20 July 2017

Losing Mercy. Remembering Luther

Losing Mercy

Somewhere along the way, I lost mercy, misplaced it, or perhaps, as happens with life sometimes, it just expired in me, like an old car battery.

Life can batter us sometimes, which is why it is so important to leave the future of the world to the young, they are full of energy and passion. I lost much of my passion some years ago, too much struggle and disappointment, and was then shocked to rediscover it just five or six years ago, it was a kind of rebirth and salvation, so it felt.

But along the way, there was so much disappointment and  loss I think mercy just fell away,  was left behind, perhaps it is not as natural as some of the other emotions we are either blessed with or cursed by.

I lost mercy again this week.

When did I find mercy again? In Luther's house, but It came back  to me again this morning, in the car and on the way to the meeting I dreaded.

I think it came back to me first in my hospice work with Izzy, out in a remote village on the southern tip of the Adirondacks.

The dying man Izzy and I were visiting was alone when we arrived  in his small and simple wood frame house – Luther was supposed to be in the constant company of relatives, that was the only way hospice would leave him in his house alone.

Luther loved Izzy and we often talked as he looked out his window at the beautiful mountains.

I could hear the rattle in his throat, and so could Izzy, like many therapy dogs, they love the sick but shun the dying. His brother and sister-in-law were supposed to be caring for him, and I had been doing hospice work long enough to understand immediately what had happened.

"Did they go to the bank?,"I asked Luther, a widower and former logger.

He nodded yes.

"For the car?" Again, yes.

He didn't need to fill in the details.

In the poorest homes, it was common for relatives to rush to the bank as their cousin or brother or father began to die. They would clean out his or her bank account and switch the title to the patient's car. They had to do it before they died or it would go to probate court and that would take months, even years.

They had pre-signed transfer and withdrawal forms, Luther had signed them days earlier.

So as sometimes happened, I was holding Luther's hand while he gasped his last few rattling breaths, and Izzy skulked away, he would not go near the dying, even though he had lain by Luther time and again. I called the hospice emergency line, and they told me to call the undertaker.

They warned me about a pacemaker, if Luther had one, I might feel a pulse for hours.

Luther squeezed my hand, and asked me for forgiveness, he asked me if he would see his wife Jeanette again.

I said I forgave him – there was no time to get a priest there, and it was true, I did forgive him. I said I was sure he would see his wife again.

And he squeezed his hand and thanked me, and a few minutes later, he died, just as his brother and sister-in-law came in through the door, clutching some envelopes from the bank.

After I found mercy, it felt like a hole inside of me was filling up with fresh soil and flowers, to live without mercy is a kind of grinding, gray emptiness. Your heart can turn to stone.

Mercy fills the heart and makes the soul shine with hope. There was none in that house. Luther's brother and sister-in-law said they had to go out again, they didn't seem interested in Luther,  and Izzy and I stayed behind.

The undertaker and I – he was a big and jovial man with a giant Cadillac hearse, I believe he was drunk, I could smell his breath from the other side of the room – took a suit out of the closet and we dressed Luther up in his Sunday clothes. We couldn't find a pair of matching socks, the undertaker said he had plenty back at the funeral parlor.

Up in the Adirondacks, there weren't many people around, so some of us volunteers carried prayers in our pockets, just in case, and often forgave poor souls as they left the world. It was  hard to get a priest to come up there at night.

The hospice nurse had been by earlier and had left a death certificate behind, because she knew Luther was dying and the county agency she worked for didn't pay overtime. She wasn't coming back that night.

The undertaker took the certificate and stuffed it into the inside pocket of his shiny old suit. He was humming all of the time, perhaps to calm  his nerves.

We volunteers never claimed to be priests, we never said we could absolve sins, we had a loose relationship with God. But we could forgive people ourselves for whatever they might have done that they regretted. It didn't seem to matter at that point. It was hard to let people leave the world feeling guilty.

I remember the mercy poem I read to Luther as he was carried out to the undertaker's car, leaving his home for the last time as his relatives continued the looting of his life.

"Go before God, " I read to Luther, "and ask for mercy. Be an instrument of grace."

And that night is when I found mercy again, I forgot it from time to time, but it comes back whenever I remember Luther. It doesn't go far.

Posted in General

A Good Day, Loving Mercy: And Where Is The Wolfman?

Wolfman Fled: Gus running to me

I had an especially good day today. I got up at 4 a.m. to work on my book – this is going to be my practice for the next couple of weeks – I wrote a chapter my editor loved. I have six more to go.

I saw this morning just how much the distractions of the world – mail, messages, phone, chores – have ruined my book writing discipline.

At that hour, there are no distractions, and I felt as if I was writing a song. There are many lessons there.

Then I went to have the meeting that has upended me this week. I feared the return of the Wolfman, I've been writing about it for several days, but he didn't show up, I had the feeling he left. I did come on strong until I noticed the wide eyes of everyone in the room, and then things settled down. I said what was bothering me, I said what I needed, we talked about my friend.

It was not the confrontation I expected, there were a series of misunderstandings exacerbated the difficulties of digital communication. No one should every try to resolve anything online, I think it is making people crazy. Everyone in the room was  a good person, trying their best to do a good job.

Things were resolved, and my friend is fine, he can take care of himself.

I think the Wolfman got tired of me and moved away. He has had little to do these past few years.

At the meeting, I decided to take a break from  feeling aggrieved and angry, from being prickly and judgmental, from looking for fights and thinking about winning, about telling my sad story and seeking redress.

I let other people talk, I listened to them, I tried to empathize with them and see things from their point of view. I saw that I have new tools now, it really wasn't like the old days, today was not the time to recite my complaints or soothe my bruised ego, not the time to demand apologies or explanations.

I stopped this crusade in my head, I thought of Maria and Gus and the dogs and my photography. Against all odds, I stopped this campaign, and I saw that I was different, I had changed, there was an empty space where the Wolfman used to be, it was full of wildflowers and Poppies, all set against the morning sun.

I got myself back, he was never really gone.

So what's the catch?

There is no catch.

Anne Lamott says all one has to do in order to begin again is to love mercy. And when I sat in the meeting, I loved mercy, and experienced the joy of  revelation. In her book about mercy, Hallelujah Anyway, she describes the experience this way:

"Then creation begins to float by,  each new day. Sometimes its beauty, cherries, calm, or hawks; sometimes it's forebearance, stamina, eyeglass wipes, apricots, aspirin, second winds."

For me it was different, sometimes it's the sunrise, or the dog running out to the pasture to bring the sheep into the barn, or the beams of light streaming through the canopy of the trees in the deep woods, or the floppy brown hat Maria loves so much, or the sight of Maria in her wedding dress, hauling manure across the barnyard, or photographer's light in the early morning or late day, or the wild Irises up in the meadow, or little Gus trotting along behind her, so full of himself, the farm dog.

My mind went to what matters, and argument and anger are not what matters.  So where is the Wolfman anyway, he lived with me for a long time and he was always sad and mournful, I hope he finds his way  back to life.

Oh, and I almost forget. Maria was off to her belly dancing class late this afternoon and I felt good, buoyed by the chapter I wrote – I knew it was good, I could feel it – and so I went to see Spiderman, which I much enjoyed. And had a small popcorn with some real butter.

I have always loved sitting in a movie theater by myself, munching my popcorn snug in this rare island of quiet and anonymity. I always felt safe in a theater.

I liked the movie very much. A surprisingly sweet movie – the explosions were restrained and creative – about growing up in grace.

it was a good day.

Posted in General

Sit: The Wolfman Meditates. Anger And Need

Anger And Need

The other  day, I wrote about a meeting I have to attend today out of town. There is a lot of anger in me about this meeting, I am going to defend a friend who has been treated unfairly, in part because of his friendship with me,  and I wrote about "The Wolfman" (one of my favorite movies) inside of me.

I wrote about how I was struggling to deal with the rage this meeting has re-awakened in me, I thought of Lon Chaney's Larry Talbot begging to be locked up when the full moon rose, he knew what he might do. I know what I might do, and I don't wish to do it. All my life, I've struggled with anger and hurt, and I wish to be done with that, to leave it in the past.

The meeting is today and I have been thinking about ways to control this anger and turn it into something productive and meaningful, if positive. I messaged a friend, a healer, and asked for her thoughts. She mentioned the idea of Righteous Anger, a Christian notion I am familiar with.

Righteous Anger is justified, according to Christianity if it reflects anger towards sin, not personal experience,  and also towards what would anger God – avarice, murder, cruelty to the poor.

"Be angry, and yet do not sin;" says the Bible in Ephesians 4:26-27…"do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not give the devil an opportunity."

My meeting is important to me, but yet I do not think original sin or God really enter into it, it is more mundane and  unthinking than that. I do feel my friend has been mistreated and harmed carelessly and thoughtlessly, yet I am intensely uncomfortable feeling that the Wolfman, who used to dwell inside of me, is still holed up in his cave somewhere inside of me.

My friend did have another idea for me, and this struck closer to home. She said that anger comes from a need or needs that are not being met, and if you can figure out what the needs are and be present with them then the anger will no longer be necessary.

I liked considering this meeting in that way in my mind. Rather than using anger and argument and judgment, wouldn't it be better for me to take anger and righteousness out of it – I don't care to experience either so why should I inflict it on someone else? – and simply say what it is I need.

If my needs and my friend's needs cannot be met, then I don't need to rage and rail or pout, I can simply leave the meeting and get on with my life.

Doing good is better than arguing about what is good. Argument accomplishes nothing, as does anger.

So on the way to the meeting, I will think about what I need, and state it simply and honestly, and the rest is in the hands of the fates. I should not be invested in winning or losing, rather in being authentic and clear. And as just as I can be.

I will speak on behalf of my friend and of myself and of the hurt that I have felt, and then listen.

Vengeance is not a test of character, but of weakness. Anger is not the tool of sincerity. I'm not seeking surrender or apology, I would like the Wolfman to stay asleep down there. I want him to "sit" and "stay," just like Gus in the photo.

If I can do that, then this will not be a bad day, but a good day. The anger will have been put to a good purpose.

And I will not be giving the devil an opportunity.

See you later.

Posted in General

Working Dogs: Day Two And Free In The Pasture. Gus Learns To Be A Farm Dog

This morning, I looked up and saw that I had three working dogs keeping an eye on the sheep, Gus, Red and Fate. Maria was inside the stall, cleaning it out and the dogs were making sure the sheep didn't move. Gus is learning how to be a farm dog.

He is cautious and observant, he keeps his distance from the sheep, who are the most unpredictable of our farm animals. It isn't that they mean any harm, they are just prone to bolting and stampeding and Red keeps them away from me, but I don't know if he would keep them away from Gus, red pays almost no attention to the puppy.

I would say the sheep are the greatest danger to Gus, the donkeys seem to want to almost adopt him. Gus hangs back, just enters the Pole Barn a bit. He keeps close to me and Maria, and if we are busy, to Red. He seems to know that is a safe place.

The good farm dogs were all tossed out into the barns early in life, there, they learn how to be alert, keep  escape routes handy and keep an eye on the animals. Gus seems to be learning all of those things, this is his second day out in the pasture off leash, and he seems to be learning what he needs to know.

I still keep a close eye on him, but less and less each day. This is very important to me and to Maria. Gus is not a toy or an ornament for us, we need and expect him to enter our lives, as good dogs do, and learn how to be independent and rational.

The last thing such a cute and small  dog needs is to be protected and treated like a friendly hamster. He needs love and attention, but he also needs to navigate our world, not be protected from it or carried through it. I understand that this is often a difficult issue for pet owners, but anyone who lives on a farm or with farm animals understands it all too well.

The danger does not come from being exposed to the real life of the farm, but being protected from it. Danger comes not from what he knows, but from what he does not know. In a few days, all of the animals will accept Gus as just another animal on the farm. That will be because he knows how to act like one.

Posted in General

Shirley And Robert, Together At The Mansion

Shirley And Robert

Shirley and Robert are the first couple I have come to know at the Mansion. It is rare for couples to come there, most often it is after a spouse or partner has died. I have become quite fond of them.

They came to the Mansion to be together as they enter another chapter of their lives, and I know it is difficult for them. But they are gracious and uncomplaining. At first, they had to be in separate rooms, but last week, they moved into a small apartment upstairs in the building, and they are happy to be together, their love brushes the heart and reminds me why this work is so important.

Shirley is a passionate dog lover and she is just full of joy when she sees Red, and he, as usual, is responding to that attention. I can see she misses having animals in her life, they are such a part of her. Sometimes, her neighbors come to visit them and they talk about their lives together.

Shirley has given me several articles on how to care for older dogs, and she is always eager to see Gus. I told her it was too warm for Gus to come yesterday and she said she understood.

I might try to bring him over to see her today, on my way out of town for a meeting. It is hot upstairs in the Mansion,  and she and Robert came downstairs to be by the fans. You can write to Shirley and Robert c/o The Mansion, 11 S. Union Avenue, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816.


I write the other day about me and the Wolfman inside of me, this is the day of that meeting, and I have been working to think about my anger and how I can control it and put it to good use. A friend of mine – she is a healer and a person of great warmth and generosity, wrote me this morning about the idea of "Righteous Anger."

Posted in General