You say Missouri
out West. Urban prairie bound,
I say Missourah.

Letting Go

In this world of proliferating spiritual self-help material, there is always a lot of spaced dedicated to letting go.  Whether one is trying to learn how to let go of a bad relationship or delve deep into mystical waters of Buddhism, the destination point is inevitably this place of willing acceptance, of relinquishing control, and of recognizing that our ability to move forward hinges on this ability to ceasing grasping.  “Let go or be dragged” the Zen proverb goes, and we all nod knowingly with the understanding of our higher selves.  Letting go is an awakening to the potential of the moment:  we recognize that we are suspended in this stream of experience and allow ourselves to move with its current.  No more treading water, frantic, scared or frustrated.  We float peacefully, feeling the respite from clinging.  Letting go is both produced from and manifests as a sense of ease.

What is rarely addressed, at least not explicitly, is what you do when confronted with that thick gnarled  root of the resistance to letting go.  That white knuckled, fingers interlocked grip that finally gives way, not from an awakening realization but from exhaustion.  Or when each finger has to be peeled back, one by one, until the strength of the hold is compromised enough to release.  No sense of peaceful floating as your heart opens in acceptance…just the thump when you hit the ground and the breath is knocked out of you.  Stunned and numb at first, and then filled with regret and sorrow at the loss of not holding on for just one more moment longer.

When the time came to make the decision to put Shotzee to sleep, I had for all intents and purposes arrived at a place of letting go.  I was lucky…I had a lot of rational justifications for coming to this decision.  And I had an amazing veterinarian to help me make sense and validate my perceptions.  While his true age was not known, we knew from the clouding in his eyes that Shotzee was over 12.  He fur had not only started going white around the eyes, but the fur across his whole body had whitened.  Dark gun metal gray when we first adopted him, his last trip to the groomer revealed him to be a pale silver, a little ghostly version of himself as he aged.  Shotzee had been in heart failure for 18 months, 12 months longer than his original life expectancy with heart failure of 6 months.  He was old and he was fragile.  He was highly susceptible to the negative effects of stress and he couldn’t be hospitalized.  And I had promised him that I would not let him suffer at the end of his life.  I was lucky…his vet and I knew that Shotzee had become sick with something he couldn’t recover from (pancreatitis) and that he would only get worse.  While I hoped for the best in the few days leading up to his death (after all, he had rallied so many times before), when I took him in on that final day I knew that I needed to make the hard decision.  Despite a good morning, Shotzee was clearly waning and beginning to struggle to maintain his place in the world.  It was time to let go.

It was too hectic in the hospital to put him down during his visit, so I took Shotzee home for a few final hours and returned after the hospital had closed.  I paid for his euthanisia in advance and told the vet to let the vet techs and other staff know they could feel comfortable coming in the room to say good-bye while we waited.  I held Shotzee in my lap as he received his final visitors, and relinquished him only for a moment to receive the first sedative injection. Then I held him while  the vet feed him treats until he fell asleep under the sedative.  He remained in my lap to receive the final injection.  For a few moments after the vet had confirmed his heart stopped, I held Shotzee knowing it would be the last time. Time to let go.   I got up and handed him over to the vet who laid him gently on the table. We talked about how peaceful he looked and what a handsome boy he had been.

And then I felt the thump as I metaphorically hit the ground and the ensuing stunned paralysis.

I couldn’t leave the room.

Shotzee was gone, but I couldn’t make myself turn around and leave him behind.

And I knew that this was the moment to really let him go.

Suddenly, the series of evaluations and decisions and actions that had led me to this point over the previous few days, from when Shotzee first appeared to be sick to this moment in the hospital standing by his still body, revealed themselves to be the illusory.  Illusory in the sense that all this time I thought I had been letting go, accepting that his life had come to its end.  After all, for the past 18 months Shotzee’s like had been far from guaranteed.  At any time he could suddenly become terminal from his heart, so I had been preparing for this moment for a long time.  Or so I thought.  But now I feel this  type of “preparation” is also an illusion.  Because despite all of this, I felt how tight that grip was up until the last moment and how much effort it took to loosen it enough to turn away and walk out the door. To let go, and to feel those now open hands filling with the grief of loss.

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Shotzee

Sometime around the turn of the century to February 16, 2013.

Miss you, Boo.  Every single day…

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Leaving Portlandia

There have been two universal reactions to my announcement that I was going to move from Portland to the Mid-West:  surprise and disbelief.  But I also found a number of people who, if given a few moments to find clear and honest footing in the conversation, could see through the self-absorbed mental fog that covers the city in equal measure to the grey rain clouds and tells its inhabitants every day that Portland is the most amazing possible place in this country to live.  The amount of media devoted to reinforcing this idea is overwhelming in the sense that I believe it has overwhelmed people’s ability to have their own thoughts and identity in Portland.  Instead they have a Portland identity…because they live in Portland and that is what  defines them.

On the surface, Portland has many progressive aspects.  Sustainability and the “greening of the city” stand front and foremost as two easily recognized.  Curbside recycling and composting, increasing investment in bicycle transportation, native gardening, and urban farming.  There is an intense concentration of a wide range of alternative health practitioners. Artisan craftspeople abound, creating specialty foods and other handcrafted products.  “Shop local” is the resounding cry to support small businesses, and farmers markets adorn every neighborhood in the summertime.

Idyllic as this sounds, there is a less appealing aspect to this picture.  As Portland concentrates is cultural practices into a few baskets, the proliferation of other ideas diminishes.  Ten years ago I would have characterized Portland as a place that had progressive perspectives.  Now I would characterize Portland as a place with few ideas, all perpetually reinforced and more deeply ingrained everyday.  People regurgitate a handful of versions of the same thoughts in ever narrowing expressions.  Everywhere you look it is repetition of the same ideas, whether it be on politics, design, or social culture. People strive to look the same, to dress the same, and to have the same lifestyle.  It is so pervasive, that women within a 30 to 40 year age range may display similar choices in hair, dress, and accessories.  What began as a city with progressive and forward looking ideas to develop a new urban course has become a closed container of cultural conformity.  There is a new cookie cutter in Portland, and it is young, alterna-hip, and white.

I grew up in a place like this…it is called Orange County.

Sweeping shocked gasps aside, this comparison is worth a long pause to consider.  Stripping away the key difference between Multnomah and Orange County of political affiliation, with Orange County being a historic Republican stronghold and Portland staunchly Democrat, these two counties have some key cultural similarities all hinging on a pivotal word used above:  conformity.  Conformity of dress, thought, and mannerisms, shared ideas and ideals, and a strong attitudinal belief that their is a “right” or “correct” way to be and to appear to others.  There is also limited interest or investment in the arts, creative, innovative, or intellectual development.  Just because the surface ideals these two places seem extremely different from each other, does not mean that they don’t breed the same obedience to a self-referencing norm within themselves.  And by perpetuating their particular cultures and tailoring their environments to fit with a narrow range of ideals, the inhabitants of these areas increasingly live on the margins of reality and instead inhabit a fabricated cocoon of their own self-rewarding design.

What disturbed me most about Portland in the months leading up to my decision to leave was the increasingly strong social culture of invisibility.  I am referring to the tendency of people in Portland to not acknowledge the physical presence of other people around them in close proximity.  This can easily be seen by the increasing tendency of people to brush past you without making eye contact or saying “excuse me” and instead being intensely focused on some spot just beyond your left shoulder.  But it manifests in countless other ways:  letting dogs off leash (and not picking up after them), ignoring red lights and stop signs, allowing children license to act out without discipline in the presence of other adults.  In this city where conformity to a particular identity is so strong, people no longer see each other as people.  People come in and out of your field of vision as an object to be ranked according to usefulness to you, and invariably avoided, ignored and dismissed the majority of the time. It is unpleasant, unsettling and dehumanizing.  The countless tiny social interactions we have with other people throughout the day are the glue that hold us together as a community and keep us from being automatons randomly bumping into one another like the balls in a pinball machine.  And this critical stickiness in Portland is dissolving rapidly.  As people lose the ability to engage and connect with one another, there appears to be an increasingly growing level of resentment, frustration and anger brewing under the surface of social interactions.  Not just ones where overt conflict is involved, but all of them.  Because it feels like they all contain some level of conflict just by the occurrence of people being together in a place, time and circumstance.

There is little likelihood that I would ever have been physically assaulted in Portland.  But I think there is a pretty strong likelihood that if I were physically assaulted that no one around me would react or get involved or help.  Because chances are, I wouldn’t even be seen.

When confronted with difficult situations or challenging environments, often it is heard “it’s the people that keep me here…keep me working, living, etc. in this place despite its shortcomings”.  In Portland, the situation is reversed….the environment is being made increasingly pleasant and comfortable, but it is the people that make it so difficult to live there.


Moving Away, Moving Towards

Based on my numerous conversations with people prior to moving halfway across the country, it appears that the degree to which people comfortably assimilate notions of change is deeply influenced by the magnitude of movement embedded in that change.  It is as though there is a “movement spectrum of magnitude” and the extent to which you can easily grasp and accept the need, or even simply the desire, to move (or change) depends on where and how broad a band of this spectrum your own personal comfort range covers.

At one end of this spectrum there is spontaneous, intuitive movement, action based on instinct and motivated by emotion, catalyzed by the collision of outer circumstance and one’s inner landscape. Perception plus emotion equals movement. And the potential for dramatic movement is inherent in this dynamic. At the opposite end of the spectrum is strategic movement, action based on analysis and motivated by perceived benefit, with all the competing stakeholders being taken into consideration.  Reason plus justification equals movement.  The potential here is for increasingly incremental movement as competing interests, complicated histories, and oftentimes simple inertia create narrow constraints in which to act.

Where any of us falls on this spectrum is an intersection of numerous variables: personality, age, life experience, and so on.  But I think we can all agree on a recognizable pattern of starting at the end of intuition and impulse in our youth and gradually drifting down the spectrum to the responsible realm of planned, thought out, and carefully considered movement and change.

While I love the neat and clear dichotomy of this logical construct, I find myself asking the question, how can strategic thinking paradoxically  result in dramatic and spontaneous change?  How can perceptual observations colored by emotional reactions insinuate themselves into the methodical planning process and  drive a revision of strategy, perhaps even altering it dramatically through immediate and significant change? Perhaps instead of being at two opposing ends of a spectrum, these seeming opposites actually sit side by side and continuously influence one another through this contiguous proximity?

After answering repeated variations of the same questions people had regarding my decision to move (nearly all of them beginning with the word “why”), I started joking that I should have put together a PowerPoint presentation which would present a logical construct and progression of ideas that eventually led to the decision to move.  Perhaps something with some flowchart diagrams and a cost/benefit analysis.   And while there is a logical narrative of sorts behind my choice to move, the actual experience of moving has proven to be more complex and full of serendipitous events than such summarized version could explain.  And not only would the above questions remain unanswered, but other questions around how do we  justify why we move, how we move, when we choose to trigger a move, and where we move to would also be left unexamined.  There is no good twenty word or less explanation…at least not for me.