29 March, 2009

Negative space

Even as a child I was fascinated by negative space, whether it was the aesthetic patterns created by overlapping branches or the optical illusions found within the pages of my puzzle books.

Lately I've been following a guided meditation by Jack Kornfield, which provides guidelines for cultivating an expansive mind. If you get right down to it, all sounds, thoughts, emotions and even images arise and then disappear without a trace. If you close your eyes and clear your mind, it becomes increasingly easy to sense the point at which a sound or thought begins and ends, and the vast, empty space that surrounds it. It is possible to relax into this space, and Kornfield maintains that it can even become so familiar that it will eventually feel like "home".

This has been a revelation for me because I've been thinking a lot about mortality lately. Despite 2 powerful chemo blasts, Michiel's cousin is losing his battle against cancer. And then over the past couple of weeks I've been reconnecting with a favorite teacher from UF and have been saddened to hear that her husband is dying of a brain tumor. And then of course, there's my volunteer work at the nursing home, which, however rewarding, is still a constant reminder of the precarious nature of this mortal coil.

The compassion I feel for these people is powerful and at some moments overwhelming, and yet there is peace and clarity to be found in the space between these emotions.

Lately I find myself focusing less on what I cannot do, and more on what I can. I cannot cure cancer but I can lend a sympathetic ear to a distraught mother. I cannot heal my beloved dog's limp but I can hike with her in the fresh air and ensure that she enjoys her time between bouts of stiffness. I can do nothing about dementia, but I can take the time to feed a patient his entire lunch and leave him with a full belly. I cannot provide any guarantees for the future, but I can make sure I cherish the present.

I am slowly learning to inhabit negative space and this is having a profound positive effect on my life...

10 March, 2009

This is so cool!!!

OK, I'm feeling like a complete dweeb because I can't figure out if this is a prank or not, but it's totally amazing no matter what!

*Video clip thanks to Today's Big Thing.

07 March, 2009

The Sliding House

Schmutzie is a veritable treasure trove for interesting links. She embedded this video into a recent post and I watched it in complete awe. Need a diversion? Check this out!

05 March, 2009

The people in your neighborhood

M and I were in our local pharmacy earlier this week picking up cream for his leg. The pharmacist completed the transaction and handed me two packages of gummy bears for S and B, who were in school at the time. I hadn't mentioned them at all, but she just recognized me-- I turned to M and smiled triumphantly and he just started laughing.

I love the sense of community here-- the cafe-owner's son delivers our newspapers; I buy eggs from a woman I know through the kindergarten. When I walk past the local hair salon I always get a wave, and this morning when I got to the dentist's office for a checkup I was greeted with a hearty: "Hello Ms. V! They're all ready for you in room 1!"

All morning long I've had that old Sesame Street song "Who are the people in your neighborhood" stuck in my head. But back in the days when this song (with all its variations) was hip I was an inhabitant of anonymous suburban sprawl. The only person I really remember knowing was our 7 year old neighbor with whom I used to giggle at the sight of my dad's underwear drying on the clothesline.

Now that I am older and actually live in a small town I really appreciate the interconnectedness that is such a part of life here. We have met so many people through school and sports and just life in general-- that interconnectedness fascinates me!

Somehow I can't picture Bob McGrath singing in German about die Menschen in unserer Nachbarschaft, but I think it's only now that I can finally really identify with this song!


I've been volunteering a couple of days a week at a local nursing home. If the weather is nice I bundle the patients up and take them out for some fresh air, navigating around potholes and trying not to launch them out of their wheelchairs whenever we bump over curbs or cobblestones.

If the weather is crappy I read out loud. Since my audience shows very little reaction I get the feeling that the material is irrelevant. I could be reading the manual for a blender-- they just like the sound of my voice and maybe even my silly accent.

At lunchtime I cut up food for the ones that can handle a fork and help feed the ones that can't.

I'm thoroughly enjoying this "job"-- the nurses are harried and really appreciate the extra pair of hands, and it's nice to be able to take the extra time needed to feed someone who eats slowly and might otherwise not get to eat a full meal due to time constraints.

It has surprised me that I haven't found the atmosphere depressing. The staff is warm and caring, and although the patients are elderly and unable to take care of themselves, they are safe and fed and have the company of their peers. (I've read that elderly people who live alone are more prone to depression, malnutrition and injuries due to falls.)

Probably another part to this is that I've only just gotten to know these people at this stage at the end of their lives. (A natural stage that we will all probably reach sooner or later-- it is good to be reminded of this on a regular basis.) It would probably be different if I'd been witness to their deterioration.

In any case, the staff sets a good example by reminding me that these people have good days and bad days just like the rest of us. And once one gets over the initial shock of spending time with people suffering from dementia, one realizes that there is often humor to be found in everyday situations.

Yesterday at lunch I sat down next to Herr M. Since he's half-deaf he tends to shout and sounds exactly like Homer Simpson's dad, but then in German. Suddenly he grabbed my arm and started bellowing: "The-the-the-the-the-the-THE TEETH!!!" and thrust his dentures out of his mouth with his tongue. I had just enough time to grab a bib before he spit them out into my hand.

OK. What now? Then he started shouting again: "The-the-the-the-THE TEEEEEEEETH!"

"Herr M? Shall I put them back in"

"Yeeeeesss! PUT THEM BACK IN!"

So I popped them back in. And he started up again: "The-the-the-the-THE TEEEEEEEETH!" and spit them back out into my bib-covered hand again.


OK, here you go. Here are your teeth. And I popped them back into his mouth again.

"The-the-the-the-THE TEEEEEEEETH!"

I looked at an intern with raised eyebrows and she started giggling.

We went through about four more rounds of this and I felt like I was trapped in a Monty Python skit. Finally a doctor came over and smiled at me-- "No idea what's going on with him. Maybe he needs some denture cream?" And he wheeled Herr M back down the hall trailed by a noisy mantra:


*Image thanks to Britannica.com

04 March, 2009

Well what do you know!?

I actually found that video of me that Goofball and Mrs. G were requesting!

03 March, 2009

Character-building exercise

This afternoon the school had a screening of Madagascar 2 that the boys and I have really been looking forward to. Since we were late leaving the house the boys rode their bikes and I took their Razor scooter. I was just closing the garage door when S said: "Mom! Don't forget to wear a helmet!"

Inwardly I groaned. Very few children here wear helmets and adults never do. I keep telling the kids how silly this is and reminding them how important it is to be safe and not to follow the crowd just because they say something is "uncool".

I was thinking about how ridiculous I would look, and cringing at the thought of helmet head when suddenly I realized: How can I demand that S and B buck the trend if I'm not willing to do it myself?

So I strapped on a helmet and we rode into town and back and I ignored the stares and snickers of the people we passed on the way. Because S has to deal with this on a weekly basis, and if he can be brave enough to do the right thing then I should be as well...

02 March, 2009

Bumpity bump bump!

M was in the kitchen cooking pancakes on Saturday morning when he suddenly said: "Hey! My leg hurts!" He pulled up his pants leg and revealed a small lump. We shrugged it off and continued making breakfast. Within a half an hour, however, that lump had grown exponentially, and hurt enough that M had trouble walking!

He hadn't bumped his shins and didn't remember blocking any noteworthy kicks at Taekwando the evening before. He has a cousin who was diagnosed with a blood clot in her brain just the day before and his family history isn't stellar, so this was worrying, to say the least.

A visit to an after-hours clinic was inconclusive- the doctor suspected that it was a hematoma but recommended that M get his circulatory system checked out asap just to rule out anything more sinister.

M cancelled a business trip to Geneva and we spent a surprisingly pleasant morning hanging out together in the waiting room at the doctor's office. She did a complete ultrasound on all the arteries in his leg and confirmed the conclusion: a simple hematoma with an otherwise clean bill of health. Perhaps he injured it at Taekwando and the vein suddenly burst Saturday morning? We'll never know, but I am so relieved and thankful to know that he's OK!