Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Being at Home
“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”--Maya Angelou
I am enjoying my new shared household and my housemate Louise. I liked living alone for 11 years, and I understand why sometimes elders prefer to continue living by themselves. But right now, this makes more sense to me. I've been here for just over a week and I feel very much at home. I'm glad I made the move.
The other day, I went to visit a very dear friend whom I've known for over 30 years. When we were younger, she swept through town in long capes, her wildly curling red hair framing a beautiful face with ivory skin. "My high priestess period," she laughs. Now we both have children nearing 50. Recently, after a number of falls, she moved into an assisted living facility. She navigates using a walker, joking that without it her gait resembles that of Frankenstein.
I have always loved her profound intuition, keen powers of observation, her humor, marvelous poetic speech and her intellectual and spiritual curiosity. None of that has left her. She's still as much the liminal woman as she ever was. It's just that her body is declining. She has undiagnosed neurological problems and high blood pressure.
Her new living situation, she tells me as we head to the dining room, is a great spiritual practice. "This is where I am now," she says. "I'm glad I have such an appetite for experience." She is interested in everyone. "Some of the people here don't have all their lights on," she confides. Indeed it seems that the description applies to quite a few of them. I notice how starkly some people's emotional habits stand out in that environment. There's a woman who makes a strange whistling sound to draw attention to herself, a loud narcissist who tries to commandeer the conversation, a genial man with only short term memory who presents a cheerful attitude, a gentle, youngish woman disabled by an accident, whose kindness radiates out to others, and many others I had not enough time to notice in my relatively brief visit. The place itself was pleasant and friendly, as were the staff members I saw. Facilities for older adults are often not this good, I know.
My friend has made herself at home there, taking her current situation and condition as a voyage of discovery and as preparation for dying. I am touched by her vividness and the way she is resting in her experience. Being with her in her changed physical condition gives me a great deal to contemplate.
What does it mean to be at home? I am thinking about our earthly homes--the home as an outer dwelling. I love this kind of home. Like the photo I chose for this post. The old farmhouse, the flowers, the feeling of being in a dear, beautiful place. I love architecture and old buildings. The first book I received in the mailbox at my new place was Behind Adobe Walls, a look at the beautiful homes and gardens of Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The body is another kind of architecture, another kind of earthly home. I love my body, even as it softens and ages. I rely upon it. Then there's mind and emotions, the patterns of my habitual thoughts and feelings-- I nest in them, feeling at home in myself. But that kind of nesting, that at-homeness is double-edged and deceptive. How relative and evanescent all these expressions of the earthly home are. What an astounding and unavoidable mystery--how we come from the intangible realms and return again to them.
And voila--I'm contemplating death again. I'm a Buddhist. Been one for over 30 years. Buddhist practice emphasizes contemplating death which is considered the major life passage to prepare for. So I've been contemplating death for awhile now. It's a good practice, a necessary one in my mind. And part of that work is loosening and letting go of the fixation on the solidity and permanence of this body and this life.
Visiting my friend has put an edge on these contemplations. I'm thinking of how temporary a way station the body is, how I will have to take leave of my entire life and the world I have created over decades, how thoroughly I have made myself at home in it. I am at home and I will have to make my exit, releasing it all. What irony, finally to feel so at home being myself, being in a body and being in this world, flawed as it is. But I wouldn't trade this acceptance and relaxation. It seems to be the right ground for releasing into the intangible.
Meanwhile, here in this body, in this new shared dwelling on a rainy evening in spring, I celebrate being at home. And I am reflecting on how the essence of everything as light, right now. Nowhere to go, nothing to do.
I am reminded of this Kabir poem:
"I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.
You don't grasp the fact that
what is most alive of all
is inside your own house; and so you walk from one holy city to the next
with a confused look!
Kabir will tell you the truth:
go wherever you like, to Calcutta or Tibet;
if you can't find where your soul is hidden,
for you the world will never be real!"
While on the subject of being at home, I wanted to share this documentary I found the other day which spotlights St. John's on the Lake in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,a retirement community that includes independent living, assisted living and nursing home. The film documents St. John's efforts to transform from a medical model to a social one that focuses on the residents' individual choice and personhood, creating a home-like rather than hospital-like environment. The documentary appeared on PBS. You can view clips at AlmostHome I especially recommend the clip Culture Change.
Of course, this kind of culture change is wonderful, and hopefully we will see a lot more of it. Most older adults remain independent,living in their own homes, but when we find ourselves in a retirement community, assisted living, or nursing home, I know we want it to be like home. We want to retain our personhood, our dignity, the kind of self-efficacy and well-being that comes from being able to make our own choices. The Eden Alternative, which is the work of Dr. Bill Thompson, is another avenue to culture change in institutional living for older adults. These pioneering efforts have not yet reached the tipping point. But I hope that they continue to exert their positive influence on the way elders are housed when they live in "retirement communities" until our present medical model gives way to a person-centered approach.
I used to joke that I just wanted to live in a teepee in the woods when I became really old. That's still my fantasy. Like Goatman, the odiferous old fellow who lived in a cabin in the Colestine Valley up the road from Tashi Choling. I would take more baths than he did. But living the way he did in the midst of the meadows and mountains seems pretty good to me.
Even though I have my preferences, I wonder how much control we have. Sure I want to be one of those elders who remain healthy until the last few months of life. Most elders do remain healthy until the last few months of life (so don't believe the propaganda of the Decline Model, which makes us believe that elders are all sick and dependent). And maybe I will be that fortunate. But I could need more support. If I do have to move into some kind of facility as my dear friend has, I want to be treated with respect and caring, the way one treats a real human being. Don't you want that, too?
Photo by Bob Travis via Flickr