The Swirl of It All

You might have noticed that there are some words I often come back to for descriptive purposes.  For example, I talk about fatigue instead of tiredness and meltdown over the adult version of temper tantrum. I try to avoid being overly political or cynical, not controversial but challenging; usually commenting on things that through the eyes of dis ease, seem very different from the temporarily able bodied perceptions I used to hold as if they were permanent.  This is deliberate as old familiar feelings, thoughts, intuitions, perceptions passed through always present ALS, take on the quality of almost-epiphanies, significant realizations calling for extra attention.  When I need to work something out, when no moniker of enlightenment magically appears, I know that there is nothing to be done except write, examine the inadequacy of written words and rework the writing over and over until it yields meaning.  I often describe this state as being in a “swirl.”  Usually associated with the layered blending of frozen yoghurt, I find the word highly useful in describing thoughts that have no peace.  Swirl is its own dis ease—as if you are carrying something quite significant, but the only way you can find to describe it is mired in something trivial, incendiary, naïve, incoherent, inadequate, mute when words are needed, and over-spoken when a quiet center would be more useful.

For me, swirl often happens at the confluence of several significant events.  This past week, the combination of a visit of friends from Norway that made me much more conscious of the trial of a mass murderer, Supreme Court decisions on healthcare and immigration, and ramped up coverage of Minnesota’s so-called marriage amendment created such a confluence.  Each of these public events inspired its own swirl, with the majority of the discussion reflecting a less than thoughtful, easily predictable direction.  In fact, the way that these issues were presented was designed to appeal to specific frames of reference—that combination of culture and experience that creates scaffolds of knowledge from which we judge all experiences, all situations, all others.  While it may be impossible to experience anything other than the coverage we experienced last week, I feel something else is really going on.  It could be argued that these three highly charged issues are being used to sort us into uneasy conscious columns of culture, although I cannot help but feel that the manner of presentation is much more about a broader spectacle of dis ease. 

The trial of a man that killed 77 humans has raised a number of public, fundamental questions about justice and just proceedings, the role of the press, whether a civilized society should have the death penalty or life sentence, and especially about the responsibility of all these institutions to the families and friends and memories of the victims.  And of course, the so called debate on universal health care was not definitively answered by John Roberts and the Supreme Court.  That decision has inspired Shakespearean heights of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  I have Facebook open right now, noting the “political” postings of my “friends” and I can only observe the lack of critique for anything that vibrates in harmony with personal beliefs, and the over the top diminution and outright vitriol that is reserved for those who differ.  Add in the advertisements that have started appearing in the State of Minnesota both supporting and decrying the “No Gay Marriage” Amendment that has made its way onto our November ballot, and it will be hard to get a word in edgewise. 

Talk about the dis ease we carry.

I am not going to discuss the rightness or wrongness of people’s positions vis-a-vis these issues; that is not the point here.  Rather, these examples illustrate a swirling of the human collective, and it is troubling.  I have come to realize that as my own physical abilities to connect with other humans are waning daily, the ability to recognize another person’s humanity, to connect in some way that is meaningful, to engage in that which fosters growth rather than diminishment, has become more and more important to me.  How, if our humanity is the connective tissue that binds us, can we be so divided by the events that shape us? 

This is not just a philosophical question; my life quality is specifically influenced by the value of the human engagement that I am granted.

The issue is not one of recognition.  We homo sapiens don’t seem to have any trouble recognizing other humans.  But our immediate recognition is so overladen with other stuff, that human appreciation flies out the window. To paraphrase Shakespeare again, “methinks we do protest too much.”  I am overwhelmed by the dis ease of our collective humanity in these exchanges, even as I also feel my own urge to participate in the same, as if it would ease the ache I carry in my heart, or the anger in my gut.  And to what end would such participation lead me?  Do my brothers and sisters find solace, release, joy, peace in their own participation?  When I project myself into such doings, I perceive nothing but emptiness, vacuous self-congratulations with no substance, hurt and fear and manipulation and the wholesale destruction of others.  Whole industries are predicated on as much.  Whole cultures echo this noise.

What’s the alternative?

Today, I attended a funeral.  Since it was in another state, it was streamed on the internet.  Oh how I longed to physically reach out to this lovely collective rallying for the family of a beautiful young mother and pastor to their community, even as they grieved her loss.  Her life flamed like a solar flare, only visible to a certain, dis eased hemisphere.  Somehow, I came into the sphere of her influence, and today I ached with electronically mediated fingers to grasp the beauty of living where she inspired human truths of love and living and dying and laughter and grief.  But in this swirl of sorrow, came an epiphany.  This whirlwind of death and grief, lit by this beautiful soul alive to the ages to come, only dead in physical body, pointed to another way.  In a small voice that pierced my own dis ease, here came the revelation.

Humans are capable of fearless love for each other.  The funeral of a person whose Caring Bridge site was called “My Cup Runneth Over” in spite of the fact that it was possible to see her cup poured out on the ground by the ravages of cancer, pointed to the incredible human capacity we have for connections that build each other, that face the fear of living with dignity and encourage a centeredness where dis ease is only a consideration, not a rule.  It was an acknowledgement of the value of a life lived fully, conjoined with the grief of a life lived way too short.  But the capacity of the human soul is such that we can honor and live with such contradiction, if we dare.

I realize now that my swirl this week was not so much the noise of murderers and fear mongers.  It was the contrast of living until you die, with dying as you live.  And living until you die is only possible if fear and emptiness are replaced with growth and love and fostering a center where spirit shines past death and into lives and lives and lives.

I’ll take that with nuts on top.  

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The Hero

Senator Gary Kubly died Friday. A Lutheran pastor who served in the Minnesota State Senate, he offered to step down after his diagnosis of ALS. But his senate colleagues urged him to stay on, saying that though his voice was softer from his dis ease, he still offered that rarity in politics—one that sought to reach across difference and find paths that bring lawmakers together. His work and interest in environmental issues is more than ironic given the current thinking about the environment and ALS, and he agreed to continue on, in spite of how hard it was to function day to day. Senator Kubly was one of my secret heroes.

Dis ease has introduced me to so many people like Gary Kubly—people that I have never met, yet have inspired me through my own dis ease journey. Some of these remarkable souls have made it to television as heroic figures in their own right—Steve Gleason of New Orleans, diagnosed with ALS just a year ago after a decent career in the NFL; Steve Smith, former Penn State and Oakland Raiders running back, now completely paralyzed by his ALS, yet still seeking to educate and advocate about the significant correlation between violent sports and ALS when compared to the general population, seeking to force the boys who run the NFL to acknowledge the neuro-degenerative hazard. There are others—My Cup Overflows, a Mennonite pastor “flowing through” her recurrent melanoma; the blogger Pink Underbelly–introduced to me by one of my former students and recovering from breast cancer with an attitude that shakes a finger in the face of dis ease. Jason Becker was diagnosed at the age of 20. A musician who continues to compose using a system of communication devised by his father, he is now 42 years old and the subject of an upcoming documentary. And I have mentioned Kathy Hult in this blog—she has raised millions for ALS research. I cannot say enough about Persevering, an engineer diagnosed with ALS, who has turned his prodigious talents toward the reanalysis of our assumptions concerning the dis ease. I have watched the ALS Research Glitterati hesitate and acknowledge that the numbers don’t actually add up, because of his work. These remarkably ordinary humans are extraordinarily accomplished, in spite of how their dis ease lines their lives up like dominoes ready to fall in a despairingly ordinary pattern. To rise to amazing accomplishment, when all around you encourages sub par performance, is heroic.

Many of you have told me that you look forward to these weekly forays of my soul, because they offer you a perspective on your own dis ease moments. I am glad. If there is something that gives friends strength as I weaken with the ongoing “progress” of ALS, well that only seems rightly symmetrical to me. And I have to admit, that my symbolic step gains an equally symbolic small spring to it when someone contacts me because I was able to turn a phrase in a way that energized their understanding of their own journey. But when it really comes down to it, a primary source of my own strength to cope is the unsung heroes of extraordinary accomplishment I have named above. Each one of them gets the horror of this whole thing. They get that negotiating dis ease is almost totally an attitude thing. They understand that each day is not a given, but something that has to be carefully planned in order to not tip too far along the way of despair, frustration, fatigue. They get angry, and they cry, and they laugh at how ridiculous some of this seems, and most of all, I don’t have to explain one damn thing to them.

They just get it.

When I look at these incredible souls, they all have something in common. Underlying their right attitudes are friends, parents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, people that really care about them, and that they can care about right back. And these friends, parents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, people that really care keep my heroes grounded in this world. How does this work? I can give you three examples.

About once a month, a posse of my former choir members comes to downtown Minneapolis and takes over my conference room to break bread, laugh, catch up, hug, and just to feel the love. We started out in a restaurant, but decided it was too expensive, and this space is quieter, more easily attended, more easily shared. I love the choir posse. Without an overt prayer, they bring psalms of joy whenever we get together. Then there are my kids and their incredible partners. On Friday, we took the leap out into the great, grubby masses at the Varsity Theater to hear the Punch Brothers in concert. It was extraordinary! Even more extraordinary was the way that Ev and Kirsten and Athena and Dave and Jon flanked my wheelchair, clearing drunken concertgoers out of the way and reassuring me that this sea of unwashed humanity would be parted, and they would get me through. I anticipate anxiety in the crowd experience, but they might as well have just linked arms over and under and marched phalanx-like, clearing a path like a Minnesota snow thrower. Kirsten even got in the face of a guy who just couldn’t seem to figure out that every time he spilled his beer it was on my shoe. God, they fill my soul. And then there is my best friend, lover, now caretaker, incredible partner Ev. She just won’t let me be less than I am. She encourages, supports, cries, holds, sees the humor, perceives the pain, and keeps us on the right path. And somehow she accomplishes all of this with graceful beauty and wisdom, and gratefulness that we have awakened to another day to explore the next big adventure.

See the theme here?

A minister friend of mine, lost to me from long ago, but still very much present in my psyche, got in touch with me out of the blue this week to wish me happy birthday. One of his observations really resonated with me. He said, “I don’t know, I’m 70, but when I think about it, I’m still pretty pissed at God for the way this world works.” Me too, but then I think about my heroes who, in spite of the next big thing to go wrong, continue to find their way down their uniquely human dis ease paths. And I’ve really come to the conclusion that part of it is pain control, and all of it is realizing that we humans need to stay in the presence of people, and actually, that is how God made the world to work—if you believe that way. What I really mean is that there are social consequences of dis ease. When we feel that we are truly alone, walking the path without anyone beside us, when we feel that raw sense of solitary isolation, cut off from the world and worse, cut off from the humanity that could humanize this whole experience, it is impossible not to despair. My heroes all have posses, friends, parents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, people that show them the love. And yes, they love right back.

Gary Kubly loved enough to stay in service until the day he died. Steve Gleason says it is all about staying connected. My Cup Overflows states that it is about letting go of the anger, and just letting the treatment do its job. And I read them, and I cry, and I laugh, and I remain thankful that so many have chosen to stay the course with me thus far.

You are all my heroes.