Please prepare now for unexpected outcomes

I’m sad to learn that my friend Rena Kaplowski died yesterday, even though she went the way she wished, in her sleep. Her passing has been a bit of a wakeup call for me and perhaps should be for millions of us. Rena had just turned 67 when she suffered a devastating stroke. Weeks of unconsciousness and intensive care followed, and she had just been moved to a rehab center when she passed.

Rena had not signed an advance directive form like Five Wishes which allows each of us to guide important medical care decisions that might be made if we should become seriously ill, decisions like whether we would like to be given life-support treatments. You may think that your loved ones and doctors will know what you want when you are very ill, but in reality, everyone has different wishes and it’s important to make them clearly known. Expressing your wishes in an advance directive helps to empower your family and other loved ones, and your doctor to make the best decisions when the time comes, and avoid disagreements about what to do next. Completing a form like “Five Wishes” can help you and your loved ones gain peace of mind around difficult end-of-life decisions.

The best time to fill out an advance directive form is now, before you face a health crisis. Because life is unpredictable, it’s best to be prepared. Anyone over the age of 18 can use the “Five Wishes” form. It is also a good idea to review and possibly update your Five Wishes advance directive when you experience significant life events like marriage, divorce, having children, or being diagnosed with a major illness. “Five Wishes” was written with the help of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law & Aging and is used widely in all 50 states. Federal law requires medical care providers to honor patient wishes as expressed.

Remember, you will always make your own health care decisions if you are able to talk with your doctor and understand what is being said. This directive only takes effect when you are too ill to understand or communicate. If you are unable to make your own decisions or speak for yourself, an advance directive and the person you chose to be your healthcare agent, can help direct your care with your doctor.

See “The Cotton Club” Encore Edition!

I don’t know how I missed it, but this old movie from 1984 is fabulous, especially if you love 1930s music and watching Gregory Hines dance! Come to think of it, I didn’t even have a TV or go see films much in the 1980s. I was busy learning Chinese and getting degrees I would never use… But this film was so much fun for me yesterday!

For me, the most interesting aspect of this movie was the way it called attention to extreme early racism in Harlem and how those with power drew the line between black and white. Opened in 1923, the Cotton Club on 142nd St & Lenox Ave in the heart of Harlem, was operated by white gangster Owney Madden. Madden used the Cotton Club as an outlet to sell his “#1 Beer” to the prohibition crowd.

The Club was decorated with the idea of creating a “stylish plantation environment” for its entirely white clientele. As with many New York City clubs of the time period, that meant the upper class of the city. The Cotton Club at first excluded all but white patrons although the entertainers and most of staff were African American. Dancers at the Cotton Club were held to strict standards; they had to be at least 5’6” tall, light skinned with only a slight tan, and under twenty-one years of age.

The oppressive segregation of the Cotton Club was reinforced by its depiction of the African American employees as exotic savages or plantation residents and the music was often orchestrated to bring to mind a jungle atmosphere. By transforming the club into this plantation atmosphere and bringing in celebrities, Owney Madden created a demand for the Cotton Club while also helping to perpetuate widely held negative stereotypes about African Americans.

This film also got a lot of relatively new actors noticed like Bob Hoskins, Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Nicholas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, and Tom Waits(!) to name a few. I loved the music, the dancing, and the story, plus I learned quite a bit about how racism worked in Harlem in the 1930s!

A personal note: I have been noticing the age difference between the romantic lead actors in older movies lately. In this case the age difference between Richard Gere and Diane Lane is 16 years! Talk about robbing the cradle…

Do you ever write anything personal any more?

I was astounded by this statistic on CBS Sunday Morning today:

22% of Americans under age 45 have never written a personal letter

When I think back to the many personal, intimate exchanges I had with past friends and lovers, I simply cannot believe that we no longer communicate on that level and in that way. I still have and treasure letters from old boyfriends in my twenties and thirties. It makes me sad, but also amazes me that this no longer happens.

“In the future old ‘love letters’ may not be found in boxes in the attic but rather circulating through the Internet, if people care to look for them,” said Webster Newbold, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Consider this, we are experiencing a loss in what people in the future will know about us. The loss is incalculable. In earlier times the “art” of letter writing was formally taught, explained Newbold. In fact, in old China a person’s character was judged by the strength of their letter writing abilities.

“Letters were the prime medium of communication among individuals and even important in communities as letters were shared, read aloud and published,” he said. “Letters did the cultural work that academic journals, book reviews, magazines, legal documents, business memos, diplomatic cables, etc. do now. They were also obviously important in more intimate senses, among family, close friends, lovers, and suitors in initiating and preserving personal relationships and holding things together when distance was a real and unsurmountable obstacle.”

Aaron Sachs, a professor of American Studies and History at Cornell University, said, “One of the ironies for me is that everyone talks about electronic media bringing people closer together, and I think this is a way we wind up more separate. We don’t have the intimacy that we have when we go to the attic and read grandma’s letters.”

I have found through the years that writing helps me realize more clearly how I feel, and what I really need to say to those I love. The process allows me to crystallize my thoughts, and then tell the other my most intimate feelings. Is that practice also gone? Will there be no physical record of any of this in our future? This more than most changes to our culture makes me glad that my days on earth are minimal.

The sunrise west of Walsenburg CO this morning!

I could tell when I first looked east around 6AM this morning that it was going to be a good one! The clouds were lovely…

First I saw the very beginnings of the sunrise…

Then a bit more with sunrays just beginning to show…

Next the early sunrays began to light up the sky!

Spreading colorful light over the Spanish Peaks to the south…

and then BAM, the full light of the sun appeared over the horizon!

Now do you see why I love living here? Magical surprises almost every day!

Is our life better than previous generations?

I suppose the thought that stays with me after reading about my ancestors’ journey through life, is how difficult their lives were compared to ours, and yet so many of us struggle with our own challenges today. What has changed between previous generations and ourselves?

‘… and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Leviathan, i. xiii. 9) — Thomas Hobbes, 1651

I am certain that our lives today are so much easier in so many ways compared to my great grandmother and grandmother. In fact, let’s face it, most of us are living much better than most in human history.

I feel so lucky to be alive today! How do we appreciate these differences without undervaluing our own daily challenges?

Mom and I at my wedding in 2005

For example, I know there were members of my mother’s family who suffered from mental illness and dementia in their later years. So much was not known about these illnesses fifty or one hundred years ago, and with misunderstanding came criticism, stigma and heavy judgment. My Mom’s first cousin was sent to the Kansas Mental Hospital where he killed himself by consuming pesticide!

Dementia sent my Great Grandfather McGrew to the Kansas mental hospital at the end of his life…

Today there is counseling and many new drugs to ease our physical and mental pain. There are people like Stephen Levine to help us accept ourselves more fully instead of torturing ourselves with harsh self-judgment. I know I would not be half as healthy and happy as I am today, if I had not had some excellent counseling in my thirties. Since I suffer from a shortness of breath, I wonder what happened to others back then with lung disease. And what about head injuries?

Do you see how lucky we are to have a better education, better science education and many more options because we were born in this age? Have you seen that new TV commercial that says:

Do you know anyone with polio or smallpox? Vaccines work.

It is so hard to watch so many suffer because they refuse to believe that we HAVE MADE PROGRESS! Our lives can be better through education, science and yes, even chemistry. That some refuse to use these tools to better their lives is a travesty and a human tragedy of personal choice…

Can we let go of a lifetime of pain & suffering?

I’m now witnessing first hand a concept from psychology that I have always believed and yet still wondered about. I am observing in those near death what seems to be an endless outflowing of anger and bitterness at the end of life. Both of my parents were what I would call uptight people. My Dad was definitely an angry controlling person and both of my parents could be called obsessive about getting everything ‘right’ and keeping up appearances for others. Everything had to appear ‘proper.’

Instead I observed that my Mom took mountains of criticism from my Dad throughout their nearly 70 year marriage. She rarely got angry or even replied to this barrage of constant critique. She would drink quite a bit of wine, complain to us, and then simmer in bitterness and rage, while she continued to devote her entire life to helping him reach his goals. The tension in our home was palpable. As you might guess, his kids were collateral damage, each absorbing their share of criticism, anger and love that was always quite conditional.

“Letting go of our suffering is the hardest work we will ever do.” — Stephen Levine

Where does all of that bitterness and anger go in the long-term? Can we resolve these tension in some way before we die? I am wondering about this for my Mom, who is extremely depressed and confused at age 88, after the death of my father last year.

At this point I will yield the floor to Stephen Levine, an American poet, author and teacher, well-known for his work with the terminally ill and/or those deeply affected by loss. Stephen chose to work with this population because they were most ready and even sometimes eager to confront their own deepest misery and, by doing so, heal life-long burdens of self-disgust and punishment. Stephen found that by first acknowledging our deepest levels of pain and suffering and then confronting it with love and compassion for Self and others, most found a way to finally let it go. What a marvelous burden to release before death. In a few cases, Stephen found that this gigantic release of emotional pain was so healing that his patients found remission from their cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.

He felt that our minds fight with our hearts, fear versus love, but by accepting all our past pain and suffering, the sensation in our heart may be that it will burst.

To this Stephen responds: “Let your heart break. Let go of the suffering that keeps you back from life. Now your heart is so open and the pain right there. You are doing now just what you need to do, feel so much compassion for yourself and what you are going through…”

Stephen Levine died in 2016 just south of here. To learn much more about him and his work please consider reading his books. My favorite is “Healing Into Life and Death.” Here is a link to his webpage and his wife’s words at his death: https://levinetalks.com/

My experience has been that unless we commit to major emotional change in ourselves, all of the hostilities and suspicions we have held down within our psyche for our entire life, do come out in the end. Sometimes in some awful ways. For me, this type of emotional healing has taken some great re-parenting therapy through counseling and decades of learning and re-learning deeper levels of self-love and acceptance. This process continues as my parents leave behind their earthly presence.

Sometimes being with my Mom is too much for me, and I must respect my feelings about this. My Mom seems so lost in the contradictions of her life. Feelings of love, anger, pain and dementia confuse and overwhelm her such that she can see no way out. I just wish she could have come to some resolution and healing with Stephen by her side.