Thursday, September 28, 2006

Keeping Your Mind On What Matters

This morning on our NPR station, Garrison Keilor read a Mary Oliver poem that sounded like it belongs in her ethical will (and my everyday life!). I especially love the lines:

"Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be

You can read the poem and listen to Garrison's reading of it at:

The Writers Almanac

What a great poem to inspire anyone on a new day!
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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Your Legacy of Stories

In creating an ethical will, family stories and personal "tales" may be an important part of the content of your document. It depends on how much "story" has been part of your life and whether or not story-telling was valued in your family.

Last night at our monthly hospice volunteer meeting, we discussed plans for training volunteers to be "storycatchers" for hospice patients and their families. During the session, I led an exercise in which we imagined ourselves as hospice patients being visited by our assigned volunteer (who we had spoken with during previous visits).

In the imagined scenario, the volunteer has been asked by family members to record stories of your life (the hospice patient) for listening by your grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the future. You've agreed to record some of your life stories.

The volunteer says to you:

"Tell me one of your favorite stories that you've told many times in your life?"

(In the silence, participants allow stories to come to mind as they breathe into their heart).

After a minute or two of silence, the volunteer asks you a second question:

"What stories would you like people to tell about you after you're gone?"

(Once again, participants allowed stories to come to mind in the silence).

After another period of quiet, we concluded the exercise and came back to the present to share what stories (or other experiences) had emerged from the two questions.

While I won't share any specific stories here, participants reported that they often told stories about their children "over and over", about their significant family experiences, about important relationships in their life, and about major life "events". Some also told family stories that had been told to them by their parents or grandparents.

To the surprise of a few people, the second question awakened an emotional response about "remembrance" after one's death. It also raised wonderings about "Am I telling the stories I want to be remembered by?" and "Are their stories am I not telling (and keeping a secret)?"

You may want to "try on" the two questions from the exercise yourself. Or, if you'd like to pursue your life stories in more depth, I highly recommend an excellent study guide, "Storycatching with a circle of friends", available from Christina Baldwin on her website.
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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hospice Volunteers to Become "Storycatchers"

Last month (Aug. 2 blog entry), I wrote about Christina Baldwin's new book, Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story, noting that it is an excellent guide for "catching" the stories in your life that you'd like to include in your ethical will. I've recently found another wonderful way to use "storycatching": to enhance the lives of hospice patients and their families.

After reading my blog, our hospice volunteer coordinator (at the local hospice I've served as a volunteer for six years) contacted me to explore the possibility of adding "storycatcher" training to their curriculum for volunteer training. Some families had previously requested a volunteer to record a patient's stories for their children and grandchildren to listen to in the future. (I had recorded stories of an elderly gentleman on hospice a few years ago -- an experience which ultimately led me to the subject of ethical wills!).

A couple of weeks ago, the hospice volunteer coordinator and I met to discuss how to introduce "storycatching" to current volunteers and the hospice team. We also planned a program about it for our upcoming monthly hospice volunteer potluck. Then last week, I met with the hospice team to discuss the idea and their role in offering the services of volunteers to "catch" stories of patients on audio or videotape for families. Since many of them had enjoyed hearing lots of stories from patients in their work (and knew of patients who had recorded family and personal stories before their death), there was excitement over the prospect of having volunteers available to serve as a "storycatcher" for their patients.

I'm looking forward to doing part of the training for volunteers and helping in the development of "tell me about ..." questions and a "listening" guide for use in recording the stories of hospice patients.

Knowing how much I would love to be able to listen today to the stories told by my father, grandmothers, and grandfathers, I have a sense of the meaning that recorded life stories of hospice patients will have for their family members (and future generations).

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Elder Wisdom Circles on the Internet

Happened across a copy of USAToday yesterday with an article about Elder Wisdom Circles ( that I found hopeful in light of the fact that over 600 elders are "offering up their experience and wisdom via the Internet to the younger generation's confused and troubled." So far, over 60,000 requests for free, personalized advice!

You can read the article at: (Sept. 13, 2006) - "Elders dish advice ..."

For too long in my opinion, the wisdom of our elders has been ignored in our culture. Knowing that elders are being sought for advice over the Internet is great news! Now, how can we get more "youngsters" seeking elderwisdom face-to-face with the elders living in their neighborhoods, in retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes? And how can we get more elders to share their wisdom in ethical wills and personal legacy letters to future generations of their families? I invite your ideas and suggestions.
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More Wisdom from Pickles: "Beauty is in ..."

Enjoyed a good laugh over the wisdom about beauty that Grandpa passed along to his grandson:

Pickles (Sept. 13, 2006)

Reminds me to write about the subject of "beauty" in my ethical will (and the woman who taught me the most about it). And to let go of any expectations about whether or not my words "sink in" (and are remembered) by those who read what I've written!

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

What Do You Love in Your Life?

Read a poem today (which appeared on Labor Day in Garrison Keilor's The Writer's Almanac) and I thought it spoke beautifully of the kind of people Marge Piercy loves in her life. Life's "loves" are a great topic to write about in an ethical will.

The Writer's Almanac - Poem by Marge Piercy

Hope you enjoy it! And write about your great "loves" in your ethical will.
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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Imagining Grief on Life's Journey

I've been wanting to read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion for several months and had a copy practically leap into my hands from a cart of books waiting to be shelved at the library a few weeks ago. So I figured it must be the right time for me to read it. It's beautifully written yet brutally difficult to imagine living her story of the death of her husband of 40 years, author John Gregory Dunne, while also nearly losing their daughter, Quintana, to a life-threatening illness at the same time. As Didion puts it:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

While I don't intend to review the book here, there is one paragraph from Chapter 17 that so startled me with its wisdom about grief that I felt like it was a life lesson worth remembering (and a passage I'd recommend Joan Didion include in her ethical will):

"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be "healing". A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to "get through it," rise to the occasion, exhibit the "strength" that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaningless itself."

As hard as the subject matter can be at times, The Year of Magical Thinking is well worth reading. Even though death seems to be most everyone's least favorite topic to read about -- much less talk about in public -- we're all headed in that direction . . . one day at a time.
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