I wrote my obituary recently and it was strangely empowering to take by the horns my own death. It was part of an assignment for the Death Cafe I had joined, a salon where people meet to discuss death. This emerging social franchise was an idea that a Swiss sociologist started as a way to normalize discussion of death by talking about it. It was then adopted in Paris followed by London before making its way to Columbus, Ohio in 2012. Tea and cake is served and the conversation begins usually with a question. Such as how did you first come to understand death? Or what questions would you ask a dead person? Our chaplain friend Don in Portland told us about it. And in October of 2013 Catherine and I went to one at the Zen Center. That was where I met Barbara, a New York transplant who would invite me to join the cafe she would host with her husband at their lovely home in San Francisco. I invited my friend Stacy to come along too. You can find a death cafe at www.deathcafe.com.
I was drawn to the topic of death because I had come to realize that in America people see death differently from how I was raised. Since the topic doesn't come up very often it took me twenty years or so to see this. In my 30's I had a job videotaping a group of women with metastatic breast cancer and that was when I first noticed that Americans did not take death lying down as it were. They took death on as though it was an enormous responsibility they personally had to fight to keep from happening. And when I remarked upon it someone asked me why I found this odd. Was it because life was considered cheap in Asia? How that comment infuriated me. Didn't they get the memo? That we will all die? So why be so distraught about it I was asking. But it just made me sound callous.
Once I got talking at Barbara's house I was surprised at how much I had to say on the subject, surprised at what was coming out of my mouth in terms of beliefs and attitudes. The premise allowed me to have a different kind of conversation. Life from the point of view of death was made interesting in ways I had not thought of before. I felt curious, joyful even. So when we gave ourselves the assignment of writing our own eulogy or obituary I saw it as an opportunity to foresee my life by working backward from its end.
And to get to the heart of the matter I visualized the actual death itself:
"Having decided she was too feeble to continue teaching her geriatric exercise classes and cultivating her permaculture backyard farm, Amanda Kovattana 87 went home to embark on her final journey and demise through starvation assisted by her young wife Anastasia 67. During her final hours a gathering of shamanic friends came to assist in drumming to induce the theta state necessary for shamanic journeying. Thus she passed peacefully and happily before becoming a burden to her community as was her wish."
No one in my Death Salon objected to me taking my death into my own hands. They thought it gutsy that I actually gave myself an age at which I would go. (On the other hand no one commented on what a young wife I'd picked for myself. This was after all my first attempt at fiction.) But my mother did object to the idea of this end of life suicide which led to quite a lively conversation. All the spiritual works we had been reading counseled that suicide was a wrong choice and would badly mess up your karma. I argued that it was not suicide. On the contrary what medical intervention could dish out was every bit as unnatural and prolonged the inability to let go. And letting go was the natural cycle of life (as I am constantly reminding my hoarding clients).
Having control of my own death handed me back the reigns of my life. I needed to get a grip on at least some part of it. This year my life was unraveling at such a clip that I no longer had a confident relationship with my own narrative. And thus I could no longer write about my own life unfolding as I had done with near complete transparency and trust in the world for ten years as I shared my adventures with a public audience.
I had grown to believe that I could control my life with my words and direct it like a movie. But that turned out to be a hubris that blocked me from seeing what was coming. I had a leg up on accepting death owing to my Thai culture, but it did not prepare me for loss.
Death of a Relationship
Nearly a year ago Catherine and I broke up. We were in a negative dynamic that kept us stuck unable to grow either together or as individuals. Catherine realized it first while I was unbelieving that this could happen after 20 years. She did not ask me to leave the home we had created together so it was a slow motion sort of break-up with the goal of transitioning into a friendship. We undertook the process with as much love and compassion as we could muster beginning with the help of our therapist just to make sure we had left no stone unturned in the solving of our relationship dynamic, but in the end there was no turning back. There was too much to overcome.
Released of my reactionary stance of resistance to her ongoing leadership, I was able to sort out what it was I truly valued in our living together. I continued to cook for us to be sure we both ate well. And the more I cooked the more I cleaned. I was claiming how I belonged in this house that did not belong to me. It was a study in impermanence as the Buddhists would say. How to embrace the existence of life while acknowledging that the details I was grasping at were completely temporary and made more so now that we had no future together. Or in the lexicon of Kubler Ross and her five stages of death — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, I was spending a lot of time in the bargaining stage. If only I could keep this part of our life together, or this I bargained as each piece of our life that we normally did together came up for reassessment.
Catherine was at the same time leaving her job. She didn't intend to go down that path, but it became clear that in that relationship too she was unable to grow or be acknowledged for her leadership. She had felt beholden to the job because she needed it to pay the mortgage. Her brother Steven and I help to pay it too, but she paid three quarters of it and that was a big enough obligation to feel the job was crucial. And thus selling the house became a possible solution to throw into the mix as she crafted her future. I persuaded her that the house was also a resource that could shelter all of us for whatever comings and goings she wanted to include in her new life. So she refinanced it to make it more manageable. We also sold the rental house I had managed in San Bernardino which ended our property management project that had so stressed us out with countless bad tenant issues and hefty plumbing bills. I was relieved that we got back what we put into it. With that money back she could further build her future.
It is at this part of our story that people want to know how my financial future will shake out. In the language of divorce did I not contribute to our relationship in so many intangible ways that by law I had a right to sue for half the value of the house? I knew I had this power, but I couldn't morally bring myself to do this. It had never been my intention to take Catherine's wealth away from her unless she died and left it to me (or parts thereof). If I did demand what the law was able to give me under our domestic partnership I knew it would destroy our friendship. We would never speak again, let alone live together. American style divorce was basically a garbage disposal for failed relationships, shredding them up and flushing whatever was left down the drain. Catherine was a valuable person in my life and I did not believe in throwing people away like that. I had my own wealth just not right now and my mother would also help me out. I would not take this destructive road. This decision halted the wounding.
Which is not to say that it didn't hurt that she was redesigning her life without me. It hurt a lot, but just as death shows us what we are grateful for in life so did this break-up show me what I valued in our living together. Once we could agree that we had both contributed to our failed relationship and that it wasn't just my fault for being unable to be intimate or her fault for being so harsh in her judgements of me, we were able to enter a common narrative again. Getting to this point had been the most painful, but I knew that if I just embraced the pain as much as I could the healing process would begin.
Shortly after this I intuitively adopted a gratitude practice. If death was a way to appreciate life then it made sense that gratitude was a way to alleviate suffering.
So I walked into her room one morning and said "I want to be in gratitude so I want to thank you today for introducing me to the shamanic path." She smiled, surprised and said "It seemed obvious." Catherine had given me a book on shamanism and told me that I needed to study a spiritual path so we would have something to talk about and having not had any luck interesting me in Buddhist studies she realized that I was more a shaman than anything else. I devoured the book and it launched me. I chose that particular gratitude that day because I was going to lunch with a friend I'd met through a shamanic circle.
The next day of my gratitude practice I told her that I wanted to thank her for the trip to Italy which I had resisted because it was going to be expensive, but she had made all the arrangements and in the end paid for the accommodations. And it was fabulous. Who wouldn't want Rome and Florence in their memories. Such iconic places.
She did not return my ritual of gratitude in kind, but each time she lit up and gave me a hug. It sweetened the day and fortified me for anything we encountered that might cause us grief by the end of the day. Sometimes there would be something that stung, but it stung less.
The day I left for a conference in Nashville I thanked her for her support when I started my business; how she had believed in me and gone to my first out-of-state conference with me in DC and sat through awards night with me when I hardly knew anybody.
When I came home from Nashville I thanked her for insisting that we get dogs because now they are the one's who make a fuss when I come home. And in this state of gratitude the positive memories flowed and I could reframe the sticky parts of resistance and troublesome passages we navigated.
When we sold the rental property and went to deposit the check I thanked her for having put up the money to buy it sight unseen; it had been my idea and she had trusted me to look it over and make the decision. "See I did love you," she said in response, "I bought you a house." (Two houses on a single plot actually.)
The gratitudes allowed me to pay off a debt; the debt of my resistance to her ongoing vision. I did not want to look back on our memories and think of the disagreements we had mixed in with the good time we had anyway. I didn't want to remember that I never thanked her for those times. Bringing the past forward in these acts of gratitude repaired something of our relationship and allowed me to embrace my grief and move through it into the present.
I had come to that final stage of the Kubler Ross paradigm—acceptance. Our friendship, I saw now, allowed us more emotional connection than our actual relationship had done. I was more frank with her because there was less at stake. I had already lost the relationship and the future that entailed so I could stop trying so hard. I could see now how different we were not just culturally, but inherently. We might have been able to overcome those differences (with difficulty given how stuck we were) but once released of me Catherine's growth accelerated so rapidly I could see how much we would have had to overcome as she explored the things I had held in check; this new lease on life revived her vitality. In turn I was now to plan my own life; something I had shied away from.
By negotiating through the death of our relationship I had regained my equilibrium. Like the martial artist I was I now had a firm footing. And while there was nothing about the future I could take for granted good footwork would help me face it head on.
Rebirth Of The Future
Given the impermanence of our living together especially as Catherine talked about and tried out her plans for her future I realized that I also had to have my own contingency plan. So I gave it some thought. All I really needed I thought to myself was a room of my own (to borrow Virginia Wolf's famous paradigm). Painted yellow just as my room was now. And I could build this room as a one room house on wheels (or buy one ready made). It was a long time dream of mine to own the craftsman style house on wheels known as a Tumbleweed and thus escape the whole real estate dilemma of housing in the Bay Area. I would just park my rig at my mother's or anywhere else I could negotiate. When I told Catherine this plan that I would embark on should she sell the house, she offered to finance it for me and that I felt was generous and fair. Meanwhile she had already given me the Prius which I had been driving since my car went to the junkyard post crash earlier this year. (For herself she leased a new Chevy Volt.)
And thus contained in this new future I could proceed with some peace of mind. I would manage the house we shared that Catherine no longer had time for, so busy was her schedule that she would soon spend much of it away from home as she pursued her spiritual practice, her relationships with new people and her course of studies that would train her to be a Buddhist chaplain.
Having gone through her own brush with death during her year with cancer she now wanted to spend time talking to others and helping them to face their death. This I thought was a very beautiful and meaningful outcome of her illness; one I wanted to support. And in fact she was doing this chaplain work already with a friend she knew from work who had liver cancer and whose difficult dying process she would be involved with to the end. And so Gil our dharma teacher ordained her as a chaplain to show that he stood behind her. She also started her own Death Cafe at our meditation center and took her place in the teacher's chair. Her salon would have a different tone from the light hearted one I was involved in, but it suited those who came for it and helped me integrate my own grief with Catherine's path.
As for my own future I wrote that into my obituary as well in a leap of fiction using my essay writing for a peak oil site called the Energy Bulletin as a springboard. (It was on this site, now called Resilience
, that my essays enjoyed the biggest and broadest readership.)
"As one of the forerunners of the farsighted peak oil writers, her book "The Girls Guide to Off Grid Living" was followed by a speaking career. Her contributions as a member of the community of teachers and guides who shepherded the global population through the transitional times of petroleum depletion were characterized by inventive costumes and performances. Her shoe designs were in much demand and offered extensive travel when few could afford it as she was hosted from town to town making shoes for high end clients competing for her services. She also taught courses for others wanting to make their own shoes so that everyone would be equally shod. And she gave Tarot readings as part of the evenings entertainment offering many insights that became a source of inspiration and practical solutions as the population struggled to establish a broader community model of problem solving using the deeper democracy of consensus practices we enjoy today. Her chronicles of her travels, hand printed on vintage letter presses and delivered by carrier pigeon during those crucial years, were one of the most popular written documentations of the era.
A commemorative e-book of her life will be available for downloading during the next available energy cycle."
In this somewhat apocalyptic foretelling of our collective future I was reminded once again that my life would not be directed in a vacuum, but would evolve as most artistic collaborations do, in community with others and with the geo-socio-political events of our time. And so it would be counter intuitive of me to fix for myself any given future beyond the minimal structures of housing and survival, but I await with baited breath for further input for I am after all still very much alive. And having broken open the too small love that Catherine and I needed to shed like an old skin, I was now ready to meet the world with a bigger love.
I read this piece to Catherine before posting it and she liked it, liked hearing my stories again and it occurred to me that these essays are in themselves an old skin that I shed periodically, in turn leaving something of myself and where I've been for others to find and wonder at.
And with each too small piece of my life that I shed I grow larger to embody ever more of the great Cosmic Love. So that I can then meet the world and everyone in it with love. And in that rebirth become love itself.
With all my love to all of you,
Labels: Buddhism, death, Death Cafe, divorce, life work, Shamanism