It’s everywhere! I have people sending me recipes for it, serving it to me in salads, soups, and stews. Bags of kale chips beckon to me at the Whole Foods checkout counter. But my favorite connection to kale is through my brother-in-law.
For those of you who don’t know one bunch of greens from another, kale is a crinkly edged cousin of swiss chard, yet meatier. As a friend told me, “If kale were a woman, she’d be a real broad.” She’s tough, I can tell you that.
Six days after my sister’s journey with cancer ended, three hundred of us celebrated her in songs, tears, and smiles. To my surprise, my brother-in-law Eduardo, his face taut with suppressed emotion, walked to the podium to speak of the love of his life. His son Ian stood beside him. Eduardo spoke of Peggy’s determination to do whatever was required in her efforts toward healing. Efforts that included eating kale (as part of a vegan diet). Eduardo choose kale as the metaphor for how Peggy would take what looked prickly, ragged, unfamiliar, and lovingly ingest it. He spoke of watching her pray over her plain steamed kale and then eat it happily, when to him it looked like a weed to be pulled from the garden. To illustrate, Ian pulled a large bunch of kale from the plastic bag at his side. Chuckles spread through the crowd. Eduardo ended by comparing himself to the kale, still a bit prickly, but softened by all he had been through and the great gift of twenty years with my beautiful sister.
Two weeks later, Eduardo was at home thinking about the organic garden that Peggy had mothered so tenderly. In her last months she was too weak, the watering system broke, and everything shriveled. Perhaps, he thought, “I should replant it as a tribute to her.” He began walking to the back of the property to assess all there was to do. As he approached, he saw a desert wasteland of raised boxes, except for one tall bushy plant that had sprouted, without water, without care.
Yes, it was head of kale, growing, flourishing, reaching up toward the light, just as my sister’s spirit did, all through her life, through the hospital stays, the surgery, the radiation, through the difficult nights and quiet final days. Bringing the best of herself, in spite of anything, everything. If that bunch of kale were a woman, she’d be my sister.
* * *
The former “Liz Chandler” on Days of Our Lives, Gloria Loring is a singer, songwriter, actress and author. Her new memoir, titled with a quote by Albert Einstein, is Coincidence Is God’s Way of Remaining Anonymous.
“Why does God allow children to suffer and die?” read the question.
To which I answered:
“Because God sees death as a beautiful transition, not a horrific disaster.”
And he responded: “Every torturer sees someone else’s torture and death as beautiful.”
And what did I say to that? I said this:
“What if death is actually quite beautiful, and the habitual terror of it blinds humans to that fact?”
You did, I am sure, notice that I did not speak to the suffering. Though maybe I should have … maybe I should have said that suffering is when we deny, refuse, and resist that which we are: nature, god, life, death…
I had an interesting experience yesterday. One of those life-flashes-before-your-eyes kind of moments.
I won’t go into the particulars of the incident, but what is important is that I saw how, in a few short seconds, my life could have been gone and, after a breath or two, the realization that I was still here.
This sat a little heavier with me than it might most people because I’ve experienced being on the other side of loss, where I was the surviving half of a pair. I’ve written about this before, as it was the slow-but-sure catalyst for a complete collapsing and rebuilding of my inner and outer life, perspective, and purpose.
For a long time after I had reentered society and “healed,” I noticed that I was hyper-sensitive to the small things in life. Giving someone a hug, saying goodbye or hello, a bird flying by, listening to a heartbeat – these all struck me as so precious and fleeting. I marveled at how no one else seemed to recognize the value in these small moments, while also realizing I could not live with this kind of intensity. I could not keep treating each moment as if it could be the last.
Or could I?
If I did value each moment as if it could be the last, it ramped up my experiences to the level of sacred. It slowed down the pace of life to one slow-motion moment. Life simultaneously filled and broke my heart every day from the sheer happiness at being alive and the knowledge that this too will end someday.
Over time this intense attitude faded some, as you can imagine. I got comfortable with my new normal life. I was able to enjoy it without valuing it as priceless. I told myself it just wasn’t sustainable to live with that kind of intensity.
I now realize it wasn’t sustainable because I wasn’t yet strong enough to sustain it.
It takes a lot of strength to take on life fully, with all its rawness, beauty, fullness, and heartbreak. It takes a strength and commitment that no one can give us because it has to come from the inside out. Perhaps this is why we tend to get inspired or feel fearless momentarily, and then slowly fade back into a more comfortable zone of living where people are nice, loving, and live their lives with an ease and trust that everything’s going to be alright. We’re all going to live to a hundred, tragedy doesn’t touch us, and let’s put off that dream until tomorrow.
I found certain kinds of yoga lit the flame deep inside me to live my fullest life, to face my fears, and to live each day as if I was going to die tomorrow.
That’s a question that works wonders for me, and I often call on it when I feel especially afraid or especially self-conscious about putting myself out there.
I ask myself, If you died tomorrow, would you wish you had done this?
The answer is usually yes. Because in the light of death, vulnerability doesn’t seem so scary. In the light of death, vulnerability is all there is. It allows us to turn ourselves inside out, not so much for all the world to see, but more for us to see. For us to feel. For us to let out all our inner, protected, sensitive layers and let them feel the freedom of being unprotected and fully alive.
In the light of life, vulnerability is dangerous. It exposes us and that means people might be able to poke a hole in our armor with their harsh words, opinions, or indifference.
It also means people could get inside us. God forbid someone come up close and touch our beating heart, see our deepest fears, or learn that we are only human like them.
I’ve often thought when our lives flash before our eyes it would happen quickly, in our last moments of life. Isn’t that how it’s always portrayed in the movies or in stories?
My experience of my life flashing before my eyes was quite slow. It happened over the course of hours, as I witnessed every step I took in my daily life that I might not have been able to take. Everything I might normally take for granted I saw as alive, priceless, fascinating, and almost unreal.
Even so, I saw old patterns acting themselves out. Fear, defenses, walls. It was as if, since I was still alive, I still felt I had to protect my “self” somehow.
This is the glory of being human.
I find it unfortunate that it often takes loss or trauma to remind us of the intrinsic value of life, of a breath, of a heartbeat. The urgency and brevity of life often does not fully register in us until we are faced with our own mortality or that of someone close to us.
It’s not just every new day that is a gift, an opportunity, and an invitation to live fully.
It is every moment.
Every moment we can choose to embrace or pass by. And it is not just an invitation. It is our obligation. As humans, as parents, as partners, as friends, as children, as human beings it is our obligation to step into our lives fully, so that when our life flashes before our eyes, we will not have to wonder, What would I have done if I knew I was going to die today?
We will have already done it. We will have already done it, spoke it, wrote it, shared it, lived it.
In the words of Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
It’s a practice of healing and cleansing, one of renewal and expansion. As the shift happens, a rawness sets in. It is a total unshielding of spirit/heart/energy…whatever you choose to call it, it really doesn’t matter as it is one in the same. Once the breakthrough has taken place through yoga, you can’t hide.
Today she would have been 73. And fabulous.
A few sweet notes came in, three or four from family. I rolled through the day aware, but unfazed. I have been through 7 birthdays now without her, and 7 deathdays. I don’t miss her any differently on these days as I find little significance to the anniversary and birthday. Every day, any day, could be one of those dates. All those dates hold is one moment in time where she came, and left. There is an entire lifetime in between, so those are the days l choose to celebrate and honor.
Or do I? Is this my triumphant ego talking of my healing path? Am I seeing what is really happening here? Today, I had a distracted morning yoga session. Happy but not, light but heavy, sorta wanted to be there sorta didn’t. The class I taught in the evening was about the same. “Totally disconnected to spirit,” was how I described my feelings to a friend after class. Without seeing the connection to the importance of the day, I chose to teach heart openers themed on balance between all facets of ourselves needing acceptance, honor, and love. All facets include flaw, beauty, scar, perfection, imperfection, insecurity, spark, and even consciously choosing dark when light is handed over on a white glove. In order to live a life of honor and self-love, we must self-love all of it. Just as we need to deeply feel pain so we feel joy in even greater measure, we must also honor the dark and the dingy so we can even more so love the easier to love pieces that ignite us.
It wasn’t until 9:30 this evening that I realized why I had been off all day. It wasn’t so much that I was full of sorrow and pain, it was that I hadn’t taken the time out to honor her. It has taken me years to get to a place where the pain of losing her isn’t so strong it shows up physically in my body. As much as I don’t want these days to be of significance, as much as my ego would like to decide when and where I shall feel…the heart doesn’t follow suit. My energy body needed to honor and love her. My soul needed to connect with her through some kind of ceremony. Living in a much more raw and unshielded place these days, it just doesn’t fly anymore to let my mind do the driving.
For my 36th birthday last month a friend gave me a tuberose candle that has two wicks. Unbeknownst to her, it was my mom’s favorite scent. I lit two flames tonight, laid for a few minutes with each of my sleeping babes, ate rainier cherries (her favorite), and sat in the quiet to write this piece.
It doesn’t need to be a big production to quietly and ceremoniously honor the heart. It doesn’t need much…just a little attention, some raw love, honor, and recognition.
Heart mended for the time being, maybe even on its way to being healed.
Do you believe in reincarnation? What happens to us after we die?
In this episode of “Ask Deepak” on The Chopra Well, Deepak Chopra examines different theories and perspectives on reincarnation. What is the relationship between memories and our material life? Are memories stored in our brain or in a consciousness field that transcends space and time? Watch to see how Deepak weighs in:
What do you think about reincarnation? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!
There is one certainty in life – we are all going to die. How and where we die are the only issues.
Will we die quickly or have a lingering death? We don’t know. However, most of us housed people are pretty sure we will die indoors in some health facility or in our own home. In fact, some of us buy insurance so that we are assured of the particular standard of care and facility we prefer in our last days.
However, what about unsheltered homeless people? They live outside and very likely will die outside.
How do I know this? Because over the past several years I have been involved in the end of life care for three homeless friends. I’ve written about Bobby Ojala who passed in late August 2012 and Susan Hunt who died twelve days later in early September. But, Karen Lee Creeden was the first homeless person I helped die indoors.
I first met Karen Lee on July 11, 2010, in Ocean Beach, San Diego, CA. An elderly woman with medium length graying hair pulled back into a rubber band, Karen Lee was sitting on the grass in Saratoga Park. Even from a distance, I could see her distended abdomen.
As I approached her, I wondered how to begin the conversation and decided just to introduce myself, ask her name and inquire how she was doing.
“I’m Karen Lee Creeden,” she said, “and I need size 8 shoes. I just got out of the hospital and I have no shoes.”
“Is that all you need?”
“It would be nice to get some medium-sized warm clothing – it’s cold at night. All I have are the t-shirt and light pants I’m wearing.”
I offered to look for these items, but made no guarantees I could find the needed items in the correct sizes.
Upon leaving Ocean Beach, I called family members and friends who I thought would be sympathetic and would have access to the correct sizes of clothing and shoes. Sure enough, they kindly donated the requested items.
When I delivered these gifts to Karen Lee, she was thrilled. She posed for pictures and had fun modeling her new clothes and tennis shoes. Over and over Karen Lee told me to thank her donors for the much-needed items.
But what to do about her apparent medical condition? I contacted a psychotherapist friend who suggested I ask Karen Lee if she had a social worker and, if so, whether she would give me permission to speak to the worker on her behalf.
Karen Lee did have a social worker and readily gave me her phone number and permission to discuss her case.
The social worker told me what I suspected; Karen Lee was seriously ill and dying. She said she had paid cabs several times to take Karen Lee to hospital after hospital for end of life care, but the hospitals continued to release her.
I offered to go with a friend and take Karen Lee to a hospital and do what I could to get her end of life care.
The results of my efforts are outlined in the following thank you letter I sent to all of the parties who were involved in Karen Lee’s care until her death 24 days later. My letter is a tribute to all of the people and institutions involved in assuring that Karen Lee, an unsheltered homeless person, died free of pain and indoors. It is also evidence of the steps Karen Lee had to go through to die with dignity indoors.
My thanks again to all of those people who provided end of life care to Karen Lee and to all givers of end of life care everywhere.
“August 15, 2010
Dear Concerned Care Givers and Service Providers,
On July 14th, after consulting with her social worker, my friend and I took Karen Lee Creeden to the local hospital where she received excellent emergency care from the doctor and his wonderful staff. Thank you.
After being admitted to the hospital, Karen Lee was expertly cared for by her attending physician, a hospital social worker, nurses, chaplain and staff. Thank you.
I called the president of Alpha Project and he reassured me that ‘no one dies outside’ because of the Alpha Project Hospice Program. His chief operating officer made herself immediately available. Although we did not make use of these kind offers of help, I thank you for your much-appreciated assurances at that time.
After her stay in the hospital, Karen Lee spent several days in the San Diego Rescue Mission Recuperative Care Unit under the concerned supervision of the residential manager. Thank you.
During her brief stay in the Mission, Karen Lee met with a program representative of San Diego Hospice and Institute for Palliative Care who gently assisted Karen Lee in enrolling in this program. Thank you.
At San Diego Hospice and Institute for Palliative Care, doctors, social worker, patient advocates, nurses, chaplain, staff and volunteers compassionately helped Karen Lee. Thank you.
I was going to write individual notes of thanks to each of you, but upon reflection, I thought perhaps one note to all of you might be more appropriate because each of you was an indispensable part of the process of helping Karen Lee transition from this life to the next. And I thank you all for being so supportive of me during this time.
Karen Lee was 55 years old when she died. As you may know, for the last ten years of her challenging life, Karen Lee was homeless. However because of your care, Karen Lee lived the last 24 days of her life free of pain and indoors.
While at San Diego Hospice and Institute for Palliative Care, Karen Lee wrote the following words on the patient white board in her room: “Do you love me as much as I love you?”
Witnessing your many kindnesses and genuine compassion, I can answer her question, Yes, you each loved her as much as she loved you.
May God bless you for your compassionate service for people in need.
It is an age old question: What is the significance of life if all we do is die in the end? Is there a deeper meaning to death?
In this episode of “Ask Deepak” on The Chopra Well, Deepak examines life and death from the perspective of identity and the myth of the permanence of identity. There is no such thing as a permanent identity, either as a perceiver or an object of perception. What exactly, then, is death? Is life itself dependent on death, and what IS permanent in our existence?
What do you think about life, death, and the deeper meaning of these cycles? Let us know in the comments section below!
Subscribe to The Chopra Well and don’t miss this week’s Google+ hangouts in the “Aspire to Inspire” series!
“We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Where does personal growth begin and end? With your first visit to the metaphysical bookstore and your last session of therapy? Unlikely. The process of becoming – self, whole, enlightened, fulfilled – is a lifelong adventure.
In the final episode of 30 DAYS OF INTENT on The Chopra Well, Natalie and Iman sit down with Deepak Chopra to discuss their amazing journey of the last few weeks. From watsu massage to kundalini yoga, spiritual psychology to death and dying, they not only got a thorough review of the wellness options in Southern California, but they also took a tour of their own inner worlds. And what a trip it was!
Their final experience on the show was a death and dying dinner with hospice nurse Laurel Lewis, Deepak, Mallika, and several friends. Considering death seems to be an apt way to close the show. As Deepak tells Natalie in their debrief, many of the personal growth tools they explored provide peak experiences that temporarily jolt them from the mundane and into heightened awareness. But this level of consciousness is equally attainable through mindfulness. Meditating on death and, by association, what it means to be alive, can start attuning us to the true nature of our paths. Who am I? What is my purpose? These guiding questions act as the compass, ever directing us toward wholeness. Flaws, memories, ambitions, and all.
This lesson resonates deeply with both Iman and Natalie, in slightly different ways. At the beginning of the experience, just coming out of a long-term relationship, Iman emphasized purity. He intended to chip away at his identity, rid himself of unwanted attributes. Over the course of the journey, but particularly during the difficult and cathartic therapy session with Alyssa Nobriga, Iman’s focus shifted. Balance, rather than purity, became his goal. It’s about loving and accepting yourself, as opposed to striving in vain to fit some mold of perfection.
For Natalie, who struggled with self-criticism and judgement throughout the show, learning to have compassion for herself became key. She intended, at first, to realize her full potential and focus on “being” rather than “doing.” What she came to see, however, was that she lacked the self-love necessary to get herself there. In the end, she left with the intent to be her own best friend, to love and support herself unconditionally. Both Natalie and Iman’s new intentions – balance and self-care – are among the hardest but most essential lessons that move us toward transformation.
It would be impossible to say at what moment in the journey these realizations emerged. But there is one thing that is certain:
Shifting awareness onto transformation is the first step. Set the intent to grow, to learn, to become radically and unashamedly yourself. By participating in 30 DAYS OF INTENT, Natalie and Iman focused attention onto their own health and wellbeing, sending themselves the message, “Yes, I am worth it.” Personal growth is an opt-in adventure that you can start right now, and which ends…never.
Subscribe to The Chopra Well and stay tuned for amazing new shows in the weeks to come!
I walk into Wendy Bramlett’s Saturday morning class in Boulder, Colorado, and choose a spot at the far corner, in the shadows. Here I can turn my face to the wall and let the tears come, if they do.
I am new in town, and I am grieving. Just days ago, during my cross-country move, I learned that my older brother is dying of colon cancer. He has smoked for years, lived hard, eaten junk. When I’m not tearful, I am furious. How could he be so heedless of his body?
Class begins. We stretch out on our backs on the floor.
“Offering your weight generously to the earth, the earth generously supporting your weight.”
Her voice is still and steady, a lilt of cheer rippling just below the calm.
“There is a fine intimacy between your body and the earth.”
Intimacy. Now there’s a word you rarely hear in a yoga class. Funny thing, too, when yoga is all about bringing body and mind into harmony. Yoga—yolk.
Oh, no, thinking. I catch myself and return to the room.
“Be very deliberate in how your body meets the earth. Be aware of each point of contact.” My attention slides to my back. “If the vertebrae contact the earth beneath them with consciousness and care, they will be more receptive to gravity.”
My breath responds, slowing and deepening.
“Between the earth and your body, an exchange of breath, a flow of recognition. The breath and gravity are old friends.”
Of course, how simple—body and earth. Flowing between them, the breath.
“Let the earth breathe you, soften you.”
A small release between my ribs, and the tears begin. I turn my face to the wall and reach for the tissue stowed next to my mat.
* * *
For most of a year it is like this—through my brother’s death, through the months after, showing up in Wendy’s class, tissue in hand. Always she leads me back to the body, back to earth. In almost every class, I turn my face to the wall for a few moments. Is it the flow of words, fresh as springwater? Or how the words soften me, releasing inner streams?
* * *
In class we are working on a twisty pose, parivrtta trikonasana, revolving triangle. Though I’ve been practicing for years, this pose is still precarious.
Feet apart, we bend forward and slowly turn, hand on hip. “Listen to the callings of the spine. The body doesn’t seek discomfort. The body seeks ease and balance. Move in harmony with your body, not in argument.”
I’ve been arguing with my body about this one for a long time.
“Watch how the breath moves your body, how generously it creates space within your body.” I breathe again, and my shoulder opens, lifting another fraction. Within my heart a new feeling of ease, more room.
“The breath is enormously generous, as generous as the body allows.”
Invitation, not effort. A laying down of arms against the body.
* * *
For five years I attend Wendy’s class until, in January 2012, Wendy stops teaching. She has a mass on her liver, late Stage IV. Her students are stunned. When we last saw her, in December, she was the picture of radiant health.
Undergoing chemo does not arrest the disease. By June Wendy is moving toward death.
One day in mid-June I spend time meditating, my attention focused on her great journey. It is like attending a birth—watching, breathing. In the waiting, time shifts—away from minutes and hours and toward simple presence. Threshold time. The air is charged with coming and going.
Wendy dies the following day.
* * *
At a grief ritual in the yoga studio some days later, each face is shell-shocked. How can we absorb such a loss? We talk and weep together.
At the end of the ritual I have one last question. “What kind of cancer did Wendy die from?” I am expecting “liver” or “pancreatic,” the kinds that take people quickly.
“Colon cancer,” I hear. “Metastasized before there were symptoms.”
For a moment the room disappears. I blink hard to get it back. The same cancer my brother had five years ago when I arrived in town. How can this be—colon cancer in Wendy, whose life was defined by listening to the whispers of her own body? In my brother it made sense, but in Wendy?
Instantly I see: I have been wielding a sword of judgment—as if blaming my brother for getting sick would help me stave off the thing that took his life.
My weapon is made of cardboard. My tidy conclusions will have to go. Even in death, Wendy teaches a more generous way: it is time to lay down arms against my brother.
* * *
We are on our backs in savasana, the pose of the corpse.
“Listening in the silence to how your body wants to release.” Wendy’s voice flows through the quiet. “Let the earth move into the body, the body expand into the earth, so that each can replenish the other. Savasana is a reunion with the earth.”
Beneath us, a sure embrace. Within us, not solidity but something more generous: spaciousness. More room, a little more trusting of the breath. More listening to our bodies, to earth.
At the end of savasana we come slowly to sitting. In a few moments we will again encounter the knots of living, but right now we breathe, palms together, open to what may be.
“Namaste,” Wendy whispers.
Wendy’s open and generous approach to the body was shaped by Pattabhi Jois, Iyengar, Angela Farmer, and the Continuum work of somatic pioneer Emilie Conrad. Wendy wrote about her view of yoga here. Thanks to Russell Bramlett for the photo and to Avril Bright for keeping a journal of Wendy’s sayings in class. And of course we are grateful to Wendy, and to the earth.