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A Beautiful Thing

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After being asked a startling question, a hospice volunteer reflects on life's beauty.

Saturday morning, I sit with my shift mate. We are new to this adventure of volunteering at the Zen Hospice Project's Guest House. This is our third or fourth week. We talk about how we are doing before beginning our "shift." I am still shaking off my walk from the BART station, a walk that navigates various tribes of homeless folks. Given my inability to graciously presence a large dose of equanimity, I tend to fortify myself with a protective coating of indifference tinted with avoidance to get to my destination. Once at the Guest House, I unpack my "compassion" to provide my "service." This and other ironies provide much fodder in this human's experience ...

Each week is new, and each shift offers its own challenges. Fear of intruding, hesitation in the face of possibly not doing something well enough, what to say and how, all of this and more cloud my mind. But each time I climb the stairs to where the residents live, these nuggets of overthinking slowly fall off and I simply ask the registered nurse and certified nursing assistant, "What I can do?"

On this morning, I got to sit with Nico. His head was hurting. He feels better with a hot pack on his head – so, I heat up a hot pack, wrap it in a towel, and hold it to his head. In the meantime, his breakfast arrives. Once comfortably repositioned, and with the authority of a chef, he surveys his tray, seasons his food, and with his one good hand begins to eat. He was slower than he had been the previous week but he was methodical, hungry, and enjoyed each bite.

Between bites, he rested, and when he was in the mood, we would talk.

After one of these pauses, he slyly looked at me as I adjusted his heat pack and – as if casually saying, "Please pass the salt" – asked, "So what is the most beautiful thing in your life?"

At once, I was startled, moved, and confused. No one had ever asked me that question. It cut deep and pointed to a level of intimacy that was disarming. My reaction had him pull back and say that I didn't need to answer him. I looked at him and told him that I thought it was a truly wonderful question, but it wasn't one that I had ever contemplated. So I asked him for a minute. ... So many things scrolled through my mind, mostly a list of failures, mistakes, and inadequacies. Crossing those out, I spoke to how much I love the sky, the ocean, the mysteries of nature, and then, like a bee jumping from blossom to blossom – only to unwittingly crash into the mother lode of pollen – it struck me that having recently completed the training that enabled me to be with Nico on this Saturday morning was the most beautiful thing. And it really was. I said "being able to challenge myself and learning how to open my heart – that is what is the most beautiful thing in my life these days. ... having conversations that connect and are true, being willing to not have the right or good answer. Getting to be here with you and that I am asking this of myself – this is a beautiful thing."

Nico looked at me with a smile and said, "That is great – the best answer!"

We talked about what matters, and for him, it all came down to learning how to express and live from a place of love, gratitude, and being of service.

After his breakfast and the requisite cleaning of his beard, we just sat. He snoozed. I wondered if I would ever walk by the homeless with a sense of unwavering compassion instead of dread tinged with fear. I thought about what it would take to retrain myself to think of what is beautiful about life instead of what is off or not working. I thought about the pleasure that thinking about beauty brings. I looked at Nico and wondered about his story and everything that I would never know about him. He woke and smiled at me; he wanted to hold my hand before snoozing off again. I took his hand. It was strong with a sure grip, full of life.

Written by Audrey Meinertzhagen for Zen Hospice Project and Learn more about how Zen Hospice Project is helping to change the experience of dying.