older couple on park bench

Instead, October 30, 2016

There’s a beautiful reading from Mark Nepo, a writer whose life view has been deeply shaped by his own experiences, fighting cancer. He writes:

“I envy the tree,

how it reaches

but never holds.

Things that matter come and go, but being touched and feeling life move on, we tend to cling and hold on, not wanting anything to change. Of course, this fails and things do change. Often, we are stubborn enough to go after what we think is leaving, trying to manipulate and control the flow of life. Of course, this fails, too.

We can’t stop life from flowing. So we are left with feeling what was and what is, and we call the difference loss. … Now, new things come, and some of us anticipate the loss and just let the things of life go by without feeling them at all.

I have done all these things, but when clear enough and open enough, I try to let things in, to let things touch me. … It doesn’t eliminate loss, but when trusting enough to let this happen, I am tuned like a harp held up to wind.”

I’m so grateful to Bonnie for agreeing to share part of her story of loss and change this morning. As you have heard, her husband’s illness has caused at least three shifts in identities: Abe, Bonnie, and the relationship between them have all been reshaped as Alzheimer’s disease has woven itself into their lives. Bonnie was actually prepared to speak in a lot more detail about all of this, and so I’m hoping you’ll be able to hear the full version of her story at a later date.

We’ve been talking about identity all month. Today, though, we stop and take a look at the special light that shines on who we are whenever our usual identities begin slipping away.

And even though at one level Bonnie’s story has been about dementia, I’m guessing that many of you will have noticed parts of your own lives reflected in hers. In fact, I’ve been astonished, since arriving here last year, at how many of you are struggling courageously behind the scenes with losses and unexpected changes much like those Bonnie described.

So many of you are, or have been, caregivers. So many of you are reluctantly seeking ways to reshape your lives around changes in yourselves or in those you love. Like it or not, you’ve been forced to confront big questions about who you are – who we each are – because life has visited you with circumstances you would never have chosen. And, as Unitarian Universalists who don’t necessarily share a common theology, each of us needs to discover our own sources of wisdom for living with loss.

I’ve heard you say things like this:

I’ve always seen myself as a traveler. I’d never expected to stop.

Instead, it takes effort just to get myself safely from the kitchen table to the front door, and I have to rely on someone else to pick me up if I want to go anywhere.


I’ve always been the one who took care of others.

Instead, it’s others who are insisting on taking care of me and telling me I am doing too much, especially here at this church. Who will I be if I cannot continue to do the things that gave meaning to my life?

And, it’s not only older folks who are struggling to adjust to a world other different from the one they’d expected. I’ve also heard some of you say things like this:

I’d always thought by getting an education I wouldn’t have to struggle like my parents did.

Instead, the job I trained for doesn’t really exist anymore.

Instead. It’s a little word that barely draws attention to itself. But if you listen closely, it operates like a hinge separating out the whole sweep of the life that came before, from life as it is now. On the one hand: the way things used to be, and the future you’d imagined would unfold. One swing of the hinge, though, and all this is covered over by what actually has come to pass.

“I’d thought I’d keep on volunteering here, now that I’m retired. Instead, I’m spending more and more time with my family or the people from my new residence.” It doesn’t have to be bad. But when you hear the word “instead,” it’s pretty much a sign that whatever is true now has covered over an identity and a reality that used to be.

If this has been your story, how have you been responding up to now? Are you the type that tends to cling? Or perhaps you’ve decided “to let the things of life go by without feeling them at all”?

What Bonnie seems to have discovered is improvisation. When her husband named things she couldn’t, herself, feel or see, Bonnie could have – and used to respond with an inner “no.” Instead, she learned to use improvising as her “way of saying ‘yes’”; her way of saying to Abe, “ ‘I’m with you.’ ‘Tell me more.’” And doing this, she told us, led to a “journey into a whole new way of being together.”

Who here knows about improv?

Improv, short for Improvisational Theatre, is a theatre technique where almost all of what happens is created on the spot. Players are given just a few suggested elements – say, “the 1970s” and something on randomly connected – “final exams,” say, or “an egg sorting station.” With no time to think things through further, players jump on stage and invent the rest as they go. There’s one basic rule everyone commits to, which is: “always accept what’s offered.”

Accepting what’s offered means, if someone hands you an imaginary cup of boiling water or a dead rat, you take it and make it yours, even if that’s not where you were thinking of going with the drama. In fact, staying attached to your identity or thinking ahead serve no purpose in improv. Since the

scenario is always taking new and surprising turns, what’s called for is not who you are as a character, but your ability to see and live into whatever might work from moment to moment.

Think you’re a race car driver? Well think again, because now you are called to be a chef. And according to the rules of improv, you – who might have had a very fixed story about who you are in your regular life - can be and do just about anything life throws in your direction.

This, as I read it, is how Bonnie and Abe are learning a new identity as a couple.

I’ve tried improv, though only a couple of times, and while at first the planner in me was terrified about how in the world I would know what to do, ultimately I learned to trust improv’s other premise. Because underneath all the silliness, it seems to me that improv is designed around the recognition that we all share a quality of aliveness that makes us human and is a basis for connection.

Improv works when you can get beyond getting it right or doing it well and access the more playful, joyful, experiencing being that lies underneath so many of the accumulated layers of habits we like to call identity. It doesn’t surprise me that Bonnie and Abe are now connecting through song, and soft touch. It seems to me they are connecting through the part of our identity that comes alive through movement and the world of our senses, the hand that opens and closes, the vibrational effect of mingling voices in song.

Colleague Kathleen McTigue tells the story of sitting at a family cottage with her father-in-law, Dan, who has retreated more and more into his own inner world because of advancing dementia. She is sad, and gripped with a feeling she names as “watching someone we love sailing off in a little boat on a very still lake, slowly gliding away and away.”

Although Dan’s form of dementia sometimes leads him to have hallucinations, which bring all sorts of stormy emotions with them, at this moment he seems to be at peace. Somehow she decides to ask him, “Dan, where are you when we’re just sitting here like this, not talking?”

Dan pauses for a long while. It’s no longer easy for him to form words. And then he raises his two hands in the air and says, “Well, it’s caught up in all of this.” He waves at what our colleague sees as sun, water, and wind.

And so she asks, “You mean just sitting here and enjoying it?”

Dan corrects her, in an unusual moment of lucidity: “Not enjoying—being in it.” And then he repeats: “Being in it.” And then they both laugh, and maybe she cries a little, but some bridge seems to be created across their separateness.

Who will you be when you can no longer use words to communicate; when your body won’t let you do the tasks you’ve said were “you” for years?

I say, you will be who you have always been: someone whose skin comes alive when soft touch, or a ray of sunlight lands upon it; who feels at home in waves, because water is the primary substance of your body; someone whose heart stays open after the last verse of a song, feeling the beauty and the vibrations even as the audible sound dies away; who knows what it is to bite into the last, perfect peach of the season, juice dripping down your chin.

The truth is, there is no magic bullet for living gracefully into a new identity after change and loss – or at least, none that I know of. And some losses do parachute people into truly painful phases of their identity. But what doesn’t work is to cling, to freeze, or to try desperately to stop the flow of time.

You can’t control the flow of life, as Mark Nepo says. But you can be, in the flow of life, saying yes to what is offered you and opening to whatever might just be a place for uncovering, for discovering the you that has been there, invisibly, all along.

Blessed be,

Rev. Nicoline