Clear Mind, Wild Heart , Sounds True
Yesterday, I drove to work listening to David Whyte’s recording, Clear Mind ,Wild Heart (Sounds True ). I can listen all day to his speaking of poetry, his encouragement to live at the frontier of self, and have listened to him on other drives all the way from home to parking space. But I didn’t yesterday. In the year since my mother’s death, I have been clearing space in my own mind, my own wild heart. And somehow, in the past month, I have found myself reentering my life, my poetry, my imperfect self, in a way that astonishes me. And so, yesterday, as I drove, after hearing Whyte’s poem of dropping into the deep well of his work, I turned off the CD and drove in quiet into the city to a day of my own work.
It was a blustery day, so even the weather added to the feeling of space being cleared, old leaves and winter’s debris being moved away so that green shoots can appear. After all the many ways I have told myself that the specific realities of my personality, my way of being in the world, my houses and jobs and choices are not good enough, in the past year I began to experiment with telling myself the opposite: that all the imperfect details of my existence are so specifically mine that they are exactly the life I am meant to live. And as I drove to work yesterday, I felt joyfully at peace in my life.
I parked in the parking garage across the street from a complex of hospitals in downtown Indianapolis and wheeled my harp through the pedestrian walkway over Michigan Street. As I walked, I took a moment to look through the windows of the walkway at an old building built in 1927 as Coleman Hospital for Women. In 1962, I was born in that building. Now, it is no longer used as a hospital. But I have occassionally felt a wordless awe that life led me back to this spot and that here, in the same city block where I was born, I am doing what feels like the most meaningful work of my life. Most days, I rush through the walkway and into the Simon Cancer Center where I play therapeutic harp, hurried, not even thinking. But yesterday, I decided that from now on, I will try to remember to pause and reconnect myself to this birth place as part of my spiritual preparation for my day’s work.
Once inside the building, I put my coat and purse in my locker, my phone in my pocket and clipped my name tag on my collar and then I called the social worker who gives me referrals for those patients who are actively dying. I hadn’t heard from her for several weeks, and with the long, hard, very cold, very snowy winter we had this year, during which the first anniversary of my mother’s death was contained, I found myself not wanting to sit in the presence of those actively dying. In January and February, I have instead focused on playing the harp for patients who had not been placed on hospice care. Yesterday morning though, intuition told me to call the hospice social worker and she sent me to offer harp to a patient on the third floor.
When I reached the room, the social worker, two nurses and the patient’s daughter were in the room. The social worker introduced me and the daughter agreed her mother would like the harp. I sat down and began to play and the nurses finished their work in the room and lingered for a little while, but soon everyone left, giving space for the daughter to be with her mother as I played the harp. Before leaving, one of the nurses asked the daughter about a necklace her mother was wearing and the daughter explained she had given it to her mother and that its wishbone pendant symbolized the small ritual they had shared every year at Thanksgiving.
The daughter was younger than me. I placed her as being only in her early 30’s. In the first few minutes of my playing her phone rang and she talked to someone about how she and her mom were doing. Later, she got a few text messages and her phone made a soft birdlike sound to let her know. But most of the time, she sat silently attending to her mother, holding her hand, leaning her head down on the bed, resting there with her. I watched the wishbone pendant rise and fall on the mother’s chest as she breathed, slowly, deeply. Sometimes the mother’s face seemed to respond to the daughter’s touch. I sensed that the harp was comfort to both and I played for at least an hour, losing track of time.
I have come to know that every death is different, and I found myself thinking about how blessed this mother and daughter were to be sharing such peace in this moment. How lucky they were that their relationship was such that they could share in this way. I thought about my own mother’s death and how alone she needed to be in it, how alone she made me in relationship to her. I thought about how I hope that I can keep finding my way to gentle and connected places with my daughter as I grow old, as I die. Gradually, as sometimes happens when I play for those dying, a simple melody began to come to me and I improvised until the melody began to flow and repeat, change and return. When I left the room, the daughter was breathing slowly and deeply, with her head lying on her mother’s bed, holding her mother’s hand. The daughter did not lift her head, or stir as I quietly left the room and so I closed the door hoping that she had relaxed into sleep as she listened to the harp. Touched by this beautiful sharing, this mother and daughter taking care of each other in this way, my eyes welled with tears as I put the harp in its case.
I was too emotionally stirred to go straight from that harp session into another patient’s room. So I chose instead to go down stairs and play my harp in the open area of the infusion pods. In the first pod, I was greeted by a couple patients who have been “regulars” for the past year. Playing music for these survivors, who, despite living with chronic illness, have found their zest for living is still abundant, felt like the right place to be next. I played the improvised melody that was the mother and daughter’s song, and then merged it into the mix of familiar and Irish tunes I play when in the infusion pods. The emotions of the morning filled the harp music with an extra layer of expression that carried life into the music.
I took a break for lunch, then played for the second infusion pod. I set up my chair in the open area in the center of the pod, where nursing staff and patients all can hear. Shortly after I started to play two patients who I did not know came over, wheeling their iv poles and sitting in the comfy chairs near a fireplace next to where I sat. The immediacy with which the harp drew them to sit with me was quite touching. As I played, one of them talked to a nurse about her treatment and I gathered that she was new to treatment and had been in a difficult place the day before. I heard her say, “But I got some sleep and a shower and now she is playing the harp for me, so today is going to be much better.” I felt again how much a lifeline the harp is for people in the hospital and was glad again that I can provide it for others.
As I played, I felt how the feelings of peace and clarity with which the morning began had only continued to deepen throughout my work that day. I am here, I thought as I played, in my life, being just myself, nothing more, nothing less, doing what I have learned to do, sharing.
I thought back to David Whyte’s encouragement to live at the frontier of our lives and understood that everyone I had interacted with at the cancer hospital that day was doing just that and that when I play the harp for them, I bring myself to the same frontier. It is not a solitary place, that frontier, but a place that we all share. And we get there, as David Whyte says, by letting of our old selves and stepping bravely into the unknown. Yet somehow, when we do just that, we come home to ourselves, we come back to ourselves, we become ourselves as we have been meant to be since our origin, since birth.
This touched me yesterday in ways I am only just entering into. I wanted to write here about it to begin to express it in some imperfect but explorative way.