“Possibly Living People”

When I start surfing Wikipedia, I often wash up on some rather strange shores. It turns out that they have a biographical category that kind of gives me the creeps. According to the explanation, “Persons of advanced age (over 90) for whom no documentation has existed for a decade or longer can be placed in Category: Possibly living people.”

Not that I have a Wikipedia page, but please, Lord, if I ever do, don’t ever let me get placed in that category! If I manage to make it to 90 and no one has heard anything from me in a decade, then I’m not living right.

I don’t want to be warehoused. I don’t want to be utterly alone. I don’t want to vegetate. Granted, I probably won’t be climbing Mount Everest, but I hope I’m still voicing my opinion, learning new things, and raising the occasional hell. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I want to live, not just kill time. I want people to be able to look at me and say, “Yep. She’s definitely alive. Heaven help us.”

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The Anatomy of a Traumatic Experience

It was an unremarkable day. In retrospect, that was one of the strangest things about it. I was walking across the bridge to get to work, as I’ve done thousands of times. The sun was out. I had no plans, really. Think “status quo.”

And then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, just in time to see the guy hit the water. He had jumped off the next bridge over. There was this big splash, and that’s when time stopped for me. I think I will always carry with me a static image of him hitting the water, the splash and the waves it caused frozen in place. Because at that instant I knew he was dead. I knew it just as sure as I’m alive.

Needless to say, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stared at the body with my mouth hanging open. My mind started to bargain. “You didn’t really just see that.” “It’s not a body. Someone must have dropped something big and heavy off the bridge.” “This is not happening.” “No. This can’t be happening.”

Then I saw two boats race out from the rowing club. They tried to drag the body out of the water, but they couldn’t. Then the Harbor Patrol came screaming around the bend in the lake, and they were able to pull him out.

Somewhere along in there I had walked woodenly to the drawbridge tower where I work. (The sequence of events is forever hazy in my mind.) I climbed the stairs. “Did you see that?” I said to my coworker.

“See what?” She had been looking the other way. Time had been moving at a normal pace for her. And then I changed that, probably. She went down and talked to the officers on the scene, and then she left, after urging me to call our supervisor.

I talked to the supervisor for a long time. This is not the first time a bridgetender has witnessed a suicide, and it won’t be the last. She offered to let me have the day off, but I didn’t feel up to the commute. I was already there, and I could be traumatized at work just as easily at I could at home. She also strongly encouraged me to contact our Employee Assistance Program and get some counseling, because this was a big deal.

How right she was. I had never seen anyone die before. I’ve seen dozens of people consider jumping, but then get talked out of it. That’s upsetting enough. I’ve seen a few dead bodies, after the fact. But I’ve never seen anyone die before. It changes you.

I spent the rest of the shift feeling stunned and sad and sick to my stomach. I didn’t accomplish much. I kind of stared off into the middle distance a lot of the time. I thought about the jumper, and was heartbroken that he had felt so much pain and despair that he made that irreversible choice. I was heartbroken for the people who love him. I was upset for all the other witnesses, including the ones at the waterfront restaurant who were expecting to have a lovely salmon lunch, as I have on more than one occasion, and instead got an awful memory.

The weird thing was that I could see that life was going on all around me. Boats were happily floating over the spot, unaware that someone had just died there. People were jogging. Cars hummed their way across the bridge.

The waterway had always been kind of a sacred place for me. Now it had been violated. By the jumper? By the boaters? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

I talked to several people during the course of the shift. My crew chief stopped by. He offered, again, to let me have the day off. He reminded me about the Employee Assistance Program. He told me a few stories about things he’s experienced, and how it made him feel. It was really nice of him to stop by. I kind of felt detached, though.

I also called my sister, who was predictably horrified and sympathetic, and a few friends, who were sorry and tried to be comforting. I even spoke to my therapist. But I felt… it’s hard to explain. I felt like I was in a different reality. A different place, where I couldn’t quite reach them, and they couldn’t quite reach me. I could hear what they were saying, but it was like I was at a high altitude, and my ears had yet to pop. At a remove. Alone.

At the end of the shift I expected to go home and have a really good cry, but the tears never came. As of this writing, they still haven’t come. But I can feel them on the inside.

When I got home, I hugged my dog, and then fell into a deep sleep. I was really afraid I’d have a nightmare and wake up screaming with only my dog to comfort me, but that didn’t happen. I don’t even think I tossed or turned. I barely even wrinkled the sheets. It was like I had been in a coma.

When I woke up, “it” was my first thought. But oddly enough, I felt calm. I felt rested. I was in a good mood. Could I have gotten past this so easily? It felt like I had been given a “get out of jail free” card. What a relief. Tra la la.

Okay, yeah, maybe I’ve gotten past this. Woo! What an adult I am! This is awesome! Just in case, though, I did look into sending a condolence note to the next of kin. I spoke to the Harbor Patrol Chaplain. Naturally, he couldn’t give me a name, but he might be able to forward the note on for me. I thought that would be a nice little bit of closure.

I also spoke to the Employee Assistance Program, and set up some counseling sessions, even though I was feeling great. Way to go for practicing self-care, Barb! I felt really mature and well balanced.

In fact, I spoke to a couple of professionals who thought I was probably over the worst of it. But my therapist told me, cautiously, that I’d probably experience ups and downs for quite some time. There’s a reason she makes the big bucks.

Again, that night, I slept well. I was rested the next day, but a little subdued. Nothing major. Just kind of bleh.

And then that afternoon I started to shake uncontrollably. I wasn’t cold. I was just suddenly overwhelmed. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had several semi-urgent things on my to-do list, but it was painfully obvious that I was in no shape to deal. I just… I shut down.

I kind of checked in with myself, and what I got was: I’m afraid. I feel out of control. Everything feels so fragile, like a soap bubble. I’m so exhausted that the air feels like the consistency of chocolate pudding. Everything takes more effort than normal. I just want to be left alone.

Which is kind of good because after that first day, most people stopped following up with me. They were over it. It was an awkward conversation. Life goes on. But I still felt, and still feel to this day, that I need someone to hold me while I cry, and that someone can’t seem to be found.

Yes, there’s therapy in my future, and yes, I’ll learn to cope with my new reality. I know this because it’s not the first traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. I hope it’s the last, but I kind of doubt it. I am also well aware that things are cyclical. I’ll have good days and bad days.

Perhaps it’s the awareness of the cycles of life that have always prevented me from making the horrible choice that the jumper did. No matter how bad things get, even when the loneliness is so bad it’s physically painful, I know that eventually the pendulum shifts in the other direction.

That, and I could never put someone through what that jumper has put the witnesses, the first responders, and his loved ones through. Never. Not ever.

Having said that, though, I hope he has found the peace that seems to have eluded him in life.

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Again

Our children are dying. 18 school shootings so far this year. (But it must be noted that this number is controversial, and depends on one’s definition of a school shooting. Still, I think we can agree that even one is too many.) We are not even through February. What’s the magic number? How many have to die, how many have to cower in closets, terrified, before we do more than think and pray?

How many funerals must be held before we decide that there is absolutely no reason for anyone outside of the military to own a semi-automatic weapon? What’s the tipping point when shame will overtake greed and force politicians to act? When will mental health care (and health care in general, for that matter) become a priority in this country?

We need to put the NRA, President Trump, and the US Congress on notice. Every shooting, every single one, is blood on their hands. They are responsible. They need to be held accountable. Their inaction is criminal and should be prosecuted accordingly. Because of them, people are dying.

Oh, and by the way, fuck you and your right to bear arms.

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Xantolo

One of my biggest regrets is not taking advantage of the opportunity to celebrate the Day of the Dead when I was living in Mexico. I didn’t understand what a cultural and spiritual treasure this celebration is, so I skipped it. Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to go back to have this experience, but something keeps getting in my way.

Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition that reaches back thousands of years, to an Aztec celebration called Xantolo, which used to last for an entire month. It is a time when the dead and the living interact. Basically, it gives you a chance to spend time with the dearly departed.

This concept most likely makes the average American very uncomfortable. We don’t like to acknowledge death. We struggle to come up with things to say to people who have lost loved ones. We spend a lot of time trying to achieve immortality, even though death comes to us all sooner or later. It is the great equalizer.

The result of this puritanical, squeamish attitude toward a natural, inevitable conclusion to life means that grieving in America can be even more difficult than it needs to be. People tend to avoid you. It’s as if death is contagious. No one wants to hear about it. Mourning in this country is a very isolating experience. We prefer that the dead rest in peace. In other words, “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me.”

One of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, described Xantolo in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle like this:

“I’m drawn to this celebration, I’m sure, because I live in a culture that allows almost no room for dead people. I celebrated Dia de los Muertos in the homes of friends from a different background, with their deceased relatives, for years before I caught on. But I think I understand now. When I cultivate my garden I’m spending time with my grandfather, sometimes recalling deeply buried memories of him, decades after his death. While shaking beans from an envelope I have been overwhelmed by a vision of my Pappaw’s speckled beans and flat corn seeds in peanut butter jars in his garage, lined up in rows, curated as carefully as a museum collection. That’s Xantolo, a memory space opened before my eyes, which has no name in my language.”

I think Xantolo is a very healthy way to come to terms with the loss of loved ones. They may be gone, but they still have an impact on your life. Their absence changes who you are. That ability to effect change, to have an impact, is life of a sort. So why not acknowledge it?

You’re probably wondering why I’m writing about Xantolo in January. It’s because I celebrate Xantolo all year round. When I look skyward and say, “Yeah, I feel you. I know you’re close,” that’s Xantolo. It’s also the butterfly that lands on my knee, and the remembered joke that still makes me laugh. It’s that smell that brings me back to that particular day, or that song that I can still hear you singing.

Xantolo is the ongoing relationship that I have with people I can no longer reach out and touch. As with other relationships, sometimes it’s welcome, sometimes not. But I get a great deal of comfort from the fact that these people that I loved and still love are never very far away. We may have no name for that in our language, but oh, it’s there.

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Rolling in Dead Stuff

Something is obviously dead in my back yard. I know this because my dogs have come in from playing and they reek of rotting corpse. It must be a dog thing. They love to roll in dead stuff. What a disgusting habit, and one that doesn’t seem to bring them any benefit except the pleasure of watching me dry heave.

Given that I have a job that affords me the privilege to wax philosophical, I was thinking about my stinky dogs today, and I asked myself the following: What is the human equivalent to rolling in dead stuff? As self-destructive as we tend to be, there surely must be one.

I did read an article once that said that since dogs are ruled by smell the way we are ruled by sight, their rolling in dead stuff is the equivalent of us wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Quite often not a good idea, but we do it anyway.

It’s true that we do things that seem brilliant to us, but result in the irritation/disgust/avoidance of those around us. (Well, I never do, of course, but a lot of the rest of you seem to.) We follow the pack even when that pack is doing something idiotic. Just go to a Trump rally and you’ll witness this. (Come to think of it, I tend to see Trump as the very stinky stuff my dogs like to roll in.)

Is it possible that we roll in metaphorical dead stuff without even realizing that we are doing so? (I mean, things even worse than wearing Hawaiian shirts, because I confess I own a few of those.) I vow to try to be more mindful of these things moving forward. Beware the dead stuff. It’s bad. Bad, bad, bad.

I have to admit that this thought experiment has made me feel a little more tolerant of my dogs. Perhaps they mean well. Or maybe they just really like listening to me mutter while they’re getting bathed every day.

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[Image credit: psychologytoday.com]

It’s a Jungle Out There

When I moved from Florida to Seattle, one of the things that shocked me the most was the number of homeless people in this city. You’d think that Florida would have cornered the market on the homeless because the weather is so much warmer, but apparently not. I have no idea why that is.

Here they are everywhere. Not a day goes by when I don’t see dozens slogging through the rain or huddled on street corners or begging at the exit ramps. It’s truly heartbreaking, and it’s a constant reminder of how fragile financial security truly is in a city where the cost of living is completely out of control.

Ever since I volunteered with Operation Sack Lunch, the homeless situation has been in the forefront of my mind. Recently the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency on homelessness, and even as he was giving a speech about it, 5 homeless people were getting shot in the Jungle.

The Jungle is a mile long stretch under Interstate 5 in the South Seattle/Georgetown area. It’s a lawless, dangerous area where hundreds of homeless people sleep each night. There’s no sanitation, rats and garbage are everywhere, and you can’t sling a dead cat without hitting a dilapidated tent or a used syringe.

On the night in question, the police suspect a drug deal went wrong. The result was a 45 year old woman and a 33 year old man were shot dead, and 3 other people were severely wounded and taken to the hospital.

I can’t think of a more horrible way to end your life than to bleed out in a fetid, disease-ridden no-man’s land in the middle of one of the most prosperous cities in the richest country on earth. It’s just not right. It’s an outrage. I don’t know what else to say.

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The Jungle, Seattle. [Image credit: kuow.org]

Wearing the Clothes of the Dead

I love thrift shops. It’s a rare occasion when I buy my clothes retail. Why would you, when there are perfectly good clothes out there for one tenth of the price? I must say, though, it’s getting harder for me as I get bigger. Thrift stores are for skinny people. And that only stands to reason, because people tend to cast off their old clothing as their waistlines expand.

When you get to be my size, though, I can only think of a few possible scenarios for the clothes that are available in the thrift store.

  • The clothes are hopelessly out of style, in which case I’m getting what I’m paying for.
  • Someone lost weight and they are confident that the pounds will stay off. Then, yay! Good karma for me!
  • They’ve gained even more weight and have given up hope of ever losing it, which is sad to contemplate.
  • But even sadder to contemplate is that they died and their family gave the clothing away.

Of course, there is no way to ever know. The reason I’m thinking about this today is that while unpacking I came across my mother’s raincoat. When she passed away 24 years ago (my God, how time flies) it was one of the things I asked to have, because I had given it to her.

She once told me that she always wanted a London Fog raincoat, and when I went off to college I was rooting around in a thrift store and I found one. What are the odds? It was in perfect condition except for a tear in the lining, so I paid 50 cents for it, sewed up the lining and gave it to her for Christmas. She loved that raincoat. It’s been sitting in a box on my closet shelf ever since she passed away.

I may just have to take it out and try it on, because it’s possible that I’ll be moving soon to the Pacific Northwest, in which case a good raincoat will come in handy. Odds are pretty long that it will fit me. (My mother weighed 100 pounds soaking wet.) But it will be hard to take it out of the box to find out. The first thing that always assails me when I do, even after all these years, is the smell of cigarette smoke. (Cigarettes where what ultimately killed her.) But then come images of her wearing it, looking quite pleased with herself. That is a nice memory, so I’ll power through that cigarette smell.

The funny thing to contemplate is that someday I will leave behind that raincoat, and no one will know its history. It will most likely wind up in a thrift shop once again. The next person who wears it will have no idea of its significance. That’s the way of things. Inanimate objects are filled with emotions and memories by their owners, but they mean absolutely nothing to other people. It’s as if our own stuff is endowed with some sort of magic that is lost on those around us.

I often wonder about the history of the outfits I’m looking at in thrift stores. How often am I wearing the clothes of the dead? Have I ever worn something and passed a relative on the street, causing them to have painful memories of a loved one whom they’ve lost? I hope not. And I hope if there is some form of afterlife, that person is looking down and is pleased that his or her wardrobe is being put to good use.

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[Image credit: ecommerceboy.net]

Self-Destruction

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the latest in a long line of high-profile cases of self-destruction. He was found dead on his bathroom floor with the hypodermic needle still sticking in his arm. What an undignified way to go for such an incredible talent.

Things like this really piss me off. Entirely preventable, deaths like these that take such amazing gifts away from us are nothing but a waste. All deaths like this are a waste, actually. Mr. Hoffman isn’t the first, and he won’t be the last.

I used to think, “Why didn’t anybody stop him or her?” These people are surrounded by others. Sycophants, fans, managers, hangers-on, family members. For every person who dies this way, there was someone who looked the other way and/or enabled the downward spiral. I just couldn’t understand how this could happen.

But the fact is it happens every day to average citizens as well as superstars. No one was there to prevent my uncle from blowing his brains out in his garage, just as no one was there to stop James Dean from driving 70 miles per hour down Highway 466. No one is there to stop most jumpers from stepping off bridges, just as no one was there to keep the alcohol or the Seconal out of the hands of Judy Garland.

We find the famous deaths more tragic because we feel as if they had everything going for them, so it seems unthinkable that they’d throw it all away. Maybe fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. These people are treated like commodities, like money making machines, and they can never be sure who their friends really are. That’s got to be a horrible way to live your life.

Sadly, no matter how much you love someone, you can’t prevent them from destroying themselves if they are hellbent on walking that path. But you should never hesitate to try, at the very least. And that’s what often seems to be missing in these deaths for me: someone who seems to have tried. That’s the real tragedy here.

Life is a one-time gift. You’re a fool if you just casually discard it.

I’ll leave you with this ironic interview with James Dean, filmed just a few weeks before his fatal car crash, in which he was doing at least 70 mph in a 50 mph zone after having gotten a speeding ticket earlier in the day. A pity he didn’t take his own advice. (For those of you getting this via e-mail, the video can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hU5N2SrEaZI)

Sealed Without Your Consent–Mormon Ordinances by Proxy

The LDS Church performs a wide variety of ordinances, some of which are called saving ordinances, which they believe are required for salvation. One such ordinance is called sealing, and it seals you to spouses and other family members for all eternity. Fine and dandy and more power to them, I say. Everyone is entitled to their own sacred beliefs, and that is one of theirs. Even as someone who is outside their faith, I can respect that.

But wait. Hold on. It turns out that a whole group of my ancestors in Denmark have been sealed. And they passed away before the LDS even existed. How is that possible? It turns out that there’s this loophole called an ordinance by proxy.

According to Wikipedia,

“After Latter-day Saints enter the temple and receive temple ordinances for themselves, they may return and perform the saving ordinances on behalf of their deceased ancestors. These are performed vicariously or by “proxy” on behalf of the dead, and Latter-day Saints believe that it is up to the deceased to accept or reject the offered ordinance in the spirit world. Only saving ordinances are performed on behalf of deceased persons.

“Ordinances on behalf of the dead may be performed only when a deceased person’s genealogical information has been submitted to a temple. Latter-day Saints complete genealogical work for deceased persons and if it is determined an individual has not received some or all of the saving ordinances, the individual’s name is submitted to the temple to receive these ordinances by proxy. Optimally, the proxy who stands in will be a descendant of the deceased person, but the ordinance proxy may also be an unrelated volunteer.”

Well, that certainly explains why the Mormons have the best, most detailed genealogical records in the world. They want to save as many people as they possibly can. That can’t be a bad thing, can it? Rumor has it they’ve even sealed Adolf Hitler, Anne Frank, and Mother Teresa. That’s a load off, knowing that their places in eternity are assured, because their actions in life didn’t already seal their fate for better or for worse, right? [Heavy sarcasm alert.]

But when I heard about this happening to my relatives I was disgusted, and my cousin and my late sister could not understand why. Here’s why. I take my spirituality very seriously. It has been hard won and required a great deal of soul searching. The thought that when I die some future relative who is a total stranger to me can perform this ordinance on my behalf, against my will, is offensive. If I wanted to be sealed, I’d do it while I was alive.

I suppose I could petition that my relatives to be “un-sealed”, but I feel I don’t have the right to do so for the same reason that the proxy sealer didn’t have the right to seal them in the first place. I have no idea what their wishes would have been, so I can’t in good conscience make that type of choice on their behalf.

My sister said, “But why do you care if you’re sealed? You’ll be dead.” I care, dammit, because we’re talking about my legacy. We’re talking about what other future family members will read about me and believe about my choices. Unless they make an effort to do their homework, they’d most likely assume that the choice was mine, and I’d hate to think that perceived choice might influence theirs. I don’t want my legacy, my hard won philosophy about this life and the next,  to be usurped and altered, no matter how well-intentioned the person who chooses to perform this rite may be.

It’s a certainty that I won’t completely agree, religiously, with the majority of my future relatives. Heaven knows I don’t agree with all my living ones. And, oh, by the way, there are some relatives that I’d rather not be sealed to for all eternity, thankyouverymuch. There. I’ve said it.

My sister also said, “What would it hurt to have all your bases covered?” To which I replied, “And what if one of those bases happened to be related to the Satanic Church? How would you feel then?”

I sincerely believe that every person has their own spiritual path to walk upon. I don’t want some “one size fits all” type of divine insurance policy. Not only does it lack sincerity, commitment and dedication, but it would deprive me of my free will. If that means I’ll be burning in hell, so be it.

So if any future ancestors are reading this and thinking of having an ordinance by proxy performed on me, thanks, but no thanks. Even if I were truly given the opportunity to accept or reject it in the spirit world, I plan on being busy, and will not want to be disturbed.

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Speaking Ill of the Dead

I was chatting with a coworker when he received a text message. “Whoa. My cousin just died.” I told him I was sorry for his loss, as you do. “Don’t be,” he said. “She was mean as a snake and hated my guts.”

Once upon a time I might have been shocked by that response. You’re taught that you should never speak ill of the dead. When I was little I used to think that was some magical rule, like they’d come back and get you or haunt you if you said mean things about them. Like some afterlife boogey man was out there, just waiting to pounce.

In retrospect I can see where it might be wise not to shoot your mouth off, but only out of respect for the living. There’s no point in hurting the complex feelings of the people who might actually genuinely mourn someone’s passing.

But frankly, I think it can be somewhat cleansing to be able to speak the truth about someone who has made your life a living hell, too. For instance, I jumped for joy when my abusive stepfather died, although the damage had already been done, and I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it. If the man wanted to be lauded in death, he should have behaved decently in life.

Even if you don’t believe in some form of afterlife, something, even if it is just your legacy or reputation, will, as Charles Dickens so aptly said, wear the chains you forge in life. And what one chooses to forge is the responsibility of each individual.

I’m not going to revise history just because you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. Dying isn’t some sort of get out of jail free card, or some special pass. Everyone dies sooner or later. It’s the great equalizer. It’s how you treat people while you’re alive that sets you apart.

So if you feel the need to vent about someone who has died and need someone to listen who won’t be shocked or offended, pat pat, come sit by me.

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