Wednesday, June 21, 2017

LIVING WITH DYING - Installment 5

   Do you ever pause to consider the context of the life you are living on any given day? I took a moment this  morning to revisit the first installment of this LIVING WITH DYING story. What struck me at once was the tone of that first post. It was not a good time. I was down in the mouth---caught up in the harsh reality of an unexpected cancer diagnosis and feeling sorry for myself.
I began that post intending to see where this daunting journey, with its overtones of terminal possibilities, would take me. Now, just four posts later, I can sense a distinct change in attitude. The threat I feared at first has retreated to the background---still there, but not nearly as intimidating. Those dark thoughts have evolved from ‘Dying’ to ‘Living,’ and I find myself concentrating more on possibilities and potential, and less on the ’worst case’ trials that may still await me. 
Contributing to that change of heart has been the feedback some of you readers have offered regarding these posts. I made the point earlier that trials like mine are universal. Many of you have experienced the cruel reality of cancer and other late-life tests in ways far beyond what I will ever face. Given that, what right do I have to play ‘poor me’? Instead, I need to deal with the life I have.
In any case, I am ready to move on, with a special focus on what may strike you as a new and slightly different way of looking at a life well lived.


As I mentioned at the end of the last installment, my reading has led me to a vaguely familiar place, and an expanded, more coherent explanation of what I have long tried to put into words---an understanding that rang true the first time I considered it and still does.
Before we go any further I invite your reaction to one of the author’s primary conclusions. Reduced to its simplest form it reads something like this---our deepest, most soul-felt desires are hints of a divine instinct that already dwells in our consciousness, longing to emerge, wanting to be lived out in our daily life. 
In his recently published book Emergence, Derek Rydall uses as a metaphor for the process he is describing an oak tree---emerging from a tiny acorn to become a deep-rooted giant, reaching upward and outward in all its mature majesty. That seems to me a useful image, illustrating how over time the sprawling oak emerges from its modest beginning.
Still using that graphic image, the author then argues in favor of another bit of existential magic, something I found very familiar. He hypothesizes that every sort of life, whatever its form---flora or fauna---arrives on the scene with everything it needs to become what it is intended to be. Beyond that, he concludes that the human link in that life-chain, the part which includes you and me, begins as a speck of DNA-infused matter that includes a spark of divine energy, brimming with the potential to ‘Become.’
At the heart of Rydall’s logic is the belief that whether it is a forest acorn or a human embryo, with proper nurturing that divinely-inspired beginning contains everything it will require to emerge as the creation it was meant to be. 
In the human example, he surmises that what we see, feel, taste, or touch, every relationship we have---everything that we experience in life---is experienced in our mind, and aided and abetted by that same divine energy. That is, what happens to us ‘out there’ is a reflection of what is in us. I must admit, his understanding of our internally directed ‘Becoming’ seems valid to me.
I hope you will bear with me for a moment as I compare Rydall’s insight to an excerpt from one of my Tanner Chronicles stories written in 2009. When I first wrote this scene I was calling the story “Maybe This Time.” It was the brief exchange I offer here that unexpectedly sent my narrative off in a very different direction, to become the book I published as “Becoming.” 

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, knowing that I was not sure at all. “I’m not exactly a church kind of guy, you know.”
A moment later Maria nodded her affirmation, so I took a deep breath and threw caution to the wind.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” I began. “You talk about a God who has rules for every step you take---who comes down hard on you when you break those rules.“ That had her nodding her agreement. 
“But the God that makes sense to me,” I continued. “The One I can accept, gives us the freedom to be ourselves and even expects us to play a part in what It is creating.
“Let me explain if I can.” By then my unfamiliar role as spiritual advisor was growing more uncomfortable by the second. “What I think of as God gives every single thing that It creates all that it needs to become whatever it’s supposed to be. 
“And once It’s done that, It sends that creation off to become that intended ‘something.’ That is true for a tree, or a flower, or an animal. They all use what they’ve been given, doing their best to become what they are meant to be. And I believe it’s that way for people too.
“That’s what I think we’re supposed to be doing here,” I added, hoping I had not lost touch with her. “We are ‘Becoming,’ and as long as we live we will never outgrow the need to continue our becoming. Along the way, part of that job is to learn what it is we’re supposed to do or be---that might be a caregiver like you, or a storyteller, or anything else. The main thing to remember is that we already have everything we need to be whatever that is.”
With that I had pretty much exhausted my God-thought repertoire.

Small wonder I found Derek Rydall’s hypothesis so compelling. He had taken an idea I had been selling for years, dressed it up and made it presentable. To be clear, he stresses that success in any ‘Becoming’ venture is never guaranteed. Life’s fragile emergence, whether a sprouting acorn, newborn child, or a November octogenarian, begins with a vessel of potential---awaiting the nurture, care, and circumstances necessary for its becoming.
Where Rydall departs from the spiritual logic most of us were taught as youngsters, is the role of an external deity in that emerging life cycle. An ‘up-there,’ ‘out-there,’ ‘behind-the-curtain’ God to whom we address our prayers and make our pleas is not part of the ‘emergence’ he describes.
If I interpret him correctly, Rydall’s vision of the Divine (a concept he readily accepts) does not include a heavenly scorekeeper who hears humanity’s prayers, then distributes them into files labeled ‘granted’ and ‘not granted.’
I admit that I appreciate the way he faces those stumbling blocks head on---moving beyond a God who makes such arbitrary choices. He addresses the age-old rationale that ‘God knows what is best for us’ by simply asking, “What kind of god has all the answers at hand, yet offers them to only some petitioners---perhaps the ones who believe the right truth or worship the right god? And what kind of god allows children to starve by the thousands, or tens of thousands? "
Instead of petitioning that external ‘Heavenly Father’ to help us find our way, Rydall turns to the divine God-spark, the soul-deep inheritance of our birth, that he suggests already resides within us. It is, he claims, that bit of God-magic---our divinely-inspired higher-self---that enables our emergence, by giving away the treasures we already possess---our love, caring, and kindness.
Rather than turning to a remote, out-of-reach God for direction, he insists that we---as spiritual beings who are living for the moment in a material world---have, with proper nurturing, the means to use our inherited gifts, the Divine within us, to fulfill our own destiny. I will confess that his logic rings true for me. Once again, I don’t expect everyone to agree.
So here I am, looking November right in the eye, trying to convince myself I ought to keep Becoming, even at my age. More to the point, how should I use the time I have, time that seems more vulnerable than ever before? And of course I am not the only one asking those questions. Every one of us is in that ‘limited time’ universe, aren’t we? I can’t speak for you. But I want to spend that time doing the right things---hopefully emerging as the person I was meant to be.
In that case, if I am to move beyond an “Ask and you shall receive” God to follow the Divine-spark I have carried in me since birth, how will I know what path to take? I have, after all, arrived at this point in search of a reason to keep going in the face of what has the feel of an existential roadblock---a cancer diagnosis.
Thankfully, I can sense my late-life seeking coming into focus---as though I am finally asking the right questions. A good thing too. For all I know I may be running out of the time. (Though hopefully I can keep going for years.) In that case, I had better get to work, harvesting my remaining potential---and exploiting the life-possibilities I have yet to live out. Before I can do that, however, I need to get a better handle on what those ‘possibilities’ might be. Obviously it is time to begin that search.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

LIVING WITH DYING - Installment 4

 I am eighty-years old. Even with the best of health, my productive future is probably limited. Still, in the face of a cancer diagnosis and the vulnerability that suggests, I am anxious to make the best possible use of whatever time I have. 
Though it has taken me a while to reach this point, it feels like things are finally coming into focus. While the doctors and the disease are at war with each other, using me as their battlefield, there is only so much I can do on the medical front. In that case why not concentrate on things over which I have some control, at least a little bit? It is time to deal with life beyond cancer.
I understand, of course, that it would help to have a reason to keep going in the face of my troubles---a reason beyond simply staying alive. If my only goal is to exist for another month or another year, what will I have to show for that a month or a year from now?
Truth be told, I have seldom thought in those terms. But the more I do, the more it seems that what matters most is not how many days I hang around, but rather the use I make of those days. 
But how do I do that? What worthwhile ‘something’ can an old fossil like me accomplish at this stage of the game? And if I don’t know, where should I turn for those answers?
Bottom line---I want to spend my allotted time doing the right thing. Chances are that means returning to the spiritual side of life that I mentioned in the last installment.


By now the gut-wrenching shock of a cancer diagnosis is wearing off, and my thoughts are turning to Living, rather than Dying. Two months ago, still bogged down in a post-surgery funk, my dark thoughts viewed the time I might have left as a very limited and very precious commodity. Now, with the first round of treatments behind me, my perspective has changed. The time I have left  (which I expect will be numbered in years, not months) remains just as precious, but my priorities are different.
It seems that mankind, from the beginning of the species, has tried to identify and connect with the nebulous mystery of ‘divine energy’---that hard-to-define ‘more’ which touches our lives in ways we struggle to express. Throughout recorded history, in every corner of every continent seers and shamen, gurus and mystics have created mythologies and sacred stories, cults and religions to better understand the mystery of the divine.
Whatever explanation we accept as our personal answer, and whatever name we assign to it, I have said before that I believe there resides in each of us a bit of God-spark, a DNA-like gift of birth. That in turn is part of another great mystery---how the complex and complicated person we have become, including that divine inheritance, could have been encapsulated in the microscopic bits of sperm and egg from which we emerged.
I have read, and perhaps you have too, that some folks believe our God-inheritance is linked to a companion possibility---the notion that our earthly incarnation includes a particular reason for our being---a ‘something’ that our time here is meant to accomplish. 
That possibility is especially intriguing at this stage of late-life, as I cast about for the best way to use my remaining years. I have been thinking those thoughts lately (it is hard not to)---about a ‘something’ that I ought to be doing, or at least trying.
I will admit that from time to time I have patted myself on the back for my self-judged virtues, congratulating myself for my occasional good deeds. (I tend to forget the not-so-good ones.) Those moments, however, certainly fall short of being a ’cosmic reason’ for my existence.
In fact I have always found the idea of a specific reason for my being hard to accept. It has the ring of a simplistic ‘churchy’ answer---with overtones of a micromanaging God. Truth to tell, I am not a God-fearing person. I make no secret of my belief in the Source, or Spirit, or God that dwells in me. But in my mind the presence of that Love-based essence is not something to be feared.
So it was, without a better answer, my gloomy diagnosis had me mired in a doubting limbo---until the night I lay in bed, letting my half-awake thoughts take me where they wanted. Apparently 'where they wanted' was what I accept as a minor epiphany which arrived in the form of a single word---one that I repeated to myself several times, to be sure it would not be swallowed and forgotten by a night’s sleep.
“Potential.” That is a fine word, isn’t it? In a world that longs for exact, succinct answers I can accept ‘potential’ as the raw material from which to construct one or more reasons for moving ahead---a logical step toward finding the ‘something’ that fits me.
Like I said, the possibility of a single life ‘purpose’ is hard for me to wrap my head around. It sounds so concrete, denoting a certainty I have rarely felt. ‘Potential,’ on the other hand, has the ring of ‘what could be’---hinting at a range of possibilities which might set me on the right track. Beyond that, it is something I have experienced myself. I know a thing or two about potential. 
After all, we have four children, four living and breathing examples of individual potential. We knew from the beginning how different they were from each other. As they grew each of them exhibited his or her distinctive characteristics, drawn to become themselves---and exploiting their unique potential. 
The more I pondered that ‘potential’ notion the more it sounded like something worth exploring. Though it was rather late in the game, the notion of a reason to keep trying was coming into focus, arriving with a clarity that perhaps comes with age. 
Despite a history of what I considered well-intentioned doubt, my personal search was leading me toward new understandings.
  I was following my long-held ‘Becoming’ rationale back to its roots---confirming the possibility of a divine organizing spirit, my own God-spark if you will. Though I still struggle to understand what that means, I am less willing to consider my arrival at this time and place as a totally random event.
That in turn has me wondering. Are these simply the wishful thoughts of a tired old man trying to wring answers from a late-life crisis---wanting to know the best way to use his remaining time? Perhaps so. Yet I am persuaded that there might be a potential reason to keep going---a valid ‘true north’ by which to set my internal compass as I face a new and daunting challenge.
So, you might ask, what was it that helped cement my belated acceptance of a potential reason? Actually it was a book---authored by Derek Rydall, entitled Emergence, which seemed to elaborate on my own primitive thoughts.
As I read Rydall’s case for fulfilling our potential---the way he explains how our ‘Becoming’ (which he labels ‘Emergence) requires us to ‘give away’ the love, kindness, and caring we already possess, his logic rang true to me.
I have long believed that even in my personal November, (at least I hope it is) I am still in the process of 'Becoming.' I have written whole books advocating that reality. Beyond that, it feels like I still have the time and energy for another lap or two---if I am willing to try, and can determine a positive course of action. 
Without knowing for sure where this latest obstacle is leading me, or whether my eighty-year old body is good for another year or another ten, I am determined to wring all the meaning I can from the years I am gifted.
True, the results of my future efforts, whatever they are, will not look like the good old days. But hopefully my ‘trying’ will confirm that even in late-life we can reach down inside ourselves to set in motion another bit of the divine energy that has kept us going this far. Perhaps Mr. Rydall is showing me how to do that. Hopefully I can explain his logic in the next chapter.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

LIVING WITH DYING - Installment 3

Most of us have spent a lifetime learning to avoid, or at least ignore, the possibilities we would rather not think about. I know that I have spent that long---eighty years in my case---dancing around what I would rather not think about, even when I know in the depths of me that I, like everyone, will at some point come face to face with it.
And here it is, right in front of me. Except at this early stage it is not a painful, debilitating disease that has me stressed, but instead waves of insistent dread, gloomy mind-pictures of what it might become. 
Though I have never thought of it that way before, my new situation includes hints of a new reality---a sort of psychological warfare. There is no doubting the cancer diagnosis, though I feel okay---except for the way my weekly therapy treatments are wearing me down---the expected result of another sort of warfare, bacterial in nature, being waged inside me.
But at the same time I am learning that even without the pain and discomfort of a more advanced cancer, the worry and fear that accompany such an intimidating diagnosis creates its own unsettling form of distress.
For too many of us the discovery of cancer carries the unspoken connotation of a death sentence, though we know in this day of modern medicine that is increasingly not the case. Still, learning that you are hosting such an unwelcome intruder is bound to have a powerful emotional impact.
But in fact, beyond providing the battleground for their continuing therapeutic combat, I have little control over the maverick cancer cells that have become a part of me. Instead, I am left to deal with the fearful premonitions that try to dominate my thoughts. Until, that is, I realized that as long as I concentrate on the “Dying” part of LIVING WITH DYING I will never get past those dark times. It is, I decided, time to focus on “Living.”
Hopefully the internal resources I have cultivated over the years will help me move past those depressing moments and deal with what comes next.


Predictably, my first reaction to the doctor’s blunt diagnosis had focused on the down side. After all, I could be facing the real deal, perhaps for all the marbles. What was the most appropriate response to that sort of dour prospect? When I finally calmed my distracted mind-chatter long enough to ask that question, I found myself turning inward---hoping to find the reinforcement I need to deal with the emotional side of my disease.
Truth to tell, I have been there before, seeking that same elusive help in times of more mundane crisis, the sort that everyone faces in the course of a lifetime. Now, however, my overactive imagination has me thinking in terms far beyond ‘mundane, everyday’ challenges. Truth to tell, I am in serious need of renewed hope.
I have spent a lifetime creating my personal understanding of what life is like. Most of us do that. After all, the concerns we deal with are universal. Yet now, in the face of new, unyielding questions, how can I be sure my personal conclusions are adequate? No matter how confident I am in my stumbling answers, the fact remains that never once have they been tested by the harsh reality of life’s ultimate circumstances---not the way they might be by this latest dilemma.
How could I know if my fragile answers would suffice? 


Early on I realized that my muddled thoughts were leading me in circles. It was time to move beyond those ‘fragile answers’ and seek a connection with something more substantial. More to the point, I need to integrate that ‘more substantial’ part of me into the unsettling real-life events that are invading my world. 
For most of my adult life my personal connection to that ‘more substantial’ part of me---the divine instinct which I accept as very real, has been through prayer. I suppose it is that way for most of us. After all prayer, in one form or another, is as old as our species. The range and scope of the ways mankind has devised to connect with and influence the Divine source it calls ‘God’ is truly amazing.
But of course prayer is a human activity---by, for, and about the person offering his or her prayer. No matter how we envision the God we are praying to, it is hard to imagine that He, She, or It requires our prayerful input, no matter how heartfelt or elaborate it might be. 
More to the point, it might be argued that for all their other virtues our prayers, on average, are not all that persuasive. If an actual ‘prayer score keeping’ was possible, I’m guessing that most of our stumbling prayers go unanswered, at least when measured by our selfish, all-too-human intent. 
The fact is, we pray for our own very personal reasons---to acknowledge our reliance on something beyond ourselves, to receive the rewards we are seeking in the form we want, and sometimes for nothing more than the way it makes us feel to connect with the Source.
I plead guilty to that, on all counts. I think of prayer as a hoped-for union with the divine that resides in me. I envision it as an internal dialog, where I---(1) hope to intuit the divine will, (2) give thanks to the Source of life for all I have been given, (3) express my intent to be an instrument for turning the potential I have been gifted into a worthy result, and finally, (4) remind myself that love is the greatest gift, to give and receive.
Beyond that I have no religious formulas or liturgical forms in mind. My prayers are not intended for a God who hides “up there” behind a curtain, pulling levers, deciding who will be favored and who will not. Rather, I am inclined to turn inward, seeking the divine that I believe resides there.
You see, by this time of life my admittedly amateurish soul-searching has convinced me that I, like all of us, arrived on this earthly stage with everything I needed to become the person I was meant to be. Whether or not I have made use of that potential is a different matter---the product of my free will and willingness to try. Did I mention that I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with that?
In any case, I know that I have squandered much of my inherited potential along the way. Too often I turned left when I should have turned right. For too long I was busy with other matters---concentrating on grand schemes and great adventures---places to see and things to do, escapades that would confirm my daring-do and make me feel alive. Truth is, it took me longer than necessary to stumble onto what I have come to accept as the right path.
More to the point, along the way my priorities have changed. In the face of my new circumstances and what I hope are more-mature thoughts, I am less inclined to worry about “daring-do,” and more interested in making the most of my remaining years---using that time wisely, wringing all the meaning (I call it ‘Love.’) I can from a lifetime of events, relationships, and memories. 
Those are the concerns that have me longing for the deeper understanding I hope to find in what I am told is my soul. Is there, as I want to believe, a sacred spark of God-stuff residing there? If so, will I know it if I find it? Most important of all, no matter how I imagine what I am looking for, and whatever name I give it, can it sense my pleading prayers and respond?
So here I am, once again in pursuit of “my spiritual side.” I have tried that before, you know. We’ve all done that in our own way. But what I found there in times past is probably not enough to arm me for what I am about to face. That in itself is not so surprising, given the half-hearted extent of my earlier efforts. 
What I need now is a new and more effective means of bringing that soul-based potential to the surface. Instead of waiting for a far-off God to aim His sometimes-fickle favors in my direction, my challenge is to facilitate the emergence of what is already inside me, waiting to be liberated---to carry on with the life I am meant to live. Can I do that? 

Beyond that, the question is no matter how long the fates give me, how will I make the best use of that time? I tell myself that I ought to be more concerned about misusing the time I have, than running out of time. In a word, I want to believe that I am still “Becoming,” even in November and beyond.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

LIVING WITH DYING - Installment 2

     A cancer diagnosis! What did it mean for the two of us and the life we were living? After sixty years together, where would it take us?
     How would you react to such news? Fact is, most of us have little practice making choices like that. So please be aware, what follows is my response. Chances are it is different than yours would be.
The medical diagnosis had been rendered. I have begun the prescribed, once-a-week treatments. As advertised, they were wearing me down---a little bit at first, more than that by now. Unfortunately, their overall effectiveness will not be known for weeks, perhaps even months. It is an act of informed faith, dealing with the irritating side effects in hopes the treatments will help.  
     Actually, by the time the initial shock had worn off I was not too concerned about what the cancer was doing to my body. For the most part I felt fine. But at the same time I was learning a different, altogether new lesson. You can call it Cancer 2.0. 
    You see, in the early stages, when the disease itself is producing little or no discomfort, the most profound impact is bound to be emotional. That’s right. Whether or not it hurts, simply knowing that cancer is present, and perhaps spreading, is enough to produce very real emotional distress.
That was certainly true for me, and I needed to deal with that. True, in the end my means of coping was perhaps a bit unorthodox. After all, I had spent years creating stories of Tanner seniors dealing with late-life trials. Dealing with my own circumstances as a  new story seemed the most natural way to approach what I was facing.
     The idea I outlined to Roma was simple enough. I wanted to consider, then write about the turmoil that had captured  my thoughts and our lives---and hopefully make sense of what was waiting ahead. I wanted to explore the course of a life, my own life, as it faced the prospect of death.”
    “Can you do that?” she had asked.
   “I’m not sure,” I answered.”But I plan to try.”

  So why was this happening to me---this blatant threat to my very being? Was a vengeful God extracting the price of my existential failings? Or was a lifetime of Karma being called to account?
  At best, the challenge I faced was likely to be a long, drawn-out ordeal, taking on the form of a new lifestyle, requiring the living of one’s life in new and different ways. What then would be an appropriate response when the November clouds, the ones I had not been able to chase away, continued to gather, turning darker by the day?  What would it look like---a mature, eighty-year old answer to such a threat?
  As I said earlier, beyond the remnants of my exploratory surgery, I had no distressing physical symptoms. Truth be told, if not for a fortuitous combination of alert doctoring and my wife’s divinely-guided intuition (I called it ‘nagging’ at the time) the cancer might have continued its stealthy invasion for months, even years. 
  But now, instead of physical distress I was dealing with an even more upsetting awareness---in the form of churning mind-dramas I could not turn off---emotional products of an active imagination. I was being reminded in a rather dramatic manner that my earthly incarnation was subject to well-defined limits. More to the point, I was coming face to face with the unsubtle reality that cancer, or death, or anything else that threatens to end my being, comes with a mental and emotional impact---along with the physical implications it represents.
  Of course, in one way or another all of us must face the fact of it---the unsettling understanding that there is only one way out of our present circumstance.  As sure as we are born, the mortal, physical part of our being will in time pass away. We will die. No matter how we chose to portray that existential fact, there was no escaping the reality of it.
  Scholars attribute the human impulse to seek religious answers to that unyielding truth. Yet until that moment in the doctor’s office, listening to his blunt prognosis, I had traveled eighty years without being seriously sidetracked by the humbling end-of-life possibilities I was suddenly facing. 
 Meanwhile, even as those terminal realities played out in my over-active mind, I was aware of moments when a surprising calm seemed to push my dire thoughts aside. During those brief interludes I sensed that my concerns did not have to be framed in such depressing terms. Instead, I felt a composed curiosity steering me in a new direction, seeking a more fruitful way to face what awaited me, now and the future---however long that might be.
   I have long considered myself one of the lucky ones. I connected with my soul-mate early on. Together we had spent sixty-some years learning what that meant---creating a family that anyone would be proud of, living well, and seeing more of the world than anyone had a right to expect. 
  Why then, so late in the game, after all those miles and all the good times we had shared, was I only now beginning to understand that the last, and in some ways most important, part of my life-journey stretched out before me? If that was true I wanted my responses to be the right ones.
  By then I realized that my primary challenge, the threat over which I actually have some control, was not the cancer cells I could not see or direct. Instead I needed to create the life-affirming means to move past the debilitating uncertainty that never seemed to go away. Hopefully that was something I could do.
  More to the point, I was beginning to realize that the final chapters of my story, and the drama they were sure to involve, might not take place in the material setting that surrounded me, the physical world in which I assumed most of my life had been lived. 
  Instead, the most important bits of my ‘new’ life are apt to be played out in a different, but very-real internal universe---the space between my ears---where heart, soul, and mind combine to create the spiritual dimension that resides in each of us. There consciousness and awareness combine to have us thinking our thoughts and acting our actions. And there unbridled fear and worry are able to short circuit even the best of intentions. That is where my battle for a more productive future will be waged. 
  There are, or course, a multitude of ways to reach out for that internal connection---the emotional, mental, and spiritual elements I must rely on. It will be, in fact, my attempt to contact the divine. You may not be surprised to learn that my understanding of that process is a bit different than most. 
  From the beginning I have vowed to keep things as simple as possible. This is not the time to retreat into elaborate philosophical theories or dramatic religious interventions---neither of which appealed to me in less stressful times. Rather, I was leaning toward what I accepted as the experienced, soul-deep truth I had come to trust. That seemed to me the best path to my personal ‘Becoming.’
  In our next installment I will try to explain.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

LIVING WITH DYING - Installment 1

  I have made the point before---this is a writer’s blog. In this case I am the writer. Whether or not you read or like what I write, I claim that title for myself.
    So it is, with this post I am beginning a new story--for me and about me. I can't get more selfish than that. There will be more installments to follow. How many I can’t say for sure. It is, after all, a story in progress. At some point in the future I hope to compile these posts into a single volume ---a project I am tentatively calling LIVING WITH DYING--to be included on my Amazon Author’s page.
    A disclaimer is in order here. This will not be light reading. Though I am sure some of you will check out before you have finished this first post, I sincerely hope that most of you will stick with me, if only to see where this adventure takes us. Truth is, I want to know that myself.
     Finally, if all this strikes you as a bit morbid, I hope I can help you move beyond that. True, it will be real, very real. But the intent is simple enough. I want to understand my new reality in ways I haven’t sorted out yet. That process need not be sad and gloomy. With that, I hope you will join me as I learn more about LIVING WITH DYING.


YOU REMEMBER THAT TIME, DON’T YOU? Those good old days---when you lived life on auto-pilot, trusting that what had always worked before would continue to work in the future.
If your life played out like mine, by middle-age---say fifty or so---you had grown comfortable with your lifestyle, and the routines and responses that made it possible. Chances are those comfortable, normally-predictable times were rarely interrupted by distressing thoughts of “what if”? I for one went sailing through those years with scarcely a worry---until, as I moved into the November of my life, I learned something new about “what if.”
I suppose everyone understands---each in their own way---how those “what ifs,” especially the health-related ones, have a way of casting their shadow over late-life. The impact of those murky clouds can range from a thin, hazy veil that dims an otherwise sunny day, to a dark and menacing storm front that threatens to blot out even the slightest hint of our personal silver lining.
Yet in whatever form and on whatever scale they arrive, those disturbing “gotcha” moments----when “what if” becomes “what is,” are bound to create significant change in one's life, some of it minor, some of it not-so-minor. To be sure, I have been there---those awkward moments when my forty-year old mind was inexplicably sabotaged by my eighty-year old body. And I will admit, that was occasionally embarrassing. After all, if I grumbled too loudly the wife was apt to conclude that I was no longer the macho young fellow she had married. Do you suppose she knew that already?
Perhaps you can guess by now that my life-path has taken an unplanned detour, veering off on a dimly lit, sometimes intimidating side road. Fortunately my “Gotcha” was discovered at a relatively early stage. Best of all, I am fortunate enough to have an experienced, highly-skilled care team on my side. 
Of course none of us, not even those “best available care” folks, can see around the next corner. They have, however, explained that the prognosis is “apparently manageable.” I’ll admit, at the time that was only a bit encouraging. Yet when compared to the trials many of my peers are facing, I was able to wring a few drops of relief from my situation.
Still, large or small, those October and November “gotchas” are bound to produce fundamental changes in our lifestyle, life view, and expectations. Long-held, tried and true “autopilot” answers are apt to be tested by new challenges---especially when they imply the likelihood of painful procedures, or in the extreme, threaten our continued existence.
So it was, as I faced that new trial, I was left with time on my hands---time to think, to dwell on matters I had rarely visited before, at least not in depth. There was time for my imagination to create its own mind-dramas and worrisome outcomes. I suppose it is possible to have too much time on our hands.


Despite the doctor’s earlier efforts to prepare us for what he might find, Roma and I were predictably anxious as we sat side by side in his office, awaiting his report. True, I had weathered the exploratory surgery with minimal problems, but was I ready for what came next?
It must have been the normally-casual physician’s professional face we saw when he entered the room. I seem to remember his introduction as business-like, straight to the point. A minute later the sobering impact of the ‘C’ word, along with its “fairly aggressive” qualifier, had brought us up short. I don’t recall much of what came next. There were surely questions we should have asked at that point, but the weight of his dire words had overwhelmed the need to know more.
Thankfully I was not facing that intimidating trial alone. A good thing too. About then I needed her support big time, though I suppose both of us stopped breathing for a second or two. 
As you might expect, our drive home that morning was a quiet time---a strained silence neither of us wanted to disturb. Our troubled minds were brimming with feelings we wanted to express, but were not sure how to put into words. So many questions and so few answers. 
Not until that afternoon, after an awkwardly silent lunch, were we prepared to speak our concerns out loud. There I was, mired in dark thoughts, dwelling on the prospect of a seriously ugly future. It was sinking in, the realization that I might have to learn how to live with the shadow of dying lurking just beyond the horizon.
A couple times I paused to give myself a pep talk, focusing on the need to be strong. But in truth I did not feel strong. Not at all. I did not sense even a hint of strength until the two of us could take a deep breath, look each other in the eye, and begin to discuss what we would rather not be talking about.
Hopefully, you too know what a blessing it is to have a caring 'someone' to share the hard times. Though we struggled to put our thoughts into words, we understood that we would be facing whatever lay ahead together. Knowing she was there with me certainly made things easier. Best of all, we were learning that sharing our concerns out loud helped soften the hurtful possibilities. Though we were not likely to find any quick answers, by then there were hints of a more productive path.
Of course our conversation necessarily focused on more than just the two of us. The rest of the family was waiting to hear what we had been told. Something like that affects a lot of people. 
  At that point I felt perfectly fine, with no physical symptoms beyond the rapidly healing surgery. Yet, as the rest of the family was informed of the upsetting possibilities they were naturally concerned. As much as I tried to calm their fears, I was asking myself over and over if they would believe the old man.
The days immediately following the doctor’s revelation were a moody time. More than once I found myself dwelling on brother Roger and uncle Jim. Both of them had recently passed away---both of them leaving the scene far too soon to my way of thinking. Yet invariably, as sad as those recollections were, they soon morphed into my own recurring wonder at how a lifetime of days and years had passed so quickly.
And then, just as I mustered a modest hint of comfort, the truth of it would again capture my thoughts. The threat I was facing was not hypothetical. It was very real, and growing inside of me every day. That could not be wished away. But to acknowledge its presence, and be able to speak about it, seemed to rob much of its intimidating power.
It was after one of those dark spells when I finally found the nerve to discuss my altogether unorthodox idea with Roma. I had spent my retirement years creating novel-length stories about the trials of growing old. That had become an important way for me to relate to late-life circumstances, including disability and death. Now I was considering the notion of exploring in depth the course of a life, my own life, as it faced the prospect of death---not in some nebulous, fictional future, but up-close and personal, on my blog, perhaps even in a book-length story.
When Roma finally caught her breath she asked, “Do you know how to do that”
“I’m not sure,” I answered. “But I plan to try. There is a lot to sort out. I think writing about it might help.”
With that, our grand experiment, the one you are reading now, was set in motion. Where will it lead? I know the general direction, but not the details. In any case I hope you will join me and if you are so inclined, will 'Share' our adventure with anyone you think might be interested. 
  I expect to have the next installment ready to post in 10 days/2 weeks.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

You can do this

Let me begin with something of a confession. I am a bit pumped about today’s post. When I first addressed this subject a couple years ago it felt like I was speaking to the world in general, hoping that my message would resonate with someone, and perhaps lead to something tangible.
Well, guess what? I have recently watched a friend of ours follow the path I wrote about---from the gentle nudging of a good idea all the way to a finished product. I spent a few minutes with him early on, suggesting what seemed to me the right approach, then stepped back while he carried on. I have seen his results, and they are impressive. (More about that later.)
Let me begin with the fact of it. I have taken on a new cause, a deeply held belief I would like to share with you. As sometimes happens, I have a message to spread. 
Now before you start for the door, please know that I am not interested in limiting your right to carry an AK-47, or bazooka, or whatever other “personal protection” device you desire. Neither am I advocating for the need to take away the weapons you already have. And I don’t really care if your Parenthood was Planned or not. Those may be important issues, but they are not the gospel I am preaching. With those disclaimers in mind, I hope you will hear me out before you change channels.
I will begin with the obvious. If you are the kind who likes to poke around the internet, you have probably noticed how many October/November folks are out there---speaking their piece, asking their questions, and telling their stories. Without the noisy fanfare that so often accompanies Gen-X trends, our Gen-Oct/Nov peers are quietly exercising their new-found ability to speak up and let their voice be heard in the cyber world.
Spend a few minutes on the web and you’ll realize there is almost no limit to the ways you can have your say. Our October/November friends are telling their stories in the form of Facebook posts, blogs, videos, and chat rooms. 
Better yet, some of them are taking what seems to me the next logical step, They are writing and publishing their stories, in the form of family histories, family adventures, self-help manuals, non-fictional offerings of every kind, and a multitude of fictional offerings. (Have you checked out the Geriatric Vampire literature? It is quite ghastly.) 
How many of you have ever dreamed of telling your own story? Do you realize how easy it has become to produce and share e-books and Print-on-Demand paperbacks? Beyond the book itself, an Author’s Page on Amazon that lists a writer’s books and e-books and allows prospective readers to browse and perhaps buy those offerings, costs absolutely nothing. 
On a purely selfish level, you can bet I enjoy seeing my sixteen paperbacks lined up on my bookshelf. And with the modest blog you are reading now I can connect with October/November friends and potential readers all over the world. I can’t explain why these pages attract a steady, if modest, Russian and South Korean readership. But they do.
But let’s return for a moment to my stated cause, the reason for today’s post, the message I’ve come to spread. As a veteran of those story-telling efforts I would like to convince my late-life friends that they too ought to have their say, no matter what the content, in a quality, hold-in-your-hand paperback format. 
Whether ‘your book’ (that has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?) deals with family history, fond remembrances, favorites recipes,  gardening tips, or your own fiction---today’s technology provides a gold-plated opportunity to see your work in print. It is so easy and inexpensive that there are few excuses not to give it a try.
So why not? At your stage of life you probably have the time to do that. And given your history (whatever it may be), you certainly have stories to tell---if only for a limited audience of immediate family and friends. 
That is exactly what Roma and I have done the last couple years with a pair of books. They were personal stories, for and about our family. For each of the books we had five very professional-looking paperback copies printed, one for each of our children and one for Roma and me. If we never sell another copy we’ve accomplished everything we wanted to with those books. I guarantee that you can do that too.
Let’s consider the economics of it. In the old days, if we had a manuscript that publishers were not willing to underwrite, Plan B was what they called “vanity publishing.” That entailed paying an often second-rate publisher to turn your story into a book and print a given number of copies. The publisher would  require a minimum run, say one hundred books or more, enough to create economies of scale. The total cost would undoubtedly be at least several hundred 1970 or 1980 dollars. It was indeed a hefty price. Truth is, you had to be quite vain and a bit flush to afford that.
Today, as the author of a Print-on-Demand book you can probably purchase your own high-quality paperbacks directly from the POD publisher for $5.00 or $6.00 each. The book might be your family history, your personal life story, a collection of poems, or the family’s favorite recipes. There is no up-front cost and you can order exactly the number of copies you want---from one to a thousand---for that same low price. 
True, you will have to write and edit the material, enter it on a computer, then upload that file to the publisher’s template. Your investment will be one of time, not dollars. Most of us can afford that, especially when we are having fun in the process.
But wait a moment, you may be saying, “How could I be expected to write a book or tell a story? And what about dealing with agents and editors---the experts who work with professional writers?” 
Well, the fact is, you don’t need those folks, unless you are aiming for a best seller, complete with a big-time marketing campaign. You see, telling a self-published story of any sort is a very personal activity. Regardless of what the so-called “experts” may say, there is no right way, no wrong way to do that. If you are writing for yourself, you are the only one you have to please. You are the one who judges the results. Does it work for you? That is the question. More than that, one of the beauties of Print-on-Demand publishing is the ease of revising and editing any or all of your book at any time in the future.
What can I say? I enjoy seeing my stories in print. Of course it’s a vanity thing. There’s no denying that. It’s an accomplishment I am proud of. More than that, it has proved to be a most liberating way to spend my October and November hours. As one who writes to please myself, (without worrying too much about what will sell), I tell the stories I want to tell, the way I want to tell them. In the end I am the only one I have to satisfy. Within those parameters, anyone who wants to tell their story---about anything, in any way they choose---can do that.
Please bear with me for a moment while I offer a specific example. It was mid-May a couple years ago when Roma first dropped her idea on me. I was finishing a story and would soon be ready to start another. 
“Why not write about our time in England?” she asked. “With all the crazy things that happened to us, it would be fun and funny. And I know the kids would like to know more about that time.”
Truth to tell, it took a few weeks for me to warm to the possibilities. But when I did, the fun she talked about was only just beginning. For days we sat in the living room, just the two of us, reliving those 1972 months when we lived on Ashley Close in Winchester, England. One recollection would lead to another. Before long the notes were piling up---about how we had ended up in Winchester, the life we lived there, the mistakes we made, the wonderful friends we met, and the life-changing experiences our children gained. Before we were done we had the stuff of a story---our story.
By September we had a first draft, a 54,000 word computer file. As I had done so many times before, I uploaded the file to the Create Space template. Daughter Amy, who would not see the finished story until much later, designed the cover using a collage of family photos from our time in England. Then, after proofing our online file, we made the first monetary investment in our project---$6.50, for a single copy of the paperback, including shipping and handling.
Long story short, that first copy was used to proofread and edit the entire story again. (Additional editing would come later.) A month later, we ordered six copies of the revised story we called A Year of Remember, by Gil and Roma Stewart---for a total cost of $30.05. That Christmas our children received their copies as gifts.
We had invested thirty-seven dollars, a few printer supplies, and a good many hours doing what we both found absolutely enjoyable. For that modest cost we had produced a fine-looking 254-page story that recorded a special time in the life of our family. Additionally, in e-book and paperback versions, it was now available to the public on my Amazon Author’s Page---where it has sold a few copies and received good reviews.. All in all I consider that a good return on our investment.
As for the story itself. Does this back-cover tease sound interesting to you?

“Gil was at it again. At the tender age of 35 he was on track for his third mid-life crisis in five years. For some inexplicable reason he had concluded that he was meant to be a writer. Now he was preparing to move his thoroughly confused family to England in pursuit of his career as a novelist.”

As I said in the beginning, my mission today is to make the point that everyone of us has stories to tell---memories to preserve, personal passions we would like to translate into a permanent, paperback form. 
Let me repeat, loud and clear---for next to nothing you can turn your family history or the fictional tale you have longed to create into something special for you and your family. Chances are you will find the process of revisiting the times, places, and people you are tranlating into print both fun and creatively invigorating. 
Personally I use to publish my books. I like their process and love their customer support. There are, however, several other Print-on-Demand publishers out there. You’ll find them online.
Okay. with that I’m through preaching. I hope you will take a moment to let your mind wander a bit---to whatever story you would like to tell, or topic you would like to explore.

PS -- I mentioned earlier the recent Print-on-Demand book I watched coming to life. Don Robinson is a retired Methodist minister, with stories to tell and a gift for interesting titles. I think his first book, Of Donuts, Toilet Paper, Grace, and Love, proves that. You can check it out by clicking Here.