny bit of how my earthly self might help further the causes of medical research.  That is until I talked with a local hospital marketing employee who told me that in Indiana, it’s actually sometimes more difficult than you would think to bequeath your freshly dead self to science.  I was really disappointed, both regarding my fantasies of my altruistic sacrifice, but also because my plans to make things super easy on my kids and family when I die shriveled up before my eyes.   Just to be on the safe side, I decided to look into the process, and here are a few random but interesting facts I stumbled across on The Google.

  1. You have to apply to donate your body, and…you might be rejected.  In general, having things like cancer, arthritis, or dementia won’t exclude your bodily donation from being accepted.  However, if you have a communicable disease, hepatitis, HIV, are taller than six feet, or weigh more than about 200 pounds, your chances of being selected to grace the cadaver table of a med school gross anatomy lab are slim to none.  Apparently, the embalming process adds another 100 to 150 pounds of weight to a corpse, making them wieldy to handle.
  2. Who would have thought that airline mergers would have any bearing on gifting yourself to a research institution? But it does. According to US Funerals Online, the changes in major airline companies have made getting donations to where they need to go more costly and cumbersome. If you’re concerned about the transportation industry ruining your post-mortem travel plans, consider pre-registering with a for-profit cadaver company to donate your body so you’ll know ahead of time what your options are.
  3. Donating your body to medical science isn’t free. In some places, like Indiana, where I live, there is a 24-hour phone line to call with inquiries about donating a recently deceased person. A quick phone screening by the Anatomical Education Program of Indiana University School of Medicine will determine eligibility for donation. If the family of the deceased requests it, the program will come pick up the body, use what it can, and cremate the remains.  If the family doesn’t want the ashes back 18-24 months later, there is a cemetery specifically designated as an eternal resting place for them..the ashes, not the family.  This is all done with no expense to the family.  However, it costs the School of Medicine significant funds to carry out this program.  But an added perk?  You can donate funds along with yourself when you die to ensure that the program will be able to afford to dissect you, for educational and medicinal purposes, of course.
  4. Supply of cadavers for research and medical school is low, even as many medical schools are moving away from using cadavers. In the past, it was legal to use unclaimed bodies as research cadavers. Perhaps you’ve even heard stories of grave robbers and body snatchers. Here’s an interesting bit of history and social injustice surrounding that. Now, in states like New York, years old traditions have been upended by new laws requiring explicit consent by family to use a body for research.
  5. Body farms – enough said.  A few years ago I started reading Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by science writer Mary Roach. In one chapter she described exploring an outdoor scene where corpses lay in various degrees of decay.  I had forgotten all about the detailed imagery in her book until reading articles for this blog about body farms.  This is the less glorious side of donating one’s body to science.  Rather than be sliced and incised by a fresh-faced doctor wanna-be, bodies are laid out on plots of land so forensics specialists can learn about how bodies decompose over time and when exposed to the elements.  However, the noble side of body farms is they can help provide justice for victims of abuse. Also, on a lighter note, if you get rejected as a body donation by a medical school, you might be welcomed at a body farm.
  6. You might not be accepted as both an organ donor AND a whole body donor. Organ donors are more common than whole-body donors, and it seems more culturally accepted here in the United States.  But many places, like the Mayo Clinic, won’t accept a body for donation after organs have already been removed for other purposes.  So, another reason to plan ahead of time which rite of passage is most important to you?- transplants or research.
  7.  There are alternatives to traditional funerals and cremation through funeral homes. Apparently, there is a trend called “green burials“, which is legal in all 50 states, where one can be allowed to decompose naturally without the use of embalming chemicals like the carcinogenic formaldehyde.  There are 30 or so specific “green burial” cemeteries across the United States.  And unbeknownst to me, you can still be buried in your backyard on private land as long as proper protocols and rules are followed.  This sort of necessitates pre-registration as well to ensure all the necessary paperwork is filed before you die.  Finally, only seven states require that a funeral director presides over the comings and goings of a person who has died. In all the other states, body preparation and services can all be performed at home.   Kind of like a home birth…but the other direction.

In reading up for this post I found quite a number of humorous articles related to body donations, as well as sites of companies that ironically make money off of body donations by taking them and piecemealing body parts out to needy institutions.  But the overall lesson? Body donation is not always a firm guarantee, so deciding on a backup plan for your body’s final destination is a good idea.

As a last side note, consider setting up an advanced directive for how medical care should be organized in the event you can’t make decisions for yourself.  It’s not difficult, it sure helps healthcare professionals and your loved ones when hard, emotional choices are required, and it’s a good way to maintain your self-agency in death instead of letting the courts have authority over who makes decisions concerning you and your care.