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Art

Art

Swirls of spontaneous art form on the bark of this crape myrtle tree that I planted when my son was small. I remember when I used to tuck him into bed at night, and we would look out his window at the delicate lavender carpet of flowers. He is all grown up and moved away now, and the tree and flowers reach way over the roof of the house, having somehow miraculously snatched nutrients from the soil and air and converted them into more tree. The boy, of course was busily converting food into more boy, and that is just the way of things, but if you think about it, it is quite remarkable.

For some reason this makes me feel melancholy, how living things grow and age and pass. It highlights my own temporary nature and regrettably yours too. Even if we will live to a hundred years old, we are more than half done, and we are not so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we once were.

The results of living are etched into our once fresh faces and woven into the silver strands in our hair. When I look at you, though, these marks of age look like spontaneous art swirls, as lovely as the ones on the tree.

Treat yourself with tenderness and grace, dear one. Make sure you get enough good food to eat, instead of skipping meals as if you were unimportant. Bring a sweater with you if it is cold out.

When you are gone, there will never be another you. You are precious, the only one of your kind. That is true of everyone, but everyone is not beautiful in the way that you are. Take care of yourself, ok?

Transition

Transition

The Monterrey cypress is leafing out for spring. The whole tree is bright, fuzzy green, with leaves sprouting directly out of the branches. In most trees transitions between branches and leaves are more gradual. If you follow the trunk, you find a thick branch, then a thinner one, then one thinner still, until you reach a twig of a size that suggests a leaf is the obvious next step.

Gradual transitions allow us to adjust to the idea that something new is coming down the pike. With advance warning we can prepare ourselves for change, both practically and emotionally. It is easier to meet new circumstances when we are prepared.

When your loved one got a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, it was on the one hand a sad and scary day. On the other hand you were relieved to finally have an explanation for memory lapses and other disturbing symptoms that had been around for quite a while. A diagnosis gave you a label for the scary thing that was happening. It was not that your mother was a complete lunatic; she had a disease with a name, a prognosis, a stage, and a trajectory. Her diagnosis gave you some ways to prepare for changes that were likely to take place.

You knew some day she would stop driving, and she drove a little less each month. One day you got a notice from the state that told you it was time for her to come in for a driving test to renew her license, and you realized she had not driven in months. You didn’t renew her license.

Abrupt changes are more startling than gradual ones. Even though your loved one has a prognosis of a decline over time, sometimes change is sudden. Yesterday she lived at your house, and you were anxious about how to help her transition to residential care. Today she lives in an assisted living facility. Yesterday she was alive, and you were wondering how much more of this you could bear. Today she died, and you are planning a funeral.

When big shifts occur, don’t expect yourself to deal with them with the grace of an Olympic figure skater on the ice. You might feel a mix of strong emotions that you didn’t have time to process in advance. You might feel numb. Whatever you are feeling is normal for you. Even if you cope with your circumstances with all the grace and charm of an upside-down beetle, you are doing it just right.

Transitions can be difficult because you are leaving something old and comfortable behind, but they can also be a thing of beauty. There is a small, sacred moment when you leave something behind, pause and a take a breath, and step across a threshold into something new.

Goose

Goose

This, dear reader, is a Canada goose. We don’t get them in our part of Texas, but I was traveling away from the Bossy Spa this week, and this guy swam right up to me in a marina. He hopped on the boat transom, not three feet from where I was standing, and cocked his head inquisitively. I cannot imagine how he got this brave, but I guess people in the marina are supplying him with breakfast.

Wild geese are usually more timid, but this guy had figured out it was worth cruising the marina in hopes of breakfast. Failing that, he could always catch his own breakfast, since the land and sea nearby are plentiful with goose-friendly morsels.

This goose had never seen me before, so he can’t have recognized me as a individual. Instead he was engaging in pattern recognition, a skill common to all intelligent creatures. He identified me as being sufficiently like others who had fed him and not harmed him, that he was willing to risk hopping politely up on the deck beside me.

Pattern recognition is a fantastic shortcut. We don’t have time to figure out every particular circumstance, so we rely on experiences with people or in situations that seem similar. Like this goose we get through lots of life this way. I assume the checkout cashier at the grocery story is safe to approach, rather than making sure she is unarmed, because the grocery cashier fits a familiar pattern that I have previously experienced as safe. We all save a lot of time using pattern recognition, a key factor in intelligence.

This shortcut has its limitations, though. We tune our pattern recognition to our life experiences, and any one person’s experiences are a small and biased sample. If we have been lied to or cheated a lot, we will tend to spot this pattern more often than it actually occurs. We can become cynical and miss opportunities to engage in truthful and nurturing relationships. We develop our expectations based on our past, and our past is necessarily limited.

I point this out because the experience of being a caregiver is an unrelenting pattern. If you are living in the same house with your patient, caregiving thoughts and activities fill your waking moments. The entire world, it seems, is a grind of annoying tasks, repetitive conversations, and stressful interactions.

You might identify a pattern that generalizes to “Life is a terrible, exhausting mess,” and it may often be so right now. Today allow yourself to gently remember that there are other ways of experiencing life other than what is happening right now. One day there will be other joys and sorrows.

Vinca

Vinca

I did actually plant these vinca. I believe they were deep fuchsia at the time. Over the years they escaped captivity and started trailing through the yard on their own. Their bright color, which must have been bred in, faded over time to this pale pink with white star in the center.

Growers go to a lot of trouble to breed special colors and designs of flowers, but many revert to their original nature over time. One species of red verbena I put in years ago carried a label warning that propagating the plant was against the law. Really? Plants propagate on their own. Did the grower mean to suggest that they would prosecute a flower that dropped seeds?

I never got to see how that story ended because the seeds from the red verbena didn’t sprout, while the native purples keep coming up in surprise locations on their own. And now my fuchsia vinca has gone rogue.

The pale pink and white looks to me like stubborn courage. The plant was bred to flower in mardi gras pink, but its true nature was much more subtle and delicate. There was no suppressing that nature, no sustainable way to give it pompoms and a megaphone, when it has a quieter disposition.

If there is some different way you think you should be: more social, more helpful, more independent, you can work at that for a bit. Over time, though, you too are likely to revert to your true nature. Maybe you are not that social, and you need a fair bit of alone time. If you can accept who you are rather than spending effort becoming someone you are not, you will have a lot less on your to-do list.

There is already a lot on your task list because you are taking care of others, not just yourself. Think about someone who does not have it totally all together, how you accept that person as he is without trying to fix him. You can do that for yourself, you know. Aim your compassion today at yourself. Accept your nature without fixing.

Recover

Recover

My beautiful aloe plant took a beating this winter. We had multiple days of frost and even a bit of snow. I wrote about the healing powers of aloe including a picture of its fall flowers here.

I was sad to see the thick succulent leaves go dark and squishy as the freezing temperatures came and went. This morning, though, I noticed that the centers of each spiral of spiny leaves is bright green. The frost killed the outer parts of the long leaves, but somehow the leaves huddled together in the center were able to ward off the cold.

Now that we are heading in to the second half of February we are unlikely to see freezing temperatures this season. Despite the setbacks of the winter, my aloe is prepared to recover.

You too may have experienced some setbacks this winter. Caregiving has a way of serving up hard times and making ordinary difficulties more burdensome to bear. The way you have been huddling with others, seeking and giving support, has been protecting your center all this long while.

Even though you have suffered some damage there is something intact and resilient at your core. The very center of you is green with cream spots and scalloped edges and spines, ready to put forth new growth when conditions are right.

You may not feel this potential every day. You may see the withered leaves and brown squashy bits that look pretty grubby, but they are composting to put their nutrients back in the soil. They too will nurture you when you start to grow again. For now, they drape their unattractive brownness over you to protect you from a surprise late frost.

There is nothing for you to do differently. The ugly bits and the beautiful bits are working together to protect you. When the day comes, you will have what you need to recover.

Better

Better

Yet another tiny volunteer is taking over the yard in the winter absence of grass. Surely we can agree this purple orchid-like flower is better than grass. So much more interesting and beautiful!

You can probably tell I am just itching for spring, buzzing around looking for flowers with bee-like determination. There aren’t many out yet, but all the signs are there that the universe will not disappoint, but will soon put on another outrageous spring display.

We can reasonably count on the arrival of spring, even though each spring is different. Other things are not promised, like the health of those we love, the kindness of strangers, and it not raining on our new shoes. If you were to start writing a list of things on which you cannot rely, you could write all day and into the night and still not be close to finished.

All this uncertainty can be hard to bear. We feel safer when we know what is going to happen and exposed when we do not.

Imagine, though if you could know everything in advance. Would you want to? When I imagine this things seem flat and uninteresting. Vibrancy and joy in life come out of the uncertainty, not just anxiety.

In any event it’s not like we have a choice in the matter. There is a lot going on where we don’t have a clue how the situation will work out. Even when we think we know, we are often wrong.

One year we were preparing for a hurricane to make landfall near us. I moved all the loose items in every room into a closet, so they would not become projectiles if the windows broke and strong winds came through the house. While I was at it, I organized my closet, each pair of shoes neatly pointing west. When I was done I offered to help my neighbor, who still had outdoor furniture on her patio. “I’m not moving it,” she told me. “You either overprepare or underprepare for a hurricane. I am going to underprepare.”

I was horrified at her lack of preparedness. Wind could throw her lawn furniture through a window. “What are you going to do to get ready?” I asked.

“I’m going to bake a cake,” she said. “If the power goes out we’ll have to eat the ice cream in the freezer, so I want to be sure we have cake to go with it.”

After the storm made landfall and passed overhead, she climbed the fence between our yards, bringing her cake. We ate cake and ice cream in our oddly bare house.

I can draw only one of two conclusions from this. Perhaps pointing my shoes to the west steered the hurricane winds to another area, but I highly doubt it. The other possibility is that it is ok not to know how things will work out. Today refrain from frantic behavior trying to control the uncontrollable. Like my wise neighbor allow yourself to come to peace with not knowing.