I Keep Wondering Where I Went

Where was my spark, or spirit, or soul during my long surgery?

In the hours and days since my brain surgery three weeks ago, I have found myself wondering about the process itself. Not so much the mechanical or medical parts of the surgery; to be honest, the less I think about that, the better off I am.

I keep wondering how it could be possible for a whole group of surgeons to open my skull, remove a tumor, and sew everything back together without my being aware of any of it. I was on that operating table, unaware of anything at all, for twelve full hours.

Twelve hours, during which I felt nothing. I was unaware of the table beneath me, the tube in my throat, the cuts into my skin, muscle, bone or brain. I heard nothing at all. There was no smell or taste.

There was no time.

The many hours between my taking deep breaths into the mask on my face and my awareness of people calling my name felt like an absence of time. I didn’t feel myself slipping into sleep. I was breathing, and then I was waking up.

But twelve hours had gone by.

An entire day was gone.

And I can’t help but wonder, where did I go? Where was the essence of me, of Karen? If my consciousness was simply suspended, what does that mean?

I think that it is a kind of death, but it is a death of the spirit only; the body that houses my spirit was kept alive by a bunch of machines and a team of medical professionals. My heart kept beating, my blood moved, my lungs exchanged oxygen for carbon dioxide. I stayed alive.

But there were no thoughts. None. Nothing.

If my spirit wasn’t there, what does it mean to have had my body keep going? I am obviously happy that my body DID keep going, and that when the good doctors called my spirit back home, it had a home to return to.

Still, I can’t quite come to terms with the fact that the key part of myself, the part that loves and thinks and grieves, was simply able to fly away. I can’t help but think of that team of doctors and nurses as mystical sorcerers who captured the spark of energy that is Nonni/Mom/me and held it for those long hours in a secret place. I can’t help but think of the spark diminished, like the coals of a banked fire. Smoldering and waiting to be brought back into a burst of bright flame when the time was right.

I keep thinking about death. I keep thinking that death and deep unconsciousness are so close. In both cases, the body loses all of its senses. It cannot hear or feel or see. But in death, the body stops functioning, while the little spark of life goes on.

I wonder where I was during that long day. I wonder? While my husband and kids waited for news from the hospital, why didn’t I even dream? While the city of Boston wilted in the heat and people bustled all around the hospital where I lay, why was I unaware of anything at all, even of myself?

I don’t expect any answers to any of this. I just need to share it.

This entire experience has given me a renewed belief that life goes on well after the body can no longer hold it. Now I have an image of a great pile of glowing coals, little spirit lights, waiting to be reawakened to live again. I have an image of those spirits rising up and floating the join the crowd of other glowing lights after death.

It’s comforting.

But I can’t help wondering where I was for all those hours.

Living in the moment

In the past few years, I have tried very hard to learn new ways of thinking, new ways of being.  I have tried to make myself a more positive person, and I’ve tried very hard to get control of my attitudes and moods and reactions. I have tried so hard to be calm.

Life is a stressful journey! Sometimes I find myself so swept up in the worries and frustrations of the day that I lose my ability to enjoy that day. I find that  my mind gets stuck in one narrow groove, like the needle on an old phonograph, playing the same irritation over and over and over until I find myself unable to sleep, unable to unclench my jaws, unable to take in a good deep breath.

I’ve tried to learn how to be mindful.  To be awake and alive in each moment. I’ve tried to force myself to notice the beauty and the grace all around me. I have tried to let go of the petty frustrations that really have no meaning.

I’ll be honest, though; when I was still rushing off every morning to my classroom, I found it incredibly difficult to achieve that level of mindful acceptance of each moment that I craved.  I found myself reaching for artificial and forced moments, just so that I could cross the words “be mindful of beauty” off of my to-do list.

Do you know what I mean?  There were days when I would be stuck in a snarl of winter morning traffic, worried about my literacy lesson for the day, anxious about every lost minute that meant I’d be behind in my copying and filing.  I would think the words, “Be mindful!” and force myself to look out the window at the slush covered roadside. “OK! A blue jay sitting on a pine branch!  How lovely!” and I would put a tiny check mark on my internal list.

Its just that I didn’t really live that moment of grace; I simply observed it and noted it, then moved on.

I never did truly achieve that goal of gentle mindfulness.  I never really managed to be fully present in every moment.

Until now.


Now I spend my days looking into this face, into these beautiful eyes. Now I have someone to teach me how to be truly mindful.

Ellie soaks in every part of every minute while she is awake. She gazes in awe at the colorful glass chimes that hang in my window.  She listens to the dog’s bark as if it is the most fantastic sound in the universe. She is riveted on my face when I talk to her in words that are pure nonsense. Every second is a new adventure for Ellie. She is totally attuned to every puff of air, every change in texture, every new color.  A bird flying off the feeder makes her open her mouth in awe.  The feel of cool air on her bare skin makes her crow and coo and wiggle in pure delight.

And when she sleeps, she goes so deeply into that secret place inside of her that her whole being is engaged in the miraculous act of resting and renewing.  I can almost hear her body growing as I hold her close.

To hold a baby, I have learned, is to be finally free of every other thought or worry or idea.  No words pass through my brain when I am breathing in her breath.  No fear or anxiety touches my heart when I feel hers beating against me.  I hold her close.  I feel her fingers touching my neck. I look at the perfect tiny crescents of her lashes, at her rosy lips, her tiny nose. I can think of nothing in those moments except for her: Ellie.  Our Ellie.  All I can do is sit and rock and feel the love that shakes every cell of my body.

This is true mindfulness, I am sure.  Nothing in the universe matters to me at moments like this. I am wholly open and receptive and so incredibly grateful for the beautiful gift that is this little girl in my arms and in my life.

Ellie is teaching me to live in the moment, and I am so grateful to have her as my teacher!



Life is such a winding road


It’s a funny thing, but this Christmas has me thinking about death.   Oh, not in a scary, sad, “ghost of Christmas future” kind of way.  More like in a “So I wonder what happens next” sort of way.

My oldest child got married in July, and two of my closest friends are about to become grandparents.

I’m thinking about the fact that my generation is in the process of taking the next step up the ladder, making way for a whole new generation of young parents and their babies.  I’m thinking that life has carried me along the winding road to where I am now, and that everything that has happened before now has led me to be ready for this next step upwards.

I don’t mind thinking about my own turn as “Nonni”, whenever it comes my way.  I don’t mind leaving the parenting to a younger set.  I don’t mind being the one who will one day get to cuddle, spoil, tickle and hand back.  I’m ready.  Life is a winding road, but it leads us all to the next phase.

And I’m thinking so much about my Dad.  He loved babies, he loved kids, he loved holidays and crowds and too much food and really good conversation and chaos and laughter.  He loved us.   A lot.

My Dad died six years ago.  For me,  the world seemed to stop turning after his death; how could the world go on without him?  But gradually I realized that the seasons continued, the days flowed by, the children grew and my hair went slowly grayer.  My life went on, but I also began to understand that his did, too.  I felt him, I “saw him”, I talked to him in my dreams.

I have felt my father’s hand and his hug and his breath many times over the past six years.  A few months after his death, my daughter needed emergency surgery.  When she slowly awoke from her anesthesia, she told me, “I was with Grampa. He was wearing a flannel shirt and he sat with me, holding my hand. We were at a little round table. I felt so safe with him there.”  She told me that she saw my Dad look at his watch, then look up at her.  She told me that he said, “You’ll be OK now.  Time to go.”  He got up, hugged her, and left.

And she woke up, looking at me.  She knew that he was with her.  I knew it too, because I felt it deep, deep in my heart.

This morning I read the blog of a wise old curmudgeon who goes by the humorous name of “Daddy Bear”.   In his thoughtful post “New Year Thinkering”, Daddy Bear thought about his own death.  He phrased his ‘thinkering’ in such a lovely way that I understood that a lot of people hold my belief that life goes on, even after death has found us. You should read his gentle words. You will find comfort and inspiration.

This Christmas, I had my children around me.  I felt my father in the room with us, smiling and laughing and enjoying the love that they feel for each other. For Dad, family was everything. He valued his family more than anything else in his life. I felt his spirit in the laughter and joy of my boys on Christmas. He would have been so proud of the love that my children feel for each other!

This Christmas, I gathered with a huge group of my cousins and their children, eating the same traditional Christmas foods that go back generations.  We ate octopus (“pulpi”) and squid and shrimp, cooked the same way that my Grandpa taught us to cook them. My Grandpa who has been gone for 28 years.  We ate “Nana pizza” cooked exactly the right way by my sweet niece Angela, who copied her Nana exactly, although Nana has been gone for seven years now.  And it occurred to me, as I hugged my cousins and ate my “boopie” and drank my wine, that my grandparents have achieved a kind of immortality through all of us and all of our children.

Life is a long and winding road, and none of us can ever predict the roadblocks or the washouts or the detours.  Still, we go on, because we can’t turn around.  Life is a winding, bumpy road, but we are committed to reaching its end.  Life is a funny, surprising adventurous road, and sometimes I think we all wish we could pull into a rest area and just let the traffic go on by.

But we stay on the road, because we have no choice.  We bump along, enjoying the scenery as much as we can. Eventually, we come to the parking lot, where our personal road comes to an end.

But our kids drive on, past where we have stopped. They carry our hearts, our smiles, our round eyes, our preference for salty over sweet.  They drive right on, covering their own winding, bumpy roads, long after we have stopped driving.

And we live on, because our children and their children carry our spirits within them.  We live on, because even after we shed these achy old bones, our hearts stay close to those we love.

This Christmas, I am thinking quite a lot about true immortality, and about the many ways that each of us will live on. We will all live on through those who have loved us. If we leave behind a loving and happy family, how much more secure is our immortality!

Dedicating this post to my funny, smart, loving, feisty, immortal Uncle Bob.

The Green Man

Whose tracks are these?

Whose tracks are these?

Sometimes I can feel my pagan ancestors rising up inside me.

Oh, I know.   I am a very modern American, living in the far too overcrowded Northeast.  I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, and went to college in that teeming city. What pagan past?

I was raised as a Catholic: how “anti-pagan” can you possibly get? I went to church in a nice modern building.  I learned to pray under bright electric lights.

And yet, sometimes I can feel my ancient pagan past rising up inside of me, speaking of fears and dreams and magic that is a part of my bones.  A pagan past that somehow has never been smoothed away by education or social interaction or modern technology.

I feel it on hot summer nights, when the moon rises over the wetlands behind our house. When I lie awake to hear the sounds of rushing water and hunting owls and cicadas crying in the woods. On those nights, the world of pagan spirits seems benign and gentle, and I am lulled by its pull on my heart.

But in winter, I feel those ancient spirits in a darker and more frightening way.

In winter, the wind and the night conspire to remind me of  how my ancestors once felt about the shortest day, and the onset of the darkness.

I live in a place where there are woods almost all around me.  For three seasons of the year, this is a great gift.  I see deer and fox and raccoons and pheasants wandering under those trees. For three seasons of the year, the woods mean abundant life, and peace and health and comfort.  We listen for the “peepers” in spring, to signal that the great awakening has begun, and that everything is about to burst into bloom.   In summer, we listen for the sound of hunting owls, the calls of coyotes, the singing of night birds.  And in the fall, sometimes we can even hear the smacking sound of antlers as deer and moose turn on the testosterone and fight for the best of the females.

For those three seasons, it feels exhilarating and exciting to be a part of the natural world.

But in winter, everything is so different.

SONY DSCIn winter, I look out my kitchen window and I see the spindly shapes of the leafless branches, the sinister twists of the trees against the glowering sky.  In winter, when I look into the woods from the safety of my deck, I hear the sounds of branches creaking and of wind moving restlessly through the pines.

In the winter, the woods are dark so early, and there are so many shadows.  I look out to find the moon, but when it rises from behind the frozen wetlands, it looks as if it is covered in frost.

When I go outside in the early winter light, I find strange tracks in the snow, and I imagine the dangerous predators who stalk around our house while we sleep.

When I come home after dark, to our quiet, nearly empty neighborhood, and into my quiet, nearly empty house, I feel the ancient winter spirits nipping at my heels and I shiver in fear until I am inside, and the fire is lit and the kitchen is filled with good warm smells.

At those moments, on those dark winter nights, I can understand why the ancients celebrated the beauty and hopefulness of the evergreens.  I know why they honored “The Green Man” with his ever lasting life and his ability to stand up to the darkness.

I am in no hurry to take my Christmas tree out of my living room, or to throw out the baskets of pine boughs on my hutch.

My pagan self is resisting the angry bite of the swirling snow as I light the candles and simmer the soup, and throw another log on the fire.

Happy Winter Solstice.  Happy New Year.  May we all endure until the coming of spring!



Reincarnation, my way.

I’m not a traditionally religious person. My beliefs at this point in my life are a lovely stew of ideas from all around the world. I believe that there is a purpose to it all. I believe that there is a force for good which compels us to love each other and to take care of each other.  I believe that nature is filled with power and spirit, and that all human beings are a part of that natural power.

I believe in reincarnation and eternity and endless life. I came to this belief one cold November weekend, when I realized that after almost three years of infertility treatments, my son was conceived on the very day that his grandfather was passing on. The continuity and synchronicity of that timing made me think about life as an ongoing journey, with perhaps more than one stop on this earthly plane.

For quite a while after coming to my belief in reincarnation, I thought about how I would like to return for my next visit. I passed over the predictable ideas about coming back as a movie star, rock star, famous author. I mean, I have had a pretty great ride as a human this time around.  Great childhood, great parents, married my first real boyfriend and stayed that way for 34 years (so far).  I have wonderful kids and a job I really enjoy.  I’m surely not beautiful or rich or particularly talented, but it could be worse.  A lot worse! I’ve been to enough places (like Mohegan Sun Casino and Walmart on a Friday night) to see that there are lots of people who are even worse off than I am.  I wouldn’t want to take the risk of returning as a different human.

So, I thought for a while that I might like to make my next visit as a dolphin.  They always look so joyous and carefree, bounding through the waves.  I love the water, and I am mesmerized by the idea of having the power and grace to fly through the ocean with such abandon.  I would definitely enjoy the seafood diet, and I can totally see myself basking on the surface and soaking up the rays.

Wouldn’ t I love to be that athletic?

After a few years, though, I changed my mind, and decided that if I could have a choice, I would want to come back as a black bear.  Black bears really have a great life!  They wander around the woods while the weather is nice, eating, scratching, sleeping in the sun.  Their one goal is to gain as much weight as possible to see them through the winter. Now that is a job that was absolutely MADE for me!  They eat fruit and nuts and fish and seeds, and they just get fatter and fatter.  They have no predators, and they have no paperwork.  This sound like Heaven to me.  As soon as the weather turns cold, and the snow begins to fall, they curl up in a cozy den and fall asleep.  No shoveling, no plowing, no commute in the ice and slush.  They sleep until the equinox, and then they wake up refreshed, thin, and snuggling a baby! Sweet.

She’s so happy, just adding on those pounds.

Lately, though, I have come up with a new plan.  It’s been a somewhat trying school year, with a higher than average number of parental complaints. Generally speaking, I do pretty well with the moms and dads of my students.  After all, I have been around for quite a while, and I have some street cred.  I have taught literally hundreds of kids in my career, and have managed to raise three of my own babies into relatively successful adulthood. I listen to parents, and defer to them when I can.  I recognize the fact that they will always know and love their children far better than I ever could.

That usually counts for a lot.

But this year I can’t seem to strike quite the right note with a few of my classroom parents. I don’t know what it is, but I just haven’t been able to make a good connection with them.  Whatever the problem is, having me as the teacher just isn’t a good fit for these moms.  They haven’t felt comfortable or settled or secure with me.  And I can’t seem to shake off the disapproval, no matter how gently it is expressed.  I can’t seem to disregard the complaints or tell myself that they don’t matter. Even when they don’t say anything, just knowing that they are unhappy with my performance leaves me feeling bruised and sad.

So I have decided that I would like to come back to earth as a lovely, iridescent duck.  That way, everything can just roll off, like water rolls off a duck’s back.

Think its a good plan?