"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Blowing in the Wind

"O-o-o-klahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain,
And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet, 
When the wind comes right behind the rain."
from "Oklahoma" by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein

"The water’s waves are churned up by the winds, which come and go and vary in direction and intensity, just as do the winds of stress and change in our lives, 
which stir up the waves in our minds.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
 

I don't know how much research Rogers and Hammerstein did as they wrote the musical, "Oklahoma,"but they sure nailed one thing: the winds in the South Central Plains are amazing.
 
Unlike the powerful winds that show up for a good old New England Nor'easter, or the intense but relatively brief blasts accompanying the squall lines and whizzbang thunderstorms of the Midwest, the Oklahoma prairie winds even sweep their way through high pressure systems -- for days and days at a time!
 
The National Weather Service characterizes this type of weather as "fair and breezy." Without a cloud in the sky, steady winds often clock in at 20+ mph.  With gusts ranging 35 to 45 mph, "fair and breezy" seems like an understatement.  After chasing my hat down the street a number of times, I finally learned to secure it more firmly to my bald head before stepping outside.  
 
And to be sure, the South Central Plains of Oklahoma sweeps numerous severe thunderstorms and tornadoes across the landscape as well.  It may well be that the Answer is blowing in the wind.  Most everything else is in Oklahoma.
 
The Winds of Fate
 
A few weeks ago, I returned from a three week long stay in suburban Oklahoma City attempting to support my older brother.  At age 86, Skeets (his family nickname) had spiraled down into living in filth and squalor as a hermit.  For a long, long time, it appears that he'd spent most of his days and nights laying on his couch either sleeping (often with his C pack mask on), watching Public TV, or listening to NPR.  No longer preparing meals, his daily bread faithfully delivered to his house by the local meals on wheels program, he eats on the very same couch, sometimes augmenting his food intake with hamburgers from a nearby drive-in.   
 
When I arrived, several inches of paper and plastic bags, cardboard food containers and decaying food covered the coffee table --and the wall to wall carpeting of his living room.  Misha, his somewhat feral cat, hadn't been confined to using a cat box for ages.  The windows were closed. The shades and curtains drawn.  The air in the shuttered house stung my eyes.  Skeets resisted my attempts to open the windows.
 
As I had discovered in a series of telephone calls before I came, my brother had been hospitalized, then referred to a rehab center.  My brother's longtime next door neighbor, friend -- and landlord for the past seven years -- was quite concerned.  Skeets appeared no longer willing or able to take care of himself.  He had trashed the house and property.  Steps were underway to evict him.

Yikes.
 
As fate would have it, I blew into town just in time.  I arrived at my brother's once beautiful, now trashed, four bedroom home in a rural/suburban cul de sac of high priced  homes and large lots just about fifteen minutes before two workers from Adult Protective Services knocked on the door.  The Sacred Serendipity gave me a chance to, perhaps, forestall what my brother characterized as his "worst nightmare" -- spending the rest of his days in a nursing home.  
 
In my dreams, I thought I could actually be enough of a Bodhisattva to forestall that nightmare.  Yet, as it turns out, when called on to be my brother's keeper, I don't know if I'm able.  Skeets started raising Cain whenever I appeared to be "telling him what to do."  
 
My attempts to help him face his situation, get his affairs in order, and move into a safer and healthier living situation usually evoked agitation and anger.  Like many deeply wounded men in our culture, my brother  can't readily see past his own ego-sense of "independence." His arrogance and intellect are his ancient shield against feeling sadness, insecurity, or confusion.  His anger his sword. 
 
My time in Oklahoma was exhausting, frightening, frustrating -- and profoundly sad. 
 
He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother -- Not.  (Sigh)

When I was a kid, Father Flanagan's Boys Town was quite famous. 
An orphanage founded in 1917 by a Catholic priest with five boys in a house in Omaha, Nebraska  had grown to a village of hundreds of boys and staff on a farm outside of town. Then, in 1938,  a fictional story inspired by Father Flanagan's effort became a blockbuster Hollywood movie.  The movie provided Spencer Tracy with an Oscar, a young Mickey Ronny with a role -- and brought Boy's Town to international prominence.
 
For decades, the centerpiece of its quite successful fundraising campaign was a painting of a child carrying a younger child on his back.  The caption read, "He ain't heavy, Father. He's m' brother."  By the time the Hollies recorded a song with a similar title and theme in 1969, most Americans knew of Boys Town.

I sure did.  
 
As I grew up, it seemed like a utopia. I yearned to experience something approximating the idolized form of brotherly love and supportive community that was portrayed.  
 
I didn't.
 
Instead, my three siblings and I careened through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of tenement buildings, apartments, hotels, detention centers, and the unofficial "foster homes" that my father found to care for us as my mother was swept into the Hell Realms of state mental hospitals in Elgin and Chicago.  
 
Throughout our childhood, my mother disappeared from our lives, then reappeared to take custody for a time, then disappeared again in the grips of a rotating list of diagnoses and treatments.  Our childhood was chaotic -- and traumatic. 
 
Obviously, a secure sense of home and belonging was not part of our physical or emotional reality.  As best as I can recall, Skeets, the oldest and seven years my senior, first went to live with my dad when he and Mom separated as I entered kindergarten.  My younger brother and I went to live with a family in nearby a nearby town. Mom had been hospitalized and then, I believe, was sheltered in a Catholic convent as my younger sister was born.   Then, Skeets returned to live with Mom and the youngest three for awhile when she surfaced from the hospital.  Then he left to be with my dad again.  Then he joined the Navy.  
 
Later, after living in Alaska as a communications radio tech rep,  then fixing TVs and being a theater lighting tech in Greenwich Village in NYC, then in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Skeets circled through to live with us again.  By then, Dad had rescued the three younger siblings from a detention center near St. Louis, MO in the summer of 1959.   Moving us to Lake Zurich, a small town about 35 miles northwest of Chicago, dad got a factory job, and our life began to approximate some semblance of working class normalcy -- at least in outward appearances.

Each of us bears the scars of our collective trauma. Each of our personalities were formed as adaptations to a lack of fundamental emotional stability.
 
I'm grateful that I stumbled into the practices and the support that have at this stage of my journey.  The spacious graciousness of the Universe has  allowed me to encounter my conditioning with an increasing degree of compassion, insight, and skill.  My heart aches with the realization that Skeets appears to be still driven by his demons -- and there appears to be nothing that I can do to help him.
He IS Heavy.  He's My Brother.
 
Looking back, there was a time that I idolized Skeets.  Technically a genius (145 IQ),  as a young teen he built and operated ham radio transmitters.  Later, he played classical guitar, folk guitar, and classical recorder. He seemed to know a lot about everything. 
A high school drop out, his brilliant mind and his love for electronics would ultimately garner him a Master's degree in Physics and a successful business as a broadcast radio engineer.   
 
In my youth, Skeets seemed to me to be an example of heroic rebellion against the mainstream society.  At one point, sporting a leather jacket, at another a beatnik beret, his lifestyle was exotic.  His membership in Young People's Socialist League intrigued me.  
 
When Skeets came back into our lives for a time as I entered high school at the dawn of the 1960's, he introduced me to the leftist folk music that, in many ways, framed my understanding of the world and my place in it. 
 
Yet, in  ways that I also internalized and am still healing from, Skeets, like me, mirrored my dad's personality.  Skeets is extremely"thin-skinned" -- and still has an explosive temper.  He is often highly critical.  Intelligent, knowledgeable, and articulate, Skeets, like my dad, can and will lecture at length.  Like my dad, he seems oblivious to the fact that his "audience" is not particularly interested.  Not particularly empathetic, he rarely seems interested in listening to others.
 
These, of course, are all aspects of my own personality that I saw in myself decades ago.  Even after years of dedicated Practice, I continue to wrestle with them.  At this stage of the journey,  I'm grateful that I'm able to operate a bit more consistently with a calmer spirit, a clearer head and a softer heart.

Skeets? Not so much. Sigh.
 
Although my offer to help him navigate his way out of what I saw as a hellish existence seemed welcome when I first arrived, it became increasing difficult to spend time with him in his dark an unhealthy space.   (A visiting doctor fled in horror at one point.)
 
He showed little patience for anything I said that challenged his perceptions of his situation.  If I said or did something that tended to put him in touch with his own fears, confusions, or emotional pain, he would immediately get angry with me -- and shut down the conversation.  He would then lecture me on what I was doing wrong.  His anger was my fault.  Again and again, I would attempt to "get real," then back off to give him space. 
 
In the beginning, his repeated assertion was "if it isn't broke, don't fix it. " Even in the moments he grudgingly accepted that he must move, he still claimed that he could do what needed to be done to take care of himself without any help.  
 
Yet, he  resisted anything that required an action on his part.  I offered to do his laundry, invited him to shower at my motel (his bathroom was trashed, bathtub full of garbage). He declined and repeatedly claimed that we would do that tomorrow.  And, in the grips of  rationalizations, avoidance, denial, and procrastination, tomorrow never came.   
 
In the final week I was there, things came to a head.  He fired me as his "business manager" and reclaimed possession of the car that he had allowed me to use to drive to his house and to run errands for him.  Although it seemed like I was able to patch things up a bit and regain a bit of ease and goodwill before I left, it was clear that I wasn't able to help my brother shoulder his burdens.  He had made up his mind, once again, to go it alone.
 
I returned to Massachusetts with a heavy heart.  

If At First You Don't Succeed...

This wasn't the first time I'd flown to Oklahoma when my brother's life fell apart.   
 
Ten years ago, I arrived to free him from a temporary stay in a psych ward, and tried to work with him to help clean up the mess his life had become.  His wife had moved out and filed for divorce. His four bedroom house was dirty and disorganized, the extensive grounds and coy pond in disarray. He hadn't filed with the IRS in three years and didn't seem capable of servicing his contracts with several broadcast radio stations and the Chickasaw Radio Network.  When I tried to discuss this with him, he angry dismissed them as being jerks.
 
By the time I left, I had spent five weeks trying to help him piece together his business and legal affairs, negotiate a fair divorce settlement, come terms with his opioid addiction and create a support system woven together out of his religious and 12 step backgrounds.  By the time I left, it was pretty clear that my efforts hadn't really been successful.  I could see him get agitated between his morning and late afternoon dosages (hydrocodone and oxycodone), his moods were volatile, cognitive functioning compromised.  After agreements had been made to sell their travel trailer and boat (which I spent hours and hours cleaning for their sale,) he had angrily reverted to "fighting it out" and trying to hide resources from his soon to be ex-wife.  He drove me to the airport in sullen silence.
 
I had returned home exhausted -- and suffering from the results of having being bitten by a black widow spider the last day I was there.   At that point, some of my friends with Al-Anon experience encouraged me examine my own co-dependent tendencies, especially those that arose in my family of origin.  The guidance was to let go of what appeared to them to be an unhealthy relationship.  It made sense.
 
I thought I had.

Yet, when I listened to the voice message regarding Skeets almost exactly two months ago, it was obvious that I hadn't. Evidently, my contact number had surfaced like a phoenix from the ashes in his medical files once again -- and after of series of calls the rehab staff, my brother, and his friend/neighbor/landlord I was on a plane to Oklahoma City.   It didn't go well this time either.
 
Will I try, try -- and fly --again?
The Winds of Change?
 
I began working on this post weeks ago.  The section on the Oklahoma winds was a rewrite of a post I wrote from there ten years ago.  I thought I'd continue to play with the wind metaphor and see what emerged.  Yet, as is happening in real time on the ground down there, the storm fronts kept coming.  Even after I returned to Massachusetts, I've spent hours on the phone, on the web, and in my head trying to put something in place to create a safe landing for Skeets.  Until now,  I really haven't had the time or energy or headspace to really sit down to write my way into clarity.  

It's pretty clear that I've been blown off course, once again.
 
I'm grateful that a  daily meditation practice has allowed me to rest for awhile in the eye of the hurricane most days.  I am also grateful that have confidantes and crew mates for support and encouragement.  So the ship hasn't sunk.  
 
Yet, it's pretty clear that I need some course correction.

The Bodhisattva Vow that I recite daily -- and, perhaps more importantly, my own ignorance, fear, and arrogance -- have continued to propel me toward thinking that I need to "do something" to helpBeing the consummate problem-solver -- in theory, if not in practice --I can envision a path forward for Skeets that could forestall "his worse nightmare"--  at least for a while longer.  I've done the research. I've made the contacts.  
 
I...I...I... 
 
Ay, Ay, Ay!?   I've still lost sleep over this situation.  I've spend hours and hours on this. I've tried hard to be the dutiful brother. 
 
Yet, to be honest, I've grown increasingly aware that I am unwilling to subject my body, brain, and heart to the another round of flying to Oklahoma and being subjected to Skeets's Unhealthy Hell Realms.  At age 78, I don't have the stamina to put in long, hard, physical days. It's also increasingly clear that I don't have mental acuity that I once had.  My short term memory isn't all that good. I can no longer navigate easily through complicated bureaucratic processes and negotiations easily.  
 
Unlike times in my youth, I no longer thrive on such challenges.  I get exhausted and stressed out.
 
Most importantly, although it's hard for me to own, I don't have the willingness or ability to encounter my brother's disrespect, disdain, and anger again and again. At this stage of the journey, I need to be treated with at least some degree of kindness and respect.  Perhaps,
it's time to Practice what I preach?  If I really do intend to love my neighbor as myself, I have a commitment to be kind and compassionate with myself.  I need some smooth sailing.
 
Duh!?
 
At this stage of the journey,  Skeets has had to make the choice to accept the help that I've offered -- or not.   He hasn't.  And -- at this point -- he is not returning my telephone calls.  
 
If the answer is blowing in the wind, maybe it's time to acknowledge its already blown.
 

1 comment:

Philip said...

Hi Lance,

I'm so sorry to hear about you and Skeets!
The situation seems such that you are in a position of "authority/responsibility with no power". Or at least that's how you feel it to be. That's definitely a losing proposition.

You can only help if Skeets lets you help. He's like that feral cat of his.

You've done your work in this lifetime Bro. Apparently he'll need to continue his work in the next.
The tragedy is that if he were open this could be a beautiful story... especially with a gem of a loving soul as you... but sadly it seems your continuing lesson is to learn to accept that.
(I have a very similar situation with my sister... it's definitely a challenge!)

We all have our OWN cross to bear.

Hugs, Bro