Shifting Focus, Dealing With Loss

I have looked forward to getting  my cast off of my arm! Wearing a cast is clearly not comfortable, though if you have to wear one, you can make it a piece of wearable art as you see here, created and painted by Michael. Tatoos are popular in my hometown, but I haven’t seen anyone with a body fresco like mine, neither here or in Italy where I fractured it. While in Italy, we saw many frescos on walls. Outside of Matera,  Christians in the early church escaping the Arab migration into Turkey moved to Italy and built their homes into the earth, carving into the limestone in Matera, and creating art on cave walls just south of Matera. The area reminds me of the caves in Capadoccia, Turkey. The Madonna painted on my cast is similar to one found in a cave crypt in Matera. Since the word for tunnel in Italian is galeria, and I fell in a tunnel, the Madonna on my cast is called the Madonna de la Galeria. While the art work didn’t make the cast more comfortable or enable me to gain use of my arm, it did make it more fun. Having the cast also made me more aware of other people with handicaps, the man with one leg walking down the street with crutches, the young man in a wheel chair. Losing the cast has made me more aware of how everything we have is a gift to us–the movement of our fingers, turning our wrists. Everything. Our bodies are gifts.

My arm is free now! The skin can breathe, can bathe. I lift my arm and float it through the air in celebration. Losing the exoskeleton of the cast has enabled me to start working on doing my arm exercises four times a day so I can get rid of the stiffness and regain my strength. The doctor tells me it will be a year before I get my arm back.  It’s a lot of work to regain something I lost in an instant without even meaning to. Losing something dear affects the whole of our lives. In my case there is no bike riding, weightlifting, swimming or yoga, no digging in the garden or lifting rocks to make a patio this summer. I’m shifting my attention in different directions now, am forced to go more slowly. It’s challenging but I am working on it.

the Madonna of the Tunnel, wearable art body fresco, painted by Michael Citrino

Not all loss is a delight, however. A short time ago I received a letter from a friend who explained that recently she has been going to many funerals of friends who have died. I remember that when my parents were alive that they grew to feel more and more alone in the world as their friends passed away. Letting go of people over and over again is just plain difficult. We all eventually experience losing people we love, people who were a part of our lives that we have had to say goodbye to. Learning how to let go of people, things and places in our lives is something we do not naturally want to deal with. We can practice letting go and accepting things in a new form with the less important things in our lives, and this can help us learn more of how to deal with more difficult things. These opportunities for practicing letting go present themselves to us in situations such as when we lose an object or sleep in an uncomfortable bed while traveling. But as we grow older, time has a way of pressing us into accepting the idea that everything really does have its season. Even if you don’t want to, you will need to let go of things that have been your faithful companions for a long time, like your eye sight or your feet. One of my sisters is losing her eye sight, for example, and a brother is losing his ability to walk without pain because his arches are falling. Every day they are presented the lesson of letting go and accepting what is.

My mother used to tell me, “This, too, shall pass,” when difficult things came my way in life. This is true not only for the difficult things in life, however, but for the wonderful things as well. One of the qualities that makes many experiences so wonderful, in fact, like spending an afternoon with a friend, or watching leaves turn gold in Autumn,  eating delicious ricotta cheese ice cream, or going to see live theater, is their ephemeral quality. When I am in India during the school year, I call that home. When I am traveling, I call “home” wherever I happen to be staying that night. Finding or making home wherever you are, whatever state of existence you are in is one way of dealing with loss. But this is not an easy task. Some places aren’t always places that you want to make home if you have other choices.

A friend tells me that she deals with loss in her life by shifting her energy and attention to other people and activities. Though challenging, this seems like a wise way of dealing with change and loss because whatever we focus our mind on generally has a way of expanding. As the Psalmist says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” Those things that bring life into our lives are those things that enable us to continue expanding, so it is good to find a way to let losses become areas that enable us to expand. Our job is to find a way to let whatever the loss is that we are experiencing become a place of growth. New Delhi has bad air pollution and I highly value clean air. It also has an enormous population, making it very difficult to get out of the city to walk in nature, and being able to be in a place of natural beauty I value and need. I have to deal with these losses by using air filters in my home and by going out riding with the Delhi Chain Breakers bicycling group in the cooler months of the year. Though it takes hours to get out of town, the cleaner air and riding through rural areas feeds me in a way that looking at the beautiful manicured gardens of the campus where I work do not satisfy. Both the air filters in the house and the periodic rides out of town are a way of meeting a need and dealing with loss.

Is a ride out into the rural back roads of Rajasthan once a month enough? Is breathing the filtered air of my apartment enough to satisfy my lungs? The honest answer is no. It’s not. But it is something, and the lack of what I feel I need has made me more aware of beauty wherever it is found. When living in India, I shift my focus to nurture other forms of beauty. I make it a point to attend musical performances often. I carve out time to write poetry on the weekends, and am learning how to make objects out of clay. When I do get to go somewhere filled with natural beauty and clean air, like my home county with its redwood forests and the ocean stretching out in vast plains of blue, I feel deeply aware of the immense gifts these are to my life. Not having something you long for can make you look more deeply at what you do have and gives you the opportunity to develop compassion for all those in the world who do not have their needs met.

Learning to let go can also be purposeful. Every time I have moved to a different country, I have gone through a period of grief, even if it has been a move I was really looking forward to. Moving involves a loss of a way of life. You lose your your routines, and while you don’t exactly lose your friends, as you can still communicate with them through e-mail, you are no longer participating with them in a common cultural or community context, and this alters the relationship. Eventually, however, as you keep feeding the new relationships, activities and way of living in your new location, you become more at home with your new life without your dear friends in your old location. By focusing on the positive and interesting qualities and activities of the new location, gradually you grow toward wholeness again.

Eventually, time alters everything, though, including our relationship with our own  bodies. A few years ago, I was meeting up with the Citrino family members to go for a walk at Point Reyes in Marin County, CA. When we got out of the car to begin our walk,  the 70 something year old friend that my husband Michael’s sister, Ginny, goes jogging with came running up the path toward us. Her face was wrinkled, the skin on her legs was sagging, and her eyes and voice sparkled with life. There is my future running toward me, I realized. I may not lose my eye sight, I may not have a hip joint that bothers me, or cataracts, but there will eventually be something. How will I keep the sparkle in my eye? As time goes by, I realize more my incompleteness. Nevertheless, what I want to practice every day with the choices I make and the way I respond to life–what I want to learn is how to live so that I will have that spark of life up to my dying day.

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