Joy and Sorrow

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Joy and sorrow are the Yin and Yang of existence.  One day we find joy and the next day we find sorrow. 

I found joy when my first daughter was born.  She was premature by a few weeks and so we could not take her home right away.  It was in 1967 and I was in the birthing room with my ex-wife Julie when Christina was born.  Both of us could not have been happier.  Over the years, I found joy in spending time with my daughter, taking her to the library, racing her on her bicycle, going to the boundary waters with her and taking her out trick or treating on Halloween.  I found joy watching her grow up.

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I found sorrow when my first wife and I separated in 1982 and I had to leave my daughter behind.  I found sorrow when my daughter Christina started college and decided she did not want to talk to me anymore.  I have found sorrow for the past 30 years or so at no longer seeing my daughter or even knowing where she lives.  I find sorrow that she never calls me or cares about having anything to do with me.

I find joy with my wife Karen when we sit and talk and eat together, now for nearly 40 years.  I find joy when Karen is happy, and we exercise or travel or go for walks together.  I find joy in helping her to stay healthy and knowing that she appreciates my efforts.  I find joy in growing old together and watching us both develop wrinkles together and claim similar aches and pains.  Our companionship is one of the greatest joys of my life.

I find sorrow when I think too long about what is too come.  I have seen too many elderly couples decline and it is often a sad sight.  I find sorrow when I think that in not too many years, Karen or I could be facing our final years by ourselves.  I find sorrow in thinking too much about what might be and how it might happen.

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I find joy in my writing.  I love the process of putting ideas into words.  I love getting comments on my blog and I love seeing the Google analytics regarding how many people are reading my rants and thoughts.  I love responding to people who leave comments.  I love the task of finding new ideas and themes to write about.  I love the community that I often find with other writers.  Something about the very word itself though unspoken is beautiful and magic.

I find sorrow in running out of new ideas and the occasional barren oasis that seems to sit in front of me as I struggle to find something to write about.  I find sorrow in feeling that I am not making any difference in the world with my writing.  I find sorrow when I compare my stats to others and think that some people get more readers in a day than I get in a month.  I know I should not compare myself, but I do anyway, and it always makes me sad.

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I found joy in getting to make amends with my father and mother before they died.  He died at 60 years of age and my mother died at 67.  I had hated my father and I was apathetic towards my mother.  I found joy in knowing my mother better and understanding the demons that she had to deal with.  I found joy in confronting my father and having him apologize to me for the misery that he caused my sisters and I when we were growing up.  I spoke at his funeral and found joy in the words I gave because I told truth.  My father had changed before he died, and I could see that in his friends and his new family.

I found sorrow when I was growing up with my family.  Hardly a day went by when I was not tormented or blamed for something by my father.  I found sorrow because my sisters and I were isolated and could not even find support in each other.  I found sorrow in my life as I felt so alone.  Later when I heard the song “Motherless Child”, I knew I was that motherless child.  A counselor years later told me it was because children expect their mothers to protect them.  I found sorrow in that it was not until my mother died that I realized how much misery she had in her own life while living with my father.  She had little time or energy to protect her children.  All of whom were abused by my father.

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I find joy in nature.  I run, ski, bike, swim canoe, camp and love being outside.  I find joy in the forests, in the lakes, in the ocean and in the mountains.  I find joy in flowers and watching the trees bloom and the leaves turn colors in the fall.  I feel joy in staring at a moonlit sky and looking for falling stars, constellations, and comets.  I find joy in sunshine and a cloudless day, but I also find joy on a rainy day with clouds billowing and promises of storms to come.

I feel sorrow when I see a tree hacked down or a lake defiled with oil and garbage.  I look at the sky and feel sad that we put up so much junk in the air that people are choking, and asthma has become common.  I find sorrow in the polluted oceans and in manicured lawns where water is wasted growing grass that has no reason for being there.  I feel sorrow that we put development over nature and destroy vast acres of beautiful land to put up parking lots.

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I receive joy from my exercising.  I love the feel of the mountain runs that I do each morning.  I love the stretch from yoga each evening.  My body feels so alive when it is moving.  I have done scuba diving, skydiving, bike racing, marathons and two triathlons.  I have never been a major competitor but the joy and fun of racing with others is indescribable.  The joy of being one big family even if only for a few hours.  Celebrating life and the ability we have as athletes.  No one regardless of how they do or how late they finish is ever ridiculed or laughed at.

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I receive sorrow and pain from exercising.  Some days it is hard to get up and go out.  Some days I feel sad wondering when my last run will be, and when I will no longer be able to handle the inevitable falls on the trails.  I have had sorrow from Morton’s neuroma, plantar fasciitis, back pains, hip pains and sesamoiditis.  Some of these problems have taken me years to overcome and some I have had to adapt to and live with.  I have sat for hours and picked cactus spines out of my legs and feet and arms.  There might not be a great deal of sorrow in this activity but there is a great deal of pain.  I think sadly of some of the longer runs I once did and some of the longer bicycle trips I once took and some of the week long canoe trips.  I know that I no longer have the energy for any such trips.  They are now sadly only memories that are slowly fading away.

My greatest joy in life has come from reading and learning.  I would rather die than not have a book to read or the chance to learn something new.  The joy I find in books is ineffable.  I want to learn the rest of my life and continue to find new things that will excite me.  I find joy in challenges to my ideas and beliefs.  I find joy in discovering that I was right, and I find joy in discovering that I was wrong.  Books have always been dearer to me than friendships.  Books bring me to places that I have never been.  Books help me to meet people that I can only dream of meeting.  Books do not desert me at 3 PM in the morning or chastise me for putting them down.  I find joy in history, science, mathematics, politics, psychology, spirituality, biographies, dramas and plays.  Books were my companions when I grew up and they were my family.  Books gave me unconditional love and were my steadfast friends.

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Books have brought me great sorrow.  I read the Little Match Girl a dozen times or more and each time I cried when I read this story.  Countless other stories and events have 83909b1f6d72b56470333621cbd1ebf2-the-little-match-girl-hans-christianbrought sorrow to my heart over the years.  Life does not always end happily.  Lives do not always find the justice and honor they merit.  I have felt sorry for the heroes and heroines who did not get the fates they deserved.  If only I could somehow right all the wrongs and set history on the paths it should have taken.  I find books tell me about my shortcomings and highlight areas where I need improvement.  It is always sorrowful to find that I am not as good as I would like to be.

Writing this has been cathartic.  For me, the writing itself is mixed with elements of joy and elements of sorrow.  So joyful to remember some things.  Remembering others so very sorrowful.  Some remind me of the joy still in my life.  Some sorrows make me want to live my life over.  But would it be any different?   Would it be any better?

What are the joys and sorrows in your life?

The Death of a Loved One.

I have been asked to write a blog dealing with the death of a loved one. As I have grown older, I have suffered the loss of many a friend and relative. That is a price that we pay for living too long. There are other prices but perhaps none as steep as this one. A friend of mine has joked about my rather cavalier attitude towards death. She has summed up my comments as “Well, we are all going to die sometime.” I realize that my comment and attitude is not very consoling. However, for me it has been a convenient shortcut to simply acknowledging death and moving on. I have also noted that it seems hardly a week has gone by in my last twenty years that I have not witnessed the death of someone who has been a friend or relative. I doubt whether my life is much different than others unless I am a more astute observer of death or unless I am simply less caring.

I read the book “On Death and Dying” many years ago. The stages of grief that were identified as something we all go through upon the loss of a loved one are perhaps interesting and even useful but in some ways are very similar to my comment in that knowing the stages may not be very consoling. It is one thing to have an intellectual knowledge of death but an altogether different thing to have a personal emotional experience of death. For instance, despite all the deaths I have witnessed including my parents many friends and most of my relatives, I have never experienced the death of a life partner. I have gone through a divorce after 16 years but a divorce is not the same as death. True, it encompasses a degree of pain and loss and suffering but I cannot quite equate that with dealing with the loss of a close personal partner that one has lived with for most of their life. I think this would be a very different experience. Whether or not it was expected or unexpected would have some influence on how one dealt with it but maybe less than one would think. The aspect of “expectedness” is another intellectual concept which does not deal with the emotional relevance of death.

One day I was coming in to see Karen, my spouse who loves to sleep late. She is normally a very late sleeper and I am not usually too concerned when she sleeps in. However, it grew quite a bit later than usual and I decided to “peek” in to see how she was doing. When I looked at her prone body, she did not appear to be breathing. I immediately put my head to hers to see if I could detect any breath. I could not. My immediate reaction was to panic and shake her. I started crying. Suddenly she turned over and asked “What was wrong.” I was beyond relief. In that single moment of thinking she had passed away, I had experienced a degree of pain, sorrow, suffering and loss that I have never emotionally experienced before. Karen and I have been living together since 1989 and going together since 1983. I know that someday we will part and on an intellectual basis, I have accepted the inevitability of it. However, I suddenly found that I have not accepted the inevitability on a personal emotional basis and I wonder now if I ever will be able to.

I have to say I do not cry very much but I did that morning. I seldom cry at funerals but I cried at my Dad’s funeral, Sister Giovanni’s funeral and a few friends whose services touched me quite a bit. I have cried every time I have read or seen a production of the “Little Match Girl.” I have cried over the song “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” There is something that evokes sorrow in me that has more to do with loneliness than death. I have never seen any scales of loneliness related to the death of a loved one but I might assume that some correlation did exist. I have a 98 year old Aunt and God-Mother who is one of the most positive older people I know. She has lost two of her three sons and her husband of over 60 years. She continues to love life and other people. I asked her three years ago how she keeps such an attitude when she has seen almost all of her friends and loved ones pass away. Her reply was that she simply makes new friends. I am sure she loved her sons and husband as much as the next wife and mother but she simply chooses to move on. I contrast this with a comment that I heard about Thomas Jefferson who felt that at the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence he was no longer a part of this life. The following is a quote by Jefferson on aging:

1815 February 5. (to John Vaughn). “…nothing is more incumbent on the old, than to know when they should get out of the way, and relinquish to younger successors the honors they can no longer earn, and the duties they can no longer perform.”

I see a vast difference between Jefferson’s attitude on aging and my Aunt’s attitude (at least as reflected in this quote.) My Aunt has not gotten out of the way. She still performs duties and tasks to help others. Indeed, that Christmas when I was talking to her, she was leaving after dinner to serve meals to the elderly at an “Old Folks Home.” I jokingly asked her if she was not “Old” and she pensively replied “Why I guess I am, I just never think about it.” She lives in the present and maybe that is the elusive secret of happiness or satisfaction. Osho says that for too many of us the only thing that exists is the Past or Future. We are either so busy trying to recapture memories of “better” times or else we create possible futures that we hope will bring us “better memories” than we had. I have noticed that all of the great religious leaders have stressed the importance of living in the present. Jesus said:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:25-34

Buddha noted: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” I could give writings upon writings that speak of the need to live in the present but would this help you deal with the loss of a close personal partner? Good advice seldom deals with emotions. What then to say to anyone who suffers a loss of someone they have lived with, loved with and known for most of their lives? Perhaps nothing! Maybe this is just the time to be with this person. I would suspect that the feelings of loneliness would be almost overpowering. Is it any wonder so many people seem to die shortly after the death of a long term partner? What can you really say in the face of what this person is going through? Almost anything will sound cold or trite. Just feel for a second what this person must now be feeling.

Most of what we desire in life can summed up as: Fame, fortune or power. We strive to accomplish as much wealth, attention or power as we can. We think these three goals will bring us the happiness and security that we all seek. Deep down inside we are all insecure insignificant beings who feel that somehow money, fame or power will bring us the significance that assuages our sense of loneliness and inadequacy. But it never does. The nearest anything ever comes to doing this for us, short of an emotional and spiritual awakening is the love of a close personal partner.

I would not trade all the fans, all the Facebook friends, all the media glory, all the TV fame, all the money in the world or the highest office in the world for the love of my partner Karen who intimately knows me and cares about me. Karen brings me coffee, bandages my cuts, asks me how I am doing and what is wrong, cuddles with me for no reason, walks with me, consoles me when I am feeling inadequate, supports my stupidity, tolerates my quirks and even my sometimes meanness and poor dispositions. How many of the Rich and Famous have anyone in their lives like I do? Those of you who have or had had a long time personal partner or loved one know what I am talking about. How to lose such a partner and go on with life? I am sorry if I do not know the answer or the secret. Give up or trudge on? Can you make a difference for others? Can you help share the pain and help others deal with the pain you are now feeling? What can you leave the world after your partner leaves you?

If you have had a partner like I have, you have experienced the greatest gift in the world. That this gift will someday be taken away from you is inevitable. That it will cause you great pain and sorrow is perhaps also inevitable. In the end, we come back to the beginning. Life goes on. You were loved and you were needed. There are others who are not loved and who could benefit from your love. There are others who are not needed and who could benefit from being needed by you. The biggest gift we can ever give others is the gift of ourselves. When a gift has been taken away from us perhaps it is time for us to find a way to give a gift of ourselves.

Time for Questions:

What is your experience with death and dying? How have you handled the death of a loved one? How have you helped others who are going through this pain? What will you need when you lose your partner or a close loved one? Can you share any experiences with others who might benefit from your experience?

Life is just beginning.

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