Finished Reading – The Bright Hour – A Memoir of Living and Dying

The Bright Hour

A direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs inherited a love of the written word and graduated with an MFA in poetry. She went on to have a book of poetry titled Lucky, Lucky published in 2009. In 2015 she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 37. She decided to document her experiences on her blog Suspicious Country where she shared what it was like to be a married, young mother of two with this disease.

Readers are fortunate that Nina was able to write her story, The Bright Hour – A Memoir of Living and Dying before her death in 2017. This book is a bittersweet one that left me with gratitude for her ability to transform the ordinary bits of day-to-day life into opportunities for deep reflection.

Her writing is honest and exquisite.  She bares all and explores all of her emotions – from dark humor to joy, hopelessness, horror, magic, and beauty. It’s all part of the landscape. She sees the good and bad in all of this and says, “I never stop being amazed by how simultaneously cruel and beautiful this world can be.”

Nina’s writing is evocative. She describes people, moments, relationships, and landscapes much in the way that Emerson does. The relationship she has with her mother – the ups and downs, and the details of her decline and subsequent death in some ways set the stage for much of what Nina covers in this book. It’s a memoir of her experience as a daughter who accompanies her mother into death, and then not long after- faces her own. Nina’s love for her children, husband, father, and friends shine throughout these pages. Her appreciation for nature is also featured prominently, and she sees herself reflected in all of it. She punctuates her story with many details from history and a variety of facts – all of which help to serve as anchors for her experience.

She cleverly names the chapters of this book based on stages, and this serves as a way to see both the progression of the disease as well as the decline and realizations that come from the passage of time. The book begins with her speaking to her mother having terminal cancer and then months later; she is in treatment for incurable metastatic cancer. The Bright Hour is an attempt to describe the indescribable. She offers her insight into the landscape of the medical industry and the language of cancer via her experience. Nina writes with the knowledge that she’s dying and she’s so honest about it all.

The Bright Hour is a philosophical examination of illness and of life and death. It’s a gift that she’s left for readers – a vehicle for us to see what it’s like to travel on uncharted waters into the face of one’s mortality. It tells the story of family and how we fumble through our relationships, make mistakes and do the awkward dance of being honest and hiding for fear of hurting our loved ones. It speaks to what it means to live and die with authenticity and helps to advance the death positivity movement. To read Nina’s words is to be fearless and brave and glance into a life that is coming to an end and the powerlessness that can be felt from this reality.

Bodhisattvas and Boundaries

Someone around me is drinking himself to death. It’s not anyone in my immediate family or a friend – but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking to watch. It’s made me keenly aware of the sense of powerless that comes when addiction grabs hold of a person and won’t let go. It’s also made me keenly aware of the boundaries that exist between people. There is also an acknowledgment of letting go.

I remember back to a few years ago – I submitted a question to a teacher who was a guest on the Buddhist Geeks podcast related to the concept of “bodhisattva burnout” and what to do if you felt exhausted from running around trying to save the world. She replied something to the effect of ‘if you’re a true bodhisattva, you won’t burn out.”

Uh.

That didn’t really help. I felt like I did when I first discovered Wonder Woman as a child. I dressed up as her one Halloween and then decided that I would adopt a superheroine ethos and truly embody her full time. I’d run around our neighborhood asking people if they needed help with anything. Usually I’d be helping people hang laundry up, or sometimes they’d need help with eating the extra cookies they made. That part wasn’t so bad.

Discovering Buddhism led me to some pretty great new ways of living in the world and relating to others – all while exploring myself. The drawback though was that I found Buddhism at a time where let’s say my self-esteem and self-concept wasn’t fully realized. I think for a good chunk of my ‘Buddhist career’ we can say this has been the case. Without a solid grip and solid instructions on what it means to be a bodhisattva, it’s easy to see how I could feel much like that kid in the costume, running from house to house, breathlessly trying to save the world.

Now I have a sense of my own self-preservation. I am consciously checking in to see when I start to feel that burnout and know to engage in self-care and chillaxation.

I’m also aware of the boundaries that exist for another ‘self.’ I’ve become more attuned to how individuals are – the forces that come about in their lives to help them become who they are and make the decisions they make. The self-work I’ve done has helped me gain a deeper perspective into this kind of stuff. It’s mind-blowing and life changing really.

I now see that not everyone is going to take the help a bodhisattva offers. I no longer take this personally or think that I’ve failed and need to grind myself to a paste to force what I want to happen. The ideal ending for the story sometimes doesn’t get written.

I practice letting go of the outcome I have in mind and working with the outcome that is. I generate compassion for myself in knowing that I tried my best to save the world – even if those actions seem so small and meaningless.

I no longer feel like I’m burning out because there’s always an opportunity to practice loving-kindness and compassion. There’s always a living being that is in need of aid. True change can only come through the relationship that that other being has in taking the help offered. I’m in no way in any sense of the word someone who understands karma, but I see that some outcomes are beyond what I can influence. There is both a sense of freedom in seeing this as well as a complete sense of powerlessness. I’m learning to dwell in both areas and stay with the discomfort.

Dream Time

With the summer months comes  the need for open windows. And with open windows comes the sounds of the cityscape floating through my drapes. Lately the space I live in has been thrown into a bit of high amplification due to one of our neighbors. For nights in a row, I’ve been woken up between 3-4am. And then when I do get back to sleep, I’m treated to some pretty dynamic dreamscapes.

I’ve dreamed about being at schook in two dreams – one dream involved me being in law school, sitting in a classs, and the other, where I was sitting outside of university with a group of people. One of the guys in the group I was with flipped a cigarette to a girl who was facing us. She looked like Kim Kardashian with a light moustache and had a giant black snake tattooed from the back of her leg, extending up her butt and onwards to her back.

Another dream was of my dead mother. She was wearing a purple sweatshirt and her hair was longer than I had ever seen it. She was smiling and happy and just waved.

I also dreampt of a new house we were going to visit in real life. After the walkthrough, the person turned to me and said, “Does owning a home make you feel secure? Does it make you feel like you have achieved something in your life?”

So I’m left to unpack some of these messages. They’re simply dreams. No different than the thoughts that float through my head while sitting on the cushion. While eating dinner. While taking a poop.

But the analyst in me loves to examine and question. Of course my mind turns to what the Buddhists say about this topic. Urban Dharma has an interesting recap on A Buddhist Approach to Dreams – Jung and Junti – Dreams West and East. 

Do you have an active dream life? Do you keep a dream journal? Or do you let ’em go and practice non-attachment? Any books or articles on the topic that you recommend I check out? I’d love to hear from you. 

Readage: The Beatin’ Path – A Lyrical Guide to Lucid Evolution

This book – The Beatin’ Path – A Lyrical Guide to Lucid Evolution  by John B. Lane crossed my path via my dear friend Anile aka Girlfriday. She worked on the design and thought that this series of writing was right up my alley.

She was right.

To begin, the majority of books that I’ve been reading these days have been in the death, grief and Buddhist space – so the opportunity to read something creative was quite appealing. I must preface, highlight, skywrite, bold, all caps the word “creative” when using it to describe The Beatin’ Path. The book explodes with… with… stories of existence, questions around morality, questions around mortality, mentions of dog fucking, deep thoughts, silly musings that lead to deep thoughts – and that’s just the first chapter. It’s like someone took Tom Robbins and threw him in a blender with Huxley, Orwell, Kant and Darwin, and then added a dash of the Buddha with a drop of the essence of a holy-rolling tent-revival preacher on acid.

The tongue-twisting wordplay that is present in this book demonstrates Lane’s whimsical storytelling abilities. Kicking off with a piece titled “Mantra for a Panther in a Room Full of Metronomes,” it’s clear that the reader is in for a ride. The mundane, profane, abstract, religious, political, financial, artistic – it’s all knit together in a flowing series of written stories that provoke inquiry and present a new way of viewing them via the author’s kaleidoscopic-colored glasses. Yeah. It’s a trip!

Sitting with this book was like visiting a strange new friend who could spout off a myriad of facts on the most random of topics. It’s like reading a random and poetic version of the encyclopedia. In this time of Trump, The Beatin’ Path is a fascinating book to encourage readers to evaluate facts, reality, alt-reality and what we accept as fact, truth and what we wish to believe.

The artwork helps to accent this wordplay and employs old-world style illustrations to lead the reader further down the rabbit hole. Or maybe they’re used to help ground us in some sense of reality?

 

It’s a book of opposites. Dark and light. Sacred and profane. Serious and silly. Then there’s everything that lies between these extremes. Our relationships with the world, each other and ourselves are all topics for examination and fair game. The book is really about finding your truth based on what the author presents. It’s all about where we find ourselves on The Beatin’ Path.

To find out more about this book check out https://www.thebeatinpath.com/ You’ll find an awesome playlist here, a study guide and all sorts of treats.

Readage: Book Review – Getting Grief Right

Getting Grief Right

As someone who has been actively grieving for several years…

Wait. Is that how you say it?

Does that even make sense to put it that way?

Actively grieving makes it sound like every minute is spent wearing black and crying. While that isn’t too far off the mark as far as how I dress, I’m not always crying, but I do have momentary feelings of:

  • Sadness
  • Loss
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Regret

and a host of other emotions that are blends or hybrids of these core ones.

Pre-grieving, I was reading a lot of books on the topic. Dear Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was helpful, but I read her books with the knowledge that her perspective of grieving was one that several leading thinkers in the space have criticized. Given her belief that grief evolves through a series of stages and knowing that there were very few – if any, people I knew out there who were able to brush their hands together and say “OK. I’m done grieving. I’m all better, and I’ve accepted my loved one’s death,” it’s not as cut and dry as Ross believed.

So in my quest to continue to develop my death positivity and my personal work with grief, I found a book that completely gets it right. Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss by Dr. Patrick O’Malley. Many of you may know Dr. O’Malley an article of his that received quite a bit of attention in the New York Times. It is a snapshot of the wisdom that he shares within the pages of this book.

The author provides many helpful tips on how to cope in an effective manner. He offers many practical self-care suggestions and recognizes the value in ensuring that people take good care of themselves during this time of their lives. The concept of self-knowledge and one’s individual psychology and historical background is also paramount in Getting Grief Right.

The book breaks many of the misperceptions surrounding grief as well as the unique nature of the grief experience for each person, rather than the universal stages we may be shoehorned into. Beyond this, the idea of closure is attached to our notion of what successful grieving – and an end goal for this process. Society has perpetuated many harmful myths –

“Give it six months then you’ll feel better.”

“It’s time to move on.”

“It really isn’t healthy for you to be talking about your loved one still.”

“It’s not looking like you’re getting over this are you?”

Well at least they aren’t suffering any longer. And they wouldn’t want you to suffer either so stop crying.”

“You should look on the bright side. They had a long life.”

So many of these reactions from others to what are our natural emotions can make us feel ashamed, weak and generally weird. Many of us are used to taking a goal-oriented approach to healing, and this simply doesn’t work for the grief process. It’s a giant let-down to realize that it’s always going to be around. You can’t do much to change the fact that your loved one is dead. You can’t let the opinions of others influence your personal experience of what’s occurring during this incredibly charged area of your life.

This book is dedicated to examining your story as much as reviewing the stories you recall about the deceased. It also provides advice to support those who are grieving and offers suggestions for how you can encourage them to express their emotions and memories of their loved ones.

Within the pages of this book, you’ll feel both understood and validated. Dr. O’Malley shares a great deal that relates to his personal experience of grief. Being a grief counselor who has direct connection with deep loss has helped him to help others. He offers the knowledge he’s gained from working with his clients and the personal work he’s done both with his own story, as well as in understanding the various concepts behind grief therapy.

The author notes that “Our stories are pathways to living with loss” and this quote best exemplifies the approach he has taken with his patients. Getting Grief Right is for those who are looking to explore and write about the story of their loved one – and all of the emotions that surround the loss of this person in your life. It’s a way to unearth all of the memories and feelings around your relationship with those who have died and to unpack this information in written form.

Writing may help you get the words out that you’ve struggled to find a way to express. Dr. O’Malley believes that having a safe space for allow you to tell your story is what helps people better understand their experience. It’s a tool to work towards making space for yourself and limiting your self-judgment. In addition, it helps you continue to honor your bond with the person who died – something that isn’t lost despite their physical absence. It’s a way to remember your experience of that person – the details of your relationship. It can help you construct meaning.

This book is not going to erase your grief. It’s designed to help you examine it and develop the wisdom and compassion to relate to it in a different way that what we have been taught to as a society. Now you may be suffering from traumatic or complicated grief and I really wouldn’t encourage you to dive into this book without having a strong support system or giving some thought to speaking to a mental health professional before you really engage with the writing and contemplative exercises that are detailed in the book.

I’m really looking forward to completing the writing exercises and actually starting a virtual group who wish to engage in a study group around the subjects covered within Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss. While I greatly appreciated the knowledge that I gained from reading this book, I’m now anticipating the second phase of the brilliance of this work and doing the work to see where this kind of exploration takes me.

This book is a must-own for anyone who is either currently grieving or supporting someone who has experienced the death of a loved on. I can’t recommend it highly enough and I am grateful for the work that Dr. Patrick O’Malley put into the development of this essential read.

Time for Livin’

Yes. It is time for livin’.

So much going on these days. I’ve been hustling to find work for many months and my gosh that can take a lot out of a person. I had one company mistakenly think that my portfolio was this very blog so that was a good laugh. 

Other than the typical hijinks I get into (caring for a shorty pug, studying, dawdling, daydreaming, procrastinating, internetting) – I was fortunate enough to see my teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche a few weeks ago. I remember way back worrying about what it would be like to meet him and how freaked out I was. When I did have him face to face with me, it was so…. so very ordinary. Like someone you meet at a kitchen party and share a short chat with. The second time around it was similar except I was much lighter in mood (see previous posts about my depression lifting). I was finding myself introducing people to Rinpoche this time around and coaxing them to go and see him. It was great to be encouraging to people and help them see that he was extraordinary – yet ordinary. 

The local centre I’m affiliated with moved to a bright and sunny new spot so I’m hoping I’ll reconnect with my sangha. It’s another good reason for me to practice my french. I’m pretty much over my fears and shyness in speaking a language that I mangle and now really just try to be understood and nod often when I’m not so clear on what’s being said to me. 

All this Trump stuff. How are you feeling about it? Do you find it hard to stay engaged and informed, yet maintain your sanity? How are you holding up? 

All I know is it’s Spring/Summer and it feels like it’s time for livin’. 

DHARMAGE PODCAST – EPISODE 3: Yudron Wangmo

yudron wangmo

In the most recent episode of the Dharmage podcast, I had the absolute pleasure to speak with Yudron Wangmo. Yudron is a long-time Buddhist practitioner and teacher who is a writer of Buddhist teen fiction. Yes. You read that right. Buddhist teen fiction! Seeing the absence of voices in this space, Yudron is writing for an unserved audience. She says it best when she relates on her blog

“Practicing and studying the meditation techniques and philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism has given me the life tools to be a happy person. I’m not aiming to convert anyone from their own religion, but I see many young people suffering—for example from anger, fear, jealousy, and trauma—who don’t believe in anything. With that nihilistic perspective comes hopelessness. It’s my belief that a good yarn can change a person.”

We cover a lot of ground in this podcast – Yudron’s experiences on the path, how she came to become a Buddhist, why she writes for the teen market, the guru-student relationship, feminism, – all that and so much more. It’s the start of me getting to know more about this wonderful woman. Her books which are now on my digital shelf, ready for me to dig into and time travel back to when I was a teen! 

A few links to check out:

Here’s the link to Yudron’s Twitter account.

And her vlog on YouTube

And here’s the podcast for your listening pleasure

Readage: The Zen of You & Me – A Guide for Getting Along with Just About Anyone

Diane Musho Hamilton always delivers the goods when it comes to applying the Dharma to the real world. Her first book Everything is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution broke the stereotype of the perpetual peaceful Buddhist and helped demonstrate that we all are subject to getting a little hot under the collar. Her latest book, The Zen of You & Me – A Guide for Getting Along with Just About Anyone is similar in focus in that it relays “how we are the same and how we are different.” We engage in judgments that cloud our thinking. This makes us feel less than – like we’re beyond hope for enlightenment. How can we consider ourselves spiritual beings when we’re consumed with petty complaints about our co-worker being nosy, or our frustration with the neighbor’s loud parties?

This book asks us to begin to examine differences. So often we want to be polite and not rock the boat when we’re upset. We also may not want to look at why we feel threatened by those we perceive as ‘others.’ Getting comfortable with this discomfort is what Diane calls for in order to help us better understand both ourselves, and the world around us. We like to think that our world is stable, that our partners are solid and that nothing changes. As Buddhists we know our friend impermanence is always at play.

Using many examples from her life as well as stories from her readers, Diane provides relatable material that shows we’re not so weird after all. She is deeply philosophical and her writing has a lyrical and evocative quality about it. She includes several practices for readers to try in order to work towards shortening the distance between self and other.

Conflict can be healthy – but only if we have the courage to face it directly and not flee from the struggle we find ourselves in. The Zen of You & Me uncovers how our brains and bodies react to conflict, judgment, and differences. It provides real world advice in a step-by-step format that helps us work with conflict and learn to negotiate with others. She posits that some conflicts can help us learn and grow. They may force us into making necessary changes in our lives.

We can become confident in knowing that we can work out any situations because we’re flexible and have some basic wisdom we can draw upon. We can also let go and drop clinging to our perspective and allow others to express themselves. We may not agree with them, but we hear them and we’re curious to learn more. We’re at one with the person we’re listening to. People want to be heard. We want to be heard. We all have unique perspectives and backgrounds. We come from different Vajra families.

Diane offers direct insight into what is involved in becoming an effective communicator. How well we listen and how skilled we are able to speak both go hand in hand with how well we are able to connect with others and express ourselves. She deep-dives into exploring feelings and how important it is to be aware of all of our feels – but not be trapped by them. They are temporary states – impermanent.

Our old friend ego is at work when we’re engaged in conflict. We are hardwired to habitually react based on what we’ve learned aka we’re mindless. Learning to be mindful and aware is discussed at some length within this book as a means to transform how we relate to others. The ability to listen deeply is also examined and the author describes techniques to help deepen one’s ability to stay tuned in.

Diane mentions the concept of natural compassion – something that can be missing when we are engaged in heated debate. She encourages us to reconnect with our compassion when we get consumed by conflict. Check in with your inner bodhisattva.

This book is less self-help and more self-awareness. It provides a reality check for how we think things are – and demonstrates that things are much deeper than they seem on the surface. We can exist between two extremes and make ourselves comfortable living in the grey. And we can engage in conflict – mindfully without negating the “you” and sticking too firmly with the “me.”

This is a bit of a no-brainer to say but given the current global situation and political climate, this book is a must read. Seriously. What are you waiting for?

Dying2Learn

I’m taking 2 online classes currently – one about the human lifespan, birth to death- and the other which is aptly titled ‘Dying2Learn.’ You can pretty much guess the subject material even through the cryptic Prince-like lyrical title. 

It’s funny because in the human lifespan class, death gets a mere 20 pages of coverage. The most mysterious subject. The one many of us avert our eyes to. So for a curious-minded sort like myself, I’m off to accent my learning with this MOOC that goes full-throttle on the death pedal. 

“The Great Matter is birth and death. Life slips past and time is gone. Right now, wake up! Wake up! Do not waste time.” 

Death and dying have become huge topics in my life.  I’ve become aware of their presence and what that means to live. It’s all quite ordinary.  Whether we’re able to dedicate more than 20 pages to our textbook about it or not. It’s part of our human lifespan and we need to learn how to prepare for it – both for ourselves and others around us. Acceptance is key. 

As Spring is now here all bright and filled with promise, I’m hunkered down with over 1800+ people worldwide – contemplating our mortality.  

The Dharma of Ryan Adams

I have been fangirling over the new Ryan Adams album for about a month now and I’m driving everyone crazy.

I just finished watching an interview with him because I’m avoiding homework and wanted to highlight this little segment where he drops some Buddhist thinking. I don’t really have any intel on his Dharmic tendencies beyond a few mentions here and there, but here’s another celeb that I don’t mind including in the fold. 

This is how I feel sometimes.