I met Ernie and Cathy several years ago, two sensitive souls who live on the island of Victoria off the coast of Vancouver. During the last year, their lives have opened into a difficult depth, as an inoperable brain tumor has made Ernie’s light more simple and bare. And Cathy stays near him like a strong blue flame.
They’ve chosen to live this part of their lives openly, somehow knowing that just as fire needs oxygen, the heart, no matter what it’s asked to face, needs the open air of relationship to keep going.
Recently, Ernie recommended a wise and touching book, Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows, by Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle. The book chronicles the last days of Olivia’s husband and their journey with his Alzheimer’s. There’s a chapter called “The Grace of Diminishment.”
The notion of grace coming from diminishment is a hard door of wisdom to open. For the diminishments we face have a life of their own, which can be dark, even blinding. I know from my own journey that limitations, hard as they are to accept, bring quiet freedoms. Unable to move after surgery, I was forced to see all of life in the inch before me. Unable to hear, I was forced to make a teacher of silence. And when unable to be with my father who was dying, my heart was forced to find him in the kindness of everyone I met.
Ernie shared this moment of diminishment and the grace it opened, while walking his dogs:
This morning I again walked up the eight flights of stairs (yes, our elevator is out) after taking the dogs for our morning sojourn. As each day goes by, it’s getting harder for our older dog (Reilly, close to fourteen) to make the climb. With each floor, I pause, sit with the younger (Kipper, he’s seven) and wait. Reilly looks up from the bottom of the stairs… Kipper lays down, rests his head and looks down at his older brother. Slowly Reilly elegantly brings himself up the stairs…when he reaches the top, Kipper raises his head, they look, touch, stand together, and we begin again.
Isn’t this what our hearts are finally opened to: making the climb, a bit at a time, and waiting for each other along the way? Isn’t this all we can hope for: to look, touch, stand together, and begin again?
When our dog-child Mira was twelve and a half, we knew the slow climb well, tender and heart-breaking with each step. When my father was bed-ridden at ninety-three, his arm fit like a chalky pipe in my palm as he stared into my eyes from the edge of Eternity, wondering why everything looked so soft.
And today, the rain is fine, a steady mist that enables me to go on. All of it strangely a blessing, as are you as you read this, though you may not know it. So wait for me when the wind throws something in my eye. Then I’ll wait for you, when something in the shadow cast over the willow takes the wind out of your heart, because it reminds you of another time that can’t be relived.
Being opened is the most difficult and rewarding part of being human. Often, this happens through our experience of less, not more. For all we learn by reaching, we learn as much when forced to be where we are. How still the trees are, rooted in one place for years, and yet they grow.
This excerpt is from a new book in progress, The Temple is the World.
*photo credit: veeterzy