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“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.”—Brené Brown

*This is the 3rd installation in a series of posts. If you missed the first, you can find it here and the second can be found here.

The drive from Dallas to Houston on I-45 is long with stretches of road in ill-repair—narrow where under-construction—and lined with ranches as evidenced by sprawling pastures and tall, drying grass that seems to go on for miles.

My mother held herself gingerly in the back seat while my sister and I attempted levity in response to the grueling situation with comments about the cowboy church we passed and the git er’ done sticker on the back of the pick-up truck window—beneath the gun rack.

I looked through the messages on my phone hoping for something new to pop up and take my mind off my desire to skip over the drive and get to the treatment. My heart seemed to beat at a quickened tempo in response to my thoughts.

Residents of just about every state relish their unique slice of sky. Texas could win a prize for most-opulent setting sun—golden and radiating in the drawn-out center, all-wrapped-in-red-at-the-end like a pair of shiny boots.

We switched drivers just before the glow dropped below the horizon and later when I pulled into a rural gas station, it was dark. My sister returned from the bathroom and I got out of the car—stretching—watching through a window from outside the building as three men—traveling together—walked toward a long hallway inside where the restrooms were located.

I contemplated whether it was safe to enter the narrow hallway—outnumbered. I ended up waiting, slowing my pace and slipping in to the women’s room when they were out of site.

The likelihood they were predators was slim, I’m sure.

In the hotel room my mother got into bed wearing her clothing—something she would never have done when well. I curled up next to her and my sister joked that I just didn’t want to sleep next to her.

Humor soothed the anguish of our mother’s suffering—so-on-display. Our shared sense of irony was a private language between us, our closeness a shroud of protection.

I waited—more than slept— and checked for the time when the alarm would sound and the neurologist would meet us at the hospital.

He had called me earlier to find out when we would be arriving—too late for admittance that evening. His tone was grandfatherly and when we met, his wide smile and straight, bright-white teeth were familiar.

His accent evoked his heritage and a way of treating people that seemed of another time.

Weeks later—on a day in which my mother was improving—we shared with him about how our father had flown regularly as an airline captain to a neighboring country near where he was from. As a young child, it was a mystery to me where my father was much of the time, although the souvenirs were good clues when he returned home—colorful, velvet sombreros that were hung on a wall, miniature stone castles for the tops of our dressers and endless sets of plastic wings to wear on our shirts.

When I was a teenager and the news was bad—like when a Boeing 757 crashed into the side of a mountain in the country where my father flew most often, or a hijacking was underway—I would go scrambling to find out where he was and whether or not he was safe.

Airports and airplanes were familiar places to me in the way that a school might be for a teacher’s offspring.

Chicago O’Hare had the tall, red, popcorn machines and three-letter airport-abbreviations lived in me like a part of my genetic code—BUF, DFW, LAX. A plethora of old-school ticket-stubs hung around our house piling up and finding alternate uses as bookmarks and scrap paper.

Marilyn—the pilots’ secretary—filled toilet paper rolls with candy and wrapped them in tissue paper with ribbons on the end. Whenever we passed through, she would open the drawer to her metal desk and hand one to me and my sisters.

In all of those hours of sitting and waiting and traveling, I fell-in-love-with reading and have rarely-since left home bookless.

For this trip I had packed in my carry-on the first of the three books I had recently purchased, having already read the second.

I still hadn’t connected with the fact that the author of the current book—Brené Brown—was from Houston. At that point, I didn’t even know for certain that I would be going to Houston. I only thought it convenient that at such a difficult time, I happened to have the perfect book-in-tow.

We entered the hospital-admittance waiting room just after dawn—beginning our lengthy wait for a bed. We stood in front of the art display cases lining the wall filled with delicate sculptures of birds and other nature scenes, encouraging our mother to rest in a reclining chair covered with a blanket.

It was noon before we finally had her settled in a shared-room with revolving roommates at the end of the hallway. It would be days before we would move into a private room where we set-up camp.

We read on the nurse’s board how some of the patients had been there for many weeks, even months.

As the days passed, I did whatever I could to help the nurses help my mother all-the-while composing letters in my head thanking them.

Donna with her braided hair and upright posture, the way she thought things through and answered yes whenever she could—her dad re-married and moved to London, she living at home with her mom to save money.

Kara with her stamina and return-to-kindness again and again, her rapid response to a rapid drop in blood pressure— saying she was prayin’ for us and telling about her grandfather with Alzheimer’s.

Montoya—a nurse’s aide and possibly part-angel with an unflappable—yet palatable— positivity and willingness to help in any way she could.

I thought about the privilege of having access to attentive, 24-hour-care in juxtaposition with the bedraggled man I had been noticing each day when I came and went from the hospital—stationed in a wheelchair out front—his leg propped up, his head drooped down, his body curved in the shape of the letter C.

One nurse—the exception—demonstrated for me the power of our being there, of our witness.

I watched as she inserted a new IV—the third or fourth in an already battered arm. When she accidentally moved the needle and catheter backward—forcefully in the wrong direction, under skin—I nearly jumped out of my own skin and my mother gasped, crying out in pain.

The nurse’s comment about what she had done was dismissive and unapologetic. In that (however brief) moment she seemed to have lost touch with her patient as a human being.

I validated my mom’s anguish at her situation as a whole and held her hand and did anything I could to comfort her in those weeks—regardless of the futility I felt—and when there was a quiet moment, I would drop-my-own-head-down and read a little from the book in my lap.

In many ways I was already living out the author’s suggestions for meeting challenges with the courage of curiosity and a keen eye for erroneous inner-storytelling as a means of dodging growth and personal responsibility.

I was right there with her and while there were certainly things for me to learn or experience more deeply, it was having the book with me—and the act of reading it there in Houston Methodist Hospital—that became relevant to me, flipping time around on its head and revealing the inherently, circular nature of life, once again.

My sister and I offered each other breaks from the intensity of our experience by encouraging the other to go down to the lobby of the hospital and sometimes we would go there together.

It was a beautiful and peaceful place with an arching atrium where light poured in on sunny days.

Lines of trees and plants surrounded tables where hospital staff had lunch alongside visitors and patients and even the building grounds crew took up a table occasionally.

There was a fountain in the middle with a life-sized sculpture of a turquoise-God-I-couldn’t-name riding a dolphin. Water cascaded over the rounded edges of the pool and seemed at the same time to be both flowing and static—like plastic wrap had been pulled taught in a curved and striated position and filled up with liquid.

There was a grand piano near the entrance with two large vases set beside thick columns—none of which would have seemed out of place in a museum.

Occasionally an individual would approach the piano and play—a concert musician’s serenade to a somewhat weary crowd.

At first, I kept to myself what I had read from the book there in my lap—the magnitude and gravity of my mother’s care overwhelming the impact of the coincidence I had consumed and for which I had felt a deep sense of awe.

But then, one afternoon, my sister and I were in the lobby about to sit down to a three o’clock lunch we had finally gotten to. With only two restaurants to choose from in walking distance—and nearly a dozen days of needing to eat —it might be fair to say that I have finally had my fill of Chipotle, another bowl of which we were about to consume.

We were standing by our table, setting our things down—when a couple approached us. It took me a moment to process the fact that they were homeless or nearly so—and they were requesting our help.

They led by sharing about their embarrassment in approaching us—it was a Sunday and the lobby was nearly empty, they had likely snuck in.

Given the subject-matter I had been reading about in my book and the fact that I was where I was, everything around me, suddenly came into clear focus.

I knew—without a doubt—it was no accident these individuals were approaching me now.

I brought my whole attention to them—specifically making a point to look directly into their eyes while internally asking myself the question, can I look openly at the pain and need before me and hold space for it, not diverting my gaze or rushing to end the interaction?

The man’s bright blue eyes contrasted with his dirty jacket and need for a shower. I was glad they had each other. I told them I understood what they were going through and immediately felt a little sorry for saying that—knowing how little I actually knew about what it would mean to be in their situation.

What I meant was, I see you—I see my own need in you—and I do not judge you for where you’ve found yourself.

I gave them money and when my sister and I sat down, I flooded her with the story of what had been happening between the pages of my book and how profoundly aligned it was with our experience.

I explained that Brené Brown had written a story in the book I just happened to have with me about her own experience in the lobby of Houston Methodist Hospital—when her mother had become suddenly ill.

I bought the book in South Portland, Maine—near where I live— at a time when I imagined I would be spending the fall admiring the colorful transformation of leaves, sending my children off to school and returning to my work.

I described to my sister how the parallels did not stop there with our presence in Houston.

Brené Brown had also described the way her curiosity around a characteristic she had noticed about herself in her interactions with homeless people had culminated into deeper understanding through an experience with a homeless man she had witnessed playing the grand piano a few feet from where we stood.

Her quest for understanding was prompted by the question of why she was able to give readily to a homeless person in her presence and yet, she could only do so hastily and without looking into the person’s eyes nor lingering in their presence—an uncharacteristic manner for a seasoned social worker and compared with her normal way of being with people.

After she had encountered a homeless man at a restaurant across from the hospital (perhaps Chipotle) where he was being shoved out of the place and then witnessing him the following day in the lobby playing the piano, she had also come to attention—knowing life was speaking to her.

She entered into a conversation with her mother about the history of need and self-reliance in the story of her family eventually coming to terms with the fact that her reticence was rooted in an avoidance of facing the presence of  her very own need residing in her being.

In some ways my sister and I were blown-away by the seeming coincidences of the book and the way it was lining up with our own experience.

It also felt like of course this was happening—we knew we were exactly where we were supposed to be.

Later when another person—clearly in need—approached us on the street, I asked him if he was the one who liked to play the piano in the lobby—I had to try— and he said, no.

I know that guy though! he’d said.

A few days later, toward the end of our time at the hospital and after a particularly stressful experience, I decided to walk outside around the medical center—something I hadn’t done much of.

There was an abundance of concrete and almost no-green to be found in the area.

I walked past the children’s section of the hospital where large, colorful letters lined the walkway and found the door to the playground area with benches and fountains locked.

I looped around through cancer centers and other specialty clinics and after not-too-long I was back where I started. In the distance I saw the man who I had been noticing all throughout my time there stationed in his wheelchair with a towel draped like a triangle over his head and his leg propped out in front of him.

He had been moved or someone had moved him away from being right-out-front in plain view. Now he was under an overhang and out of the regular flow of traffic in-and-out of the hospital.

I began walking back up the ramp toward the entrance and suddenly something stopped me. I turned around and walked back down, looking into my purse to see what I might be able to give him.

I walked slowly toward him and finally stood directly in-front of him. His head was drooping down and when he sensed my presence he looked up at me, raising his head just slightly.

I looked into his eyes watching as they widened in surprise at someone standing there before him. I observed his rounded spine, drooping skin and ragged clothing. He was really thin.

Our eyes continued to be locked and I somehow managed to say, I’m so sorry you are suffering.

His eyes widened, again, and I saw tears spring up into their corners—emphasizing the already liquid nature of their rich, chocolately color.

A flood emotion came washing over me—my mother, the suffering, the inequity, this world—and I held it all back like you might hold a door closed with your whole body against a powerful wind.

Tucking money down by his hand, I told him I hoped someone could help him get some food or help or whatever he needed.

It was clear he couldn’t speak but he stayed intently in my gaze. It felt like we both knew this interaction was not about the money or at least that is what I told myself.

I didn’t know what else to say or what I could do so I said again, I’m so sorry you are suffering and walked away down the street and away from the hospital where I could breathe.

I finished the last few pages of my book in the final days my sister and I were together and handed it over to her for her flight home.

The third of the books I had recently purchased was sitting in my lap on the runway as we began barreling forward into the morning sun and lifting smoothly into the air. I opened its hard cover and began reading as I listened for the wheels being drawn up and tucked away, and headed for home.

 

*Due to the lengthy nature of this story, I decided to break it up into a few installments. This was the 3rd. Thank you for staying with me! I do not intend to regularly create such lengthy posts. If you missed the other two posts, you can find them here and here. I hope you will enjoy my journey through three books that spoke-to and supported me during a difficult time caring for my mother who is now recovering.  

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“The artist vocation is to send light into the human heart.” —George Sand

This is a quintessential, Spring morning in Maine—the air thick with moisture, brisk and chilly still. Birds are chirping intermittently as if in conversation and the water of this tucked away bay dances with the breeze that rises up and then stills, rises up and then stills again. Occasionally a very large gust of wind comes charging through, “I’m here! I’m here!” it announces whipping through the branches of towering Pines swaying them deeply one way and then the next. Earlier—with his sharp five year old eyes—Adrian caught sight of a red fox running across our yard. I had seen him yesterday as well. He had come so near to the steps of our back porch and row of glass doors, it almost seemed as if he were peering in at my kitty, Autumn, who stared back out at him from her safe and warm pillow perch. I have a sense that there are some new baby foxes about that he is looking after, scouting food for. It is only a sense, though.

I am in gratitude for a friend who inspired my latest work of art. I have long had a heart for people who go about this world unseen and in need. My first encounter with significant poverty was as a young girl in a church thrift store where my mother volunteered her time. People would come in looking for emergency dental care. In some ways it seemed that their teeth were the least of their worries. I tried to be at ease so that they might feel seen—but not too seen. I remember trying to pretend as if nothing was wrong although I knew something was very wrong. I was awakened. Again and again I have been roused to awareness of the souls who walk this earth unattended to. I lived in New York City in most of my 20’s and early 30’s.  When not engrossed in the roller coaster of my own coming-of-age story, I remembered about others and volunteered with Coalition for the Homeless. It seems that when I come to a new place, part of what I do is to seek out the people in need. I’ve done that same thing here in Maine.

I remember once being in a van that went around the Bowery in Lower Manhattan delivering meals. The driver was a memorable guy who fueled his sobriety with this work. It was dusk—the bridges were beginning to light up around the city as we drove from location to location—delivering meals out of milk crates. There was one moment in particular on an outing like any other that I have replayed in my mind over and over like a gritty movie reel. We were somewhere around Chinatown and the FDR drive which runs along the East Side of Manhattan. It was nearly dark now and as I began to climb out of the van, I got a glimpse in the distance of the people approaching us and it took my breath away. They just kept coming and coming and coming pouring out of dilapidated buildings and alleyways like ants out of an anthill. As they came more near, I took in their physical condition. Their clothes and skin were deeply layered and worn, thick with dirt and suffering and decades of mental illness and addictions untreated.

Late last year, I described to my friend how I was hoping to bring awareness to the devastating issue of homelessness in our country through my art. My first thought had been to create portraits of homeless individuals enhanced in colors and imagery that would invoke all that lies beneath the often tired and weathered outer appearance of those without a safe place to lay their head at night. It was then that my friend—who has a much deeper connection to what it means to be homeless than I do—suggested that I create a piece of art that could simply be enjoyed by homeless people in a space where they gathered. She turned her head up a little and suggested with a slight smile that inspiration might be of some use, that a piece of art might be an unexpected source of hope in an otherwise drab environment like a soup kitchen. I admired her insight—the respect she demonstrated with her idea for all people needing access to beauty and communion with their hearts. Her idea spoke to me instantly and freed me, too, to concentrate on a work of art that was simply beautiful and bright and inspiring.

I began to envision an array of colors that would represent a pouring out of all that remains good in the world despite the evidence otherwise. As I began creating a paper palette, I grew very still inside, inviting a universal force to be with me in my work and to guide the outcome. Although I hadn’t presented the idea to anyone there, I had a vision of sharing the completed work over the holiday season at Portland’s soup kitchen, Preble Street. I was fueled by the bad news in the media wanting to be a part of a counter-balance. There was the continued school violence and then the Syrian Refugee Crisis and news of record homelessness numbers in New York City—including an ever-growing number of children without a place to be safe at home in the night. I underestimated the amount of time it would take to complete the work but settled into the process trusting in what I recognize as a divine timing in all things.

As weeks and then months passed, my work also became deeply informed by my current participation in a yoga teacher training and specifically my mind opening to the idea of a fascial network within each of our bodies supporting and protecting all that we are made up of. I found this image to be an excellent metaphor for the networks of our human capacities for holding each other—and not holding each other—and the ways that the systems may be disrupted through injury and trauma.

It is a gift each time I am allowed to participate in a piece of art coming to life and I never know where the work will take me. This experience was no exception. Over the course of five months, what began as a pouring out of the love and the good that I still know and trust exists in this multifaceted world, became an expression of the deeply held connections between us all as we make our way through the interwoven nature of life’s unfolding. This work—that I have just recently completed and named, “Fascia,”—became about our universal source and backdrop as human beings, as creators, as small drops in the vast ocean of the Universe.

I have yet to make arrangements to share “Fascia” publicly—though I intend to. I do not know how it would actually be received. Maybe people really do just want and need us to help them get into a place where they can have a home. Or maybe they would love to stand before a work of art and be reminded that they matter—that they have significance in this colorful world that we all share. My wish is that they would never, ever have to choose between the two. Either way, I am grateful to have entered into this process once again and to have been reminded where I fit in.

 

"Fascia," 2016 Mixed Media Collage, 80" x 77"

“Fascia” by Meghan Anderson Nathanson 2016 Mixed Media 80″ x 77″

 

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“Each contact with a human being is so rare, so precious, one should preserve it.” —Anais Nin

A few weeks ago, I found myself scurrying around my back door like a mouse, grabbing any warm hat and gloves I could find and rushing to my car. I was driving now hurriedly toward Portland and noticed that my gas light was on. I noticed that my heart was racing from the rushed babysitter hand-off, from the feeling of letting others down with my delay. I texted a friend to let her know I was still coming while I pumped fuel. I began to settle into myself as I began driving again and eventually lost myself in music. Deep in lyrics, I hardly noticed as the exits flew by. It is rare that I drive at night and I felt like I was living in another time. As my littler son Adrian approaches three years old now and has stopped nursing, I’ve felt that I can enter the world again. At least, I have been dipping my toes back in, oh-so-gingerly. I’ve been in touch with long-lost-friends who I’ve missed. I’ve picked up long dried-out paint brushes and felt a part of me come alive again. I’ve begun to care once more about what happens outside of my familial cocoon. I feel a little bit like a toddler, though. There is a certain “push-pull” that I am experiencing. Some days, I wish for a more stretchy cord. Other days, I’d rather be nestled back in a dark room, rocking a baby into slumber.

I pulled up to my destination and the parking area was filled. I felt my heart fluttering again. It was not the safest of areas. I drove around for a few minutes and noticed a parking lot on the corner. I pulled in and found a space quickly, gathering my things and making sure my handbag was zipped up closed. I approached the building where I was meeting my group, looking for the right door to enter. Finally after circling the building, I found it. It was marked, “volunteers.” I was greeted at the door by Tyler who showed me where to sign in, where to put my things and then he told me to meet him in the kitchen. There I was instructed to wash my hands and was assigned to a serving station. I was told that I was lucky to not have been assigned to the dessert station. Apparently, it can get quite heated there. My job would be to dish out a heaping spoon full of pasta and explain to anyone who asked for seconds that they would need to come back once they had finished their first serving. Even in soup kitchens there is waste. I had done this work before with Coalition for the Homeless, from the back of a van under bridges and tunnels in New York City, but it had been a while. I was rusty.

I watched in anticipation as the doors opened and a flood of people came in before me, mirroring the flood of emotions I experienced upon seeing them. They quickly formed a line and were upon us. They knew this drill all to well. I took each person in as they came to me for a helping of what looked to me like a really delicious meal. Only in Maine do the soup kitchens serve steamed mussels. I hadn’t eaten much for my own dinner and was aware of my hunger. There were so many bright eyes, so many offerings of gratitude. I was amazed at both the diversity and familiarity of the individuals that I encountered. It seemed that every age and race and nationality were represented. There were men that held themselves like college professors and men who hid behind their baseball caps. There were women layered deeply for the cold and some layered in tattoos. There were many very weathered hands holding trays and some behavior indicative of severe mental illness. Some were particular of where their food was placed on the tray and others would have taken it in the palm of their hand. One woman accused me of giving her a smaller serving of pasta than someone else because she was a woman. My throat felt closed for the first 10 or 15 minutes that I was serving and I could hardly squeak out a “your welcome,” to the many “thank you’s” that were offered to me. I was overwhelmed with compassion for the need that kept coming and coming before me. I almost couldn’t believe it when someone uttered, “well, that was the small rush.” Just after that another much larger wave of people entered the building and this group seemed to be even more weary than the those who came before them.

There were so many things that crossed my mind as I continued to take in each person who came before me. I imagined their stories. I imagined what they thought of me. I imagined what it would be like to truly know each of them, and to understand what brought them there. I was aware that some had jobs and it was apparent that many of them could not work. I saw how their personalities were like a microcosm of the many varied ways in which people may be—grateful, angry, bitter, elated, humble, funny, particular, easy-going, forgiving, uncomfortable, comfortable, discouraged and hopeful. Suddenly, and as quickly as it all had begun for me, a metal gate began to be pulled down before me and as I pealed off my now sweaty rubber gloves and put my metal serving spoon down, I caught one last glimpse of the sea of people before me taking in their dinner at the Preble Street Soup Kitchen in Portland, ME. The only thing I truly knew about any of them was that they had all—each of them— been a baby at one time. Each one of them had come into this world as precious to somebody, if only for a single moment.