There is a pulsing sense of impending loss folded in with gratitude for me this weekend. Interspersed among visiting with people I care about, eating and enjoying the ludicrously warm weather, resting my over-stretched body, an email yesterday brought the news that my mentor and friend, Barnett, is in the hospice stage of his cancer, less and less present, family saying goodbye.
The email came as I’ve been prepping for an event in a couple of weeks where my friend LB and I are replacing Barnett and his partner-in-everything, Kim, and as I’ve been pecking away at a paper I’m writing for a collection of articles (a Festschrift) in his honour. It’s piercing to write as the meaning of the act is slipping around in front of you. When I agreed to write the piece, I had hoped he’d still be here to read it; now, having one ear cocked for news of his slipping away, I know he won’t. My relationship to everything shifts.
Saying yes to it, I was still his student, really, hoping to write something that he would “approve,” would see merit in; as his friend, I was hoping he’d find affirmation of legacy in it, assurance that his work is bigger than and more persistent than a single life. As a fellow Board member of the Institute he and Kim founded, I was hoping to write something that might advance our way of talking about our work and its relationship to compassion.
But now it’s all tangled, the meaning of “in honour of” muddled when the person you are honouring is not there to hear the words, complete the act of honouring by being honoured. Words into the ether, scattered among a shifting community like a constellation re-forming.
Since about 2003, I’ve held Barnett at the “highest context” for much of my work (maybe even all of it), meaning about it always filtered for me through the lens of what he might make of it. His voice part of my vocabulary even when I never talked to him about what I’m actually doing, the essence of striving to *do* meaningful things, and to explore as deeply as possible what it means to be human, to walk on the earth as though you are beloved.
The piece I’m supposed to be writing is about compassion, a topic I might not even be holding on my tongue without having had Barnett and Kim in my life. Theoretically, it’s about how we can be more compassionate with each other by understanding what our cherished stories of self and treating those as the highest context of who each other is.
Barnett embodies compassion. Unparalleled. Two and a half years ago, I was bleary-souled with the end of a relationship, fumbling through a move across the country, weary with self-doubt. Barnett had just been diagnosed with cancer. I was trying to find space for grace in my life, and wrote a blog post about my experience of an incomplete but exhilarating solo hike in a still snowy mountainside in Lake Louise. I sent it to Barnett, wanting him to know, I guess, that I’d been thinking about him and grace on my trek across the country. He responded — in the middle of an emotional time in his own life that must have felt like a searing car wreck — with a story about how and when he’d met Kim and what kind of life they’d created together, to not despair about my romantic prospects.
Barnett = grace. And compassion in that moment, reinforcing several of my most deeply yearned for stories of self — to feel beloved, to feel heard — in the space of his own life-narrowing pain. Kim wrote yesterday about the “space around the obstacles” — and that is one of those spaces, I think, the capacity to reach beyond self to find the unifying, humanizing, recognizable, shared yearning in another.
The space around the obstacles. I look, here, for compassion in the act of writing, when I know that what I am doing is rewriting — trying to rewrite — how to make meaning, how to make grace, how to make compassion in my life. Trying to write to find out what can open up if I gently, unwillingly, unhook my experience of making meaning with a hand loosely on Barnett’s shoulder, know that I have to go forward without the presence of the person who has taught me that compassion is an act, a practice, that grace is a verb, that we can actively evolve what it means to be human.