Never Compare

I tell worried students to never compare themselves to others. Our starting lines are different in the race to improve work and hone talent. It does no good to either feel superior (you’re not that near the finish line, so keep running) or inferior (you’re no worse than 90% of beginners). What helps most is to steal. If Sarah turns a line in an attractive way around a shape, rip it off as best you can. If Tom develops exquisite transitions in his tonal changes, take a close look and figure out how he did it. We all have innate abilities, but those who make the most progress remain humble enough to pick-pocket their betters…

I recently heard a passage from a book on Christianity that admonished seekers to jump all in. The writer declared that faithful Christians must trust God completely. Anxiety and fear are signs of weakness, a failure to acknowledge that God walks beside us as we make our journey from this life to the next. True Christians avoid doubts.

Perhaps the writer intended to motivate and inspire readers like a cheerleader demanding loud support from a crowd. But I found the strident words annoying. Some of us struggle for our faith. Who was he to judge?

I sometimes envy folks who have a steady belief in the promises of their faiths. They look forward with greater sureness and joy. My steady companions, however, are doubt and dread. They dog my steps like familiar, persistent enemies.

Perhaps there’s still room for hope. I’ve met people at church who are kind, steady and full of hope. They pray for each other and try to lighten the loads of those in need. Instead of just wishing that my spiritual light would shine as brightly as theirs, I could study them carefully like a robber scanning the floor plans of a bank.

Pastor Bob knows that life is tough and full of suffering, but focuses on the goodness he finds in others. I could try that. Irene feels the supporting influence of prayer carrying her through uncertain times. I could pray for guidance and send hope and assurance to others. Ruth is driven to step in and provide help where needed. I could turn away from my troubles and look for ways to be useful. Arthur focuses on finding God’s presence in the Living Moment. Sounds good to me.

In the end, leading a vibrant spiritual life might be a matter of ripping off the right people.

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Creeping Superiority and Silent Compassion

I’ve noticed a sense of superiority creeping in at odd times. When teaching, frustration can lead to lapses. I lapse by seeing myself as separate from students: their subpar performances have nothing to do with me. While I’ve done my best to help them, my ability and work ethic would never allow me to slide to their level of mediocrity.

But smugness quickly comes back to haunt. When I take a day off or when the creative fires smolder to ash and embers, I start to wonder if I’ve become lazy, dull, and complacent like some of my students. My behavior reminds me of the slacker dude who always showed up late and without necessary supplies. He meant well but didn’t have much self-discipline. And Mary started off strong and got an A at midterm, but slacked off and earned a low C for her final. She saw no need to climb another mountain after she reached a summit at the eight week mark. Might I start a similar downward glide? Superiority is a fragile state stressful to maintain.

I’ve been on the other end. Misfortune strikes, and I see strangers, relatives and friends look down at me with pity and detachment. Seeing me suffer causes them discomfort, but the pain can be eased by building an invisible wall. The bricks are the following thoughts: that could never happen to me; he must have done something to deserve that; some folks are born unlucky; my will is too strong to ever let that happen to me; I’d figure a way out; it’s probably not as bad as it looks; I’ve been through worse; he must of done something horrible in another life.

Detached superiority provides armor to shield ourselves from participating in suffering. We secretly fear that tragedy might be catching and hope that the formula, avoidance = protection, is true.

Sometimes nothing can be done to alleviate suffering, and sometimes the victim rejects noblesse oblige assistance. Then the would-be good Samaritan can, with fairly good conscience, escape from further effort.

But another possibility for providing aid exists. One can abide in another’s suffering and share pain. Silence at these times helps considerably. Folks in anguish do not want to ponder the diagnoses and may not be ready to hear a complicated plan to change their fortunes. What they need, often without knowing it, is a nonjudgmental companion who is willing to lie down with them in misery. Passive acceptance isn’t the ultimate goal, but first waves of grief and despair must be endured before actions can be taken.

The comforter ends up shedding the armor of detachment and superiority. This takes courage and willingness to suffer. This frightens most people away, and I’ve been one of them on more than a few occasions. But folks who take the risk live broader, more knowledgeable lives. Some glow with a survivor’s joy. They’ve walked through hell with a friend and returned with the wounded in tow.

Snapshots: donating a kidney circa 1984

Tony and I at his wedding in 2015

My brother and I will be celebrating the 35th anniversary of his kidney transplant tomorrow.  He is healthy and happily married to Victoria, a woman who also received a kidney from her brother.

Below are my recollections of the lead up to and the day of the surgery.  

My brother is in intensive care. He was admitted to Miami Valley Hospital early this morning suffering from shortness of breath and severe fatigue. His skin was yellowish gray. He is diagnosed with kidney failure and a staph infection in his blood.

The next day Tony’s urologist allows us to stay in the room while he hooks his new patient up for a dialysis treatment. Muthiah lifts the sheet and takes a needle connected to a clear, plastic hose connected to a complicated machine and inserts it into Tony’s groin. Tony winces in pain from the stick; blood starts to flow into the hose. Muthiah leads us, my father and mother and sister and I into the corridor and tells us about Tony’s condition in detail. He can get by for a while on dialysis, but Muthiah proposes a kidney transplant as the best option for long term survival. He asks us to consider being tested for tissue compatibility. We are all somewhat stunned by the doctor’s speech. And while the doctor doesn’t direct any attention to me more than the others, I know in my gut that I am the best candidate.

I’m in my apartment overlooking Irving Ave. staring out the window. It’s a gray day in late February and I’ve just gotten off the phone having received the news that I’ve been waiting for for two months. The date of the surgery has finally been set, and I’ve got a couple of weeks to get things squared away at home and at work. I’ve been preparing for this moment ever since the test results came back in December telling us that Tony and I are nearly perfect matches. I’m surprised, however by a chill, numbing sensation that is spreading from the center of my chest outward. The phone call brought with it a premonition that I would die on the operating table, and the fear that I’m feeling is different from the hot flush of wavering dread I usually get when facing a physical threat. This kind of fear feels cold and heavy, and it eventually settles deep in my guts where I know it will stay until this whole thing is over.

I’m sitting in a hospital bed in a double room on a floor of Miami Valley Hospital dedicated to kidney cases and pre-op patients waiting for abdominal surgery. My roommate was taken in for gall bladder surgery earlier in the day, and I watched as he prayed intently with his minister to prepare himself for whatever eventuality his operation would bring. I am an agnostic, but find myself envying the man his faith. I have been beset throughout the day by Catholic priests of the unctuous variety who have decided to pray over me (at my mother’s behest) without my consent. I feel that I’m doing them a favor by listening to them drone on and on. A former army chaplain wanders into my room that evening after supper and he is looking at a list. He has just visited my brother in a room across the hall, and he is confused by my last name. He thinks that I’m another kidney patient, and can’t believe that two members of the same family are suffering from the same malady at the same time. He laughs when I set him straight. He speaks to me in a straight forward manner for a few minutes and says a simple prayer. I am comforted.

A young nurse’s aide comes into my room early the next morning and shaves off my pubic hair. She appears to be embarrassed. My penis looks forlorn and ridiculous without its mane and I am embarrassed too. I am hooked up to an IV and a nurse starts a drip of a sedative that is supposed to calm my nerves. My parents and fiance are with me in the room and they look grim and nervous when they think that I’m not looking at them. Another nurse comes into the room just as they begin wheeling me out to the hall. She is the mother of a woman that I had dated for about a year, and although the relationship with her daughter ended acrimoniously, she is here to see me off. I’m touched and comforted by the sincerity of her concern. My gurney is pushed down several branching hallways and my family and fiancee’ are left behind. I am left alone (without any explanation from the orderly who abandoned me) in an old, cluttered room off a deserted corridor that looks like it had once been a laboratory of some kind. Several minutes pass by and the sedative is no longer working. I’m eventually collected by a nurse who wheels me into a cold, white tiled room where I will be given anesthesia. I am told to lie down on a hard metal table that feels like it has been chilled to near freezing. The anesthesiologist walks into the room and discovers something amiss and starts to throw a tantrum. He yells and tosses sheets of paper around, and the nurse standing by my side looks distraught. I’m terrified that this man will be administering drugs to me, but manage to lean over to the nurse and whisper, “This guy is a real asshole.” Her face breaks up for a moment as if she’s trying to suppress a smile. The doctor calms down and walks over to me with the biggest needle I’ve ever seen in his hand. He tells me to lie on my side and curl up in a ball. He injects my spine. The needle stick feels uncomfortable, but not all that painful, and then there’s blackness.

Post-Op, oil on canvas, 20×24″, 2018-19

I wake up in a recovery room. The room is full of people lying on gurneys, moaning and crying out in pain. There’s a bag of blood and a bag of plasma on an IV pole by my bed, and I watch the plasma drip, drip, drip down a hose and into my arm. I’m in intense pain. My guts feel as if they’ve been torn up and clumsily sewn back together with strands of barbed wire. A male nurse appears above me and says something to me that I can’t quite follow. My attention is focused instead on my rapidly filling bladder. The pressure from its expansion is causing fresh, new sensations of pain at the base of my guts. I ask for a urinal, but can’t manage to pee. I ask for a catheter because I much prefer to have something shoved up my dick than to continue feeling that my bladder is about to explode. The surgeon, who is somewhere else in the hospital, has to be found and consulted before I can be given relief, and ten or fifteen long minutes pass as I watch the plasma drip and feel my bladder expand. The nurses finally get approval, and when the urine is finally released the relief is so intense that I feel that I’ve died and gone to heaven.

I’m still in a lot of pain, but I’m getting somewhat used to it. But then three nurses approach my bed and tell me that it’s time to change the linens. When I roll on my side as ordered my bruised intestines shift inside my abdomen and the pain becomes excruciating. I scream. I’m aware that the scream is making everyone else feel uncomfortable, but while I’m inside that noise and that release of emotion I feel all right. It’s worse when I stop screaming and I hear them tell me to roll on my other side. I know what’s coming.

They leave me alone for a while after the bed has been changed, and the pain returns to normal levels of hellishness. There’s a clock on the wall that’s broken. It is 3:00. It is always 3:00. One could get the impression that one has been condemned to a world where time stands still and suffering never ends. The patients around me are still groaning and crying out, and they appear to corroborate that impression. My fiancee’ Judy and my mother visit me and I vaguely register their looks of concern. They appear to be suffering just as much as I am.

A male nurse comes by after they’ve left and asks me if I want a sponge bath. He gives it to me, and the bath turns into a massage, and I’m disturbed by the little smile that creases his lips as his hands work their way over my body. I’m completely helpless and I begin to question his intentions, but the pain and the medications are probably driving me a bit loopy and paranoid.

Later on the nurses decide to change my linens once again, and I suspect that they’re rolling me around for some other purpose. My sheets are fresh and clean once more after I’ve given them another round of screaming. A female nurse who looks like an angel leans over my bed and tells me that she admires me for what I’ve done. I think that this is one hell of a way to meet good looking women.

I am taken from post-op late that evening and put into a bed on the same floor where I had previously been. Nurses come into the room and take my vitals every hour or so, and I can’t get much sleep. I’ve been given some morphine and am resting in a warm cocoon of comfort for as long as the dose works its charms. An older nurse, an LPN, comes in around three in the morning and takes my pulse. She rearranges my blankets and pillow and makes me feel much more comfortable. I give her a smile of thanks and she warmly smiles back at me. I fall asleep and the day is finally over.

*My operation went amiss and I almost died on the table. The pain I felt went beyond normal levels because of surgical complications. Surgeries today are done using laparoscopic techniques and are much less painful and traumatic.

The In-Betweens

Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.

When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.

And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.

I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.

I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.

Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…

I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.

The Morning Call

I sometimes wake at dawn to a feeling of dread buried deep in the pit of my stomach.  Sometimes I know the source; other times I have no clue.

The morning calls began in February, 2008.  My sister called one night to tell me that her advancing struggles with lifting her feet and walking had been diagnosed:  Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  Her callous neurologist delivered her death sentence just before Christmas.  He said, “You’ve got ALS.  Go home; quit your job; buy a wheelchair.”

Carla died in 2013.  My wife’s recovery from intense vertigo began, in the same month, to drift backward into a nasty, prolonged relapse.  From the fall of 2013 to the spring of 2014, I often woke up in the gray predawn to worries about my wife’s health and our financial future.  A gnawing feeling ate away at my stomach, and nothing made it go away until I gave up on sleep and got busy with the work of the day.

I woke up this morning with a similar sensation in my gut.  Nothing terribly bad is going on in my life at the moment, though worries about my parents nag from time to time.  I tried to pinpoint the trouble spot generating my discomfort, but came up blank.  I chalked it up at first to free floating anxiety, but became dissatisfied with an easy dismissal of the problem.

I thought about this possibility:  maybe fear is a form of emotional PTSD.  2013 endures in memory as the worst year of my life, and the waves of upheaval and unease I’m still experiencing are just late arrivals.  Starlight comes to us from eons ago.  Maybe the pain from a past event still approaches like a dissipating wave from a distant source.

Another possibility:  I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday, and my eventual demise no longer seems all that eventual.  My uncomfortable morning gut might just be my body and unconscious coming to grips with death.

One last possibility:  fear is the ground of existence.  I fear death.  I fear pain, emotional and physical.  I fear conflict and failure.  I fear losing whatever measure of love, comfort and success I’ve gained.  I fear dying alone.  Buddha said that the basic condition of life is suffering.  Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe.  It feels more like fear to me.

Einstein reported that qualms of mortality had begun in old age to transform into another sensation, one of merging with nature.  As his body failed, so did the barriers between his ego and the cosmos.

Many claim that death is just the transformation of an energy signature into another form, an escape from the drudgeries of mortal life to an immortality of freedom and light.  That sounds pretty good to me…

But I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that I’m getting close to Albert’s state of transcendence.  Acknowledging that I’m afraid, paradoxically, makes fear more bearable.  If fear is a norm, there’s not much point worrying about it or even taking it too seriously.   Denying fear is like trying to avoid the effects of gravity.

Douglas Adams jokingly described a method of flying:  a person must throw themselves at the ground and miss.  Maybe courage and good cheer are gained by throwing oneself at fear and missing.

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

 

Mortality

This winter shapes up to be a season of mortality. This year’s flu is particularly virulent, and other causes have separated several friends, relatives, and acquaintances from their dear ones.

A colleague died of brain cancer two weeks ago, and a mutual friend reported that Jackie remained calm as she faced the end. Although she was an atheist who believed that the lights went out permanently after she drew her last breath, she declared that she was unafraid of death.

My viewpoint shifts on the issue of mortality, but, for the most part, I’ve concluded that dying is a bad idea. I usually reach certainty on that point when thinking about my own demise. Wouldn’t the world be a sadder place without me? And wouldn’t my erasure from existence leave an unfillable void? And am I not a unique specimen and thus somewhat precious?

Those other folks who slipped on the Cosmic Banana Peel and slid over the edge into The Great Whatever must not have been as special. And while I regret their misfortune, I can’t help feeling that my continued efforts to remain breathing must have some blessing from the fates. I’m still here for a reason. I hope, for the time being, that my mission requires a lengthy amount of time to work itself to a conclusion.

I adopt other mental stances to push back the creeping dread. I cling to the guarantees of my faith. I recall the assurances I received from my grandfather and sister shortly after their funerals: they visited me in dreams to let me know that they were all right. My wife felt the presence of her father for a year after his death. These communications from the other side comfort me, but fear remains a stubborn companion. I am a coward, unlike Jackie, when I stare into the abyss.

I feel just like I did as a boy when I sat on top of a tall slide at the NCR swimming pool. My fingers and toes tingled in anticipation, but the height made me dizzy. The water looked way too far away, and I doubted it would cushion the end of my descent. And, as someone behind pushed my shoulders to encourage me to go, I recalled two things: I’d reached a point of no return (no way to climb through ten kids down the ladder); and I couldn’t swim two yards.

I pinched my nose and took the next inevitable step, and as I rushed downward I told myself that the water was only three feet deep. The bottom of the pool was slippery, but I hadn’t managed to drown just yet. I might make it after all.

Splooosh.

 

 

 

 

Dinosaurs and Heaven: Science vs. Religion

dinosaur angel

When I moved to Orlando I saw decals on cars that carried on a debate between science and religion.  One was a fish, a symbol of Christianity, and letters inside its outlines spelled out “truth”.  Another decal showed the outlines of the same fish, but little feet replaced the fins.  The letters inside spelled “Darwin”.  A third decal came in the form of a “truth” fish eating a “Darwin” fish.  I’m not sure if anyone’s thought up a fourth.

I’ve seen YouTube videos of mothers protesting against public schools teaching boys about dinosaurs.  They believe that a boy’s aggressive tendencies can be awakened by seeing pictures of T-Rexes, that these images “bestialize” their sons.  Some mothers insist that dinosaurs never existed as the Bible does not mention them.  The thunder lizards are a hoax perpetuated by paleontologists to get grant money from the government.

Other groups believe that dinosaurs did exist, but not before Adam.  They ignore evidence provided by carbon dating.   They claim instead that God snapped His fingers, and the earth suddenly teemed with all the creatures that would ever walk, swim, ooze and fly.  (Whoop, there it was!)

The graphics that illustrate this proposition lack imagination.  They usually show kids playing with baby brontosauruses while a volcano puffs benevolently in the distance.  But if you thought about the rampant conditions shortly after this Creation moment, you’d have to conclude that our planet was truly exciting for the species that currently survive.  Elephants would have had to outrun T-Rexes.  Lions and wolves would have  fought velociraptors over kills.  Owls and eagles flew along side pterosaurs, and sharks competed with fifty foot mosasaurs for the rights to seal hunting waters.  (If I were Adam I wouldn’t have lazed about naming this and that creature and pining for a soul mate.  Instead I would have found a dark corner in a cave and hid myself away while the rest of creation sorted things out.)

I once worked with a woman named Mrs. Putterbaugh.  She was deeply religious and did not approve of a coworker, my roommate Dave.  He was a master’s degree student in biology.  Dave believed that science would eventually solve all the mysteries of the universe and that any form of religion was an obsolete superstition.  She complained about his impatient dismissal of her beliefs and said, “The really smart ones have a hard time getting into heaven.”

She smiled at me as she said that, and I knew that she included me in the heaven bound elect.  She assumed two things:  1) I was not as smart as Dave; 2) my faith in scripture outweighed my belief in science.  My roommate was smarter, but my attitude toward religion at that time was almost identical to his.  If he and I had been plastered flat on I75 by a jack-knifing semi, we both would have been consigned to the flames.

I didn’t tell Mrs. Putterbaugh that it’s foolish to cling to myths disproved by science.  And I didn’t explain to her that the earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, that creatures gradually evolved over millions of years, and that T-Rexes never lay down with lambs.  She would have closed her ears and begun leaving Bible tracts at my work station.

Now I might fare better in a discussion with her.  I believe in the ability of science to describe and predict reality, but also believe that the practice has its limits.  We are puny creatures with limited means of exploring the vast reaches of creation.  It’s arrogant to assume that we will know and understand All if given a enough time to smash subatomic particles and balance equations.

Only God knows why He (She, It, The Cosmic Transcendence) bothered to let the universe be in the first place.  Science is good at figuring out what and how, but usually avoids why.  There are no equations that answer this question:  what’s the point of existence?

The Roman Catholic church has overcome it’s past of suppressing science, and generally embraces the idea that religion and science can coexist in harmony.  My fifth grade teacher, a nun named Sister Joseph Marie, commented, “The Catholic Church has no problems with Darwin and the theory of evolution.”  A classmate asked, “But what about Genesis?  Doesn’t it say that everything was created in six days?”  Sister replied, “What is a day to God?”