A Poignant and Beautiful Tribute

When Heyward’s mother passed away recently, he wrote a very poignant tribute in response to messages of condolence that he had received from his friends. With Heyward’s permission, I would like to share this message with you because I think it is such a beautiful way to memorialise someone we love who has passed away, and is full of wisdom for how we might live our lives in everyday awareness…

“Last night I sat at my desk well past midnight and simply let tears flow as I read every post, text, email and message that came in as people got the news. The effect she has had on lives, the people she has touched and the friends and admires… it is beyond my grasp. So many of these messages have expressed a heartfelt desire to do something. I have deflected these request, as there doesn’t feel like there are things we need right now. That, however does not account for the very real need of those who are hurting, either for themselves or for us, to do something. So I made a list.

1. Hug your children, partner, parents and friends. Let them know how you feel about them. A large part of the peace I am able to feel in this is knowing that there is nothing that I needed to say to my mother that was left unsaid, nothing I wanted to do with her that was left undone. Every box was checked.

2. Talk to those people about your end of life. Get a living will. Give them the tools to be able to do for you as we have been able to do for mom. Those that mourn you will be sad enough, do not let them also feel powerless.

3. Drink a Gin and Tonic.

4. Be kind to an animal. Though it was many chapters ago, my mom once lived in a home filed with rescued bird of prey. In more recent years a screech owl fell down the basketball goal pipe in our yard- mom remembered that in those days her owls would climb her blue jeans. So she made a strip of denim and placed it down the tube- an hour later the bird was free.

5. Wear something Orange. Mom did not go to Clemson. Neither did anyone else I am related to. Our family moved there in 1978 and my dad became involved with the Clemson Sports Car Club. Though that organization my mother made some of her very best and most enduring friendships. Those friends, and the support they showed my mother in the wake of my parent’s divorce earned her loyalty to the school and its teams. In the years that I learned the terms and conditions of those years I asked her if there was conflict in her feelings about Clemson, she said no citing, when Clemson wins the people she most loves in the world are happy.

6. Feed someone. Mom was heavily involved with the Hickory Soup Kitchen and spearheaded the annual Octoberfest Castle of Cans effort. I do not know how many tons of food she has distributed to those in need, but I suspect the number is among her proudest achievements.

7. Be a mentor. The one theme of the messages I am getting that is most consistent is how much my mom was looked up to, and how much her perspective, experience and skill was appreciated. The environments of her mentoring seem limitless- from schools, to church, to race tracks to homes. I think mom would be most proud of those who she was able to help develop as a parent. It is truly the toughest job you can love, and I am tremendously thankful for the coaching I received.

8. Figure it out. Many have told me that my mom is a fighter. I do not subscribe to this. She is a figure-out-er. Mom finds the work around. Tell her it can’t be done, there is no budget, the challenge is too great, and watch. Her determination lead to creativity, not conflict. She built a medical clinic out of trash and a TV station out of scrap. It was not because she fought for them, but because she wanted them, and with enough will there is always a way.

9. Laugh. When I was a kid, there was a night that the curse of school buses upon hillclimbs was being lamented. I, being of an appropriate age for shenanigans, offered to insert potatoes in the tail pipes of said buses. The conversation and I offered a clumsily phrased query as to how this whole potato thing worked… without a beat missed, mom answered, “you just schtick it right in there.” For the next 20 years, the word stick, pronounced with a extra emphasis on the sch- has resulted in the same laughter that it did that night.

10. Watch an episode of Hill Street Blues or Northern Exposure, eat some peanut M&Ms and drink a diet coke. Read a book, go for a walk, scratch a dog.

11. Be a leader in your community. Mom never aspired to have titles or power, but she was a leader in every community that she entered. Her brand of leadership was that of doing what others would or could not. it is a leadership of action, purpose and drive. Managers arrange, oversee and direct the flow of credit. They make noise. Leaders head the effort, the do, think, carry and move.

12. See the ugly, and share it. Mom spent two summers and a winter in Poland in the the late 60’s as my dad did research toward his PhD. There are many, many stories of those months, but the ones that stick with me most are those of my mom’s visits to concentration camps in the area. I cannot explain her fascination, but I like to think it effected her humanity and spirituality. Facing something so horrific, knowing how cruel humans can be on the grandest level must certainly drive one to be kind, gentle and humane. Mom used to present her accounts and slides to kids as they studied WWII- I find it hard to believe children saw her images and heard her words have the same perspective on the war as those who simply read about it in book.

13. Do something that will make a hellva story. Mom also made good friends with a professor in Poland. In the late 80’s he came to visit us in NC. His young daughter was fascinated with box turtles, though they are not native to Poland. The day after his departure to Clemson and then on to Atlanta to fly home, Mitch and I found one on the walk home from school. Without a second thought, Mom put us in the van and we rushed the turtle south. I am told that the Turtle was successfully delivered to the daughter via the interior pocket on his sport coat and at last report was still living a happy life in Poland.

14. Build your Treasure. In the coming months we will attempt to tackle the mountain of memories that is my mom’s house. I call it that because Mitch, Alan and I all live there, but it was mom who made it. For many, I imagine the task of sorting a parents things is dreaded. I will not speak for others, but I am excited. Mom’s house is a treasure trove of memorabilia of her life spent with our family and a half a century of the life she has shared with our SCCA family. A few weeks ago I was going through my things there and found notebooks full of her hand written letters to her mother, a box of Chimney Rock control logs 1978-1995 and perhaps the most complete collection of Polish stamps in the country if not world.

15. Mourn. It is okay to be sad. We all are and we will be for some time. I will always be grateful for the way mom is passing. We had time after the shock to be with her, to let her be a grandmother, mother and wife. That is rare. The time we have is mercifully brief, and that too is rare. These are the blessing we have to make the sadness manageable and bearable. Mom is going out as a leader and a mentor. It is graceful, creative, powerful, just, fair and smart. She has empowered us to help her and taken charge of her fate. She is not fighting. She is showing us how. I am so proud and thankful, but also so sad for myself, for Alan, Mitch, Marshall and Cole and everyone else who would have liked more time.”

108 Blessings

2013.01.01 bell03New Year’s Eve in Japan is not an occasion for partying (that happens with gusto during the cherry blossom season!) but instead is a time for reflection upon the passing year and for honouring the arrival of the coming new year. It is not sombre, though, because it is a time for communities to get together and share in bringing in the New Year. Temples around the country ring their great bells 108 times at midnight and throngs of people gather in the freezing cold for a chance to thrust the huge log ringer against the massive bronze bell, which is said to bring good luck for the coming year.

This tradition was observed even in the small rural village where I lived. I remember vividly the first New Year’s Eve I celebrated there in 1995 because it was snowing as I walked up the mountain pathway with my young children, who were so excited about having stayed up so late, joining the other villagers and their children as we made our way up to the temple. Although now fallen into a state of aged disrepair, needing far more money than this small village could ever hope to raise to bring it back to its former glory, the temple was once a large training centre, focussed on mountain asceticism. Now there was a single priest, who had inherited his position from his father and his father before him, and who was more often to be found in the local bar than in the temple! The belfry, however, was still quite grand. It was a separate standing bell tower of wood, which held a magnificent ancient bronze bell that was rung only on New Year’s Eve or in the event of fire, using a massive log which was held by ropes and swung onto the side of the bell, creating a wonderful deep sonorous gong.

2013.01.01 bell01We huddled around a huge brazier kept stoked with firewood from the mountain forest, everyone chatting and laughing as we waited for midnight. Although a time of reflection, it is also an important community event and gathered together in the dark, in the snow, in the middle of the night, everyone was excited and in a heightened good humour. There was a great kettle over a stove that held amazake, a thick sweet beverage made with the lees leftover from making sake, with freshly grated ginger and sweetened with sugar. A perfectly delicious hot drink to have while standing in the snow at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

The bell was rung 108 times, each gong made by one of the villagers. The priest insisted that my family go first because it was our first year in the village. At the base of the rickety steps the priest told us to clear our minds and hold in our hearts a feeling of gratitude for all the good things that had come our way in the past year, and that this feeling would make the bell sing. Actually, I was a little afraid that I might fall off the platform with the force needed to release the rope, but instead took a deep breath of cold snowy cleansing air and thought of all the blessings that I had received that year. I drew back the rope – let it swing in once, then back again to build up momentum, then… GONG! The deep sonorous sound vibrated throughout my body and I felt cleansed.

As I descended the steps on the other side of the tower, I was met by one of the village elders who carefully counted out and placed three peanuts in their shells into my hands. Thinking there was ritual significance to this act, I reverentially asked what the peanuts symbolised. The old man looked puzzled for a moment before saying, “It’s a snack!” I just burst out laughing because it was another good reminder to me that in Japan the sacred and mundane are not separate, yet everything you eat, thing and do can become a special moment of awareness and connection.

These days, back in Australia, with the kids all grown up and off doing their own New Year’s Eve things, my husband and I have a new tradition. We go down to a small lookout in Yalgorup National Park, from which you can see west out over the ocean, east out over a large estuary and hills, and north and south over the forest and bushland of the national park. It is a magnificent view. At sunset, watching the sun sinking into the Indian Ocean and the forest turning deep pink in the sunset, we use a prayer mala of 108 beads to name 108 things for which we are grateful. After listing these blessings I always feel filled with an enormous sense of gratitude for simply being alive in that moment, surrounded by the glorious beauty of nature, and my New Year wish is that I continue to be able to bring into my life that feeling of simple gratitude that I am able to appreciate this fact of being alive and feel the connection to the natural world of which I am a living part. Why not try it for yourself?

2013.01.01 Yalgorup

Happy New Year of the Snake to you all, and may your year be full of blessings and peace.

The C word

No, not that one! I’m talking about “Cancer” (complete with the requisite capital letter to give it the gravity it deserves!) I remember reading a bumper sticker once that said “Cancer is a word, not a sentence” but when that word is spoken to you by a doctor, platitudes like this are utterly meaningless. I was living in Japan when I was told I had cancer and, as was the custom there at that time (still is as far as I know), it is not  the patient who is first told. This is because there is a belief that if a person knows they have a terminal illness, then they just give up and lose the will to live. So it was my husband who was told first and then he and the doctor discussed whether it was the right thing to tell me or not. Happily for me, because I was a foreigner they agreed to tell me.

I remember the moment so well because I suddenly felt like I was in a TV soapie. I mean, it was so cliched – the doctor in hospital whites keeping his face a suitable blend of concern and neutrality as he announced my “sentence”, while my white-faced husband looked at the floor and nervously twisted his wedding ring round and round, for once, lost for words. An awkward silence followed as if someone had just farted and we were all trying to pretend no-one heard it. I’m not being flippant, but it really felt so much like a stage set that I almost started to giggle while I waited anxiously for the punchline.

The prognosis, however, was very good, and with surgery and radiotherapy I was told that I should be okay, but it was difficult to know until after the operation. When we left the doctor’s surgery my husband thought it would be a good idea to take my mind off the bad news (and his I suspect). So we went to see a movie at a nearby cinema. I was feeling numb and didn’t care what movie we saw – my husband chose Batman Forever. When I look back now, I think it was a hilariously inappropriate choice but perhaps he needed the noise and fast-paced action to drown out the voices that might rise up inside him. For a person who was always in control, it was a great shock for him and he felt utterly helpless. I think a lot of men are like him. As for me, I couldn’t stop the tape that just kept going round and round…”I’ve got cancer, I’ve got cancer…” trying to make it real somehow by chanting this over and over like a mantra. After some time I suddenly realised that, just as The Riddler was laughing maniacally in the midst of mental breakdown, I was saying this mantra out aloud but because the movie sound was so deafeningly loud no one could hear me. I remember so clearly how everything – the crazy Riddler, Batman in his mask, the scarred, damaged Two Face…and me – all seemed like a surreal dream. And it seemed to stay surreal right through the hospital and recovery time, until the day when I got the all-clear and I felt utterly overwhelmed with gratitude just for the blessing of being alive…and truly knowing it.

That’s when I first started to learn about meditation, which was what I was going to share with you before I got sidetracked with the background story! Sorry about that – I will share more about actually learning to meditate soon. But I just want to add, I feel really committed to sharing with you about how to meditate because I know that it can be a tremendously helpful tool in times of personal crisis. If I had known how to meditate when I went through my treatment and recovery for cancer I would have had more energy to focus on healing. However, I used a lot of energy trying to stay calm but not knowing how, trying to stop the tapes that kept whirring around my mind but not knowing how to, trying to suppress my anxiety and fear but not knowing how to. Yet now, many years down the track, life still throws the odd curve-ball but having spent time meditating (and I’m not talking about hours set aside every day – really just several minutes a day is enough) I know that I have so much more energy to focus on getting through the tough times without being so distracted by energy-draining negative thoughts. I’ll explain more about what I mean by this next time…

Kitchen Sink Zen blog

In 2009, I started a blog especially about shojin-ryori – Japanese Buddhist vegetarian cuisine – called Kitchen Sink Zen. But the gmail account associated with that blog got hijacked not long after I had started and I didn’t know what to do to retrieve it. However, I’ve been engaging in a steep cyber-learning curve trying to get my head around the technicalities of the blogosphere and  just found out how to salvage my old account. I’m so happy about that and I am now going to continue with my Kitchen Sink Zen blog as well as this one. The difference will be that Kitchen Sink Zen focusses entirely on shojin-ryori cuisine, but Cuppa with Cate will ramble onto other topics as I encounter new and old wisdom friends in my everyday life. So this blog is sharing a chat with you over a leisurely cup of tea and the other blog will be when I pull up my sleeves and get into the kitchen. Please drop by for a chat here at the table in the garden or pop over and see what’s cooking in the kitchen.