I’ve been living on the raw and jagged edge of compassion, where “tenderness” becomes a double entendre.
The demands on me — present, immediate past, and immediate future — are nearly beyond what I can imagine myself doing. For the past five weeks, until just a few hours ago, a close friend for whom I am durable power of attorney for healthcare had been in the hospital. As anyone in America who has ever had a family member in the hospital knows, you have to do battle just to get the patient minimally acceptable care. Couple that with the necessity to reassure and comfort and otherwise do what friends and family properly do, and then add all one’s other responsibilities which go on as always, and a five week hospitalization will drain one as little can.
One of those responsibilities that go on regardless of my circumstances has been my prayer bead business. Setting up the new website has been delayed. So too has a series of pendulums (my nod to the New Age crowd I often skewer here, since religious tolerance doesn’t mean much if it only applies to the people you agree with). Production of my new artisan series of copper rosaries has slowed.
But one thing could not be neglected. It was a very special copper rosary, a rosary for my elderly mother to give to her childhood friend when they meet this month, possibly for the last time in their lives. I knew it wasn’t simply another item made for a relative. It was destined to be a statement of love, a testament to the eternal nature of friendship, and that I had to get it done in time regardless of my other duties. So I worked at it at every opportunity, even to wiring the beads at my friend’s hospital bedside.
Similarly (though a much less labor intensive task) I had an order for a rosary bracelet intended as a gift for someone with only weeks to live. That too demanded that I find the time, and I did.
I don’t live alone, and this has taken a toll on the love of my life, my sweetheart and companion — a small green rescue parrot. Parrots are among the most intelligent creatures to ever walk the face of this earth: similar to chimps and dolphins, the intelligence of a parrot is comparable to that of a three to six year old child. Peri had been severely abused and neglected, so much so that when I got her from the rescue group I did not think she would live. I vowed to give the emaciated, weak, and frightened creature in front of me the best life I could for her remaining time. Her “remaining time” has turned out to be three and a half years and still going strong.
But she has problems. She continues to struggle with symptoms that, in a human, would be labeled PTSD. And she lays too many eggs, which can – and has — led to egg binding, a dangerous, often fatal, condition. I’ve had to make a special effort during the slices of time available to me to interact with and reassure my feathered companion. And my late night returns from the hospital has meant she’s gotten enough extra light to trigger more egg laying. A week ago she struggled to lay a rubbery egg for almost three hours (a dangerous length of time). This week I’ve pushed as much calcium as I could into her diet, hoping that the next egg — they lay multiple eggs, separated by a few days each– will be firmer and much less difficult to pass.
All of this fades to insignificance before the next responsibility in front of me, now that my friend is home. A few years ago I was asked to join a tenant organizing drive in my building which, though urgently needed, was not undertaken in good faith. To make a long story short, my fellow organizers, when their dreams of money and personal aggrandizement began to collapse, turned on me. It was ugly, and it was painful. I certainly never intended to revisit tenant politics here.
But now management has effectively banned air conditioning from this, a poorly ventilated high rise for the elderly and disabled, starting next year.
The policy is murderous. Every person in this building is, by definition, at severe risk of heat injury, and more than a few (myself included) have breathing issues. Fans are nearly useless due to the very poor air exchange in this building. The building’s wall of west facing windows functions like a greenhouse in the afternoon light. Even if persons here recognized they needed to cool off, many of them could not get to a cooling center because wheelchair users need to give 24 hours notice to the special transportation agency in order to arrange a van ride. for the bedridden, there is nowhere to go.
Few if any persons living here, living as we do on tiny social security checks, have the means to purchase one of the expensive and inefficient floor air conditioner models management will still permit (and management certainly knows this as we must report our income yearly to management to qualify for a rental subsidy). The local Agency on Aging has informed management that they have no funds to assist the over 100 affected tenants with the purchase of such air conditioners, to no avail. Moving isn’t an option given the shortage of housing in general and the near absence of accessible housing in particular.
People will die here next year. As the only tenant, to my knowledge, with organizing skills and who has not been compromised, I have no choice but to take up the task of organizing again.
I have described all this not in order to rant, or to get sympathy, or to solicit advice. In fact, I know the standard advice dispensed these days to anyone who is worn out from caring for others. It goes something like “You need to take care of yourself first”. Or worse yet, one gets some sort of babble about “codependency”.
If you’ve heard this sort of advice so often that you no longer hear the underlying message, let me translate it into plain English. The usual advice is: “Take care of yourself, the individual, the ego called you, because the individual is always better and more important than community, than the society we live in. Snip the threads that connect you to others. Do not sacrifice, unless of course you can get something out of it for yourself like praise and attention and money and power. Do unto yourself what you would manipulate others to do unto you, if only you knew any others in this fragmented culture of isolated individuals. Suckers and sick minds sacrifice. Healthy people grab all the goodies for themselves and run.”
That’s not wisdom. That’s narcissism.
Suffice to say I am not taking such advice. I prefer to live on the ragged edge of compassion– yes, even though it hurts, even though it may harm me. The quintessential fact of spirituality is sacrifice. It has always been so. It will always be so, no matter how unpopular it is in our age of narcissism, no matter how popular self-centered feel-good counterfeit mysticism may be.
At the center of all things is that which is beyond name or description. When we try nonetheless to name and describe it, so as to point the way to it, we find ourselves putting more or less the same words to it regardless of path. The words I use are wisdom or insight, love and compassion, and justice, or the act of expressing love. These three things are not, as it may seem, three separate principles from which one may pick and choose– they are and remain references to the inseparable and undefinable. Only our language makes them seem to be distinct and separable abstractions.
Love in action then — not mere sympathy, not a warm fuzzy feeling one can keep for oneself, but doing — is the presence of the Divine itself. To omit doing what one is positioned to do and is capable of, to settle merely for that warm fuzzy feeling and a bit of philosophy, is to alienate oneself from the Divine.
This is not to diminish the importance of tactics, which include taking advantage of every moment for rest and replenishment. And only a fool strives to do things that are beyond their capacity. I’m not an astronaut, an engineer, or a brain surgeon, nor am I someone who ambulates. However urgent it may be to apply such skills to a problem, the Divine doesn’t express itself through me in that manner.
But any “tactics” which place my apparent well being above the well being of others, which involve preserving myself and my comfort at the expense of others for the sake of merely preserving myself– those are acts of ego, not of wisdom. I prefer to be nothing, so that Something may shine through me.
In the next few weeks, I’m going to be requesting donations, as well as letters and phone calls to various authorities, to help in our battle to keep this building safe for tenants. I know I try to keep money matters out of this blog when it comes to my shop, but I consider this issue to be of a different nature. I’ll try to keep the appeals in the sidebar, so as to not annoy readers with solicitations. And you will be able to follow what’s happening under the category “Keep us cool”.