Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dog Days

            On Sunday June 9th 2012, Angele Lazurko, 20, and Matthieu Arbour, 21, both from Sudbury Ontario, left Lazurko's 1½ year old dog, Tucker, in the back seat of their parked car. They went inside the Vaughan Mills Mall, just outside Toronto, for over 2 hours, leaving only a small crack in a window for ventilation. Temperatures in Vaughan that afternoon reached 32ºC (89.6ºF). A passerby noticed the trapped dog and alerted mall staff who then called 911. Rescuers attempted to splash the dog with water through the insufficient crevice, to little avail. Tucker died before emergency services arrived on the scene. Both parties face animal cruelty charges.
            Police were called to the Vaughan Mills parking lot around 2:15 P.M. and found the Weimaraner and Chocolate Labrador cross unresponsive. Emergency crews forced their way inside the vehicle, breaking a window, however it was too late. The cause of the dog's death is unknown, but the temperature at the time the police arrived was an unforgiving 28ºC (82.4ºF). The pair was in the Toronto area to attend Woofstock, North America's largest festival for dogs when they decided to do a little shopping.
            The Ontario SPCA receives "six to eight calls a week" during the summer regarding dogs trapped in cars. Every year, come the dog days, people leave their responsibility behind them, ignorantly believing, or not caring, that their animal is safe. I suppose they forget that the same rules of nature apply to everyone, including our canine friends. Even with a space in the window, dehydration can take place very quickly. Fifteen minutes can have deadly consequences. Calls in Ontario for harsher sentences resulting from such neglect and cruelty have, thus far, fallen on deaf ears.  
            People who leave their pets unattended in a sweltering vehicle are just as neglectful as if a child was left in the same situation. Abandon your child to the backseat of your car on a hot sunny day and you'll end up with a charge much more severe than cruelty or abuse. It seems to me that somehow animals don't matter as much, their value is not equal. Tell that to the kind-hearted soul for whom a dog is their child. Of course, people forsake their own kids to this type of automotive hell all the time. This does little to lessen my anger regarding this treatment and the way some recklessly disregard their pet's right to refuge. Animals are entitled to the same dignity and compassion that human beings are. Why do we casually cast them aside, well knowing the consequence when we do?  Dogs are supposed to be man's best friend. This statement not only implies, it demands, they are granted the same right to respect, consideration and safety that children are. When you own a dog, it is not only your responsibility to give them a good life, but also to make sure they have a dignified death. It's the least we can do.


            Although I have spotted memory of the three dogs my family owned when I was a wee lad, Trixie and Chico and Sparky, it is a medium-sized purebred poodle named Nugget who brings back my fondest childhood memories of this creature called the dog. We got Nuggy from my Dad's sister, who ran a kennel farm at the time. At approximately eight months of age, he looked nothing like a poodle. He wasn't unkempt; he was covered with a dense, curly mound of soft, almost golden brown hair, thus the name. His tiny tail was a curlicue at the end of the line. The only time he was ever humiliated by clippers was to free his summer hair for regrowth before winter. Year after year, he was transformed from Benji to weasel, his light grey skin so foreign to the sun.  Despite city living, Nugget fared well. He had his own yard, his own space and five children to torment him and love him. I could not have imagined when we got him home in 1972, that he would become such a longtime member of our family. We thought of him as one. When we moved, late summer 1976, to the pseudo-country living of Strathroy Ontario, Nugget's reward for his friendship was parks and lanes and forest to play in. He had a huge front and back yard for his pleasure. He even had his own room, if you count the garage as one. He was always such a pleasant dog.
            As he aged, so too did his family. He sat alone much more than he once did. When the children of those children found legs, and discovered the dog in the yard, he once more was cherished and embraced by childhood fancy. As the dog days of his summer settled in for the waiting game, he didn't bark as much, he didn't run as much, but his presence was always just a step outside the house. I can remember how soft and warm his fur was, how it bounced back to skin when you petted him. Growing old did not change anything but the speed of his stride. Up to the day he died, he was aged but still Nugget. I spent a lot of my free time as a teenager with him. It often felt like he was my only friend. Words cannot express my fondness, even though he was just a dog.
            August of 1988 was extremely hot in southern Ontario, Canada. Nugget was incontinent and had to be kept out in the garage for sanitary reasons. One day I found him, shaking, on the cool floor of his room. He was a good age at 16 years, but he somehow seemed so much older. I picked him up with great concern and witnessed maggots squirming in the lining of his mouth. We knew his health was compromised, sometimes even weak, but we never imagined he would end in this place. The day before, Nugget and I sat underneath a tree up on the hill, together one last time. He seemed fine. I cannot explain what happened; the extreme heat must have caught up with him. The Vet later told me that bugs lay their larva in old animals all the time but somehow I wish I could have done something so that he had avoided such pain. We never knew.  I alerted the household and a friend of the family took him over to the animal hospital to be put to sleep. He was the first animal laid to rest in the yard, up on the hill beneath the Lillie of the Valley and a spruce tree. 


            The first time I saw Teddy, I almost pissed my pants. He scared the living shit out of me. His onslaught was ferocious. I hoped his chain would hold. I had been attacked and wounded by an Irish Setter when I was almost 8, leaving great trepidation toward larger, more aggressive dogs. Teddy was both. An enormous, deep-black Chow Chow, weighing well over 75 pounds, he seemed to me a juggernaut. I knew the breed was considered a "high risk dog" and that it was in his nature to protect the home, but that did little to stop me almost crapping in my shorts. First there was the snarl, then he would withdraw to the growl, lunge, then one more, then stop and show his teeth. He stood there, mocking me. I just knew it. I was his toy, covered in my own fear. He sensed it, I know he did. I ran, and ran, then I ran some more.
            The job I was offered did not come with instructions for Teddy. With the main entrances protected by his might, I had to widen my pattern of approach. For weeks we played this game; every time he was the champion. The porch, which overlooked his den, stretched out into the backyard so I could stand in safety overlooking the beast.  One afternoon, I was sitting on the deck eating my lunch when I heard the strangest noise. I took to the rail to investigate. Sitting 10 feet below me, staring right back, Teddy whined even louder, like a stuck pig would. The toss was made from sympathy. The cookie met a horrid fate. The dog was in love.
            The very next day, I started bringing treats for my new friend. Every chance I got, I tossed a nibble of this and a handful of that. Eventually, he allowed me to feed him by hand. Suddenly, I was able to pet him, and then brush him. When I walked him, he walked me. He was the most impressive animal I have ever had the privilege to experience up close and personal. It's odd how the fiercest are often the most faithful.  For someone so terrified of large dogs, with an allergy to dog saliva, you would think I would have avoided wrestling with such a monster. Each night, before heading for home, I would approach the ring for battle. He knew exactly what was coming. He jumped and clamped onto my arm, twisting and shifting it with the stretch of my leather jacket. I could feel him controlling himself, he was playing and I knew it.
            Teddy's nature got the best of him. I don't know why he attacked that woman, but I know that he did. I could not have taken him home with me. He had to be put down. It's one thing to strut your stuff, but it is something very different when you try to bite someone's calf off their leg. This did nothing to lessen my pain, or his destiny. I used to sit up on the hillside and watch as clients and visitors came and went, all the while observing this fascinating dog do his job. I have to believe it was not his animal nature that I came to know, rather his true nature that I got to experience.   


            Shortly after Teddy's death, the other dog from that household, Skipper, was brought fully into my life. I had contact with him while at work, but Teddy had garnered my attention rather than Skip. A white Cockapoo, around 13 years of age, he was almost completely blind from cataracts when I finally agreed to take him home. My decision was not a difficult one to make. His owners were forced to leave him to nature, chained by the same string of metal that once held Teddy. He was uncontrollable, difficult and very much a mess. I found him literally screaming against the rock wall, begging God and mercy to set him free from his dark place. I couldn't bear to leave him there.
            I suppose it was memories of Nugget, left out in the garage, which played on my sympathies. The moment he was set down in my home, he changed completely. He turned from a fractured victim of his own health to the vibrant and loving pet I had seen glimpses of while I was at work. I had made the right decision. He took to his new life as if he had been waiting for it all of his old life. I was amazed how well he adapted to his new environment. I have never been witness to any creature holding onto life with such fierce resolve; nothing seemed to take away his zest for living. Almost in an instant, he became part of the family. After a few days of adjustment, even my 15 year old cat Gizmo took to his presence. It seemed there was nothing Skippy could not rise above.
            For years, this poor blind dog demonstrated nothing but a passion for living. When I was forced to relocate to my parents' home for a few months, he even took to Nugget's space like a trooper. For me, my strongest memories are of walking him, like Nuggy, down the street on snowy evenings and sneaking him inside on harsh cold nights. When I found myself resettled in Kitchener, his end began. First it was the incontinence, a sure sign of impending doom. Then his blindness worsened. Often he became lost and found himself at the bottom of my staircase, despite the blocked entrance. When his teeth started falling out, you could not ignore it was time.
            The day before the deed was done, the sunshine was gruelling and humidity hung heavy in the air. I took him into the shower with me, to lighten his load. He seemed to whimper softer than he usually did. I remember him standing in this rain like it was yesterday. The next day, Monday July 4th 2005, and the choice to say goodbye was made for him. There was no way what had happened to Nugget was going to happen to Skip. They almost sit together now, up on the hilltop; his stone has shifted with the passage of time. As much as I tell myself that it was the right thing to do, as much as I just know it, I cannot help feeling guilty, almost as if I murdered him. All the amount of mercy that was given that day cannot replace his loving ways and the tender moments this family shared with him. Even though he really wasn't my dog, I think I miss him most of all.

"Be thou comforted, little dog,
Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail."
(Martin Luther)

            Examining these dog days has been like sticking pins into my eyes. It fucking hurts. I guess I miss my friends. Even though they are gone, they are always going to be a part of me. The pictures of them that are scattered throughout my home do not stand discreetly or in shadow. Like photographs of my parents and my partners, they mingle with the mosaic of my life caught on film. They will always be part of the best days from my living. The reward for their camaraderie was dignity and a painless death. These things were the best things that could be offered to them in the end. 
            Most people do not seem to form attachments to animals like I do. The difference is that I believe everything has a soul, especially animals. I never forget that I will one day be held responsible for my actions which involved them. I will have to answer for the way I treated each and every one. Some people are way too stupid to realize this. A pet for them is as easily discarded as a wrapper from a chocolate bar. I would imagine the same retards that leave a dog in their car on a summer's day also beat their children and think its okay.  It is not okay. Maybe if we tied Angele Lazurko, and her caring boyfriend, in the backseat of some automobile, then rolled up the windows to hold in a hot summer day, they might consider their actions before they commit to them. For their sake, let us hope freedom comes to them before their kidneys fail, their lungs stop working or their brains explode. Lazurko claims to have loved her dog. I would not want to see what she would have done had she hated it.

 "It's not the size of the dog in the fight,
it's the size of the fight in the dog."
(Mark Twain)





Summer 1980

Late Winter 2003

Spring 2004

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fierce Goodbye

"Now I understand
What you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen,
They did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now."
(Vincent, Don McLean 1971)

            Theological and moralist thinking aside, if you're going to stand in front of a train and let it hit you on purpose, there is something wrong in your head. Any sane man would jump out of the way. Speaking from experience, there is no way I was in my right mind any of the times that I tried to take my own life. With proper treatment, especially the right medication, I stand as proof that there is light at this end of the tunnel. The fact that I should have died on a starry February night is all the proof I need. My fate was not in my hands. I don't believe for a second that we have the power to take our own life. For me it rings true, what kills one man does not kill the other. It is in God's hands who will live and who will die. We have no more control over life and death than we do over a starry, starry sky. No matter what anyone has tried to convince me of, no matter their revelation, that’s how I choose to see it.
            Having survived my own suicidal rampages, and having experienced the suicide of a loved one, I am convinced that the less than magnanimous opinion towards those who off themselves is nothing but complete ignorance and a means to an end. It is easy to justify our fears through these victims, so we just send them all off to hell. People who have never been in the suicidal "passageway" can't comprehend what it is like, how when you arrive at that state inside yourself, there is no turning back but for by the grace of God. It really is like tunnel vision; you cannot see past it. On the other hand, the threat of eternal damnation has always kept such activities in check, making folks too afraid to live but too afraid to die. Fear has always been a means of controlling people. I have to believe there are circumstances only God can know, leading to these fierce goodbyes. Whether because of religious or social influences, we seem to lack any kind of compassion at all for people who lose their way and end up so lost.
"They's plenty men thet are mean and hateful, son, or they cheat folks, or beat their wives and their colored, but when they die, them preachers cain't say enough nice thangs. Well, Camp he warn't evil or hateful, either one. He jest couldn't do nothin'. So doggit, Will Tweedy, ain't you or nobody else go'n say he's gone to Hell. He jest couldn't stand it no more. Would a lovin' God kick a boy unhappy enough to do what pore Camp did?" (Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns 1984)
             In antiquity, survival of the tribe was the dominant force. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, even spilling your seed was punishable by death (Genesis 38:9-10). The growth and development of a strong clan meant harsh consequence for those who disregarded this reality. Laws against adultery (Exodus 20:7) and homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13) speak volumes on the importance of maintaining the tribe and producing offspring for the Israelites. Of course, adding God's approval or disapproval to man-made rules of behaviour, cemented ideas regarding acceptable practises involving not only the decisions of life but also those involving death. We started speaking for God. Anything against the grain, leading to a deficit in, or threat to, the population, became an abomination. Ironically, the punishment usually was death. 
            It is not reaching to suggest that early ideas regarding suicide were determined through standing rather than just through stigma. I find it strange that the negative, hellbound condemnation of such victims does not always apply to everyone, especially in scripture. King Saul, rather than face capture at the hands of the Philistines who fought against Israel, "took his own sword and fell on it" (1 Samuel 31:4b). This may have been seen as an honourable act in its time, but it was still self-murder. The tradition that Saul now dwells with Samuel, a prophet of Yahweh, seems to indicate it is his intent rather than any action which dictated his reward or punishment. I assume all was forgiven.
            Samson, set on revenge, pushes against the walls of the temple of Dagon, shouting out to God, "Let me die with the Philistines!" (1 Judges 16:30). Samson is buried beneath the rubble. In this case, it is not the means by which he killed himself but his intent, his seething need for vengeance that brings the walls down with him. He commits his revenge suicide but is hailed as a hero. According to Hebrews 11, Samson is held in much esteem alongside other heroes of the faith such as David, Gideon and Samuel. I assume that, as with Saul, all was forgiven. 
            In these cases, the biblical record doesn't condemn those who have taken their own life, rather it rewards them. In fact, both these characters are revered throughout biblical history. I remember reading about how great Samson was when I was a child. No one bothered to mention the unpardonable sin he had committed in the name of vengeance. No one pointed out what really happens to someone when they take their life. It wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered God gets to pick and choose who is cast down after taking to suicide. The rules for everyone don't apply to everyone. Still, I can only conclude great men of God do not dwell with the damned.
            Survival is our strongest instinct. In spite of this natural predisposition, we kill ourselves slowly and with foreknowledge. We smoke too much. We eat too much. We use toxic things. We drive too fast and we take stupid chances. We know these things can harm us but we do them anyway. In a sense, we are killing ourselves and don't seem to care. Is every moron, like me, who drags off a cigarette, sentenced to hell because they knew what might happen? We are offing ourselves systematically, but we do not presume that each of these careless souls will be cast into the pit.
            Some would argue then that Jesus himself committed suicide. Like the man who stands in front of an oncoming truck, He saw it coming. It was His destiny to die. He didn't just have human insight, He had divine awareness (or so the story goes). He even claimed to have permission from God to do so. He knew exactly how it would all go down. Did He stop Judas or deny Himself to Pilate, no, He took his own death into His own hands and embraced it. He encouraged this fate when He could have easily slipped away to some spa instead of the temple that day. He laid down His own life; it was not taken from Him. Although He did not cause Himself physical injury, it is arguable that the punishment inflicted on Him did not cause the end of his life. Jesus gave up His Spirit. This act would have occurred regardless of His mortal condition. The question one has to ask then is, would it not be suicide if any other person did the very same things? Would we not consider such actions in and of themselves self-destruction?    
" The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life - only to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:17-18, NIV)
             I'm not trying to justify or condone suicide; I just don’t think we should be tossing those most troubled into everlasting punishment, whether real or imagined. The completion of a suicide is enough for most survivors to have to deal with, and then along comes well-meaning religious folk to heap coals by reminding us just where God has sentenced our loved ones to dwell forever. It is obvious, to me at any rate, that anyone who would choose their own death has a serious psychological problem. They are not responsible for their actions. I don't think God overlooks these things. If God was, most certainly, able to look past the sins of those who championed Him, then how much more compassion would He freely give someone so compromised that they take their own life?
            As hard as we try, we do not understand the mystery of existence. Perhaps in death we will come to comprehend what we could not through living. For someone so fractured and unbalanced mentally, death offers something that life cannot. People who kill themselves are witness to living through rose-colored glasses. Their loneliness, despair, fear, sense of rejection, mental incapacity, self-esteem, or lack thereof, their struggle, convinces them that death offers more, including a solution to all their problems. Sometimes suicide isn't about why, but why not.
            Perhaps the most contrived idea of damnation for those who take their own life comes from Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem, The Divine Comedy. In part one, Inferno, Dante visits the layers of hell with Virgil, the Roman poet, now in angelic form. Dante's hell contains nine circles (levels) of suffering located deep within the earth. The seventh circle (reserved for the violent), has a middle ring appropriated for those who commit violence against themselves. Here these dead are transformed into knotted, thorny trees and bushes, which malicious and ferocious Harpies (winged beasts) feast upon.  The trees act "as a metaphor for the state of mind in which suicide is committed." Dante is instructed that these suicides are "unique among the dead." Those who commit such acts, he learns, "will not be corporally resurrected after the final judgment since they gave away their bodies through suicide." They will maintain their place in hell with their human body hanging from their branches.
            Judgment and blame have always belonged to God, but human beings tend to delight in both. Dante's imagery only helped to cement an already blossoming vision of the afterlife for those who take their own life. The writings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, during the Middle Ages, reinforced the widely held belief that suicide is a sin. This was predominately based on the sixth commandment, "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13). The idea that violence against yourself is a criminal act rather than anything modern medicine might call psychiatric only strengthened a place in oblivion for those who abandon it all.
            If suicide is murder then surely killing someone else is murder too. Just back from a long trip with Moses (the book of Exodus), Joshua knows the commandments very well, yet he slaughters most of Canaan, claiming to follow divine orders.  To assume Joshua was a murderer, he killed, would be one huge understatement; Joshua slaughtered. Apparently, once again God overlooks the sin in light of the sinner. It's okay to break the Law if God Himself says you can. The idea of 'thou shalt not kill' is pushed aside for this man of biblical greatness. I assume that all was forgiven.
            If God can see past the Law for Joshua, Samson and Saul, then perhaps we are selling Him short by thinking this seemingly standard forgiveness is not for all, particularly those who commit suicide. Although I cannot speak for God, I assume He recognizes any inability one might have to discern between right and wrong. He must understand the human flaw called madness, of losing control of one's own mind. Surely, while it may not excuse the act, this explains it. Some would argue that suicide goes against natural order and so it interferes with God's Will. I am convinced that while suicide may not be part of God's Will, He can work His Will within it.

“If wild my breast and sore my pride,
I bask in dreams of suicide,
If cool my heart and high my head
I think 'How lucky are the dead.”
(Complete Poems, Dorothy Parker 2003)
            It's no secret that I don’t believe in hell. I do believe in heaven and that is where everyone goes, in my estimation. I'm sick of people telling me that when someone kills himself, it automatically means he goes to hell or oblivion. I have to believe, as with a few great martyrs for God, that forgiveness is the rule and not the exception. God doesn’t play favourites (1 Peter 1:17). He judges all people by the same measure. There is no special exemption for the holy man, or the warrior of God or the prophet; we all stand equal in His sight. We are all held to the same standards and we all can access His mercy and forgiveness. Even Jesus confirms His mission was for those lost and unworthy of salvation (Luke 19:10).  We forget, the only unforgiveable sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29) and that information comes from the Boss Man Himself.
            Suicide is the ultimate act of self-absorption. Obviously, those who complete suicide just could not handle what the world had to offer them. In the end, it often takes more courage to live than it does to kill yourself. Death does not have to hold the last word. In my mind, God doesn’t look at what you've done, but why you did it. If He can overlook what one person does, He can overlook what we all do. Any judgement made is governed by our intent. His compassion, forgiveness and mercy, outweigh any rules of damnation man has placed upon himself. It is so easy for us to judge each other, but we forget we must love each other above everything but God. No one really knows anything concrete about the after world, but I cannot help feeling that it would be a lesser place without souls like Doug Hastings, Ernest Hemingway and Vincent van Gogh.
"For they could not love you,
But still your love was true.
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you."
(Vincent, Josh Groban 2001)

Sermons on Suicide
James T. Clemons (Editor)
Reed Business Information, Inc

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dear Mom:

            It's been a few years now since you had to go. I still miss you and I still wish that somehow you could come back from where it is that you went. I know this is not possible. I have resolved myself to this life without you in it, but I hold to an unspoken promise that someday we will meet again. It seems so long already that I cannot imagine what this world will be like for me with you gone for 10 or 20 years and more. I won’t forget you no matter how much times passes.
            I'm writing this to you for your birthday. I know you would have been 70 years old today. I am sure you don't mind not aging. I just wanted to keep you up to date on how things have been going down here without you. I know you are unable to write me back, but I pray somehow this finds you well and that you get the chance to read it. I don't doubt that you will have a good day regardless of not being here. I'm still trying to figure out how all this heaven stuff works, but I hope it is a nice place for you and I wish for you even more happiness and peace.
            I have no idea how much information filters from here to where you are. I'm not sure what you know or even if you care anymore. I'm led to believe you've been brought up to speed so I won’t waste my time or yours with the sordid details. I will say that Dad is trying his very best to carry on in your absence. I know that he holds on to the idea that you will reunite one day soon, and carry on into eternity together. He isn't good, but he's okay and he misses you so very much.
            The day you died was the first time I had to know grief without you. From the time I was a little kid, we always seemed to lean on each other. The hardest part of all this for me has been losing your friendship. You know I think you were an awesome Mother, but I miss our camaraderie the most. All the videos and pictures that we have of you have helped us all remember you better, but sometimes I just need to feel your touch and hear your laughter in person rather than on TV.  I often look for you when driving out in the country. I know you aren't out there somewhere, waiting to wave, but it makes me feel better to think there is at least a chance, no matter how small it is.  

            I want you to know that things are not the same with you gone. As hard as I try, I cannot seem to shake the reality that this life is less without you in it. I would never have believed this would still hurt so damn much. Although Dad and I have gotten much closer since you passed, this has done little to fill the void no longer being near to you has brought. Sometimes though, in the still of the night or on this highway often forgotten by others, I catch a glimpse of you inside my mind and I make believe it might be you calling out to me from the place you are now. I imagine the wind is you singing and the sunshine on my face is a kiss from you just for me. If you can see me, then you know I try my best to keep your memory alive. It seems others have lost this sense, but I am sure you know that I have not. There are so many things I want to ask you.
            Can you smell the flowers I buy for you each week? Do you know how much I miss you? Is God pissed off at all the bad press He gets or does He laugh out loud over it? Have you been past heaven or are you stuck in the place? Is there peace you've found? Most of all, I'd like to know if there is a way for you to get back to me, to somehow reach through this madness and send me a sign? I suppose I am still not convinced all is safe and sound and it might help me if you could confirm that I am on the right track.Is it okay for me to ask you to find a tiny drop of rain and make it linger long enough on my fingertip to reflect your face? Why don't I see you in my dreams?
            Don't get wrong Mom, I'm not having trouble holding on, or holding out hope. You know how questioning I can be so I'm sure you comprehend that I'm having difficulty understanding why I should have to do either. What purpose is there in all this? Can you manage to let me in on the secret, even in a wee small way? I am unsure of the connection I often still feel; is it all in my head or is it really you at the other end? I know, for some unfair reason, that you can't confirm anything for me, but I must admit I feel relief in just asking. I wonder if there is anything you want to know, but something tells me you don't spend your time thinking about such meagre things.
            Every day you are not here reminds me how important it is to appreciate what I do have. Your death has made me love living more. I am sorry I wasted so much time while you were alive worrying about this and that. I wish I had been more restrained when I was younger, but I know you recognized this was mostly out of my control. I don't think people really get missing something so deeply that it changes you. Do you understand why humans would rather forget than hurt?

             Do you remember that ceramic baseball glove you bought for the cemetery in Stratford? After all these years, it has started to fade and crack from the sun. The other day, I was walking through a second hand store when I came across an almost new, identical twin, just sitting there, calling out to me. I remember when you gave the original and just how much that has always meant. You were such a good friend and a wonderful Mom. I realize how silly it sounds, but finding that doppelganger meant the world to me.  It was almost as if you placed it in that very spot, a secret gift. I took it up to Avondale, switched the old for the new, and then placed your expression of love amongst the treasures I keep around me in my home. By the way, like you asked, I found your autoharp pick and put it in a safe place.
            There is not much left for me to say other than I love you and can't wait to meet you again. Please say hello to Doug for me, I hope he has liked the gardens. I am sure his mother sends her regards. Tell him she is well, if you don’t mind.  It is mere logic to presume that Dad will see you sooner than later, so I won’t speak for him. I am sure somehow you know. I remember your birthday but I doubt, in the long run, that matters outside of time and space. I am sure that we all will see you soon, whether we fight our own passing on or not. Sometimes I think I can still hear you singing; I hope you got the lead. I will look for you in the light.

Happy Birthday!!!




Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Ode to Misery

"This is suffering;
this is the origin of suffering;
this is the cessation of suffering;
this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering."
(Samyutta Nikaya LVI. 31, Buddhist scripture )

             Life is suffering. It is part of being human to experience this reality of imperfection; we are victims within this cruel world. Life is hard most of the time. It is our lot in life to endure physical suffering such as pain, poor health and, eventually, death. On top of everything life does to our bodies, we must also endure psychological suffering manifested as loss, depression, fear and sorrow (grief). There are, of course, different degrees to each form of our distress. What may be traumatic to one may be of little consequence to another. It is a no brainer that every person, to one degree or another, must face a life of conflict and reoccurring misery. It is built into our nature to abide. It seems we all must suffer.
            Suffering comes from our transitory attachments and our inability to recognize them. These attachments are not restricted only to the actual objects from our environment. Our ideas, addictions and perceptions are also a basis for why human beings suffer. No matter what we claim as our own, any object of possession is fleeting. These too shall pass. Because we desire, covet, crave and cling to these things, suffering leaves when they do. Our wretchedness then ends when such transient things fall away.       
            We do not have to suffer. Happiness is attainable when we release ourselves from our physical and psychological drives. There is freedom in having not. Through our separation from abstract attachments, we develop dispassion. We become more objective and detach from things we once held in high regard. Suffering is removed when the cause of the suffering is removed. This takes participation on the part of the afflicted. It is also easier said than done, but can be attained throughout the process of perfecting this skill, in practice and application. Eventually, one can achieve freedom from their troubles, problems and concerns. There can be an end to our suffering.
            The course to end suffering is a process of reformation. Through gradual self-improvement, a balance can be maintained between hedonism and asceticism. The way to happiness is to lead a life which avoids these extremes. This path is a long spiritual procedure many never achieve. Denying this world and forming no attachment within it is no simple matter. As you move along your way, these things must pass. Ignorance, delusion and want must be seen for what they are if their effect is to eventually fade. As one progresses, travelling down the highway, this middle path allows one to leave behind the extremes that torment the mind and body without reason. One may discover peace of mind and a sense of enlightenment. There is an alternative to misery, a way to end our suffering.

 "The greatest achievement is selflessness.
The greatest worth is self-mastery.
The greatest quality is seeking to serve others.
The greatest precept is continual awareness.
The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything.
The greatest action is not conforming with the world's ways.
The greatest magic is transmuting the passions.
The greatest generosity is non-attachment.
The greatest goodness is a peaceful mind.
The greatest patience is humility.
The greatest effort is not concerned with results.
The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go.
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances."
(Atisha, 11th century Tibetan Buddhist Master)

            The teachings of Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) on the Four Noble Truths explain the nature of suffering (dukkha). Whether unrest, anxiety or angst, this dukkha, according to the Buddha, can be overcome.  These truths are considered the central teaching of Buddhism. They provide unification and a synoptic outline for all Buddhist thought. As with Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, Buddha and the Four Noble Truths are fundamental in understanding the complexities of the religion. In this tradition, Buddha is reported to have observed that these four truths are much like the footprint of an elephant. Within this large marking, all the other footprints of all other animals will fit. In the same manner, "all of the teachings of the Buddha are contained within the teachings on the four noble truths."
            The end of suffering can be attained through nirodha, "the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment." Through nirodha, we achieve dispassion (objectivity and detachment). Through the multiple levels by which we perfect dispassion one can achieve the state of Nirvana. Here one finds release from worry and troubles. The complexities of life and our ideas about them are freed and we are freed from suffering.
            We know that suffering exists and that it has a cause, but it can also have an end. So too there is a way to bring about that end. To suffer does not always imply "a negative world view, but rather, a pragmatic perspective that deals with the world as it is, and attempts to rectify it." Things are not denied but recognized as having only momentary value. It is our adhesion to those things which denies us happiness. To gain true happiness we must realize that, in the end, there is little we cannot avert. Besides aging, illness and death, nothing is certain or unavoidable. These Four Noble Truths act as "universal principles of spiritual awakening and fulfillment," allowing us to rise above the suffering of life and reach a plateau where we can achieve contentment.  
"Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.'
And he told them this parable: 'The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, "What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops."
Then he said, "This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, 'You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’"
(Luke 12:15-20, NIV)

            Growing up in a Christian lifestyle, I discovered that not only was I responsible for my actions but also for the thoughts that I have. Wanting to punch my brother in the face was the same as actually doing it. I was responsible for not only what I do but also for my intentions. I had been convinced; what I thought in my mind was pretty much the same thing as having done the deed. Never once did I stop to recognize that the same "rule" applied to all the circumstances of my life. My thoughts empowered those circumstances, and all that comes with them. I gave them power. I gave them possession. I was needlessly suffering by my own hand.
            There are two kinds of happiness, the objective and the subjective. Objective happiness occurs through contact with an object. It is ephemeral. Subjective happiness occurs through mental balance and positive thinking. This creates a condition of stability and does not promote suffering in others.  Without subjective happiness there is no happiness. It does not matter how much objective happiness you have achieved, you cannot have mental well-being without this inner peace. If one is truly happy in their own mind, then one is unaffected by the outer influences that come with living.
            With Buddhism, I discovered that my own thinking and actions authorized my misery. What I put into each dictated their magnitude and effect. If I was suffering, I had no one to blame but myself. I gave permission to each instance, each investment and got exactly what I paid for. While unable to become truly unattached to those things which manifest within me, I have learned that enabling them and allowing them to control me is the same thing. Only purification of the mind will bring happiness. There is little difference between the Judeo-Christian ideas that "as a man thinketh in his heart so is he," (Proverbs 23:7, KJV) and "anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28, NIV), and the Buddhist thinking that our life is shaped by our mind. 

 "We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.
When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves."
(The Dharmapada, Sayings of Buddha c. 3rd century BCE)

            Yes, there is suffering. There is a cause for suffering. There may even be an end to our suffering, a "path of practice" which brings its cessation. I'm just not so sure that life is suffering. Perhaps it is a part of it, but suffering, in itself, is not the whole of living as we experience it. There is so much more. Every day, we forget that so many good things happen. Why do we focus so much on the bad things? The wonder of each new day, the goodness that shines in people, the deeper awareness that comes from within, can all be achieved and maintained. Life is not miserable and there is more to living than just agony. I do not mean to be morose, but without misery, we would not recognize joy.
            The things we hold onto, that we attach to, are not suffering in themselves. Suffering occurs when we cling to them or worship them (Luke 16:13). Without oversimplifying, "clinging is suffering." When we have a problem we look for its cause, then we stop the problem by eliminating the cause. We shouldn't deny our suffering, or run away from it, we must recognize it for what it is. By understanding, we can put an end to it. We have to abandon anything that hinders our awareness and embrace things that expand our awareness. It is within each person's potential to find their own nirvana.

 “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? 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? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you - you of little faith?"
(Matthew 6:25-30, NIV)

            I started swimming lessons when I was 5 years old. I wanted so bad to be able to swim in one of the Great Lakes or maybe even in an ocean one day. I excelled in the water. On the first day of my first class, I gladly jumped in the shallow end, unafraid and unstoppable. The next day, I jumped in a little further from the safer place. Day after day, I went a little deeper and swam a little stronger. By the end of that summer, there was nowhere I could not swim. I started swimming in ponds and small lakes. I swam with others and I swam by myself. Eventually, I swam in every Great Lake and both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Slowly, one measure at a time, I mastered my weaknesses and I controlled my fear. Thinking I could meant that I could.