My Father’s Breath...for Carolyn

by Pat Smith on Friday, June 17, 2011 at 10:06pm

One of my dear friends said goodbye to her father not too many days before Father’s Day. Yes, it is just another greeting card holiday. But who can deny what seeps into our hearts from the outside…the art vs. life thing…and marketing which has survived at least a century now…?

Much as we’d love to deny Facebook, my own confession here is that some mosh-pit social media moments have instigated some real views into the moment we love to highlight as Buddhists – freshmen, sophomores, and graduate students. 

This watershed moment brings together the days I began running when I realized that the strengths of my strong breathing chest could somehow bring life into my father’s last exhausted months of life. And it was the moment, that realization, that he became not just my father, but a human being standing, leaning onto me as we both stood beside his hospital bed. And for the first time, we were the same height…at least that’s how it felt.

I realized that my shoulders, the ones he called his “favorite halfback”…no, just just quarterback, but a halfback, were stronger than his.

That three weeks in the University of Wisconsin Madison cancer ward were my first real adult days. Across the hall from Dad was Michelle, who had a one-month-old baby, a husband with dark circles under his eyes, and stage four bone cancer. I don’t remember anyone else. I do remember the postings for tie-dye night for patients only, and the numbers on everyone’s door with the daily hematocrit, leukocytes, and anything anyone could measure which proved hope was still alive when not much else was.

The doc began transfusing platelets since Dad was too old for a bone marrow transplant at the cusp of 59. I naively witnessed the first one. Mom had returned home; I can’t remember why, but I arrived and was renting $3/day student housing and eating just as cheap on the medical/ag school campus. I had never witnessed a convulsion, and the gaze from my father’s eyes was the bright green of Lou Ferrigno becoming the Incredible Hulk. There were concerned faces by the attending staff, yet I had learned long ago how to manage panic in childhood and become still and dead, just with eyes observant.

The young nurse later brought me down to some couches at the end of the hall to ask what the directives were. I was completely puzzled.

“He spiked at almost 105 Fahrenheit.” I hadn’t translated the Celsius measurement. Immediately I realized I had no clue, and no answer.

“Well, I almost didn’t make it.” He did indeed realize it and the intense green gaze was fully aware 6 hours earlier. The Benadryl had worn off by evening, and the research doc realized that this was the only method Dad could receive his transfusions. 

In the early 90s there were still people protesting when someone was unplugged, and Dad was a devout Catholic. Yet, he wouldn’t accept Novocaine at the dentist’s office. So, where was the logic of what to do without his direction? I parsed that he wouldn’t want to be in a vegetative state, but fully alive.

“I want everything done to keep me going.”

Stunned again.

Well, that near miss was merciful. A month later, when he was finally declared terminal and in the hospital closer to home in Illinois after I brought him back, it was clear that he wouldn’t entertain the possible or practical until the fight was truly over.

I couldn’t go into the cancer ward for a few days. I had to run along the Lake Mendota, I had to visit every shop near the Capitol, I couldn’t go and see him. All I could do is try a mile at a time.

Each breath, each push, each side stitch, each pain. Each one had to make him stronger. There was nothing else I could do.

I made a deal with the nurses when I called. I would call him from work right after lunch hour, each day, before the Benadryl hit with each transfusion. The days before cell phones, the days of expensive midday long-distance calls. He was lucid, we could talk. I don’t even remember about what 

The nurses weren’t supposed to be starkly honest in those days. Hospice practice was in its infancy, and we were so far behind in the Midwest. But someone was honest with me.

In late October, it was time.

I learned, later, that this man I thought religious, who became a lay minister in our parish, nearly didn't accept last rites. He couldn't lie, he at the end didn't believe God was there. After all those Sundays, I was shocked to learn that. (For nearly a decade, it was simply too painful for me to attend any church, my association was that strong.)

I flew back, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He was suffering. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty, and I was scared to death. Ironic. My brother, only 21, softly told me not to be afraid. “It’s not as bad as you imagine.”

Dad waited until I arrived. How a body can wait when there is no logic, when the breath is, literally, all there is left. My brother, our mother and I sat, for several days. I felt so selfish, so exhausted. Dying isn’t like Hollywood. The body works its way into birth, and it takes time to die. That’s just what it does. The hard part is to witness the pain, the exhaustion.

Midday, that Wednesday, it wasn’t good anymore. When you read about congestive heart and lung failure, it’s not good. That’s why one shouldn’t smoke. A person drowns in their own lungs. Dad’s leukemia had nothing to do with smoking. Towards noon, he said he couldn’t see, there were “webs over his eyes”, and then his feet became ice cold. The nurses began to tear up. Dad looked at me, standing at the foot of his bed. His lungs were filling with fluid. 

“I just want to die in peace. DO SOMETHING,” he said to me.

My mother was at his left, his doctor at his right. Dad, in character, had resisted pain relief, narcotics, drugs. He wanted his head, his awareness. The doc turned on a modest drip when I looked him in the eye and said, “Yes, now.”

His chest, his head, his body relaxed. He could rest, he could breathe, what breath there still was.

His cousin, whom we called Uncle Joe, came in, choked up, and then had to leave. His work friend, a couple train stations down the line, came in.

“Leo, just like always, you were great at reading books through your eyelids.” To us, we remembered a few times after a long day Dad would nod off and end up in Milwaukee at the end of a long day instead of where his car was parked. 

My brother and I sat at each side, and realized when it was time to say goodbye. He even tried to say it to us, and Mom ran for help.

The stop lights still changed in the distance below the window, my breath still continued after following his for days. My breath didn’t stop, his did. 

“Life goes on,” was what I heard in my head.

Fucking platitudes, they are true, and that one wouldn’t leave, sitting there. The reaper wasn’t there, but that saying staked my heart.

It was November, and not long after the sky darkened. We left the room, I took his hat and doubled over. He always wore a Fedora.

We began down the hall, and I had to return, once more. His cheeks were still flushed. I had to check once more, just for one more breath. 

Then, I became a partner, when my parent left. It was in this moment that those letters transposed. Those who give us our breath, our parents, they too are only human. They breathe with us, and we with them, until they don’t, and we still do. 

And we still breathe, live, and love, and we try to find that love in our partner.

“Don’t forget to breathe!” Reagan, our yoga teacher, would say.

“You sure picked a weird time to start running,” my husband said, as he went with me, night after night, that winter.

And life goes on.


Love your breath, love your life, love your Father.


Contemplative Photography in a Time-Obsessed Culture

Contemplative Photography in a Time-Obsessed Culture
by Christine Valters Paintner, PhD

We live with a scarcity of time in our culture.  We lament how busy we are, how we wish we had more hours to the day, as if that would solve our problems with feeling so rushed and busy all the time. We feel victimized by our lengthy "to do" lists and day planners.  We think that by hurrying we will somehow catch up.  But that is a great illusion.

We are all suffering from time poverty in a culture that worships productivity and accomplishments. We become hostage to our calendars. Despite gadgets designed to save us time, we become overwhelmed by our schedules and deadlines, but more efficiency is not the answer.  Multi-tasking means we only do several things with poor attention and focus, while increasing our anxiety and sense of desire to do more and more.  It fuels our adrenaline and we have lost conscious presence to any of the things pulling us in different directions. 

Jacob Needleman, in his book Time and the Soul, writes that most of us are like what the Tibetans call "hungry ghosts"—not really existing, not present to life, obsessed with hurrying and doing things right away.  He goes on to write: "But right away is the opposite of now-the opposite of the lived present moment in which the passing of time no longer tyrannizes us." He goes on to say that the "hungry ghosts" continue to starve by hungering only after a false illusion of more hours and more days, when what we really hunger for is the present moment.  I could live a thousand years, but if I am not present to it, I will still feel the dissatisfaction and absence of meaning to the end of my days.

The antidote to this deep issue of modern culture is not more hours in the day, but a shift in relationship to those hours. We need to say "no" more often. We need holy pauses. Pauses which open us up to the depth dimension of the world.  We move so quickly that we forget that there is another deeper layer to reality, one that can only be seen by stopping and arriving here. This is what the mystics write about.  The more we touch the eternal, the more we feel a sense that there is more than enough.

In my new book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice, I describe photography and seeing with eyes of the heart as one way of developing a practice of contemplative awareness:  Making time to walk slowly in the world, attend to your breath, slowing yourself down to really see what gifts are being offered for you to receive (rather than take), engaging the lens as a portal into the eternal now, open you up to the eternal where time feels spacious and abundant.  When we are fully engaged in this moment, the concept of linear time seems to disappear and we feel at peace.
Consider one small step toward contemplative presence:  take a short pause as you begin each activity and as you end it.  In that pause, allow three slow and deep breaths, while being aware of any impatience you have or desire to rush through.  Just allow a moment to be here and now, being present to the sacred in this moment.  When we listen more deeply to that voice, we never hear the summons to rush faster, or be more productive. 

Then with camera to your eye, wander through your everyday world seeing beneath the rushed surfaces, noticing which images shimmer, which ones call to you as a gift offered in the midst of the frenzied pace of life.  Walk among trees and flowers, be present with friends and creatures.  What do these subjects of your world say to you about what is important as you gaze through the lens?  How might photography become a way to remember the depth dimension of the world?

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and community for contemplative practice and creative expression.  She is the author of 7 books on art and monasticism, including her latest, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Ave Maria Press). Christine currently lives out her commitment as a monk in the world with her husband in Galway, Ireland. 

Photo by Christine Valters Paintner. Copyright 2013


Lent 2013

3 words to remember for the next 40 days of Lent:


My grace is enough for you

My grace is enough for you.
When you are weak
My power is made perfect in you.
-Letter of Paul to the Corinthians

So much pain. So much change. So much fear. Such was the last couple of weeks. My mom, who is in the Bay Area, suffered a stroke. She is now in rehab but that means her decreased mobility will make it harder for her caregivers, my sister and husband.
   To keep my schedule flexible just in case, I had to cancel my friend Pat's arrangement for me to fly to Denver to teach a couple of yoga classes. All designed for me to meet with a dear friend for some deep talk.
   Then I treated a yoga friend to a birthday dinner. She told me that she only has $3 in her checking account and does not know where her car payment will come from. And of course my daughter is still looking for a job.
   Another friend emailed me and said that her husband wants a divorce. Living with him was a roller coaster ride because of his temperament. She is gripped in fear. She is now at a retreat house pondering her situation while also trying to keep herself together.
   So it was a welcome break when last weekend my wife and I attended a weekend retreat at the Palisades Retreat Center an hour away from home. The silent contemplative retreat is an introduction to Centering Prayer, founded by Fr Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk. This was special to me because this is one time that Annie joined me in a spiritual retreat. I met a couple of wonderful nuns. And I learned another prayer method to help me deepen my quest for intimacy with the Beloved.
   My practice is centered around the idea that the heart can be open at all times, especially when hell is breaking loose. When the heart is closed, with the illusion that it is protected, it misses the beauty, the goodness, the delight, that flies with these arrows of the night.
   My friend with the problematic husband conveyed that the Sanctus 15 prayer session from my book helped her calm down. Here is a portion of Psalm 55:

Attend to me and sustain me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
My heart is in anguish within me
The terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
But I call upon God,
and the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
and he will hear my voice.


Living your prayer

"If the sun refused to shine,
I'd still be loving you.
If mountains crumble to the sea,
there will still be you and me."
-Led Zeppelin

The news are filled with words and reports and images from the Haiti earthquake. After seeing and hearing the news, the question for me  was “What now?”  This took me online and to a UNICEF donation. And texting HAITI to 90999 for an automatic $10 donation.
     They have no water, power, communication. They are shut down. Roads are impassable. But I see images of people helping each other, making do with what they have at the moment… “If the mountains crumble to the sea, there will still be you and me.”
     We can’t control what Mother Earth (or other people) will do next. To be ready, maybe once in a while…
·         we could assess our surroundings, our attitudes, our choices before looking at others
·         we could ask ourselves ‘what could the consequence be of my words, this action, this decision?’
·         instead of pointing fingers, we could ask ‘how can I be more loving?’
·         when we think we can’t help, we can stay out of the way of those who are helping
·         we can practice being calm and patient so when disaster (whether caused by nature or man's actions) visits, we can be welcoming and make clearheaded decisions, based not on fear, but on the spirit of creating a safe and healthy environment for ourselves and others.

If you are thinking of helping Haiti, please be aware of scams and give only to organizations you already know is legit. This Google page is a start.
     May all that breathes in Haiti, and on the planet, help each other be safe, be free from pain and suffering, be healthy, and be happy.

Happy are those
who consider the poor;
The Lord delivers them
in the day of trouble.
-Psalm 41


Grandma lives on...

A dear friend requested a reading she can deliver when she goes back home to attend her grandma's memorial service. Below is my offering.

    Start with a favorite story involving you and grandma. Something you will not tire of telling your kids and grandkids. (pause)
     Express gratitude as you recall grandma's personal gifts to you. "Thank you, grandma, for giving me...."  With a silent pause, invite all to consider what grandma left for each of us. And what we are leaving, paying forward, our children and the future generations in our family tree. (pause)
     Invite all to look to at the palms of their hands. Ask someone, what do you see on the palm of your hand, Sue? After the reply, talk about how you could see grandma and grandma's grandma and all the grandmas back to the beginning on your palm. Consider your lineage, your genealogy. We just did not appear from nowhere. (pause)
     Then invite all to bring the hand to their faces and "feel grandma, and feel grandma touching your face." Then to the ears and throat, and feel and hear grandma's voice in you. Then to the heart, and feel its beat. That's grandma right there. Then feel the breath. And stay there for a few seconds. Feel grandma's breath in you. Feel grandma live on in you... (pause)
     Invite all to sit back and relax and find that quiet space within themselves, invite all to softly close their eyes and then read the blessing slowly with juicy, let-it-sink pauses between blessings:
May you often pause to remember that you
carry the precious gift of grandma's breath-spirit within you.

May you greet grandma's breath-spirit within you

with gratitude and amazement each day when you awaken.

May you be led by grandma's breath-spirit

to the places in your life that are greatly in need of love.

May grandma's breath-spirit within you help you

to find your way home to your heart when you have lost your way.

May grandma's breath-spirit dance in your life

and bring joy to those you meet each day.

Adapted from (changed "Star-Light" to "grandma's breath-spirit"): 
The Circle of Life by Joyce Rupp and Macrina Wiederkehr


Merton's Central Fear

"What runs and what ticks is,
however, no longer important.
What is important is that life itself
should be "lucid" in me (whoever I am).
I am nothing but the lucidity "in me."
To be opaque and dense with opinion,
with passion, with need,
with hate, with power,
is not to be there,
to be absent,
to nonexist.
The labor of convincing myself
that this nonexisting is a real presence:
this is the source of all falsity and suffering.
This is hell on earth,
and all hell in hell.
This is the hell I have to keep out of.
The price of keeping out of it
is that the moment I give in to any of it,
I feel the anguish of falsity.
But to extinguish the feeling of anguish,
in any way whatever short of straight lucidity,
is to favor ignorance and nonexistence.
This is my central fear
and defines my task in life."
-Thomas Merton

What is your central fear? What hides your heaven, what exposes your hell? Can you keep your heart open in your encounters with your hells?