“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They will live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. “
TO: Friends and Family
Every once in a while I look back in my journal to see what I was thinking and doing one year ago. On my birthday last year, Phyl and I drove to a farm store in Westhampton where she said they made the best whoopie pies! She had a hot dog and a whoopie pie and seemed to enjoy the day. But that evening she broke down in tears, according to my journal, and cried “I hate my body.” She had lost most of her physical abilities by that time and needed help with everything except eating, talking and driving her power chair (and these would all go within the next 6 months). I wrote that I felt helpless. The next day she was up and ready to go again.
Phyl was amazing the way she would continue to bounce back from regular and continuing struggles and defeats. Every time she lost another ability, it hit her hard. We cried together at night and the next morning she was smiling and ready to go again, trying to figure out how to adjust to the most recent loss. She demonstrated a resilient attitude that I didn’t appreciate at the time because I was so worried about “what’s next?” My job was to be prepared for whatever she needed.
Thanksgiving was approaching and I asked her to write a letter to her network of friends and family. It took her hours, since she had little control of her hands. Nevertheless, she wrote in a letter we sent to you all…. “I am grateful for each and every one of you. I’m thankful for the walks around the neighborhood, the prayers, the outings, the problem solving to make situations work for me, the kisses and hugs, the food, the txt, the phone calls, my new bathroom (thanks Dad), the chats on the deck (some serious and some hysterically funny) and the shoulders to cry on.“
The land bordered by VanMeter Dr. to the south, East Pleasant St. to the east, Rolling Ridge Rd. to the north, and Ridgecrest Rd. to the west defines an area that comprised much of the Jerseydale Dairy Farm managed by the Harlow family since 1908 and sold to Walter C. Jones for development in 1952. Named Grandview Heights by Walter Jones, the area was one of the first housing developments in Amherst. This short study looks back at the land and it occupants.
Twenty thousand years ago, if you stood roughly in the middle of the property, on the corner of Harlow Dr. and Frost Lane, and looked straight up, you would see an ice sheet two miles high. Two miles of crushing weight which had moved inch by inch from the north, dragging rocks and boulders and scaring the earth along the way. The weight of that frozen mass, under which nothing could live, created a tabula rasa upon which a new story of the land would be written. And then the ice melted. When the glacier had receded, the rift valley that would become the Connecticut River Valley remained and an east-west series of hills south of Hartford created a natural dam, backing up the flow of water running from the north and creating a long lake, later to be named Lake Hitchcock after the Amherst College professor who so loved this region.
The ice started to recede about 18,000 years ago and Lake Hitchcock began to form. Standing at the corner of Harlow and Frost, 16,000 years ago, you would have been on an island with its western shoreline just a few feet west of Ridge Crest Rd. The current UMass Agricultural Learning Center and much of the valley beyond were under water. You could see an island in the lake not too far out that is now Mt. Warner.
The shoreline of geological Lake Hitchcock was along a line west of the homes between Ridgecrest Rd. and the UMass Agricultural Learning Center (Beachfront properties).
Editor’s note: This column appeared previously in The Amherst Bulletin
“We humbly acknowledge that we stand on historic Nonotuck and current Nipmuck land, acknowledging also our neighboring indigenous nations, the Nipmuck and Wampanoag to the east, the Mohegan and Pequot to the south, the Mohegan to the west and the Abenaki to the north.”
This is a Statement of the Indigenous Heritage of the Land provided at the opening of each of the Amherst climate task groups over the last three months. Such land acknowledgements are becoming common now, throughout Canada and the U.S., on college campuses and generally as a movement in support of Indigenous heritage and rights.
In my Agricultural Systems Thinking class we were talking about the concept of holarchy. This idea suggests that a farm, a business or a person is a “holon”, that is a unique system in itself.
At the same time, a holon (farm, business or human being) is also part of a larger system (holon) and is composed of smaller systems (holons).
A holarchy is a nested hierarchy of holons, where a holon is both a part and a whole. The key relationship in a holarchy is that “we look out for purpose and in for function.” That is the holon represented by a “word” in the diagram below looks “within” (letter) for its function. And the holon “word” finds its purpose in serving the next holon (the sentence).
This also works for biological and social systems. So, the individual human might find purpose at the next larger level (family, community etc.) and function within (heart, liver, lungs etc.).
To help us understand this in another way, Michael Dowd claims that we are all “stories within stories.”
On Saturday, October 4, 2020, my family and I passed the urn holding Phyl’s ashes around and then placed it in the ground. We dropped flowers around the urn and said goodbye to her physical form but we hold her spirit in our minds and hearts.
Phyl and I had decided upon Wildwood Cemetery many years earlier as it is a beautiful location and right across the street from the school where Phyl worked for 10 years.
We invited 50 of our closest friends and family members who lived in New England or New York to join us. The state COVID regulations restricted outdoor events to no more than 50 and anyone from outside of our region had to quarantine for two weeks, so were prevented from joining us. While we were sad that we had to put limits on participation, we wanted to try to provide an environment where people were safe.
It’s September in Western Massachusetts, the time of asters and goldenrod. Have you noticed that the purple flowering aster and the yellow flowering goldenrod seem to find each other in the meadow? Do they choose to grow together or it is just that we notice them when they are close because they look so beautiful together?
Robin Wall Kimmerer asked this question in a chapter from her best selling book, Braiding Sweetgrass; Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants.
As it happens, I was listening to this chapter as I rode my bike to the Buddhist Peace Pagoda in Leverett, MA (up a serious hill). Having arrived at the pagoda grounds, I sat for a while to rest before heading back downhill. I took the following picture to send to my family to prove to them I had made it up the hill (which they all knew well).
While listening to Dr. Kimmerer explain why the purple asters and yellow flowering goldenrod grew side by side, I noticed that all of the purple flags on the string of Buddhist prayer flags blowing in the wind were placed next to yellow flags. All of them!
Chapter 14 in: Toward a Meaningful Life – The Wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Schneerson by Simon Jacobson
And the living shall take to heart.
The soul never dies.
WHAT DOES DEATH REALLY MEAN?
Death: The very word strikes fear in people’s hearts. They consider death as unfathomable as it is inevitable. They are barely able to talk about it, to peer beyond the word itself and allow themselves to contemplate its true implications. This is an understandable reaction, given the fact that so many people think of life as nothing more than a state in which the human body is biologically active. But we must ask ourselves: What happens after death, if anything? What does death really mean? How should the surviving loved ones react?
The mystery of death is part of the enigma of the soul and of life itself; understanding death really means understanding life. During life as we know it, the body is vitalized by the soul; upon death, there is a separation between body and soul. But the soul continues to live on as it always has, now unfettered by the physical constraints of the body. And since a person’s true character—his goodness, virtue, and selflessness—lies in the soul, he will ascend to a higher state after fulfilling his responsibilities on earth.
Perhaps you have heard about the Governor of Massachusetts’ new COVID rules, but if not…. well, they seriously buggered up our plans for the ALS Walk-a-Thon scheduled for Saturday, October 3. The new rule is a limit of no more than 50 people for an outdoor event. We had more like 100 people hoping to attend this fundraiser, celebration, and walk for Phyl’s ALS team, Phyl-in-Tropics in October. Frankly, I was getting nervous about this event and the new rules made our decision for us.
I’ve decided to record my thinking from time to time as a way to both clarify my own thoughts and create a record of where I’m at now that Phyl is gone. I recorded some thoughts “after two weeks” and this new one is “after two months.” I know that you all are grieving Phyl’s absence too, so I hope this isn’t just an unwanted reminder of something you’d prefer not to think about. If so, stop reading…
August 15, 2020 – two months after Phyl’s death – how am I doing?
I know that I’m one of the lucky ones. I had someone who loved me for more than 50 years. It seems like a lifetime and it was (almost)… for Phyl. We met when she was 15 years old and she died when she was 66. She wasn’t ready to leave me. She told me so. The day we were driving home from our second neurology appointment, the one that confirmed she did indeed have ALS, she asked me to pull off the road. She cried…. “I don’t want to leave you John. I’m not ready. We were supposed to get old together.” We both cried for a while and then I drove home.
John Philip Newell, the author of Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality, is one of the most prominent Christian teachers of spirituality in the Western world.
Formerly Warden of Iona Abbey in the Western Isles of Scotland, he now divides his time between Edinburgh, where he does most of his writing, and teaching on both sides of the Atlantic as well as leading international pilgrimage weeks on Iona. He is the co-founder of Heartbeat: A Journey Towards Earth’s Wellbeing (www.heartbeatjourney.org), established to expand sacred vision, deepen spiritual practice, nurture reflective community, and enable action for change.
The following is a talk he gave in Hartford, CT last year that I hoped to attend but could not while I was caring for Phyl. Fortunately, it became available on You Tube. I’ve linked a slightly edited (shorter) version here (click on the picture) as well as an audio-only file (since it is simply a “talking head” in video form).