Monday - Thursday: 9am - 4pm Friday: 9am - 1pm Weekend: Refresh

A last brief thought before next weekend’s Hospice workshop

tenderness
Often hospice work has a different and highly personal meaning for each one of us. Yet in our culture whose deep and hidden wound is loneliness, the meaning of our work to those who die may be far less individual. One of my favorite poems is Last Fragment, written by Raymond Carver in the days before his premature death……

And did you get what wanted from this life even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved. To feel myself
beloved on the earth…….
Looking forward to seeing you next weekend. Bring your heart……….

Blessings

P.S. Are you considering attending the workshop? There are still a few spaces available.

To Register Click Here

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Even more thoughts on Hospice Work

conversation
Dear All,

This week I am sending out a letter for those of you who be attending the Hospice Resiliency workshop in Mill Valley,  California on October 21- 23, asking you to bring with you a small object that represents for you the meaning of death.  This reminded me about one of the most beautiful poems I know about the mystery of death which was written by Vivekan Don Flint, the former Coordinator of The Institute of Health and Illness, who died far far too young. We miss you still, Vivekan. Here is your gift for us all……

METEOR
( A poem about incarnation)

-Vivekan Flint

Is it
a simple rock
tumbling down the
slopes of gravity?

A fireball
vaulting through
the midnight sky?

A shiny needle
drawn through
black velvet?

Or none of these
but only a perceptual trick

in which the solution to
a simple math problem –
given velocity, mass
and direction –

is displayed in the sky
in such a way
that even smart people
wonder what it could
possibly mean?

All I know for sure
Is the belief
I hold about it in secret.

That, and the fact
the very last thing
it did in this world
was to turn into light.

Blessings,

Dr. Rachel Remen

P.S. There are still a few spaces available. Is one of them for you?

To Register Click Here

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Even more thoughts on Hospice Work

conversation
Entrances to Mystery are everywhere.
The possibility is all the time.
Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.
Nothing is beneath the dignity of becoming an entrance.

AND MOSES LOOKED AND BEHOLD THE BUSH WAS ON FIRE BUT THE BUSH WAS NOT CONSUMED
Exodus 3:2

How long must someone look at a burning bush to know whether or not it is being consumed? Longer than most people look at anything. More than just to see it. Or to use it. Long enough to know if it will be for them an entrance. Such a man was Moses. And likewise anyone who is able to gaze on a place long enough without being distracted.

You do not need to go anywhere to witness Mystery. You do not have to become anyone other than yourself to find entrances. You are already there. You are already everything that you need to be. Entrances are everywhere and all the time.

Adapted from HONEY FROM THE ROCK, Rabbi L. Kushner
Jewish Lights Pub.1990

We have all encountered far more Mystery than we have noticed, more Mystery than we have allowed to nurture us, inspire us and transform us…. More Mystery than we have allowed to strengthen us. In the familiar setting of scientific expertise and cognitive explanation it is easy to trade mystery for mastery and allow “I don’t know” to become a statement of inadequacy and even shame. In such settings Mystery may even be considered unreal.

As a professional I was trained to view the unknown as a sort of emergency, like a hemorrhage and to respond with immediate action. But Mystery does not require action, Mystery requires our attention. It requires us to listen, to talk with one another, to wonder.

I first came to Hospice in 1981. At that time it was common for Hospice teams to set aside time each week for telling our stories, for wondering together about the things we could not explain and sharing a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to witness them. But that was 35 years ago. Over time the commitment to wonder together about the deep meaning of our work has gradually been replaced by more mundane concerns. We still meet weekly but now we discuss cost containment and compliance with Medicare regulations.

But what if sharing experiences of the Mystery in our work is a source of personal strength and a protection against compassion fatigue?
What if people who wonder together do not burn out?
What if the pursuit of knowledge and competence that dominates our culture has impoverished our lives?

In the presence of Mystery we grow not only in knowledge but also in wisdom. In my experience the questions I have found along the way and carry with me have enriched my life far more than any answers. Even the most profound answers have often turned out to be provisional, a temporary stopping place in an ongoing and infinitely mysterious journey

Stories are the ancient container for meaning. Recently educators have become aware that storytelling allows the deepening of personal meaning, calling and professional satisfaction and is a potent antidote to spiritual and emotional exhaustion. This upcoming workshop will be an opportunity to share our stories again, to wonder together at the things that are beyond explanation, to draw inspiration from them and from each other and to remember that witnessing and experiencing things that cannot be measured may be a doorway into what is most real and most enduring.

Looking forward to seeing you at the workshop. Still some places left!

Blessings,

RACHEL NAOMI REMEN MD

More info and register here.

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More thoughts on Hospice Work

Dear Ones,

As a western trained physician, I was taught that the most important if not the only thing I had to offer to people was my expertise and my bag of techniques. I believed that I could easily be replaced in all of my patient relationships by any other physician well trained in my specialty and that my absence would have the same effect as drawing my finger from a bucket of water. For many years I believed that this was true.

But, what is real is often seen most clearly on the edges of things, in the places where our tools are no longer relevant and our book learning no longer matters. In the places beyond cure. In 1981 when I first began hospice work it was like stepping from an operating room into a church. The deep relational values and art of the healer, long buried by years of technical training slowly revealed themselves in all of their power and mystery until at last I recognized that medicine itself was not a work of science but a work of love.

To work in Hospice is to know yourself to be one of a kind, discover that your presence is the greatest gift you offer and that you can heal by touch and witness far more powerfully than by intellect alone.

The power to heal is a human birthright. This beautiful poem captures the coming home to ourselves and our birthright of healing that many of us have experienced in hospice work:

What I Learned From My Mother
-Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the seeds with a knife point.
I learned how to attend viewings even when I didn’t know
the deceased, to press moist hands
and offer sympathy, as though I understood loss, even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned I had the power
to ease pain, like an angel.
I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness,
and once you know how to do this,
to every house you enter, you offer healing:
a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your touch.

Copyright 1992 by Julia Kasdorf

Hope to see you at the workshop…..
Blessings,
RACHEL

More info and register here.

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Death Blog 1- My Grandfather

Dear Ones,

On October 21 to October 23, I am planning offer a workshop here in California for people who work with the dying and their families, called FINDING YOUR RESILIENCE: RECLAIMING MYSTERY AND MEANING IN HOSPICE WORK . Together we will explore the opportunity for greater resilience and renewal that emerges from openness to the mystery and deep meaning which is present daily in hospice work. In preparing for this exploration and sharing of thoughts and experience, I want to offer a series of poems and thoughts about death before this workshop.

I was almost seven when my beloved grandfather died. Shortly before he died my Grandpa told me that he would soon be going to be with God, that he would be close to me and hear me and I could talk to him in my heart as we had often talked to God together but that I could not come and visit him. Soon afterward my Grandfather died. I was not allowed to attend the funeral.

As he grew sicker my mother, concerned that I would be deeply affected by his death, began reading books about helping young children meet with death. All the books she read said it was important to wait until a child brought up the subject or shared their questions before talking to them about death. As days and weeks went by and I did not even mention my grandfather’s name she became more and more concerned. When she finally asked how it was for me now that grandpa had died, I had simply said “different”. When she asked me what had changed, I told her that now I could take him to school with me. I have no recollection of this conversation but I do remember talking to my grandpa for many years after he died and drawing much strength and courage from a deep sense of his closeness and presence. Years later, in a discussion of childhood phobias, my mother told me that after Grandpa died I was no longer afraid to sleep in the dark.

Here is the beautiful poem I came across as I began preparing for this new workshop, which reminded me of all of this.

Cataloging Mistakes
—Erik K. Mortenson

And then there was the time her father died and she asked me where I thought souls go afterwards and I said why do they have to go anywhere maybe they die too and are finally at peace and what makes you think we have a soul anyway maybe when we die we die and that’s it and that’s all and sometimes dead is better and wasn’t that true for him and then she just cried harder than before but quieter and I knew she would the whole time I was saying this but I couldn’t stop myself I don’t know what made me think that would be helpful that it would actually be a comfort to her I just couldn’t say what she wanted like that souls go to heaven and watch over us but even worse was what I never thought to say at all which was that his soul was in the way she held her chin just there and in the curls of her
hair and the gold flecks in the blue of her eyes and in her mouth when she peeled and cut and ate a pear with a slim knife and in her thumb and that his soul was in her heart when she asked me the question in the first place.

Hope to see you at the workshop…..
Blessings,
RACHEL

More info and register here.

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Walking the Path

WHAT IS YOUR GIVEAWAY?

Belief in the Giveaway can be traced back to the North American Indian nations of the high plains. Our personal, sacred Giveaway is what we alone have come to contribute to life, our reason for being. Knowing and honoring your Giveaway imbues life with a sense of meaning and belonging, a sense of direction.

Everything is born knowing its Giveaway: trees and birds, stars and flowers know their Giveaway. Nothing is here at random. Everything belongs. Only humans are born not knowing their Giveaway, not remembering why they are here and how they belong.

From earliest infancy the Giveaway of each child can be seen and discerned by others. Helping every child recognize its unique Giveaway, its unique place of belonging is one of the most important functions of The Elders and the tribe. They observe the baby with stillness and patience. They look for signs with caring and watchful eyes. What is the baby drawn to? What draws its interest, what calms it? What makes it laugh with joy and what causes it sorrow or pain? What gifts come easily to it, what qualities are natural to it? They dream dreams for the baby that offer insight about the baby’s nature and its Giveaway. There is much help to come home to yourself.

No one says “good job” to such a child, no one influences the recognition that can only come from within by their approval and praise or their disapproval and criticism. Everyone helps the child to listen. The Giveaway of each child is a shared discovery, different for every child, every man and every woman. All Giveaways matter.

Our western experience is, of course, quite different. I recently went to visit a young friend and meet her 3-month-old son. When I arrived I found the baby sitting in a cloth jumper seat on the kitchen table watching “BABY EINSTEIN” on a laptop. Around him on the table were many brightly colored and noisy toys. As we talked and had a cup of tea together the young mother presented her son with toy after toy, taking one away and offering him another every few minutes. At my questioning look she laughed “Its the newest theory.” she told me, “The forming brain is highly plastic and needs constant stimulation.” By the time our tea was over I had learned that the baby was already registered for a prestigious private high school, Class of 2029, and letters had been written in his behalf to Princeton by his grandfathers both alumni of that institution. Other august Princeton graduates had been asked to write letters as well, the young mother told me. Chances looked good. I looked at this little boy wondering why he had come. Hoping he might someday be able to discover his Giveaway despite the powerful messages he would be given about who he was and how he was to be from the very beginning.

The closer we are able to live to our own unique Giveaway the stronger and more resilient we are despite external pressures, the more passionately and joyfully we can live, the deeper the satisfaction we feel in our daily lives and the greater the difference we can make in the world.

These ideas hold a certain magnetism for me now. What if you could find and follow your Giveaway at any age? And what if you could find your tribe, the people who watch and listen and help you to give birth to yourself? What if you already knew many such people but had not recognized why you were drawn to them? What if you could help others in this way as well? What if you did not need some catastrophic event like an illness or the loss of a loved one to finally remember who you are and why you are here?

At 77 I have decided to do only what I am drawn to do. To discover what is my authentic path. I have learned something about it from these long years of living but I have never given myself permission to follow it with all of my heart. I had thought that my profession was my Giveaway but a profession is only one way to offer a Giveaway and often it is not the best way. There are many ways to offer your Giveaway.

The best way I know to learn something is to invite others to join into a search for the thing I am searching for. So I will be offering a new workshop this Fall, and I have asked one of the wisest people I know, my cousin Mark, a founding member of my Giveaway tribe to join me in teaching this workshop.

Walking the Path with Heart is simply an exploration of the nature of your Giveaway… a look at familiar events and choices with new eyes… a recognition of previously unseen threads which are not random or peripheral but are the path itself. A remembering.

I invite you to join Mark and I in this exploration of that which is your beginning.
October 1st -3rd, 2015
The Acqua Hotel
Mill Valley, California

More info and register here.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.
T.S. Eliot FOUR QUARTETS

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GRADDYTOOD

It is now almost Thanksgiving. This has been a big ten days in my cat Maxx’s life.   He is 11 months old now and ten days ago his momcat (furmom) had another litter. One of the 5 kittens was born much smaller than the others and weighed only 2.6 ounces. Tiny baby kitty

Soon after he was born my friend Holly, whose cattery Maxx was born into, began to feed this tiny kitten milk from a bottle. She has set an alarm and fed him every hour round the clock for the past 10 days. He now weighs 4.2 ounces.

Maxx writes to Holly who he calls “furstmom” frequently telling her about his life and his thoughts. I am sending some of the emails he has sent to her and her mother (furstmommom) and his tiny brothers and sisters (tinywuns) over the past 10 days:

 

dere tinywuns,

u dere! i is so glad u dere! en all de moms is dere too… furstmom en furstmommom en furmom… dats a lot uv moms!  de moms is all dere to hep u gro… not to wurry… u is bigger den yesterday awreddy… tomorrow u be bigger agen. u can do dis! u drink u milk en have u dreams bout de wurl… de mousies en de moffs dat fly in de winder and all de peeple dat luv us… we so lucky we is cats… evvywun luv us!

yur bruvver,
MAXX

dere furstmom,
mom say dere is a ittybittytinywun … I not kno dis… she say dat u wake up evvy hour to hep de ittybittytinywun…..how u do dis?

yur fren,
MAXX

PS we luv de picshurs

dere ittybittytinywun,
‘nite… i go sleep now but i dere wid you…we is bruvvers… u can do dis!… i kno it! just wun drop of de milk en den anudder wun drop of de milk… dats all… u can do dis!

yur bro,
MAXX

dere furstmom,
mom sez dat today de ittybittytinywun is more ittybitty en dat maybe he not gro up and be all gud… I say dere is hope! u en me we has hope!! we right dere wid de hope! i talk to de ittybittytinywun in my hart en tell him dat we dere wid him so he not be fraid… dat he jus need to drink de milk wun drop at a time en not wurry… dat we keep him warm en hold on to him… dat we not let go

yur fren
MAXX

dere furstmom,
mom say she kno de ittybittytinywun…. mom she be 2.3 pounds wen she was an ittybittytinywun…de ittybittiestwun ever in 1938 … dey say she a me-racul…. wuz in all de papers. she liddle but she tuff… she still tuff… mom say de ittybittytinywun… he tuff too

yur fren,
MAXX

dere furstmom en furstmommom,

when we kno dat de ittybittytinywun is all gud?… dat he gro up and be all gud? ….

Yur fren,
MAXX

dere furstmom,

is u very very tired?

Mom sez she saw on de faces buk dat de ittybittytinywun gots 4.2 ounces now……  dis is gudgudgud!….. en he too liddle to say fer himself but i jus want to say fer him dat he so dankful fer u….. en we all dankful fer u….. dat u luvs us en hep us to live …. en we all kno u do dis for eny of us iffy we needed it…en we are very danksgiving to u …..fer us u de most danksgiving purrson dere is.

wid graddytood  (how u spell dis?)
yur fren
MAXX

Over the course of anyone’s lifetime, there are many people who hold us here, people to whom our life matters. Some hold us for a brief time, others for our whole lives. Some are nurses and doctors and teachers and pastors, others share our family name, and still others are people whose names we no longer remember or never knew. It takes a village to help any one of us to live and to grow. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. May all those who have held you here be blessed. May gratitude to them for your life touch you and fill you and make you glad.

With Love,
RACHEL

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The Last Cat

It is almost winter again. My beloved cat Cashmere died about this time last year. I have lived with a cat for more than 50 years. A few months ago, I started to look for another cat. I went to the places I usually go to find a cat that needs a home. At one of these Rescue Shelters a woman about my own age interviewed me. She began by asking me about the sort of cat companion I was looking for. “Just an ordinary cat,” I said. She smiled. “There are no ordinary cats,” she told me. She began to ask about my former cats, which led to a lot of stories. Finally she smiled at me. “This is probably your last cat,” she told me, “so you might not want to be too hasty.”

I was shaken by the thought but after a moment I saw the truth in it. And then she asked me a wonderful question: Is there a special cat that you have seen or met somewhere, some time that you still remember?

And in my secret heart there was a cat that I remembered. When I was young, a friend took me to a big National Cat Show in San Francisco. It was the first and only time I have gone to a cat show. We had gotten there towards the end, just in time to see the final event, a competition for BEST IN SHOW. Over a thousand people, cat lovers all, were in the audience watching cats being presented to the Chief Judge one at a time. They were all so beautiful that I could not imagine how he would be able to choose among them. But that was before we saw the last cat.

The judge had his back turned towards the audience and appeared to be having some difficulty getting the last cat out of his holding cage. Then he turned towards us. In his arms was the largest and most astonishingly beautiful cat I had ever seen. We all fell silent in awe. The last cat must have weighed close to 30 pounds. He had stripes, thin light grey and pure white stripes and huge paws and elegant ears and a face like a lion. He looked at us with great dignity and calm and gentleness. His eyes were golden and slanted slightly upward. The contest was over. No one had ever seen anything like him.

After the judge awarded the last cat the BEST IN SHOW ribbon, a man in the audience rose and went forward to gather him up. When the last cat saw him coming he made a sound I had never before heard a cat make. With a trill of pure joy he leaped from the judging table into the man’s arms, wrapped his huge soft paws around his neck and rubbed his face against his cheek. “My god, what kind of a cat is that,” I had asked my friend, a great connoisseur of cats. “That’s a Maine Coon cat,” he told me. ”They call them the Gentle Giants of Catdom.”

That was 25 years ago and I have never forgotten it. So I googled the Maine Coon cat breeders in my area and called them on the phone. Most of them began the conversation by quoting their prices for a kitten. These conversations did not last long. I had saved the Bounding Maines Cattery for last, possibly because the ocean has been a place of deep peace and mystery for me ever since I was small. And this phone call was different. Holly, the breeder, did not talk to me about money. She asked me about myself and my home, and about my first cat and my favorite cat. She asked about my hopes for a relationship with a new cat. She told me that all her male kittens were bespoke but she had a female kitten available. All of my cats have been tomcats and I had not wanted a female cat so she invited me to come and meet her and her cats and talk about her next litter.

But when I arrived, there were two kittens running free in her living room. Someone who had reserved a 5 month old male kitten had called the day before to say that she would not be able take him. He was smaller than his sister, a mottled grey color with muddy yellow eyes and, well, he was just homely. He paid no attention to me at all. I took him home with me.

My last cat’s name is MAXX. Maxximus le Prince Argent, which I suppose makes me Maxxiemom. At 10 months he weighs 21 pounds. Someday he will be as large if not even larger than the cat I saw years ago. MAXX has become a most beautiful cat with a coat like a timber wolf and the longest most elegant tail imaginable. He has the face of a lion and his eyes have turned coppery gold. And Holly and her 80-year-old mother, Glenna, have become a dear part of my extended family. I am including a picture and a brief note of introduction from Maxx himself………

dere wuns,
dis is me!…MAXX!….. mom rite to u en luvs u en is glad dat u is dere. i glad dat u is dere too……. maybe i cud rite to u sumtimes…. do u hav eny cats?…i cud rite to dem too…….

i liddle when i cum here but I not liddle now….i BIG now…..BIGBIGBIG …I grow en grow en grow….. i a GUD grower! ….en I not homely now…dis because of de Mom kisses…..all de udder peeple dat cum here dey dere fer de playing en fer de tickles but de Mom is dere fer de kisses…..en de Mom kisses dey stick to me…i cud still feel dem when dere is nowun here wid me….how she do dat?…i cuvvered wid Mom kisses alla time…dat whut make me gro so BIG en so handsum. Mom even put two kisses in my name…maXX… i hope u got cats….den i cud rite to dem too.
yur fren
MAXX

In the past 50 years each of my cats have taught me much about the power of love. From Cashmere I’ve learned that even love cannot protect us from old age and death. From Maxx I have learned that love enables us to grow to our true size and realize our deepest beauty.

Maxx the cat sitting on the office desk Maxx at a cat show

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Never Say Die

Daisies growing in a field

Daisy Image by Rachel Kramer

Last Thursday I did another free STORY TIME FOR GROWN UPS teleconference, this time in celebration of The Day of the Dead, a holiday in many other countries when people invite their dead ancestors and family members and other beloved dead to join them in feasting and celebration. A time when the veil between the living and the dead grows thinner and people recognize that the dead are not gone; their fingerprints are on our hearts and in the palms of our hands. As I was preparing for this teleconference, looking through my books for stories about death that I had written down and remembering stories about death I have not yet written down, I came across a quote from Woody Allen: “In America, death is seen as optional.” Really funny but perhaps also really true.

Death is just not part of the American Way of Life. In our culture that so values youth and mastery and control, death is kept out of sight and under the table. I once asked a patient how she felt about dying and she responded “Embarrassed.” Over the years other patients have told me that they were worried that they would not be able to die “right” or die “well” with the same anxiety one might worry about a social event like a dinner party going astray. Yet every death has its own deep integrity and meaning. In the past few weeks I have become acutely aware of how rarely we even hear the word “dead” as in THE DAY OF THE DEAD and how many other ways we have found or created so as not to have to say this word out loud. So here is a list of the many ways we in America might avoid saying THE DAY OF The DEAD.

THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE bought the farm.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE cashed in their chips.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE expired.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE entered eternal rest.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE given up the ghost.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone to a better place.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE kicked the bucket.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE left the building.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE met their maker.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE passed.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE passed on.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE passed away.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE perished.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE croaked.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone toes up.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE been snuffed out.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE bought it.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE checked out.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone belly up.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone south.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone to their reward.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE shuffled off the mortal coil.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE been wasted.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone to a better place.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE left us.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE gone off line.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE been offed.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE checked out.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE been cancelled.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE done for.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE no longer with us.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE no more.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE sleeping the Big Sleep.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE deceased.
THE DAY OF THOSE WHO ARE pushing up the daisies.

Don’t these all seem too small and too trivial, even disrespectful? If we really need to use a euphemism, how about THE DAY OF THOSE WHO HAVE become part of the Mystery at the Heart of Life.

The line between the living and the dead may be thinner than we think. In putting death behind us as rapidly as possible, separating ourselves from it with our words and in many other ways, we may make life not only smaller but colder. My beloved grandfather died when I was about seven and my parents were anxious to help me get over the blow of this great loss. Following the advice of a child psychiatrist they had waited for me to speak of it but when I did not my mother began to worry. Eventually she just asked me what it was like for me now that Grandpa was gone. I do not remember saying this but apparently I had told her that things were different now. Now I could take him to school with me. I do remember having a sense of his closeness that faded only after many years. Certainly I talked with him for a long time in much the way we had both talked to God together. As Mitch Albom wrote in his exquisite book Tuesdays with Morrie: “Death is the end of a lifetime, not the end of a relationship.”

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Not Alone In The House

How To Pray: Michelangelo, Adam touching GodLife can be very hard. In the past few weeks, two people have written to me to tell me of a great loss in their lives. One was a man who lost his wife to cancer, the other a mother who lost her son in Afghanistan. Both told heart-breaking stories and both stories ended in the same way; they had prayed for their beloveds and had lost them anyway. Both the mother and the husband had come to the same conclusion. There is no one listening.

But perhaps prayer is not a way to get what we want to happen. I think prayer may be less about asking for the things we are attached to than it is about letting go of our attachments in some way. Prayer can take us beyond fear, which is an attachment, and beyond hope, which is another form of attachment. It can help us remember the nature of the world and the nature of life, not on an intellectual level, but in a deep and experiential way. When we pray we don’t change the world, we change ourselves. We change our consciousness. We move from an individual, isolated, making-things-happen kind of consciousness to an intimate connection with the Mystery at the heart of the world. This profound shift can be very simple.

Many years ago just before I was put to sleep for a long and dangerous surgery, my surgeon took my hand and asked if he might say a prayer. When I nodded, he leaned over the operating table and whispered in my ear. “Dear God,” he said softly, ”Help us to do here whatever is most right.”

With these few words he reminded us both of ultimate causality and transformed an operating room equipped with the latest technology into a holy place. The comfort he had offered was very genuine. I felt the almost paralyzing fear that had been my daily companion, release me, and holding his words close I went under anesthesia with the deepest sense of peace. Like all genuine prayers, this traditional American Indian prayer is a powerful way of embracing life, of finding a home in any outcome and remembering that there may be reasons beyond reason. Prayer offers us the kind of radical openness that allows us to trust life. It reminds us of the possibility of unknowable purpose and unknowable meaning. Unknowable purpose and unknowable meaning are a source of great strength and comfort for me and have allowed me to work in places of suffering, loss and death for more than 50 years with an open heart.

As I have become old I find that I have grown into a way of prayer my grandfather showed me long ago. I wrote a story about this in one of my books. I would like to retell it to you now. Grandpa was an orthodox rabbi and a mystic, a life-long student of Kabbalah. As a small child I believed that he knew God as personally as my father knew the friends he played cards with in the kitchen every Wednesday. We talked to God together.

In the Fall of 1943 when I was five and started kindergarten, I had a sort of religious crisis. It was a time when religion was not only taught in the schools but practiced in the schools as well. On my first day of school the Principal called a general assembly to welcome us to PS 173. She opened this meeting of all the children in the school by reading from her Bible and told us that we needed to get on our knees and pray every day to get God to look at us, to remind God that we were there. If God forgot us and turned His face from us, she told us, we would wither up and die like an autumn leaf. I do not remember her exact words but I do remember that she had held up a large withered dead leaf. I was stunned.

Even at five I knew that God had a lot else besides me on His mind. My grandfather had told me that He watched over every flower, every tree and every one of us. What if God blinked? Would I dry up and die like that leaf? God could blink at any time, couldn’t He? In the days that followed I became so terrified that I was unable to sleep. I could not discuss such matters with my parents who were young socialists. My grandfather was the only one I could talk to about what the Principal had told us. It was a whole week until he came to visit and as soon as I got him alone I told him what the Principal had said. Filled with fear I asked him “Grandpa, WHAT IF GOD BLINKS?” And then my fear overwhelmed me and I began to sob.

My grandfather gathered me into his arms, gave me his clean white handkerchief and waited until I could stop crying. Calling me by his special name for me, “Nashumelah”, which means “little beloved soul,” he asked me some questions of his own. “If you woke up in the dark in your room would you know if your mother and father had gone out of the house and left you alone? “Of course I would” I told him. “How would you know this, Nashumelah…would you see them?” “No” I said, “Would you hear them?” “No” I said again. “Then how would you know you were not alone in the house?” I looked at him with some irritation. “I would just KNOW Grandpa” I told him. “Yes, of course you would.” he told me. “And that’s how God knows you are there too. He does not need to look at you to know you are there. He knows you are there in the same way you know He is there and you are not alone in the house.”

Many years later I came across the Christian concept of “Pray Without Ceasing” and recognized the long tradition behind the words of comfort my grandfather offered a frightened little girl. Perhaps God’s presence in our lives is like gravity, an intimate relationship that affects our every movement and often goes unnoticed. Yet if gravity suddenly stopped, we would all know it immediately.  The earth holds us to itself without ceasing. So does God. Perhaps the experience of this is the ultimate kind of prayer. It reminds us that there is no place to go to be lost and we are not alone in the house, in the dark.

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