Our last posting on the topic of “Hello” is a very poignant photograph, called Prince and the Buddha, with accompanying haiku poem, by Mo Henderson. A short backstory to this companion pair is below.
The moment is now,
Prince is sleeping in the grass,
Who knows what’s to come.
We lost Prince last October. An old cat, he kept going off into the long grass to sleep. We never found him. This reminds me of the Buddha’s words, ‘was, is and will be’. I don’t know where he is, but there is always a ‘becoming’.
It is morning; late summer, before the daily throng of vehicles begins to pass my bedroom window but long past sunrise. I wash and dress then, looking into the mirror, take a brush to my hair. There you are! A glistening silver, peeping out from around my ears.
‘Hello’, it says. “‘I’m here! Let me out!’
Through social convention, more than vanity – although vanity is surely in the mix – I had coloured my hair since my mid-twenties when the first of the white appeared. It is the ‘done thing’ for women of my generation, particularly in my family. To accept the passing of years gracefully is looked upon with a curious suspicion, perhaps sympathy of sorts, but going grey is definitely not encouraged.
This is not the first time those stubborn, hard to colour, strands have spoken to me. But now I’m listening. I decide to release them from their bondage. No more hair dye.
And with the decision comes a joyous release of heart. A spiritual, “Phew! Finally!” and I find myself laughing, all alone, in the bathroom.
In the weeks and months that follow, my decision is met with many questions and disapproval from some. My husband and children are supportive. My mother is horrified.
“You’re too young to be grey,” she says
“ Evidently not!” is my defiant reply.
“ Well don’t expect me to stop tinting mine”
“ I don’t Mum,” I say more gently now, realising that she thinks I’m introducing some new social rule that I expect her to follow.
My hairdresser, reluctant at first, comes on board and makes a feature, in her salon, of helping women who want to ‘transition’ from colouring their hair to ‘embracing their natural blonde’. There are three ways to do it: the first is to have highlights (dyeing strands of hair a lighter colour so the grey comes in gradually). I decide against this – it’s still hair dye and I’m not convinced it will work.
The second is to cut out the dye and sport extremely short hair for a time. I’m not keen on this option, either – I remember the conversation with my mother and know she won’t like it. I don’t want to cause more controversy than I have to.
The third is simply to stop colouring it and let it fade and grow out so that with each haircut, there is simply less dark and more light. I am told it can take up to nine months to fully transition, if I take this route, and it will look ‘odd’ for a period of time. The significance of the nine months timeline is not lost on me. I choose this method for my ‘rebirth’
Before long, my appearance does indeed look odd – like the head of a badger or a skunk, dark at the sides and with a white stripe through the middle. But I am resolved and inch by slow inch I feel that I am being liberated from a pretence. I am facing my own humanity directly and it is joyous.
Around this time, I need to attend a meeting at the monastery. I am a little nervous about both the meeting and facing the monks with my weird hair. The meeting goes fine and afterwards, in a quiet moment, a most senior monk makes the remark “I like your hair”. I thank him but am surprised by the feeling of being caught out in some way. Quickly, this gives way to a quiet gratitude for the remark, which acknowledged the intention behind my actions.
True to the prediction, nine months later, after several haircuts, the transition is complete and I feel a renewed sense of peace with myself. Choosing to show the grey is not for everyone. We live in a world of judgement, where appearances matter. I don’t think that I could have made the decision whilst I was still working my very busy job. The pressure in the workplace, to be a certain way, would have prohibited this. As with most things, timing is everything. For me, I was not merely transitioning hair colour, I was transitioning, from a phase of life that was outward-looking, to a time of ‘coming home, of asking more deeply, “who am I?” And welcoming the privilege of old age.
Over the next few weeks, the Dew on the Grass Team is posting on the theme of “Hello!” Our first piece by Chris Yeomans is both moving and insightful.
‘Hello? John? Are you here? Hello?’
I walk through the ground floor rooms and there is no sign of my elderly and slightly demented husband. He was here. I heard him rattling the grate with the poker. I heard him go into the office. I walk upstairs, because always in my mind there is the thought that he might have collapsed on the floor. No sign of him in the bedrooms, nor in the bathroom. He must have gone out.
I can’t see him through any of the windows. Often if he is in the garden, a thought jumps into his mind and he goes off down the lane in pursuit of an idea. Mostly he forgets to take his phone.
I think that the dog might like a walk. I pull on my boots and coat and prepare to set off after him, just to set my mind at rest. Then he walks in through the back door. I am intensely irritated.
‘Why can’t you tell me if you’re going out?’
‘I was just in the greenhouse. Have I got to tell you every time I go in and out?’
‘Yes…’. There is irritable body language.
Another time, I will know that he has gone out, perhaps walking or perhaps on the bike. He doesn’t go far anymore. As it gets gradually darker, I start to worry. He’s been out a long time. Has something happened? I stand and watch the sky behind the trees on the horizon turn pink then grey. The garden is in deep shadow. Then I hear a movement upstairs.
‘Hello? Are you there?’
‘What are you doing up there, for heavens’ sake?’
‘I’ve just been asleep.’
‘You could have told me. I was worried that you hadn’t come back.’ Again, I am irritated. Again, I am made to feel that I am being unreasonable.
I try to explain. I am on 24-hour alert. In my head, I am constantly aware of where he is and what he is doing, in case something goes wrong, in case he needs me. And then I make assumptions, based on the most recent data that I have. I assume that he is in the house, I assume that he is still out for a walk. The difficulty is that my experience moves from some kind of reality (I do know where he is) to a complete illusion (I think I know where he is, but actually I don’t, because he has relocated himself without telling me).
So, when my mind makes an assumption, and the assumption turns out to be incorrect, and I find that I am acting on a delusion, I am cross and disappointed because I believed one thing and actually was completely wrong. And it feels like it was through no fault of my own. And I have worried and fretted unnecessarily.
Our nearest and dearest are the best, if sometimes the least welcome, teachers. I am repeatedly compelled to look at the way my mind works, to question my responses. And I am always fearful that, one day, I will call out to him, and he will indeed be lying on the floor, or by the roadside, and I will have been unable to keep him safe.
Our final posting on the theme of Acceptance is by Mo Henderson. In it, she describes the experiences of Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor, in the book, ‘Dear Life’ alongside her own experience of acceptance. Finally, she shares the poem The Summer’s Day by Mary Oliver.
In considering my own response to our theme of ‘acceptance’ I would like to share my thoughts, about a book I’ve just read. The book is by Dr Rachel Clarke, its title ‘Dear Life’. Rachel Clarke specialises in palliative medicine and works in hospice care. She shares her experience caring for people diagnosed with a terminal illness. The book illustrates her own and their stories about what truly matters in life, which she states is what we all naturally wish to share love, strength, kindness, joy, tenderness, grace and compassion.
She argues there is a difference between people who know they’re dying and those who live as though we have all the time in the world! It is basically about human connections and being able to live life each day and all that it brings, in an honest wholehearted way. The stories she shares speak of the joys, suffering, sadness and expectations of her patients and their families and how the staff in the hospice work to help create an environment where truths, regrets, illusions and potential loss can be accepted and even transcended to allow space for many to welcome new possibilities, even in the sunset of their lives.
When she first began this work, she talks of her initial temptation to assure patients (dishonestly) that all will be well and of her own struggle not to defer grief with false promises and magical thinking. Given all her subsequent experience, what she does have is confidence to tell them that people’s fears about the manner in which they will die do not match their lived reality, this is based on the thousands of patients under her care.
There are very moving stories of how people care selflessly for their loved ones, whether they are the patient or the carer, with the awareness of another’s needs having been listened to and scrupulously attended to fully. Those who have lived alone, often experience a renewal of life at the hospice leading to new comforts, friendship and gratitude.
At one point in the book, Dr Rachel speculates:
“Maybe you only really appreciate the joy of being alive when you accept that all of it, every single one of your experiences, is destined to be lost. That’s when you savour it. Maybe death makes us love life.” 1.
— Rachel Clarke
Change and loss are a part of living and grief can be suffered on many different levels. It struck me that I must have lost many moments of dear life when I have felt fearful of future possibilities or pondered over past losses and regrets. I guess we’re all human and vulnerable to a preoccupation with our fears and trying to make ourselves comfortable for the future. Fears and regrets really exist when they come to mind, to accept them when they arise without projection or excessive self-blame, letting them die naturally when they dissolve is not always an easy task.
For me, learning to live with losing a close family member through a sudden accident has involved a deep acceptance and much work to manoeuvre around the obstacles of distraction and habit. In the early years of grief, I would throw myself into projects of work to avoid what I thought would be an inevitable falling apart. After some years, I noticed the feeling of falling apart was part of the reality and gradual acceptance cleared space for healing naturally. Perhaps the falling apart was letting go of a grip on my story? Still, there are times for tears and joyful gratitude for the time we had together and the love we share. In hindsight, even the distractions may have been shock absorbers, filters to help guide through the transitions of life. Good friends who listen and a supportive community are so beneficial, which is similar to what the hospice offers too, albeit in a smaller way and more limited in time.
“To see and accept the feelings behind the story is important; it is those feelings we need to accept and then discover how they dissolve in our acceptance.” 2.
This is what struck me about the book, the way patients’ stories and subsequent needs are listened to in the safety of the hospice environment. Encouraging people to express real needs and know themselves in a natural sense, allowing space for respite from underlying fears about life and death. I don’t know how I will be when faced with my own impending death and would like to think I will accept things as they are. How many times have I tried to justify why things are this way or that way based on the knowledge of my own story? Simply having faith to accept things and to still question life’s conditions is important. I question my responses to the current changing conditions of life, the suffering of others with the pandemic, wars and the deep sadness that comes with all that. What is it that helps now?
Acceptance is already present in reality, life is happening all around, listening and seeing it as it is, is not dependent on our personal stories, but calls for our part to be played within the world of changing conditions. What is the next step, whether brightly alive or dying?
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes?
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? 3.
1. Rachel Clarke Dear Life (page 81)
2. Buddha Recognises Buddha-Daishin Morgan (page 69)
The Dew on the Grass team has been exploring different topics, recently. Currently, we are reflecting on the word ‘Acceptance’. Tomorrow we will be posting our final piece, written by Mo Henderson – lookout for it, in the morning!
In the meantime, we thought you might like advance notice of our next topic, which is ‘Hello!’. The word opens up many possibilities, for exploration. If you find the word inspiring, then please do contact us with your musings, art or photographs around the topic.
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