It’s Amazing That Our Bodies Function

Spending time around my grandfather as he is dying pushes my thinking in interesting ways. One of those ways is about how amazing it is that bodies function, and how resilient they are.

Judaism has a specific blessing about this (arguably, Judaism has a specific blessing for everything), and it’s a blessing that has spoken to me for many years.

Blessed are you, Divine One, our God, nature’s rulemaker, who formed humanity in wisdom, and created within us openings and channels. It is evident and known that should one of these openings be closed when it should be open, or open when it should be closed, we would be unable to stand before you. Blessed are You, Divine One, healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

It is known, colloquially, as the bathroom blessing, since it is recited, among other times, when one relieves oneself (it is also a part of the litany of blessings recited each morning upon getting up).

For me, this blessing has always drawn attention to the miracle of the intricacy of the human body. How everything fits together, and, for the most part, functions without our conscious attention. How, until the advent of computers, it would have been impossible for humans to design a system this complex (which is not to say that I believe that we were “designed” by a conscious deity, merely that we could not have designed something like ourselves, which nature did). I have always seen it as a reminder of the delicacy of the human body, the fragility of our inner workings.

As I watch my grandfather slipping slowly down his final road, however, I am, ironically,  reminded just how robust the human body is. Even as his body is riddled with a cancer which does not belong, and squeezes out the organs which do, his body continues to function. His brain, for the most part, continues to function, albeit with the occasional fault. Our bodies are remarkably fault-tolerant, to use the language of technology. And somehow, I find this fault-tolerance an even greater occasion for wonder.

Blessed is the one who heals flesh and works wonders.

Living in Death

Right at the moment, I’m feeling a little surrounded by death. I’m in Boston for an indeterminate period of time accompanying my grandfather on his journey towards death. As I wrote yesterday, Paul Bingman, a friend and amazing person died on Sunday, and I’m having conversations with various folks about planning a memorial service for him (something I know more about than most folks, being involved in several funerals a year in a professional way).

I’m coming to a conclusion. Dying is hard work. I don’t know how hard it is for the one actually doing the dying (though it looks pretty rough, and on the basis of my observations I really wouldn’t recommend it). But for those of us involved in ancillary ways, it takes a toll, both physical and emotional. I know this sounds awfully flip for a post ab out death and dying, but sometimes, humor is all one has to hold things together.

For the past couple of days I’ve been beginning to think about a prayer (or meditation, if you prefer) to be said before entering a space where someone is dying (or in hospice). So far, I’ve gotten this far:

Here I am, prepared to accompany ___________ on their final journey. As I spend time with him/her let me be there for him/her, not for myself. May I answer them in the ways that are best for him/her, not those that are easiest or most comfortable for me. May my presence bring us both peace.

As the task becomes harder, may I remain equal to the task. And when I am not, may I forgive myself, knowing that what I do is hard work, and impossible to do perfectly.

May the time I spend with __________ be as meaningful and enjoyable as it can be for both of us.

It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly what needs to be said. But it’s a start.

May the source of comfort grant peace to all those who seek it.

Paul Bingman’s Death: The Passing of a Giant

Paul Bingman was a fixture in the Portland Tech Community. If by fixture one means the largest person in the room who was constantly moving around talking to everyone. Yet, I’m clear that the tech community was only one of the many communities he belonged to.

Paul Bingman

He passed away Sunday, April 3. Our community will never be the same.

Paul was the extrovert in a community of introverts. On the facebook page, Friends of Paul Bingman many people are commenting about how he was the first person they met when they moved to Portland, or entered the Portland tech community, and the like. It’s not a coincidence. Paul was someone who would come up to you and introduce himself. He would say something funny and engaging. Usually something smarter than you could respond to immediately.

Paul was part of so many different communities. Whether it was the tech community, the Jungians, the film community or some amorphous spiritual community (at least amorphous to me), he was central and involved. His beloved VW vanagan was constantly in use transporting equipment to one event or another–because he was always helping (unless the vanagan was awaiting a part–which might take months to find). I heard hints of other communities involving music, railroads etc. He was truly a renaissance man.

Paul was a tech geek who took spirituality seriously. He loved to ask questions about Judaism. In asking, he was seeking knowledge, listening with neither acceptance of truth, nor rejection of spiritual truth, but hearing it was true to me (or someone). He would challenge the ideas presented, not implying they were silly, but trying to understand how they worked. As I think about it, he would have made a fabulous rabbinic scholar, chasing down ideas and debates, some of which were simply about the intellectual pleasure of the debate, some of which had great practical implications, and usually with a few incisive puns thrown in.

I’ve had a little trouble figuring out how to write about Paul. A serious tech geek, he was never quite satisfied with the forms of communications we had available. Sure, there was twitter, email, texting and the like. But I can just hear his response to the suggestion that one communicate by those tools: “Though, you know…” proceeding to tell us how smoke signals were actually a much more elegant solution, and could be practical if the world was just slightly different (and better).

But I lack Paul’s engineering creativity. So I write a blog post, and announce it via facebook and twitter, and hope that Paul will forgive me that it isn’t funnier or cleverer. And know that he is in a place of peace, disturbed only by crazy engineering a fabulous puns.