Nurse Logs and The Art of Letting Go

Letting go and the process of decay

I’ve been thinking about the process of decay. Decay is not a concept I’ve thought much about ordinarily, but I’ve been drawn to it because of the nurse logs I often pass in the forest.

nurse log 2A nurse log is a tree that’s fallen and has begun to decay, allowing new trees to grow right out of the decaying fibrous wood of the fallen tree.  You’ll know when you see one – an entire tree is literally growing out of the rotting one! It’s an incredibly healthy place for a new tree to begin, brimming with nutrients for some lucky young seedling. But new trees don’t grow out of hard logs lying on the forest floor. The process of decay must have well and truly set in to allow the richness and goodness to be released, to feed a young seedling looking for a place to grow.

As a writer I struggle sometimes to let go, disappointed with projects that have hit a dead end, timelines that have had to be adjusted so often I don’t remember where they began. I rail against the shelving of great ideas that really just aren’t suitable for anyone but me. This is true for me in many areas of my life whether my goals are about fitness or finances or life balance. I have a hard time accepting a re-shuffle, a rewrite of what I’d planned. Instinctively I’m afraid of giving up, even when ‘giving up’ is the very necessary next important thing to do in order to begin again.

As I’ve matured I’m getting better at shouting, “Timber!” and letting the thing crash to the ground in a graceless heap. I can now pat myself on the back sometimes for easing up a little, for moving past an idea or a dream and recalibrating. I know intuitively on my forest walks, that fallen projects and goals are an excellent source of nourishment for something new to begin, for new life to spring from what I’ve let go of to allow new life to miraculously take root.

So why isn’t this automatic? Why is it that, even after I’ve let the thing fall, there’s no sign of new life? Why is it still just a fallen tree I continue to trip over?

This is the where I’ve needed to learn about the wonder of decay! Decay is the natural process of microorganisms devouring an old tree to soften it, to turn it into something new, something that will give life to a new young seedling – perhaps the best tree yet. If you allow decay to set in, to turn what’s fallen into what comes next, who knows what towering timber will take root?

There are four things that influence decay: moisture, warmth, oxygen and time.  And therein lies the magic! When you’ve let the tree go remember these things:

(1) Moisture. Whatever it is you know as your Living Water, drink deeply. When you’ve let a tree come crashing down, be sure to stay hydrated. For me this means time and space for prayer and reflection. Drink deeply and often.

(2) Warmth. Be good to yourself. Be warm. Stay by the fire, lie in the sun on your living room floor, enjoy a movie, a visit with a good friend, a great bottle of wine, however you warm the cold places of your heart, give yourself permission – no, not just permission, applaud yourself for this act of self-grace. Stay warm.

(3) Oxygen – Breath. Be present. Recognize the gift that is today, the feel of the wind on your cheeks, the small moments that let you observe the miracle of life we are given each day.

(4) Time – Be patient. Step carefully over what’s fallen and know that time will bring the natural progression of moving past it all.  New life will come, the forest is proof of it.

Let the old tree go. Enjoy these moments before something new takes root. Be good to yourself. The world needs you.

I invite you to share your own story of nurse logs and letting go in the Humanity Gallery. Check out the new exhibition “Nurse Logs and the Art of Letting Go” for writers and dreamers and seekers of all that is good in the world. Leave a link to your own blog where viewers can discover your journey.

Calling out Wired Online: The “Slums” of Dhaka and the Carelessness of Writers

Yesterday morning Wired published an article highlighting the photo series of photographer Sebastian Keitel: The Chaotic, Colorful Slums of the World’s Most Overcrowded City. (see: http://www.wired.com/rawfile/2014/03/dhaka-slums-sebastian-keitel)

The images are stunning in their appreciation of the magnificent color found in the private homes of people living the in the poorest areas of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. But the tag line of the article referencing these people’s lives as dwellers of a ‘slum’ stayed with me all day – in a disturbing way.

BjIQS9uIIAEoflb Slum is a word we seem okay about using, a kind of short-hand, quickly conjuring up images of filth, poverty, desperation. And, of course, Dhaka qualifies as a city that boasts these attributes in abundance. I suppose this was the point of the article – to contrast the ordinary mental image that leaps up when we think of a ‘slum’ with the colorful imagery Keitel captured.

But there was something diminishing about the word ‘slum’ – especially as the tag line to lead the story that allowed us the privilege to glimpse into the very private world of the families who opened their homes to the photographer, and then to us.

When you study the images you mostly see the careful storing and organizing of each family’s possessions, the hanging of clothing and treasures where they belong, things in their places, albeit not in an IKEA cabinet.  The images showcase perhaps everything in the world that belongs to the people who granted us access.

Imagine the busy tidying that went on before the photographer arrived! The sweeping and fussing to spruce the place up before their appointment with the cameraman from some far away wealthy land.

I have been honored to visit such places myself, in fact.  I’ve been welcomed into the homes of people in the poor rural and urban areas of Bangkok, Harare, Bulawayo, and Soweto whose housing and circumstances would, by this definition, write them up as dwellers of a ‘slum’. I have eaten wonderful meals in these ‘slum’ homes, prepared lovingly and generously with a few simple ingredients by the families who make their lives in such a ‘slum’. And while the circumstances of our lives might be very different – unjust and tragic in the disparity between us – the shared humanity over a laugh and meal made me wish to think of these folks as my friends.

It seems a flagrant betrayal to write about the people in the images this way, about the place they call their home, leading the reader to adopt a kind of ‘view from the castle to the peasants below’. ‘Slum’ is a word that stinks of the most outdated ideas of colonization. Language is powerful and words strike hard.

I’m not sure the people of Dhaka would have opened their lives and treasures up to the photographer with the grace that was shown him, if they knew we were all about to write them up as fascinating examples of slum dwellers. I wonder how they would feel about the world gaping at their homes and families, our jaws dropping at the colorful embrace of ‘slum’ life. Because really, what else do they have to offer?

 

The things that matter

airplane in sunsetIn the ordinariness of our lives, we wait. What else can you do? The Boeing 777 is a massive construction of 3 million different parts crafted from aluminum, carbon fibre, plastic and wires. It weighs 766,000 lbs – the equivalent of 10 loaded logging trucks flying through the air (flying through the air!) carrying 47, 890 gallons of fuel. Some of us are still hoping that it landed on some tropical Gilligan’s island with a darn good airstrip; that whoever took over the controls knew what they were doing and landed flight MH370 somewhere safely. That the sudden change of direction was not the end for the passengers, that the days of their lives not yet lived, were not erased by an incapable or heartless pilot.

And what about us? Every morning somehow, without much talent or training, we summon 60,000 miles of blood vessels, 78 organs, 206 bones, 650 odd muscles, and 16 gallons of water wrapped up in 21 square feet of skin, to engage in the first miracle of the day: getting out of bed. Before we’ve even had coffee, hundreds of messages from our nerve endings have been whipping up to our brain at 170 miles per hour. Somehow we coordinate this unlikely collection of tissue and sinew to feed the dog, pack the lunches and back the car out of the driveway.

And at end of the day, all we really want to know is that it meant something, that it wasn’t just random cells firing to get us through another day, who cares where? Because we don’t always have another day. Perhaps that’s the one thing we do have control over. It really is up to us to point this beautiful creature that is our self – the miracle that contains us – towards the things that matter. That we aren’t hijacked by something we didn’t see coming.

 

Last Chance

I don’t have a chance to ask her all the things I want to. She is cagey, doesn’t want the friend she’s with to be in the photo – for his sake. They lie in the back of the mini van with the rear door open high so they can see the ocean, feel the sun on their faces. When I first pull up I hear giggling, notice only their legs dangling out the back of the van, swinging like kids, barefoot and silly, like they were on Spring Break, like maybe it was summer and nothing else mattered. The sun can do that to you.

last chanceBut it’s March, and they’re grown up and everything does, in the end, matter. She lets me take her picture, eager to tell her story, but to leave him out of it. For his sake – his family would have a fit, she says. They laugh. They used to date twenty years ago, when she was twelve, before drugs, and then prison, took her. But they’ve found each other now. And who knows? Maybe everything will be all right.

I want to ask her about the wedding rings that dangle from a chain around her neck but we don’t have time. They’ve only got an hour together and she can’t give that up, not to me, a stranger looking to capture a glimpse of humanity in a beach side parking lot with the sun going down.

She didn’t get cleaned up in prison, that only made things worse, more drugs, more everything. In prison she cared for strays for a society called Last Chance. It was better than cleaning toilets, she says. Every dog an inmate could train might find a new owner. She could save its life. That was worth living for.  That was how she learned about dogs to begin with. Now she’s nearly finished her degree in dog grooming she tells me, has a job as a groomer, and a purpose. She has a life, even in this small town, where everyone remembers you, where everyone remembers every mistake you ever made. I’m not sure small towns give away last chances anymore. Maybe they never did.

Devotion

On the streets of Bangkok, dogs belonging to no one, wander scavenging. These aren’t dogs that have homes or leashes or collars. They’re dogs that find a way to survive.  Once, while having lunch at a café in Bangkok, I noticed a dog lying next to an old woman on a dilapidated chair at the alley entrance to another café across the street. He was a healthy looking dog, not scrawny and bony like the dogs that ran past us. There was something different about this dog.

street-dogThe old woman was blind, missing one eye. The dog crouched at her feet. Every so often, the old woman kicked at the dog and he slid away quickly on his belly, just out of reach of her foot in what looked like a practiced, calculated distance. He waited, then slowly crept back to her side and settled in until she kicked again. This happened several times while we had lunch.  I watched the dog hanging in there, wondering what on earth made that dog stay, what bound him to her side? There was no leash holding him there. Other dogs ran by, someone called to him from across the alley with a few leftovers and still that dog stayed right by that difficult old woman, ignoring the passersby. He would not move.

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The things I don’t remember

On Mother’s Day

The things I don’t remember…

I have discovered, recently, a terrific injustice that must be noted:  The human brain begins to record the world – in the first ways it can sensibly recall and remember – right around the time the creature reaches adolescence. It’s only then that the mind matures sufficiently to begin to make notes, to keep memories. And while it’s true there are glimpses, fragments of memory from as early as two or three years old, the bulk of what we remember as adults, and the memories that stay with us, begin from about the age of thirteen.

Our mother in 1968What a disaster.

At thirteen, children become self-absorbed, sulky, angry, hatchlings for a good number of years, on their way to becoming (thankfully) something else. By the time a child is thirteen years old, the mother has spent 4745 days making birthday cakes no one will remember, sewing Halloween costumes no one ever wore again, washing floors and windows that were dirty the next morning, and wrapping up sandwiches that were thrown in the garbage the moment the lunch bell rang.

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Afterwards

Afterwards, you look back across the frozen lake and see the tracks left behind. The careful circle you walked for months, circling, circling, cutting a trail through the snow that grows hard-edged and easy to follow; a kind of moat to protect the smooth white expanse of untouched snow. After awhile, you didn’t even have to think to walk that path, which is a good thing.  When you are this tired the most you can do is put one foot in front of the other.

But when it finally happens, when he dies that night, when the strength of your childhood disintegrates in your hands, even though you saw it coming, even though you knew it would be this way, when it finally happens you feel yourself falling, falling. When it finally happens you cannot stop yourself. You break from the trail and run to him out there in the middle, throwing yourself to the snow, again and again, damaging the smooth surface, silent, unable to say a single word that means anything.

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The Piano Man

My father’s eyes are mostly closed now. There will be no more feeding ducks, no more walks outside, no more jokes about racing through the puddles in his wheelchair. When he wakes, the sparkling brown of his eyes now ringed with a cloudy blue, are the color of confusion.

He scans the room for people he recognizes. Who are you, he asks with his eyes. He doesn’t say the words. He just stares.

“You’re okay dad,” I say to him. “You’re okay.”

Mostly, I am praying he doesn’t feel afraid. I whisper in his ear, bless him with the peace that passes all understanding. He is deep beneath purple layers of consciousness, not able to lift his head above the water.

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With my dad

It’s not March until the day after tomorrow. There are traces of snow on the trail so the muddy surface means I have to push the wheelchair hard to avoid getting stuck.  The chair groans and creaks, the cleats my dad and me in the sunof my shoes dig in.  But my dad doesn’t care. He’s glad to be out. We’re leaving the hospice and the world of the dying behind us, just for a while. The sunshine makes my dad smile, his face bright, almost luminous.

I’ve brought the jackknife with me this time. Yesterday, the smooth skin of the young branches on the old willows made us both think of the whistles we used to carve every spring.

Mostly, the whistles I carved didn’t work. But the whistles he carved never once failed.

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Walking together

I like to believe, in an optimistic kind of way, that I’ve got a busy life ahead of me until I’m ninety years of age! After that I’ll start to slow down a bit, but in the meantime, the world is a wonderful place to be and I’ve hit the half-way mark this week. It means I’ve been preparing for this next half for forty-five years. Wow, I thought, that’s an enormous investment of time.

My son and I on our way up to Berg Lake.

My son and I on our way up to Berg Lake.

So this is an opportune time to begin to make notes here, along the way, to share this journey with others who are also walking. In this photo my son and I are on our way up to Berg Lake at Mount Robson. I’d been along this trail many times, years before, but it was the first time with my son. There’s something wonderful about charting a course and setting out together, whether it’s a new path or one you’ve walked before. I’m hopeful this blog – a space for the words we share, reflections about where we’re going and what we’ve learned – will capture those moments as we walk. We can travel together this way, even though we might be on different journeys. And when you can, I hope you’ll share your journey with me – in the comment section below.

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