DEEPLY AWAKE by Kathy Vik
“Grief, Gratitude, Grace” 1-14-15
I had a friend who taught me how to communicate as I do now, with you. And she did this by writing me letters. Long, long letters. She always started with a quote from the dictionary, defining what it was she wanted to discuss. And then she would go off. She talked about herself, she told me her stories, revealed to me the darkest nights she’d spent on earth, and, through the years, she revealed to me how that darkness still clung to her, haunting her less as we have aged, thankfully.
By doing this for me, she, of course, allowed me to reciprocate, and so, perhaps a genre was born, or perhaps it is one of the most enduring art forms of humankind. Call them love letters, because that is, of course, what they drip, the sort of brave love that exhilarates and strengthens and heals.
But, since, I have been led to a place that lies beyond revealing one’s darkness, one’s wounds and compensations. There is more, after the worst is seen as understandable, or better, beautiful. Where the pain fades, becomes a nuisance, and finally seems absurd, f
I do not think one gets to this place unless they’ve known loss. I understand there are many ways to god, to our core, many ways home, to completion, but, part of the ride here, it seems to me, is finding myself on my knees, weeping, begging for release from the suffering.
I went there a lot more before, especially as a kid., though this peculiar pain has only just now started to be less available. Throughout my life,at times I found it excruciating to be here, so painful, how people treat each other, and I would weep about that. How it could be that people say the word love and are so cruel, so unthinking, so intentionally harmful, it seemed to me. I saw it everywhere, and only when I found people around me who carried something special did I come out of my existential funk.
In youth, they were the odd balls, and the lame. I had blind and deaf friends, weird friends, and very very cool friends. As an adult, I had patients, my paitnets, my avatars of love, overcoming suffering by experiencing it, and I had friends, and lovers, and teachers who carried this tune, a tune that now, I hear in everyone, absolutly, everyone, and this has been the biggest thrill of them all.
I did have happy, social periods, and I was always active, a part of me buoyant, compliant, interactive, my mind always going, always seeking, and soothed only in nature, as a child, less articulate, more imprisoned by thought and the inability to express any of it, get any of it validated. Who was I going to ask?
So, grief, I know it well. Its presence is big, powerful, authoritative, and at times overpowering, unwieldy and disorienting. Its presence in my life drove me, led me, to the peace, the stillness, the knowledge, the peace of poetry, of holy words, of higher thoughts, of well crafted stories, exquisite conversations, and so very many fields of study. I soothed my grief this way, and by being outdoors. Anymore, I just have to think about a tree, that was our agreement, when they started to make their presence known to me, but, as a kid, there was nothing like a clover patch to make everything else go away.
I bring all of this up purposefully.
I work as a hospice nurse again, and I find the work compelling and rewarding in ways it had not been before. Something has broken open in me, and I feel different about everything, these days, but, this idea of grief has been with me, as I have done my own “grief work,” as I have found myself on my knees, and helped others as they fell where they stood, overcome, finally, with the magnitude of their loss.
This last time, a heavy, intense swell of pain, I wept, but, as I did, I found myself wondering, what is this crying really about? What am I thinking I have lost? Why am I so upset about this?
It felt good, and I smile even now when I think on it. These questions were not asked accusingly, or encouragingly, but, puzzlingly, actually. It just didn’t make a whole lot of sense, in the moment.
And then, I found myself thinking gratefully about what I was crying over. There on the side of my bed, drying my face with the inside of my shirt, I let them come, one by one, then so many, then a warm bath of remembrances and happinesses and kindnesses came to me and through me. And not only about the situation at hand, insert your own disaster here, but, bigger things, more things, higher things and simple things, the gratitudes began to come, dancing for me, delighting me, making me feel safe and sound again.
This simple act, for me, creates a cascade of well being, consistently.
And so, I found myself smiling, and I felt warm, and I felt, suddenly, like my head was screwed on straight. Yes, loss and change, termination and destruction, these things surround me, and probably surround you, too. I am not the only one going through this stuff. We all are, just to greater or lesser degrees, anymore.
The dull ache of things not working out the way you wanted, by means of a loved one being scary sick, or a death, or getting fired, or coming up unexpectedly broke, or breaking up, or any number of things that make us question existence, and, ultimately, our worth and our safety.
I think that grief is a feeling that rides around with the deepest fear we have, that we are alone, abandoned in a brand new way, and this time, surely unable to cope, or unwilling, or too tired to try. That’s what I think.
But there is a grief that lies beyond the standard, “Oh gee, I feel sorry for myself” sort of sadness, which, of course, is a very healthy kind.
It’s magnetic and velvet and a sister of the void, the birth canal of new awareness, happily blinding with sensations unlanguagebale. Looking into the chasm, seeing through, just seeing through it, beyond it, with your eyes wide open. That yawning feeling that loss, sudden or planned, finality, change, I guess, so exquisite it takes your breath away. Sometimes it only lasts a glimmer, but that is enough, I think.
I think, that this grief, this voyage into the depths that some have had when given circumstances they cannot understand or endure, there comes an inner knowing. You are still here, somehow still intact and aware. Someone or something is observing, aware and indulgent and loving of all of it. A growing sense of safety comes, as we face circumstances unwelcomed, painful, overwhelming or confusing, if we let this big part of us hold and rock us as we grieve.
There’s all this talk about spirituality and happiness, and I think it is a terrible trap. There comes a time when grief is felt and reveled in and seen for what it is. A beautiful reaction to circumstances that seem awful, unbidden, horrific.
I was in jail once.
The only phobia I ever had was being in jail. It would come and tap me on the shoulder some days. Just the thought of jail, so awful, just intolerable, I’d be shaken up, exhilarated, terrified. Absolutely petrified. I knew it was “past life stuff,” passed it off as that, these insertive thoughts.
And there I was, bony ass on stainless steel, sitting indian style on my shiny silver bench, faced away from the open jail cell, in an altered state, chanting the only one I remembered, Om Namah Shivaya, again and again, until I was intoxicated with the love of god. Shiva and good council surrounded me and spoke to me, comforted me, and I was no longer on that bench. I knew I was, but I was gone, away, in full on rapture, blissful, giddy, and wanting it to keep going. I stayed that way for the rest of my time in jail, which was thankfully brief, and wrongful, and just about the greatest thing that ever happened to me, in some ways.
I know now why I have the phobia, have remembered my other confinements, but, the pain and pull of it was broken by tapping into something that seemed like a nursery rime the first time I heard it. I loved the chant, in kirtan, it was easy, and it made me feel happy, Om Namah Shivaya. But, in my cell, I went somewhere else, inside and through the words, and became someone else, something more, walking out calm, peaceful, huge, just massive, energetically.
That’s an example. It was a grief I felt, being in the middle of something I could not tolerate, couldn’t cope with, that made me feel insane, and , oh I had acted like a caged animal at first, yelling and I think I spit. I was not a fit human. I felt everything in there, and it is not a fit place for humans. It is a flawed and sick and repulsive energy., and I was in it. I ate food in it. It repulses me, thinking of it even now, that energy. Horrible. And it brought back things I had forgotten, things I needed to remember and release.
But each of us have things like that, I think. Whether it is news of your best friends terminal cancer, or that you need surgery you cannot afford. Each of us have forks in the road and breaking points.
And grief is there, asking to be experienced, asking to lead you gently to the place where there is something more, where there is completion and there is safety and there is love.
I think that this the definition of grace. To be touched with a love so divine and pure, in sometimes the simplest ways. If it’s grace, it comes easy, it is elegant, and stronger than diamonds. The grace of a stranger looking you in the eye, smiling, and somehow you feel seen, better, cheered, as you return the kindness. Having something work out better than you could have imagined. Wonderful compliments. Gifts. Assessing a situation and knowing that you bettered it, just by your presence.
And this has been why coming back to hospice now has been a joy and an even bigger honor than before. My heart was not as open before, and back then, I couldn’t help but join in the grieving. I believed in that pain, the anguish of extinguished life, the termination of dreams. I believed the dead were dead. I didn’t know, I hadn’t yet comprehended how immortal we are, how, as divine beings, we, these personalities, these creations we are fashioning, effect all others, forever, as we effect the earth and our own hearts. I didn’t yet understand, or believe, I guess, that each of us are invaluable, precisely needed, expressly welcomed and floridly loved by all that is.
I think it is good to feel deeply, and there is no shame in having big thoughts, big feelings, things that seem impossible to walk around with, because nothing makes sense anymore. Many people experiencing the first part of loss go through that.
One of the tenets I adopted is the notion that when we go through a birth or a death in our circle, when we let it affect us, we are then on stilts. We don’t relate to the world like others, can’t. I am now convinced there are more that deaths and births that put a person on stilts, but, of course, these two biological events are imbued with extra potency, because of the statements being made, and the reality of the thing.
I like the example used in Stilts and Fires. I said, imagine being in a grocery store, and ahead of you and behind you are people who are having an average day, running from this thing to that thing, and maybe things are going pretty good for them. And here you are, with the keys to life and death rattling in your black pupils, and anyone who looks can see, you see more. It spooks people, sometimes, more so before than now, and it when that happens, it makes you feel different, because, um, you ARE different.
I believe that this stilt action is really what waking up is about. I think there comes a time when you just walk around that way all the time, because it’s just a part of you. The death and the birth, the constant destruction and creation, but, more than just the wheel of life, it is the observer, it is the one who knows to start chanting, or start praying, or start writing, or start packing, or start digging. The one who will give you the next step if you just entertain the notion that there is a presence who is you, who knows you, and who can help, and can advise, and can soothe you, in the way clover fields and trees and lilac smells love to do.
I think it is fun and wise to think on gratitudes. Concrete things that don’t suck. I think that’s how I started out. I just listed things that didn’t suck too hard, things that were neutral and weren’t causing me anxiety, since, at a certain point, pretty much everything did.
I have a ring I wear, a silver band, a cursive word etched into it, paint gone from the deep grove which spells “Gratitude.” When I grieve, when I feel the self I knew and loved caving in and imploding a little, when change comes, or things I don’t understand, or must, must, must resist, I twist that band. I remember.
Sometimes I scream and yell, fighting it, wanting to feel awful, to feel the suck of pure despair, but, the band feels good on my finger as it cooly swirls against my pale finger, I drag on it so softly, as it reminds me. Sometimes it takes a bit for the fog to clear, for me to remember what gratitude means, how it is done. But then, I remember. I remember.
And so, I write of the inky blackness with fondness and familiarity, but also with a weird sense of nostalgia and, frankly, indulgence. It is a wonderful emotion, as are they all, but, I think it has led me to where it fills me instead of kills me, a place where I am able to find my center again, my core, sometimes only a wisp of smoke, sometimes just like the Niagara, this knowing, indisputable and unrelenting, that when all is said and done, only someone who has been graced could have received so many gifts.
I’ll close by saying that I once heard someone say that grief is just feeling the loss of future safety, love, happiness.
I think that is true.
I think that we grieve because the little child in us is convinced that all the light in the world has gone out forever.
And so, gratitude, the real kind, the kind you can feel in your chest and belly, and in your face, those kinds, they remind our little one that there is mercy and goodness and kindness and nurturing all around, that it is not possible for it to ever go away, and slowly it becomes abundantly clear that it feels better to remember those warm, golden feelings than the ones that are stormy and sad and mean.
In the meantime, it seems that the best thing to do is to remind people, as I remind myself, remind all the people I come into contact with, that they really are enough, just as they are, that they are doing a fine, fine job, and they are safe here, with me.
And so, living in a state of grace itself is a fine goal, but one that, it seems, comes with lessons, with gradations of experience, and with being willing to be broken open again and again, until it’s not needed anymore, not quite so much, and it becomes just a little easier to remember gratitude knee to floor, weeping.
Each of us have challenges, and each of us have breaking points. Each of us knows what is best for us, if we are listening to the bigger part of ourselves, the soul or whatever you want to call it, who has its arm around our should and would honestly never let anything bad happen to us.
I think that’s the punch line in all of this. That’s what I have come to believe. That there is something within me, all around me, that is unable to do anything mean to me, and who is guiding me, and if I just listen, and remember to ask, the next step, the next set of patient instructions, the next call I make, all of it fits and glides, even when I have decided that it all just sucks mightily.
There is always something to laugh about, and there is always some little teeny tiny joy I can indulge in, if I chose, right here and now. It’s sort of a big deal, this little trick I know. It makes life more fun, and, when life is hard, it makes it more tolerable.
This false notion that if you are not cheerful you are not spiritual, oh it is precious, and it is wonderfully paradoxical, because in peace, when home, in the center, in the stillness, which extends to drive time and shower time and writing time, now, there is so much humor, and most things are just laugh out loud funny. But even with the capacity to be bawdy and funny, the depth rides along, grief my teacher, gratitude my guide, grace my birthright.
And what is mine is yours. I am only one person. We are all in this together. That’s all I’m sayin’.