Gimme Sheltering Sky

Being December 1st, today is World AIDS Day—a good day to dedicate some consciousness to those who have died in the past 28 years, to those who today struggle with HIV and AIDS, particularly those without access to health care (in the US this is estimated to be well over three hundred thousand people).

Part of my intention in this blog is to further the possibility that part of the answer to our modern struggles with parenting, alienation, meaning and purpose is to be found in consciousness.  It is said that right thinking leads to right action.  While I’m disinclined to dictate action, or make claims about what would be “right,” I do trust that mindfulness and compassion tend to be good for ourselves and for all of our collective children.

As parents we experience all sorts of losses, some normative and some tragic; we confront the specter of our deepest dreads—tragedy befalling a child, or tragedy befalling ourselves and thus leaving us unable to care for our child.  Such issues can range from physical illness, mental illness, general misfortune and the cruelty or indifference of others.  Yet as a society we tend to deny losses.

For a number of years I worked at a clinic with severely troubled children.  As a supervisor involved with training interns I taught a seminar about termination in therapy and I would always start the seminar by reading a passage from one of my favorite novels, The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles.  In the book the central character, Kit, has traveled from entitled 1920’s New York into the harsh North African desert with her lover, Port, who dies and leaves her abandoned and challenged to become her true Self.

Lying next to her dead lover, Bowles writes of Kit, “These were the first moments of a new existence, a strange one in which she already glimpsed the element of timelessness that would surround her.”  Bowles eloquently captures the essence of shock, numbness and emptiness as he notes several poignant and ironic moments drawn from their former life together; moments Kit is NOT now thinking about:

“She had quite forgotten the August afternoon only a little more than a year ago, when they had sat alone out on the grass beneath the maples, watching the thunderstorm sweep up the river valley toward them, and death had become the topic.  And Port had said:  ‘Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life.  It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much.  But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well.  Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really.  How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it?  Perhaps four or five times more.  Perhaps not even that.  How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?  Perhaps twenty.  And yet it all seems limitless.’  She had not listened at the time because the idea had depressed her; now if she had called it to mind it would have seemed beside the point.  She was incapable now of thinking about death, and since death was there beside her, she thought of nothing at all.”

I love the poetry in that, and the truth.  It would always depress the fresh-faced interns to hear it; they invariably resisted thinking about the inevitable good-bye they would say to the children with whom they were working, but by the end of our seminars together, when their training year was drawing to a close and they had to leave the children they had worked so hard to “reach” and form bonds with, ideas of finality, mortality and loss suddenly seemed completely relevant and such poetry would return to reveal its value. 

These children had, as a rule, had many losses.  Very often they had attached to, and then lost, many therapists.  So whether the therapist was thinking about it or not, the children were thinking about how and when it would end from the moment a new therapist said hello.  As with all of us who have had losses, the task for these children was not to recover what was lost, but rather to come to terms with the reality of that loss, to grieve, mourn and move forward.  Pain and loss demand that we make an eventual transition from trying to get love, security, or success into discovering that one must give.  This is what we can actually do:  give and participate; this is the center of individuation and the crux of parenting.

I encourage you to contemplate the final destination of our collective journey together, of all our blogs and works and strivings, and of parenting as an endeavor—the potential spiritual awakening to which parenting, with it’s demands, gifts and ultimate finality, can lead us.  This awakening is facilitated by the pain of parent’s darker aspects and by the inevitable mortality that will punctuate each of our lives and transcend all other differences to unite us in a common and universal Ending—an ending that leads to something, or nothing, about which none of us can be terribly certain.  What we do have is today, and whatever and whoever may cross our path and who we might take sincere interest in.

So, how many more times will we watch the full moon rise?  While I do not know the answer to this, I do know that tonight is a full moon, and perhaps we will watch it rise together, or if not exactly together, at least united in intention—simply appreciating that resplendent mothering mystery rising in a December sky that shelters us and all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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2 Responses to “Gimme Sheltering Sky”

  1. Kristen Says:

    I read this post and thought about my struggle with living in the moment. Too often I am focused on what I want to do later, tomorrow, next year, and, in doing so, I forget to appreciate the blessings that I have in the present. My forward thinking isn’t always spiritual or even particularly reflective, but I like the idea that one can unify presence in the now with connection to a sense of peace with the future.

    On a somewhat related note, your reminder that today is World AIDS Day made me think ahead yet again. What will I say to myself, to my children, and hopefully grandchildren when asked what I did about the AIDS crisis, about the fact that millions of people, children too, are dying of a disease that is now essentially a chronic illness for those who can afford treatment? How will I justify my relative lack of action (nothing more than interest and an occasional check written)?

    Good food for thought. Thanks, Bruce.

  2. A.N. Says:

    I saw it rising tonight…..very shiny and beautiful.
    This post of loss is timely for me. Thank you for the words of poetry, mindfulness and comfort that I drank from the cup of us- you selflessly keep pouring into-it is much appreciated.

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