Ranger Eric told me that if I turned left at the ridge line, I would find numerous memorials built by family members of those whose ashes had been scattered over the ridge. The first one I encountered belonged to a woman who, I was startled to realize, had died at age 31, three years younger than I am today. I walked farther along the ridge and found wooden plaques, stone cairns, a spray painted boot...the belongings of those who have passed on, placed here by those who remain, in an attempt to make sense of their departure.
I sat at the edge of the sheer drop, the memorials at my back. I felt oddly at home. For the first time in my life, I felt at home as a citizen of this earth. At home in my smallness before the hugeness of the world.
I imagine their relatives had placed these memorials here because they felt this was where their loved ones belonged. I've wandered a lot in my life. I can't say that I've been searching for a "home" because a home cannot be defined by a place. But, in the back of my mind, I've been subtly searching for a sense of "placeness."
Whenever I visited my relatives in China, I was known as the American. Yet growing up in Arizona in the 1990s, I was constantly asked where I was from. If I replied, "Here," it was followed by, "But where are you really from?" I've never had a place that I could name, "That's where I'm from. That is the place that has shaped who I am." Perhaps one day I will wake up and find myself long enough in a place that I will claim it as my own. I will be surprised that my children have grown up there.
For now I sit quietly and watch the way that shadows and light dance across an expansive valley. If I were from this area, I would want my ashes scattered here. Let my ashes spread to the far corners of the John Day Valley until it becomes dust immemorial and retains no part of who I used to be. Build me a stone cairn that receives the last caress of warmth as the sun dips below the mountains on the opposite bank.
I loved what Kristin Neff, PhD, psychologist and compassion researcher, had to say about perfectionism. She really nailed it regarding this complex concept that I've been mulling over for years:
"Perfectionism is defined as the compulsive need to achieve and accomplish one's goals, with no allowance for falling short of one's ideals. Perfectionists experience enormous stress and anxiety about getting things exactly right, and they feel devastated when they don't. The unrealistically high expectations of perfectionists mean that they will inevitably be disappointed. By seeing things in black-and-white terms--either I'm perfect or I'm worthless--perfectionists are continually dissatisfied with themselves."
This simple explanation illuminates for me why I have been unhappy for such large chunks of my life. Now that I'm in my 30's, I'm beginning to understand that so many things in life are out of my control. And these factors ultimately determine "success" or "failure" just as much as my personal effort or talents.
Changing thought patterns or habits is hard. It takes time, practice, and conscientiousness. It's like carving a new route for water to flow down when it has been meandering down the same canyon path for the last thousand years. When something goes wrong, the same barrage of negative thoughts flood my mind, but now I can choose to slowly step away from perfectionism and closer toward self compassion. I can look at a difficult situation and place my hands on my own shoulders and say, "That was really hard. Honey, you did the best that you could in that moment."
Today I mailed off a card to the wife of one of my patients. The card was a print of a watercolor of vibrant red flowers. This card was painted by a woman whose home I visited three years as she was dying of end stage breast cancer.
The cancer had spread to her lungs, causing fluid to build up in the lining around her lungs. She had a tube placed in her chest that constantly drained a pale yellow fluid in an attempt to give her lungs room to expand and her the ability to breathe. She knew she was dying. She was determined to do it on her own terms, in her home, surrounded by the flowers that she loved.
She had a marvelous garden. As we sat in her living room, her flowers outside were erupting with brilliance. Each day as she grew weaker and the time that she could paint grew shorter, she began to paint with even more fervor. Recently finished works were scattered about her house, capturing the defiance of life even as the shadows grew longer with the coming night.
As my preceptor and I walked toward the door, she handed each of us a packet of cards with her paintings on them. Doctors are not supposed to accept gifts from their patients, and I had never accepted anything before. But in that moment, it felt right. She had an adoring circle of friends and relatives but no children. Her paintings were an important piece of her legacy. With her offering of this gift and our acceptance, we created an unerasable, tangible trace of her in the world that would remain after she was gone.
* * * * *
It's taken me two months to write to my patient's wife. I had wanted to write to her many times before today, but when I thought about what had happened, my guts twisted up inside and my breath caught in my throat. He had passed away suddenly, unexpectedly, leaving in the wake of his death, a bewildered wife and his strong daughter, who was now holding everything together. She reminded me of my father's daughter. I think about the these two women now, mother and daughter. They remind me that for those of us who remain, there is only one thing left to do.
T O L I V E.