Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Scattered Sprigs of Wheat by K.L.Kivi

”Listening to the heart - following the heart is not the same as following the emotions, wishes or ideals.” So writes Reverend Master Koten in response to my question about the role of discernment in the Buddhist philosophy of letting go of judgement.

Like Luanne Armstrong, in her blog entry “Beat,” I’ve been listening to my heart as well. But it isn’t the physical heart that I’m trying to tune into, it’s that metaphorical heart, the one Reverend Master Koten alludes to, the one that supposed to let me know how to make the appropriate decisions in life. After seven months in Ontario, caring for my ailing elderly parents, I returned home to these Columbia mountains that shelter my kind, and collapsed. I felt like a sheaf of wheat that had had its string cut; the pieces of me have been strewn about ever since, pell mell, in the sun and in the rain. I putter around the land, stopping to catch my breath, wondering at my exhaustion and then remembering: we’re at elevation here and everywhere the paths are steep. Seven months: was that all it took for my body to forget what it takes to live in these mountains? And though my body is out of practice, it’s really my mind that’s given way, relaxed the tight string of the daily demands on a caregiver.

And mostly, it’s okay. This piece of Earth has always received me well. But sometimes
I pause and think: I should start picking up those sprigs of wheat soon, make up the sheaf again. It was in one of those moments that I wrote the Reverend Master. Ten days of wandering from land partner’s house to land partner’s house mewing to be fed started feeling uncomfortable. The least I could do is make meals for myself again. I picked up that sprig of wheat but continued to look at the rest of them with bewilderment. What do I want to pick up? What of my old life feels appropriate? I feel paralysed to make decisions. How does one tell the difference between the desire of the heart and those of “emotions, wishes or ideals” anyway?

And so I listen, not quite sure what I’m listening for. My heart feels naked and lost, bobbing out in the sea with no land or ships in sight. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Lostness is a place of fertile possibility if one can avoid panic. Knowing why I’m lost is helpful. There’s nothing quite as disorienting, as heartbreaking, as watching a parent lose their mind and turn into a kind of child before one’s very eyes. Dementia calls for very concrete action in terms of care, but subconsciously, another process is taking place, re-ordering the known world of my psyche.

Rebecca Solnit writes in her “Field Guide to Getting Lost” that “to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery…And one does not get lost but loses oneself… a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.” So, basically, I’ve come home to the piece of the Earth I know the most intimately in order to get lost. Here, I realize, it feels safe to be lost. Each tree seems like an old, kindly friend. There were very nice trees – oaks, maples, hemlocks, ash, pines - in Ontario; why does this particular forest possess such nurturing benevolence for me?

And so, I give myself over to lostness. Simply. And try to pacify my mind that wants to command this situation – well, to be perfectly honest, every situation. I practice listening, waiting for the metaphorical thumps that make up the beat.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Beat...by Luanne Armstrong

Luanne Armstrong

It shouldn’t keep me awake but it does. Thump, thump, thump, ka-thump. Regular, still regular. I check it. I have spent the last year and a half with a heartbeat that went ka-thump, rrr, ka-ka-ka, thump,thump, ka-thump and other variations. If I walked up a hill, even a tiny one, I stopped, waited for my racing heart to catch up to itself.
It’s called atrial fibrillation; it’s surprisingly common, especially among older people. Some people even have it without knowing. Atrial fibrillation is also easy to fix but because I live in the country, because waiting lists for minor stuff are now lengthy in Canadian medicine, and because, the last time it happened, it looked from the outside anyway, as if I could at least still function, it took far too long to get into an emergency ward where under the supervision of a cardiologist, they could attach defibrillation paddles and shock my heart back into regularity.
And then finally they did and I could go back to having my life again.
But now I wait with some trepidation for the damn thing to unshock itself, and go back into stuttering and blipping and stumbling along.
And I listen to it. I would rather not. I lie in bed at night and I can feel my body vibrating in different places. I can hear the blood squishing through various veins and arteries. I don’t know why it bangs so hard at night or even at various times during the day. I talk to my heart; I want it to be contented and even and regular. I soothe it. Things are fine, I say. Life is good. Dear heart, I am happy. (sometimes true, sometimes a lie. I lie to my heart.) I tell my heart anyway, hoping to pacify it. Calm, I think, easy there, like soothing a horse.
The first time it happened to me, I was working at a difficult job and in the middle of a difficult separation. My life was a mess. My kids were almost grown up and leaving home, leaving me. When my heart started blipping and stuttering, I ignored it. I felt it was right I should have a broken heart. In fact, I did have a broken heart. Someone finally dragged me off to Emergency, where they stuck me in a bed, stuck electrodes all over me and forbid me to move. I slept for a while and once the electrodes were off, spent most of my time in the cafeteria, drinking coffee and noodling miserably in my journal until after four or five days, they fixed it and sent me home.
I wrote that experience off until the next time, ten years later. This time I was lying in bed, in the middle of the night, wide awake, worrying about my family, my parents, our farm, which was for sale, my children, and my complicated future. This time my heart gave a sudden lurch and began to stutter and blip like a motor that wouldn’t quite start. Resignedly, I went off to the city, wandered into the local Emergency Ward. There was far less fuss this time, they slapped the electrodes on, knocked me, and sent me home. I walked home and slept for a couple of hours, got up and went back to work for the rest of the day.
This last time, it happened as I was getting out of bed. I was feeling fine. Everything was fine except my heart wouldn’t work. It was November. I had now been at the farm, now my farm, for three years. Every morning, I got up, dizzy, waited for the dizziness to pass, went and lit the fire, fed the cows, came in, sat down, still dizzy, reluctant to move. But then it was spring and then it was summer. There were things to do, things that had to be done, no matter how down-hearted I might be.
All summer, while I stumbled up hills and tried to keep up with the garden, too tired at night sometimes to even be alive, my heart and I discussed metaphors. Weak hearted, I scolded it, half-hearted, broken hearted. It’s my heart, I thought. Why doesn’t it hear me? Why won’t it fix itself?
I wanted to have a full heart, a strong heart, a brave heart, not this foolish stuttering heart that quailed at every effort. I wanted to have my heart in my work, not avoiding it. Somehow I couldn’t keep my mind on work when my heart wasn’t inside it somewhere, chugging sturdily along. I wanted to have the heart of a lion, not the heart of a lettuce.
And then finally, the hospital in Vancouver called, and off I went, yet again, to the smiling busy nurses and the brisk cardiologist and then zap, and home I went with a high head and a heart of what? My heart leapt up—my heart was cast down, a heart made of elastic and electricity. Heart like a wheel on fire. Heart of my heart.
It’s odd to be aware of my heart, as I am, like always sitting in a silent room with a ticking clock, not only time ticking away but the endless motion of things inside me that I would rather take for granted, breath and blood and muscles and decay. In bed at night, I turn over and no matter how I arrange myself, my errant treacherous heart beats in my fingertips, my neck, my legs, swooshes in my ears, whispers, I am here, I am still here.

And so we are.