5 Important Things: November 2018
A thing I read: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
This might be the most important book I’ve read all year. Gawande first caught my attention when I read his superb commencement speech at UCLA earlier this year, and he is a veritable rock star in the healthcare space. In Being Mortal, he traverses the delicate terrain of aging, death, and how to approach both on our own terms. We learn about the accidental evolution of nursing homes and assisted living centers, hang our hopes on stories of people who are bucking the system, and pocket some questions to ask if we want a thoughtful, intentioned death for ourselves and those we love. Gawande’s direct, self-effacing approach to tough conversations makes it feel less like a book and more like a long and gentle exam room chat.
He ventures into the philosophical and poses a question that is still sitting with me: Why isn’t it enough just to exist? Nursing homes and hospitals are (generally) safe places where all basic human needs are met, and in many of them, there are even some bland attempts at climbing the rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy. This is arguably a vast improvement over the workhouses and institutions where we used to shutter our elderly. Yet, the data clearly show that they are also warehouses of unhappiness. Gawande makes the sharp observation that we choose differently for others than we would for ourselves. For our parents and grandparents, we want safety, amenities, ticked boxes. And for ourselves? We just want freedom.
All we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story.
Two other books that kept me up past my bedtime this month:
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel about art theft, addiction, and the meaning of life. It was nearly 800 pages of gorgeous wordplay and philosophy bound in a titillating chronicle that made me eager to keep turning pages, both to see what happened and to find out what perspective-shattering question would be posed next. Just how I like my fiction.
Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann’s latest true tale of a spree of murders in Oklahoma that rocked the country less than a century ago. Though it didn’t grip me as much as The Lost City of Z (my introduction to his work), Grann employs his usual storytelling sorcery to illuminate a dark and little-known period of American history.
A thing I did to be a better human: Started a volunteer gig at the local hospice
Every month, I notice myself taking a few more steps toward hereness. I planted some bulbs that won’t bloom until next year. I got a library card. I let myself settle into deep friendships, knowing they’ll hold more hellos than goodbyes. This month, I tossed one more seed in the ground here and started volunteering.
Two core beliefs influenced this little step:
Service is a pillar of being in community.
Everyone deserves to die well, and we shouldn't have to do it alone.
I have a longstanding passion for hospice work. It’s an extension of my love for old people (an affinity I’ve felt since childhood) and personal experience with the gracious influence of hospice during my beloved grandfather’s illness. In college, I audited a course on death and dying. It was my first exposure to the idea that there is a pattern to the way we grieve. (It’s a faint daydream to someday teach a class on death that incorporates a little more of the softness and mess that leads us to grief in the first place. After all, could there be anything more intertwined than life and death?) I continued to keep a light anchor in that world by volunteering at the hospice in Cleveland, thinking about my own mortality, creating a will, and of course, diving into books.
Now, many Sunday mornings find me at the cozy eleven-bed hospice just around the corner from my cottage. It’s simple on the surface – and perhaps beneath it too. I serve morning tea, wash dishes, take orders for lunch, and chat with nurses, residents, families, and anyone else who wanders through. Beyond the tea and tidying up, it’s about presence. I meditate a little longer on the mornings I go in and try to incorporate tonglen into my practice. There are sacred things happening there.
Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.
Rainer Maria Rilke
A thing I learned: Connection is a necessary companion to joy.
It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and I was vacuuming in my bare feet, tears streaming down my face. I had just taken a break from my frantic housecleaning to check Snapchat. It was brimming with updates from my family – the gleeful shrieks of my niblings, my brother dropping a monstrous turkey in the fryer, my sister-in-law’s attempt to amputate her finger while peeling potatoes. And all of it was happening 8,000 miles away while I was dusting my furniture. I snuffled for a bit, briefly considered dropping a cool mil on a plane ticket, then consoled myself with some therapeutic laundry sorting.
When I moved to Cleveland right after undergrad, spending the holidays away from my family became the norm. I grew accustomed to the simultaneous gratitude and longing that comes with celebrations far from home, and I spent many a Thanksgiving flavoring the fancy corn (top-secret family recipe) with salt and sadness. As my circle of humans expanded and my friends’ mothers got tired of setting an extra place for the resident country bumpkin, I started to host my own Friendsgiving celebrations. It was a chance to share my space, gather people together, and cook enough vittles to feed the entire state – three things that make my joy-o-meter go bonkers.
This year, I briefly considered foregoing a celebration altogether here in New Zealand since Thanksgiving is a decidedly American holiday. But, being the militant observer of occasions that I am, I decided to keep the Friendsgiving tradition alive and couple it with a “no small talk” party. Just enough to kick away the lonelies, I figured. The invite list swelled to twenty-some people (all of whom I had promised a full Thanksgiving feast) and that leads us back to yours truly, alternately vacuuming and weeping with homesickness.
The housecleaning was the easy part. There were also several nights of way-past-my-bedtime planning and preparation poured into curating an evening full of sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and meaningful connection. In the end, it was a little more work and a heap more joy than I bargained for – and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
On the evening of the gathering, there was a moment a few hours in when plates were empty, glasses were full, and everyone was snuggled cozily into conversation. I crept quietly into the edge of a serious-looking circle and sat, letting the murmur and warmth of the voices wash over me. They were talking about their spiritual upbringings, what it looks like to embrace masculinity in a healthy and meaningful way, how to lift humanity up by even the smallest of measures, and why it is so equally challenging and delicious to exercise vulnerability.
There were humans in every fillable space – perched on couches and floors, lounging on beds, stretched out on rugs. Sometime after midnight, I walked into my bathroom and found six people huddled on the floor, locked in on each other. It was the moment I knew every minute of thought and toilet scrubbing was entirely worth it.
You know that feeling when you wake up and feel inexplicably, wildly happy but it takes a second to remember why? That’s what happened the morning after Friendsgiving when I stumbled out of my bedroom in a fog of joy and grinned madly at the rumpled paper crowns hooked on chairs, the stack of sticky plates, the eruption of glitter on the coffee table – all the gorgeous, chaotic remnants of a night gone very, very right.
Interested in recreating this goodness yourself? Here are some tools for building your own Belonging Party.
A thing for me to ponder: What will yield the greatest good?
As I continue to pull back the veil on my purpose while I’m hanging out on this planet, this question is a steady thrum in my mind. Time is a slippery bugger, and I’m not into mediocre goodness; I’m chasing the greatest good. The effective altruism movement takes a reason-based, often statistical approach to gauge how we can most efficiently use our time and resources. I love this idea, and I changed some of my giving habits after reading Doing Good Better. (A worthy read if you want to dip a toe in this topic.)
At the same time, I’m a believer in starting where you are. For most people, the influence we have on the people in our everyday lives – our family, our closest friends – will be our deepest legacy. That’s a lovely thing, isn’t it? And sometimes I think it’s enough.
The Buddhist principle of bodhisattva emphasizes the value (perhaps even the duty) of enlightened beings to come down from the mountaintop and be in the world, to share that goodness with the rest of us. Though my understanding of the concept may be tenuous, it has always resonated with me for its simplicity. It seems to say: thread a little string of light and grace, then carry it with you so everyone else can enjoy it too.
What I know for sure:
- We should be kind, always.
- We should take action, however small.
What I'm still chewing on:
- How can I spend my assemblage of months and minutes serving at full tilt?
When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. Albert Camus
A question for my board: What is the single-most valuable use of your time? Do you anticipate that it will change?