February 1, 2013
This year I want to write to you about happiness. My happiness, certainly, and that of my cat, Ginsberg, whose fond charms prompted me to write the first Letter of the Month. Perhaps your happiness, too. Blogging, like caregiving, is an intimate act. By opening up my window on the world to you, I may be offering you a chance to awaken your own sources of comfort and joy.
Tonight, as I write, I’m sitting in my favorite spot on the living-room sofa. Ginsberg is curled deep in an upholstered chair, at peace with a full belly and plenty of brushing. My husband Steve is off playing trombone in a Tom Nutile Big Band rehearsal in Needham, MA, something that always makes him happy.
“The thing about playing a low brass instrument like the trombone,” Steve tells me, “is that in order to get any kind of sound out of it, you have to relax your throat and pump a deep whoosh of air up from your belly. For the high brass, like the trumpet, your breath is constricted, but for the trombone and tuba, everything is open. That’s why the tuba player is usually the calmest guy in the band.”
Indeed, I have noticed a similar calming effect in myself when I sing, especially as a member of our soft-voiced pastoral choir at church.
Yet it’s been my experience in working with older clients that many people have difficulty taking the deep, diaphragmatic breaths, with a full inhalation and a long, slow exhalation, that serve to calm the nervous system. Maybe I should get Steve to come in for a demo on deep breathing and videotape it for Joyous Paradox. Based on my own experience with mindful breathing, I do believe that taking gentle, deep breaths in, and letting them out slowly, while paying attention to each sensation for the entire duration of the breath, will over time bring us closer to moments of equanimity and even joy.
Over the past year I’ve noticed that it’s actually easier to write about the pain or illness that needs attention than the joys that can come with good care and even healing. Similarly, when I first meet a new client I focus more on the things that are difficult in their daily life than the things that are positive, or self-affirming, or sources of delight. After all, the caregiver is usually called in because someone, the client or their family, has concerns about their health and safety. Perhaps they’ve been slipping and falling, or forgetting to take medication, or are just getting out of rehab following surgery.
Yet despite this understandable bias in favor of watching out for danger, I find that some of my most successful times with clients are moments when joy or lightness comes bubbling up to the surface.
I’m reminded of a visit with a new client six or seven years ago when I was first doing this work. I was helping her take a shower one morning and I bent down quickly to pick up a towel from the floor. She bent down at the same moment and we almost bumped heads together.
“Oh my gosh,” I said to her as we both burst out laughing. “Did you ever imagine, years ago, that you’d be in this room, in your own house, completely unclothed, with someone like me, a perfect stranger?”
No, she hadn’t imagined it, she said. And after she was warm and dry, eating breakfast at her kitchen table, I reflected that of course, stepping out of the shower in front of someone you don’t know isn’t what any of us expects to happen. It implies a loss of control and personal privacy that few in our society would tolerate without some urgent reason.
Yet that moment of shared laughter in the bathroom marked the beginning of a warm, trusting relationship between my client and me. In the end, I was able to be with her and her family when she died. So even in the most dire of circumstances, I think it’s worth paying attention to opportunities for ease, comfort, relief, and simple pleasure. The touch of a warm washcloth on one’s face. The silliness of a small dog chasing his tail. The smell of fresh pajamas warm from the dryer. The fabulous achievement, for someone recovering from a stroke, of squeezing the toothpaste and getting a good glop of it on the bristles of the brush.
Happiness, here with the breath. Breathing in, breathing out. Just being.
May you and your loved ones have joy in the moment,