Adaptable

The squirrels have begun an assault on my vegetable garden, drawn by a stunning and unplanned stand of sunflowers starting to go to seed. I can’t say I blame them, and I don’t mind that they eat the sunflowers–the birds can grab plenty. It’s the intelligence of squirrels that rallies the assault: they find a food source, tell their friends, and then explore further into the garden. That’s where I get annoyed with them. In this dry, hot weather they seek out the juicy tomato fruits and, while there, sample everything else they can find.

But their appearance is due to human circumstance and intervention. The development of a suburban cul de sac next door instead of the cornfield of past years, for example, and the pressure that has led to fewer predators in our little environment. More deer in smaller acreage, and deer eat oak saplings, so we have fewer oak trees maturing along the woodlot. With less mast available, why not turn to sunflower seeds, tomatoes, pears, even squash? Squirrels will take advantage of those changes. Very adaptable creatures.

Adaptability is admirable, and required if beings are to stay alive, let alone evolve. When I visit my beloved, aphasic, widowed mother, I marvel that she can nevertheless, under enormous changes, navigate the world. Granted–she has assistance. But not all human beings with assistance manage to maintain a benign and compassionate sense of self as their bodies fall apart with age.

Which brings me to Lost and Found, a Memoir, by Kathryn Schulz. My book group read this one recently, and I started reading it without doing any research about the book or the author–too busy with other things, and sometimes I like to be surprised by a text. By page 60, I was teary-eyed, because the story Schulz tells resonates with me. This month marks the second anniversary of my dad’s death, and the book begins with the death of Schulz’s beloved, curious, intellectual, chatty father.

This is the “Lost” of Lost and Found. Schulz writes beautifully, and writes beautifully of how complex and fraught the impending death of a loved one can be–the decisions, the fears, memories, even the forms that must be filled out and submitted so that the insurance and medical bills get properly taken care of. Meanwhile, we grieve and remember and numbly try to keep on in our suddenly bereaved “normal lives.” Schulz describes the environment of grief accurately and poignantly.

The “Found” section of the book describes love: new love, romantic love, the thumping of the heart and surprise at finding a person who’s the person. Here, Schulz’s experience differs considerably from mine, yet her writing took me back to days of feeling the heady excitement of getting to know someone deeply, intimately. The memoir, though it begins in sorrow, ends with the vulnerable opening into the shared territory of long-term relationships, whether those are among families, friends, or spouses.

As wretched as the world often is, we–and the rodents, insects, plants, etc.–find ways to adapt for far longer than seems likely. In the face of war and climate catastrophe and the loss of what we love, some of us manage to change and stay resilient, teaching new skills to those who come after us. We do so through art, literature, dance, music, community, love. It isn’t easy and it isn’t certain. But it’s all we’ve got.

The morbid book group

[FYI, readers, I have a poem in this anthology, which relates to this post.]

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A little over a year ago, I was invited to participate in a book discussion group that  focuses on texts that offer varying perspectives concerning health, surviving cancer, different cultural views of aging, and dying; books on “dying well,” hospice and palliative care, and on hope and healing; books on chronic pain and on neurology and the medical establishment, on birth traditions, on the history of medicine. We have also read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Still Here by Ram Dass, and discussed books that have topics such as placebo effects, psychology, alternative medicines, the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, the training and practice of doctors, and the death & dying ‘industries,’ including works by authors with personal and moral perspectives on how to live (and how to die). The people involved have included a pediatric palliative care expert, a NICU nurse, a hospice team spiritual counselor, a minister, a former nurse and massage therapist who’s a tai chi instructor, and others–most of us “of a certain age,” by which euphemism I mean we have been living through the experience of having parents in extreme old age and of having long-time friends who now contend with chronic or potentially fatal illnesses. At least one of us has survived cancer.

For a perspective on how most Americans view a serious study of such topics, I offer my husband’s assessment. He calls this “the morbid book group.”

In fact whenever I mention that I participate in a book group (a popular American activity), people ask me if the group has a theme; I tell them, “The theme is medicine, and wellness, and how we die.” And there’s inevitably a pause, and usually my friend asks, “Isn’t that kind of depressing?”

No. It has not been depressing, in fact. I have gained more than I can say from these books and from our small group discussions: information, perspective, philosophy, insight, dare I say wisdom? Not to mention freedom to talk about those things we tend to evade in polite conversation, the space in which to say “This really sucks” or “This saddens me deeply” or to ask, “What can we do?” The book selections have led to great discussions–and have helped me to forge some new friendships as well as to confront and accept different points of view on controversial issues surrounding health care. And death, yes (hello morbid books!), and grief, and–most of all–compassion.

Difficult books? Challenging reading? Have I ever shied from it? I relish exploring this kind of non-fiction-fact-science-ethics-cultural criticism. Participating in this book group is one of the highlights of my current life experience; it’s up there with my long-running poetry critique group and my MFA years in terms of transformational engagement and exchange of ideas.

Below, a list of some of the books we have read and talked about. Just in case any of my readers wish to begin a morbid book group of their own.

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Radical Remissions, Kelly A. Turner

Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Katy Butler

Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson

Death’s Door, Sandra Gilbert

Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenreich

Still Here, Ram Dass

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande

The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

Birth, Tina Cassidy

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Counterclockwise, Ellen Langer

The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom

Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni

Healing Spaces, Esther M. Sternberg

Die Wise, Stephen Jenkinson

…& more ahead, as we plumb consciousness, placebos, the medical hierarchy, and compassionate ways of living in the world. By the way, readers–suggestions for further readings are welcome!