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Think Big. Act Small.

The last few years have been fallow, creative-wise, due to illness, moving to Portland, and the continuing emotional cost of grieving for my mother. When you're not doing the thing you think gives you an identity, it might be useful to find other things besides that one thing. I've been editing fiction for Phantom Drift: a Journal of New Fabulism, and found that discovering and promoting the good work of other writers is a wonderful thing to do as you-- and when I say "you" I mean "me"-- wait to re-discover your own good work. I've also been obsessed with cooking, good chocolate, vintage jewelry, and with volunteering to work with the dying.

There are excellent life lessons to be learned from each of these activities, but I'll just pick one for this particular blog post. Let me try to describe it without sounding like a B-list guru, although, being a B-list guru might be a step up for me. Anyway, here goes:

Working as a hospice volunteer teaches me to be present and to live in the moment without anxiety or expectation about w hat happens next. The advantage of being a volunteer who works with someone who is dying, versus caring for a family member who is dying, is that I am able to walk in and out of a situation that might torment me if I were more emotionally connected. As a volunteer, when I go home after my shift, I leave the situation behind. It isn't my family. I don't need to protect my emotional self by holding anything back. I can give 100% of my attention and care during my scheduled shift. I'm not there to make things right or effect the course of the disease. I'm not there to solve problems or redress past hurts. There are no expectations or accusations about either of our past failures.

My task is to be present for the terminally-ill person I have been asked to visit. I sit beside him, holding hands, reading the newspaper aloud, addressing birthday cards to send to relatives, even helping write a life story to leave behind for a grandchild. Sometimes I deadhead flowers and sometimes I straighten up the room. Sometimes, I do nothing except sit quietly while the person I am visiting sleeps.

I never expected that working with hospice would teach me that simply Being is Enough. But that's the most important lesson I've learned. I don't need to publish novels. I don't need to win awards. It's enough that I am present.

A couple of years ago I was visiting a dying man who was too exhausted to talk or interact with me, except for one brief, lucid moment when he awakened and told me he was glad to see me. Then he fell asleep again and I never heard him speak again. At some point, his daughter came in to visit. I could see how difficult it was for her to watch her dad suffer. He'd been ill for over a year and she had watched his health fail, watched him become a different person. She remembered another man, one who had fulfilled roles he could no longer fulfill, one with an identity as a father and a husband, a provider, an authority figure. He no longer assumed these roles as he lay dying. For his daughter, seeing him now: helpless, dressed in an easily-changed cotton gown, gaunt and uncommunicative, reminded her of all she had lost and would lose with his death and after. I write another time about grief, but being a hospice volunteer is not about grief. When you are a volunteer, you have no expectations about who your patient was before his illness. You can appreciate his accomplishments in better times and at the same time accept him for the person he is right now. You can empathize and feel compassion about what his death will mean to those who are close to him in life, but as a volunteer, my only task is to help him live as comfortably as possible until his death, and to be present to help his family and friends get through this transition.

I stood to give the daughter my chair and asked how she was doing. She looked at me with a tearful expression. All of my past successes and failures did not define me in this moment. I hoped she could see I was a kind person and I hoped that my small kindness offered some small comfort to her father and to her. I saw a momentary relaxation in her expression, a straightening of frown lines that expressed relief. In a few minutes, we said goodbye. Her father died a few days later. I want to believe that I helped make their tasks a wee bit easier to bear, even if my help was only momentary.

Most of us have but a few opportunities for great accomplishment, but we have many more opportunities for small ones. If I were in charge of the world, I'd make sure the small accomplishments were always recognized because the big ones often feel too daunting to take on.

Think big. Act small. I'll finish the novel Real Soon Now. Remember: we're not really required to do anything but be.
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