beside still waters

March 15th, 2017

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He leadeth me beside the still waters:
he maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his namesake:
he restoreth my soul.

This is not quite how it goes. I know it is not quite how it goes. I don’t remember how it goes, but I mumble it anyway. It is the least and the most that I can do.

Standing by the bed in the ICU, the respirator inflating my father’s chest like a pipe organ, I leave aside the Buddhist incantations that I’ve memorized and whisper remnants of the old soul song. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

This is a passage from Hand Wash Cold that I’ve been thinking about lately and a lot. Soon after my father died 10 years ago, I told my sisters that I would take his dog to live with me. That’s how the old girl ended up here, in a picture I took this morning.

On the far side of 15, she’s not quite on her last leg but clearly on her last three legs, as arthritis hobbles and sometimes topples her. I’ve pulled her from the pond twice. And yet she still wants to wander in and out, not hearing, perhaps not seeing, and not managing much of what she used to do so dependably. So I’m at her side most days, all day, watching for the wordless word she will give me, when we both know beyond knowing what time it is.

I’ve had a number of visitors to the garden lately, and the subject of nearly all these encounters has been life and death. Not surprising since it’s the only subject there is. Some people have seen the warning light of a crossroads ahead. Others are investigating how to be with the sick and dying. I always tell them not to make too much of the dying part, since it happens by itself and without us ever knowing quite how or when, but rather to work on the being part, since only when we know how to be can we be not afraid. Oh, to be not afraid. That is quite simply everything you can do for everyone.

I rattled around Amazon last week and picked up George Saunders’s new and brilliant novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. It is wonderful in the most daring and difficult way, and I recommend it.

The author has imagined life in the graveyard, populated by grotesquely self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are dead. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to leave all suffering behind.

I can imagine life in a garden, populated by self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are alive. And when they realize it, they are buoyantly free to show goodness and mercy forever.

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  1. Amen.

    Comment by Kim Piper Hiatt — March 15, 2017 @ 11:39 am

  2. Beautiful. I just heard George Saunders read and speak last week and so look forward to reading his book. This was a perfect thing for me to read today as I sit with my daughter who isn’t doing too well. She’s severely disabled and going through a rough patch. It’s strange how I must constantly remind myself of what you’ve written — that it’s not death that I fear. I will celebrate the living and being. The other thing I’m thinking of is the great Wim Wenders movie “Wings of Desire.” If you haven’t seen it, I think you’d love it.

    Comment by Elizabeth Aquino — March 15, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

  3. I am sorry to hear this. I will add you and your daughter to my chant list, and watch the Wings soon.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 15, 2017 @ 12:29 pm

  4. Love the pink flowers. Thanks for the reminder and the book recommend!

    Comment by Suzan — March 15, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

  5. This is the path to learn how not to be afraid … “I shall not want” ~”He restoreth my soul” ~”I will dwell in the house”… and cherish this time I’ve been given.

    Thankful for this Cheerio message, my heart needs a hug right now.

    Comment by mary petro — March 15, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

  6. Be of good cheer, Mary. You have been given all of time, all of time, in the myriad forms. Love, Maezen

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 15, 2017 @ 7:12 pm

  7. Love this so much Karen.Brought back the sweet memories of reading your Laundry book & wishing I would have read it when my children were little or better yet, that my mother would have read it.The Lincoln book is on my list, my impossible long list without end.Don’t you ever stop writing.Your words are holy brine to soak the soul in.

    Comment by daisy marshall — March 15, 2017 @ 9:23 pm

  8. Such a beautiful garden !
    I love Hand Wash Cold so much. It reveals something new to me each time I read it. In that same chapter you quote here there is a line that took my breath away :

    “The last night in the ICU, I felt my father’s life recede and I lost my footing. I could not stand. I could not walk.”

    I’ve been in that moment where life and death become one. This is such a beautiful chapter in a beautiful book. I’m sharing it with everyone I know. Thank you for sharing this. And for describing the “wordless word”.

    Comment by Bonnie Rae — March 16, 2017 @ 4:04 am

  9. Deepak Chopra refers to death as “Lord Yama” in his book “Life After Death.” Recovering from hip replacement, slowly, painfully. Tended to our yard, garden, as the Brits say. Three bamboo plants and Japanese Lattern we brought with us to our small retirement home in Richmond, Texas. It’s good to tend to things. Thanks for seasoning our lives with your writing.

    Comment by Larry Misiak — March 16, 2017 @ 5:56 am

  10. Loved this. Hits home with me as I care-give my elderly mom. And now, I have decided I need to catch up on my own health care. In the last two years, I have let so much slide. Dealing with her medical issues meant I looked the other way on my own. Not a wise thing to do at 63.

    Maezen, I am reading the wonderful Saunders book right now. I should say, I am listening to the audible version as I follow along in the print version. The audible version is a star-studded cast, with different people for every character, including Saunders himself. It even has a bit of music here and there. Beautifully done, I highly recommend it. It is my evening treat, these days. And serves well to tear me away from the horrible news.

    Comment by Clare — March 16, 2017 @ 6:49 am

  11. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will not fear for you are with me… my cup runs over and goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. Thanks for sharing this most beloved verse.

    Comment by Richard Brannan — March 16, 2017 @ 11:21 am

  12. “I can imagine life in a garden, populated by self-obsessed specters who linger longingly and in great distress because they do not know that they are alive.”

    Comment by Kelly Salasin — March 16, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

  13. Maezen, so much love. I still often think of when you sat across from me and taught me the importance of not being afraid in the time of birth and possibly death. It is such a thin veil between the two. Been practicing just being ever since.

    Comment by Michelle — March 16, 2017 @ 1:24 pm

  14. Look at Molly! She stole the thunder from the garden when I visited, you can tell her that. And give her a kiss from me.

    Comment by Nathan W Hayes — March 16, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

  15. My dog is named Molly. She is 10. She is showing signs of arthritis and loss of hearing. I think I suffer more watching her than she does. She walks slow and stiff and is slow to respond, but her tail wags on. Dogs definitely get it. She is in the moment and as Zen as it gets. Thanks for all you do!

    Comment by Rhett — March 18, 2017 @ 10:48 am

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