hope

One of my favourite quotes is from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets – East Coker III:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing

We spent a number of days in Saranac Lake working at the site of what used to the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium begun by Garry Trudeau’s great-grandfather, Edward Livingston Trudeau, who was a physician; Trudeau, of course, is the creator of the comic strip, Doonesbury.  The elder Trudeau suffered from Tuberculosis and, believing he was about to die, came to Northern New York State hoping for a a quiet place to see out his last days.  Of course, he lived and founded the sanitarium in 1885 which continued to provide care to people suffering from TB until the discovery of antibiotics.  The sanitarium closed in 1954 and was sold to the American Management Association; I hear it was for “a dollar” and they are not about to sell it back to anyone even if inflation is taken into account!

Three generations of Trudeaus continued to live in Saranac Lake, working as physicians and researchers with their legacy continuing through the Trudeau Institute.  These days, Garry Trudeau, great-grandson of Edward Livingston, continues this history of community support with nudges at the US Administration’s approach (or lack thereof) to returning veterans through advocacy and his comic strip, Doonesbury.  Now, along with a number of other stakeholders, Trudeau is tagging Saranac Lake to be the home base for revolutionary treatments for PTSD and the other invisible wounds of war.  If “(h)ome is where one starts from,” he is arriving at his beginning; and, I sense, it is with the same hope that others can make that transition from dying to living.

Hope takes time and effort to fulfill itself.  And first, it needs to surrender to what is.

Be Still.

And then more.  To heal requires a precision, a willingness to be opened at the exact place of the woundedness.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

East Coker, IV

And one more:  In the face of the enormity of suffering we must face, we can only meet it one person at a time, one moment at a time, one breath drawn deeply after letting go.  Eliot wrote of the potential of the English communities surviving World War II:

In a letter dated 9 February 1940, Eliot stated, “We can have very little hope of contributing to any immediate social change; and we are more disposed to see our hope in modest and local beginnings, than in transforming the whole world at once… We must keep alive aspirations which can remain valid throughout the longest and darkest period of universal calamity and degradation.”

The buildings on the grounds of the sanitarium are a mish-mash of architecture.  A stone chapel sporting Tiffany windows with an unidentified little dog in one corner gave rise to animated conversations over dinner one night.  The main lodging with its “cure” porch and cottages pierced with numerous windows now blindly stare into the sunshine.  I wondered about a real estate notice that described a nearby cottage for sale as having a Cure Porch.  It’s the enclosed wrap-around porch in which (on which?) patients sat to take in the healing air and scenery of the Adirondack Mountains.  The name lingers well after the death of the disease – a testament that legacies create their own survival and are non-preferential too.

So many things live on in some form, seemingly independent of our wills, wishes, and wanton desires.  I can’t resist my self-centeredness so will say we had a chance to share a meal with Garry Trudeau and his sweetly flamboyant step-mother at what is likely the only decent eatery in Saranac Lake, the Blue Moon Café.   Safe to say that after it was clear we were not about to become part of the great machinery to ply steel into the distempered parts of the Veterans’ Administration, I will not be living on as a character in Doonesbury any time soon!

It is, perhaps, a hope that is for the wrong thing.

Nevertheless, I learned something that evening about what animates history, belonging, and longing.

faith

It’s good to be home.  We landed back in Ottawa last Tuesday night after driving along winding blue-line roads that blinding rain rendered sleek and sinuous.  It was a fitting close to 7 days of intense work with the Trauma Resource Institute (TRI) that took us from Fort Drum to Saranac Lake, NY.  After completing the first part of the trauma resiliency training last year, Frank and I were asked to join them for training in the coaching phase of TRI.   This brought us into a tight circle of highly competent people facing the challenge of how to deal with the psychological wounds of war as the US veterans return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  The sad truth is that where we have never had enough well-trained, informed professionals who could deal with the aftermath of carnage, we now have even fewer with a much higher demand for them.  This is as true of the US as it is of Canada where the extent of our wounded not as overwhelming but the available services is proportionally just as meager.

In Fort Drum, we helped train military and local Chaplains in the skills of dealing with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  It was a fascinating experience at many levels, not the least of which was the tricky process of honouring religious beliefs about the origins of mental distress while teaching an approach that placed the physical/physiological nature of distress front and center.  Although all the Chaplains were Christian, this is a delicate balance I’ve run into with Buddhist teachers as well.

There is a deep part in us that wants to believe that if we simply believe, it will be enough to take away the suffering.  I would truly like to think that is true in all circumstances of suffering.  It would be lovely if 108 prostrations will take my mother out of her wheelchair and restore her ability for self-care.  If only 10, 000 Butsu chants fingered along a strand of mala beads would bring back lost loves, heal rifts, and back-fill ideological schisms.  What if 84, 000 doors all lead to one Truth: just believe and it will be well?

Although my faith in psychological interventions needs well-adjudicated data, my faith in my spiritual path really doesn’t.  And I wonder if I’m being judgemental to wish more people of the spiritual ilk knew that difference.  I’d like to say it’s because Buddhism is different but I’ve heard too many teachers say things about people returning from death’s door that make me cringe.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just jealous.

This stumbling towards nirvana is tough work.  And some days I miss those multiple prayers to St. Jude (the patron saint of the impossible) or St. Christopher (the patron saint of lost things – before he was de-sainted).  I think I will start a novena to Manjushri; I’m in need of someone to wisely wield a few swords. And for good measure, I’ll go practice a few moves myself!