Benediction: A Consideration of the Novels of Ken Haruf

Sometimes you come upon a book, an author, by happenstance. My partner saw a book in a giveaway pile at the library, and the title caught her attention: Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. She brought it home with a pile of other books from the library, but the title caught my attention, so I picked it up and looked at it.

It’s a very slender volume and has a pleasant, somewhat benign cover. I started to read. How had I never heard of Kent Haruf before? Where had he been? Where had I? It turns out to be his last book, Ken Haruf, at 71 dying of cancer, writing about two elderly people who find each other in a small town in Colorado and in each other find solace and companionship.

There’s something about aging that tenderizes us, our hearts, and this novel about elderly people coming together in this way moved me deeply. A widowed woman approaches a neighbor, a man also widowed and asks him if he would like to sleep with her. Just sleep. To lie together in bed at night, side by side, maybe holding hands, and talk until they sleep. It takes him aback, not surprisingly, as it took me aback, but he agrees to give it a try. Slipping secretly through the back alley to her door, he is informed that he should come to the front door. The woman is not afraid of who sees or what they might think. The novel unfolds in ways that are surprising and at the same time, given the characters and their situations, predictable. But not predictable like the outcome of a poorly conceived thriller. Predictable in the way of life’s unfolding.

Discovering Ken Haruf has been a gift of deep proportions. On the basis of Our Souls at Night, I tracked him down online and discovered that he’d written a trilogy of novels all set in the same small, fictional town in Colorado, Holt. The series contains Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction, three books that follow a cast of characters across time in this small Colorado town. I started at the end, with Benediction, because it’s what the library had available. I will read my way back to the beginning, to Plainsong. It feels right, somehow, to start at the end, at the (impending) death of “Dad” Lewis, the return to town of his grown daughter, Lorraine; the Johnson women, mother, and daughter; Bertha May and her orphaned granddaughter Alice. To all the heartache of being human. Of loving and losing and continuing to love. Families, stray children, the night sky, life itself.

I’m only about one-third of the way into Benediction, and yet its benediction envelopes me. The plain truth about our human lives, our broken hearts, our mistakes, and our glories. Ken Haruf lived and died in Colorado under its expansive skies and soaring peaks. He wrote about the place he loved and lived. I’m so grateful for the way fate brought him to me at this time in my slowly aging life. I recommend him to you. Let him lead you into the territory of the heart with his golden prayer in your ears.

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With Time

Wind is erasing the hills this morning,

blurring their lines with a white mist

of lifted snow, the northern sky

an imperturbable blue. The turmoil

of air is not its business. I kneel

before Quan Yin, her four arms

hold a lotus, the braided loop of infinity,

and two hands touch in the sign of prayer.

I contemplate the suffering in this world

and ask for relief. It blows like the wind

lifting snow. It sweeps around the earth

like a silk veil, this exhale. In and out,

breath and wind, darkness and light,

living and dying. It goes on with us

and without. These bones settle on the cushion,

in the body, compressing like the rings of trees,

rooted in the neutral, ever changing earth.

The Paradox of Fear and Intimacy

It’s ironic that the thing most people want more than anything is also the thing they fear more than anything: intimacy. Intimacy requires us to risk opening ourselves to another, saying what we want, what we feel, and what we fear. The more we let fear separate us from our truths, the more power it has to separate us from those we love. We can’t be intimate with secrecy. We can’t be intimate with silence steeped in lies. Every time we refuse to truthfully answer questions about how we feel or what we want, we add another layer of separation between us and our loved ones.

I read somewhere recently that anger is the guardian of fear. I think that fear has a phalanx of guards. Glibness, optimism, transcendence, sarcasm, shyness, stoicism. There seems to be an almost infinite number of disguises for fear. We develop early on an awareness that our tender innocence is vulnerable and easily wounded. We learn to withhold, dissemble, retreat, or even attack when we are hurt. And the catalog of hurts begins early and grows with us. Paradoxically, we feel unsafe as children because we are surrounded by those who also feel unsafe and who deflect our and their own vulnerability with fear’s many disguises.

As adults then it’s no wonder that we have to unlearn the patterns of deflection that shaped us throughout our early lives. When we enter into intimate relationships, those old patterns, slights, and buried fears awaken. Once the glow of first meeting and new love ignite into passion and from passion settles into familiarity, the literally familiar becomes the coals on which we begin to cook. She reminds you of your mother. He channels your father. It’s difficult to see the face of your beloved through the lens of your early wounding. So you strike out, or retreat physically or emotionally, and a small door closes in your heart. Over and over, these small doors close until your heart is a shuttered and impregnable thing.

The only way to be fully intimate with another is to be fully intimate with ourselves. We have to be willing to open the old, stuck doors to our own hearts, release what’s hidden there. Let it flow freely through and from us until it finds its level and becomes us. Door by door.

I’m writing this from my own lived experience, what I have witnessed in myself and others. I learned and lived the lie of a sunny disposition in a childhood where tears and melancholy were not welcome or tolerated. I created a story to accompany the lie. I projected this elaborate falsehood into every relationship of my early adult life. On the surface, it was attractive and accepted, but it was not durable, and it ruptured every time a partner reflected the familiar patterns of my youth. The other problem was that it cast a distorting glare like a fun house mirror. If I was so sunny and easy going, then why did my partners sense turmoil?

The milestones of my journey to embodied consciousness realization were years of short term serial monogamy. Relationship after relationship, I strove to find the fit for the hole in my Being. It was a long, lonely, heartbreaking saga, fumbling in the miasma of mutual isolation.

Okay, yes, there were periods of joy and ease glimmering over the shifting sands of my lack. I had to rot out of this search. I realized when I turned fifty the mistakes I’d made, and I began to search in earnest for the truth of my Self. The details of that journey are recorded elsewhere. It was Love, of course, that tireless and exacting master, that finally led me to the one with whom I could build a space of risk and revelation.

Intimacy is not found. It is built one revelation at a time. When I reunited with the love of my life after eight years and committed relationships with others, we thought that we had matured to the point when we could love each other freely and honestly. We were wrong.

Five years in, she told me one winter morning, “I can’t do this anymore.” The “this” she couldn’t do was not be herself to be with me. It was an excoriating breakup for me. I felt like Gilgamesh at the death of Enkidu and went on a search through the dim, dark places of my heart to find relief. It cauterized my Being. Luckily, I found some heart-centered Buddhist teachers whose retreats gave me a safe haven to drop into the mess of my emotional life. It was not easy.  Each retreat gave me another opportunity to be with my Self in an unadulterated way, and the few, brief vocal check-ins with the teachers helped me to see that it was not something that I could fix. I simply had to live it. I became, in a small way, like a monk, living my dharma day by day and waiting to see where it would take me.

Fortunately, enough happened that when, the following fall, we found ourselves at the same events, talking briefly each time, and she could sense the change in me. We decided to just spend time together and not try to be in a relationship.  By early the next spring, we found our way to the work that would awaken us fully to our true nature, then Waking Down in Mutuality. And after an event one night, sitting in her car in the cold dark, she said, “if we’re going to be together, we’re going to have to be completely honest.” I felt such a deep relief at those words. Something in me recognized that this was the only way to be intimate with her.

We had both done some work on our patterns, and as we continued to do the Waking Down work, we had ample opportunity to see, feel, and Be our conditioning and by doing so to slowly integrate it. At one point, when we were living on opposite sides of the country, on the telephone one night I told her a secret from my childhood that I had never told another partner, something that felt deeply shameful and that had plagued me for nearly all my adult life. I took that risk because I had enough experience with her, enough trust in the container we had built, that she would not judge me, and her response gave me succor and healing.

So when I tell people that the only way that their relationship is ever going to go someplace, go where they think they want it to go, I am not speaking idly. We all have our wounds, our fears, our feelings of worthlessness. Poets have written this over and over across the eons. We have to open the door, me, then you, then me, then you, over and over and over again until the light of our love illuminates the dark corners, and we know ourselves loved.

This process is never finished as we ourselves are never finished. Conditioning runs deep, and it wants to come up and be seen and allowed to relax its grip on us. Romantic relationship gives us a place to rest at the same time they activate our wounded nature. If we take the risk to love, to reveal ourselves, to build trust, we can know an intimacy with ourselves and another that we can find nowhere else except maybe in God. And how much more lovely to know God this way, in the life shared with one who can hold us and be held by us no matter what. It’s worth the risk.

Compelled

Outside, the snow collapses

on itself, water finding water

that way it has of shifting shape

and staying the same. The river

roars its full-throated runoff,

wicking away what falls.

The arc of light slants higher

across our hills, days longer

by seconds. Still, it’s winter.

In this quiet expanse of white

lit life, we fall into our own

slant of time. Bones resting

on bones that spark in bright

arcs of pain. You paint. I write.

Fire pops in the grate its long held

breath of rain. Water moving

everywhere, compelled

to start again.

Surrendering to the Sweet Mystery of Being

Something miraculous happened yesterday. A confluence of realizations that encompassed my whole Being.

For the last six weeks, I’ve been in the throes of extreme nerve pain radiating down the left side of my leg as a result of two bulging discs in my low back. Despite the maximum dose of a nerve pain medication, Ibuprofen, and a muscle relaxer, I have found each day a trial, functioning just above my pain threshold. Waking in the morning felt as if a faucet of pain had been opened. I rose painful from bed wracked with discomfort, contracted, crunched, humped, and whimpering in an attempt to walk from one room to another, to get my pills, start a fire, make breakfast, slowly, slowly feeling the pills unraveling my muscles until I could crawl, then kneel, then walk haltingly from support to support. In this manner, I’ve taught my classes two days a week and done the various forms of work I do from home on the other days.

Yesterday, I had an appointment with the specialist in Wenatchee, two hours south of here. It was a bright, crisp morning, and the drive wends its way along the Methow River through the small towns of this Valley and the vast, open spaces in between. I drove in silence without music or audio book feeling my slightly drugged mind and aching body. I was praying, as I have been recently, to the Mother of Compassion, accepting my thimbleful of the ocean of the world’s suffering as my due, offering my compassion to those who suffer. As I drove, the shadow of a bird flashed across the windshield, and I looked up to see an eagle soaring over the road from the river. I passed a sign, one of those Adopt a Highway signs that are prevalent everywhere, and beneath it was one word, Zen. In an instant, I merged completely with consciousness. I felt my body as a sort of blade slicing through the emptiness; I was both the blade and the space. I was subject and object. This feeling was deeply reminiscent of my embodied awakening as consciousness in 2011. I had been driving that time, too, and saw a bird in the New Jersey sky and a jet plane, and suddenly, there was a merging, an emergence of knowing that I was That.

In the office of the specialist, wearing the well washed athletic shorts they give me to wear before the exam, I sat in meditation while I waited. Again, I spoke to my body, honoring its process, and acknowledging the presence of suffering. When the doctor came in, I described my debilitating pain, my frustration, reliance on drugs to find a manageable edge with which I could function. As we reviewed the options for treatment, I asked him, “so you’re telling me that this is normal?” And he said yes. “You’re somewhere in the middle of this process. It could get better tomorrow, or next week, or in three weeks.” At this point, I burst into tears. “You mean I might have to continue to carry this for another three weeks?” It felt unbearable to me.

We decided to schedule me for an epidural injection of corticosteroids sometime later this month. He said, “you can always cancel it.” I got into the car and texted my beloved. “The good news is my strength is good. The bad news how I’m feeling is totally normal.” When I got home, we talked about the appointment, and I sketched out the treatment options while she cleaned up the kitchen. At last, we sat together, and I spoke my disappointment in learning that what the deep pain I am living with is normal for the process of healing bulging discs. She asked me what I had been hoping for. I’m not really sure. I guess I wanted him to tell me that he was going to fix it, make it go away. She said that when she got my text, she thought it was good news that it’s normal and felt relieved that nothing bad was happening in my body requiring some drastic invasive procedure.

Once again, the tears came, and I felt so deeply how disappointed I’ve been with this unrelenting pain. By my limitation, the constant fog of the drugs. At the same time, I realized that I’m always aware that I am resting in consciousness and can be present with all the layers of my Being, the drug fog, the pain, and my essential Being.

This morning, I woke a full hour later than usual. I was able to stretch out my legs and pull my knees to my chest to carefully roll into a sitting position. I stood up from bed. I stood up. Straight. No crunching, crushing, crouching; no whimpering. Yes, there’s still some pain in my leg, but I walked upright into the bathroom to take my pills, and then to the living room where I lit the morning fire, assembled my breakfast to slow cook on the stove. I walked back here to sit and write.

Am I healed? No. But something deep inside me has relaxed. My body, my embodied Being, has heard the news. There is a deeper surrender.

This is normal. It is normal for the body to break down. It is normal to have pain. It is normal to want to feel better. This is healing. This is how it feels to be alive in a limited, temporary, fragile body. I’m continuing to drop into this experience and savoring the sweet mystery of Being.

Mystery and Mishap: Living Embodiment

I’ve been on a two week long journey into embodiment and pain. The source of the pain is unknown. Did I injure a muscle skiing the flat and reasonably unchallenging Nordic trail where I celebrated my first ski of the year? Did a follow up ski a week later reinjure it? Was it activated in some way by a massage I had, or yoga? Am I simply experiencing my body’s slow and inevitable decline, or genetic history of spinal degeneration?

To question is human. We want to know. Why? How? When? As if their answers will give us some purchase on the slippery ground of Being. It’s easy for me to rest in Being. I’m a recovering Transcendent, so the old pattern is there to accept what happens with a sort of fatalism, to try to impose a patience on the effects of life.

In this case, though, the pain got the better of me. I have used the word “excruciating” more times in the last 15 days than in the last 15 months. On a scale of 1 – 10, my pain has at times hung in at around a 12. Finally, I went to the “doctor,” actually a Physician’s Assistant whom I trust and respect. Time for answers. She ordered medication and X-rays, a first step toward finding out the cause of the pain.

The X-rays found no breaks or herniated disks. Somehow, the pain got worse. It was difficult to move, to turn over in bed an impossibility. The toes on my left foot started to tingle and go numb. I woke on a recent morning and felt completely done in. I went back to the doctor to go over the results of the film and let her examine me further. This is a very kind, patient person with a deep source of empathy. I felt so vulnerable in my pain. She prescribed another medication that “50% of people found helped nerve pain,” and upped my allowable level of Ibuprofen. I took a pain pill and headed home.

My days in this limbo of not knowing are punctuated by pill intervals. The medication helps immensely and fortunately does not have a significant negative effect on my thinking or sense of well-being. In fact I have experienced long periods of bliss and ease when the pain is present but like a ghost of itself, a mirage that slowly reasserts its grip on my body.

I find myself ever present. The pain increases, then decreases, then increases. I do laundry, read, drink coffee, work online. I grieve a little each day that finds me indoors instead of out on the beautiful, beloved ski trails of my home. I think of my mother, severely limited by chronic pain for the last twenty-five years of her life. I remember my occasional impatience with her. I wonder if I am slowly moving in her direction. I cry when I think of her and with the frustration of the gnawing pain in my leg that comes back online as the drugs wear off. I rest in that feeling, let it sing its song throughout the finely tuned cathedral that is my body.

For me, on my path of awakening, embodiment has been an edge. I was trained by my father, dead at fifty-seven of lung cancer, who used to say, “It came by itself; it’ll go away by itself.” And by my never-the-less long suffering mother, whose favorite response to pain, sickness or difficulty was to “persevere.” I remember when she sent me an article about meditation and pain management years ago, long before her death. I embraced this idea that we could get out of our suffering, out of our bodies; that this was noble. That equanimity was the ability to transcend our humanity and respond to life with serenity, no matter what.

Ha! That will only get us so far. Life is a beautiful and horrifying venture. We are typically born in blood and pain, and we are likely to die in it as well. Along the way are poignant stops that bring us great blessings and joys and then the unfathomable grief of their loss. We must allow ourselves to live the full spectrum of this truth. Anything else is a lie, and we will leave this body and the life it has either enjoyed or endured without having known our full potential, without having known God, Love, Truth. Whatever we call it, the only way to know it is to let ourselves descend fully into each experience, to make room for it, to live it to the fullest of our ability. This is the path to wisdom; this is the path to living a life in and as consciousness in whole Being realization. This is the path to awakened life.

I continue to follow life’s path of mysteries and mishaps with an open heart and trust in Being. There’s no right or wrong way to Be. We are as we are in the moment, in pain, in bliss, in emptiness, in love, in anger. The fabric of Being is rich and varied. Let it enfold you, and see what I mean.

Joined Here Together

Like us, trees are never alone.

They stand in clusters, or solitary

yet joined to earth and sky. They

reach for eternity, high

and low, a miracle not rent

by tension. No. They simply grow

in opposite directions, down

into dark mysteries of soil

and up to breathe the breath of God.

Like trees, we are bound together:

root, branch, seed.