Conversations 101

Talk may be cheap, but it’s not always easy. Or done well. I’m watching Barack Obama with joy and enthusiasm for, among other reasons, his inclination to talk to anybody, anywhere without even rattling swords in the background. Closer to home, and to the issues I often deal with, talk among communities of different faiths more often than not serves to show us we all believe just about exactly the same thing; at the very least we have far more similarities than differences. In interfaith gatherings we wind up wondering why religions stir up so much pain and anguish. (It’s easy to see how; we wonder why.) Several of us hope soon to launch a social group on Beliefnet.com, so perhaps if you’re reading this you can keep an eye out for that good talking place. Also closer to home, and apropos other posts on this wandering blogspot: At last night’s meeting of Compassion & Choices, N.CA, on whose board I sit, we talked of the troubles arising from the fact that so often doctors don’t talk (or listen) to patients. (I hasten to say we have two fine, genuine-listener physicians on that board.) Working with hospice, AIDS or dying C&C clients it is sad to discover, too late, that one simple conversation — with friends, family, physicians — could have saved acres of anguish. Yesterday, therefore, I Googled myself — this is what you do if you’re REALLY bored, and a fine thing it is until you see your book offered for a distress sale price. And lo, I found it, a piece I wrote for the San Francisco Medical Society several years back titled Conversations 101. That, along with last night’s meeting and the current events of the day, prompted this ramble. The point of which is just to say what a better day we might all have if we just put up the swords, the iPhones and iPods, the computerized medical charts and even the predetermined opinions, imagined ourselves in Conversations 101, and talked to each other.

New Music, Old Music, a Feast of Sound

Here’s something to celebrate: new music. I grew up (that’s me with the pigtails, c.1944 in our Ashland, VA back yard; I was very proud of that Girl Scout belt) to my older sisters’ big band dances, jazz and gospel and symphonies on the Victrola; they grew up to be serious musicians and one very accomplished artist. Recently I’ve gotten to know Carla Kihlstedt and her music. Went to hear the new 2 Foot Yard prepared to enjoy it, absolutely loved it. Then when guitar-percussion-electronics guy Shahzad Ismaily started talking in his gentle, quiet voice about recently lost loved ones and how life is short and death is certain and it is vitally important to enjoy every moment and be kind to those you love…. I was hooked. I was unexpectedly also hooked on Ara Anderson and his Iron & the Albatross group. Ara’s a “multi-instrumentalist” (a whiz on trumpet which I think is his #1.) The “multi” includes a toy piano, and Charlie Brown never sounded better. I’ve heard Carla do extraordinary new music, most recently premiering the last, great piece by the late Jorge Liderman with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players — the kid can do it all (she calls herself musically schizophrenic) — and still remember being introduced to San Francisco with her Charming Hostess group at the Bottom of the Hill. Those gigs are always fun partly in that my husband and I raise the median age of the audience by about 40 years. Still, the celebratory thing is that so much music — Mozart, John Adams, Frank Sinatra, John Denver, Duke Ellington, Carla Kihlstedt — is in the air, getting more joyful all the time. Especially if someone like me can delight in it all.

On living, dying and grandchildren

My youngest grandchildren just went to their first funeral, and I suspect they’re all the better for the experience. They are 6 and 4. (I hear intake of breath from readers.) They had been separated from their mother for a long week as she attended the decline and death of her own mother hundreds of miles distant, and now she wanted the family together. As might be imagined, extensive discussions surrounded all aspects of this: family members told their father Oh, You Can’t Possibly Take Them!; friends said, “Heavens, you’ll scar them forever;” casual acquaintances had expert advice. I don’t know any of this for a fact; I’m on another coast and only offered my own opinion when asked. but my own opinion is this: death is a part of the human experience, a perfectly natural thing to happen even if (and often when) we’d prefer it didn’t, and children are good at facing reality if adults around them will refrain from freaking out. My grandchildren were counselled by their parents and their questions, I’m told, leaned mostly toward “OK if we go play with the cousins now?” There are some touching examples of children handling their own or others’ deaths in my book Dying Unafraid, which you’re invited to read about or buy through the links lurking around this blog, but I will mention just one: an early patient of my hospice volunteer work who was a beloved grandmother of many. Children ages two and up clambered constantly atop her bed, talked to her as she lay comatose and dying, and discussed at the wake how she “looked prettier than when she was so sick.” Years later it remained clear that what they remembered was how lovingly everyone saw Grandmother through her final days; there were no spooky memories of an unmentionable event. I am neither a professional nor an expert in this (or any other) area. I’m just a writer who took to hospice work and later work with AIDS support groups and other end-of-life causes. But I do know that for centuries millions of people died with their loved ones (and often unloved ones who were just hanging around for other reasons) in the immediate vicinity, and humankind seems to have survived. My brilliant psychologist friend Marilyn gladdened my heart by agreeing with the advice I’d given pre-funeral about the grandchildren in the case above. I had simply said, “Why not just do exactly what their mother wants? She’s had a hard time. They can handle it.” It is seldom the single jarring episode that scars a child, Marilyn says, but the thing that happens over and over. Better, she says, to visit a visitation room once or twice than to listen to your parents arguing every day. I say, death happens and we live with it. If we talk about it openly and lovingly, those who are just beginning the journey might be equipped to see that journey fearlessly to its completion.

Welcome to my blog.

I picked the topic while walking in the gorgeous San Francisco sunshine with my gorgeous friend Mary Trigiani one day, talking about what ties together the erratic strands of my life. Celebrating, we said. Celebrating the beauty of this place (and other places), celebrating life and occasionally death, celebrating friends and families and faith. “You really need to start a blog,” said Mary, and thus it was born.

It was the celebration of living and dying that led me to become a hospice volunteer, later to work with AIDS patients, and eventually to put those stories together with similar stories of hope and courage to create the book Dying Unafraid. Researching Dying Unafraid led me to meet some remarkable people with Compassion and Choices , an organization I work with still (often 40 hours a week.)

It is the celebration of friends that leads me to joy.

It was the celebration of family that led to the little biographical memoir of my father Earl Moreland, Never in Doubt and leads to the serious joy — can joy be serious? Why not — of living with The Great Encourager (that’s Bud, my final husband) and keeping in touch with my flawless children and grandchildren. (Sandy is the only one with a Web site right now, unless I get into Facebooks of grandkids and I’d better not go there as yet.)

It was the celebration of faith that led me to my particular church home here in San Francisco and helped open my eyes and heart to the multitude of other truly remarkable faith communities that come together in the San Francisco Interfaith Council (new Web site under construction), the other nonprofit that currently occupies my days.

So today, with Easter approaching and the celebrations of other faith communities all around in the springtime, it seemed a good time to send this initial blog into cyberspace. I hope you’ll enjoy it, whoever and wherever you are, and perhaps post a note. (What do bloggers do, I wonder, if no one ever blogs back?)

There are plenty of other things to celebrate, despite the troubles of our battered world: books and art and music and sometimes even politics. I’ll welcome your thoughts, but I won’t promise many profound thoughts of my own (and surely not every day or even every few days! Where in the world can blog time be found?) We’ll see. And we’ll celebrate.

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