Did you ever have a memory that rode into your consciousness on the back of a passing odor, object, or random word? It might have been something you desperately tried to forget, but it was able to seep through the protective wall you created as if it was made of cheesecloth. I knew I would have one of those experiences at the rededication of the Zen Hospice Project’s Guest House in San Francisco, the site seven years ago of my initial hospice training and service as a bedside volunteer.

I entered the beautiful refurbished Victorian and roamed through the rooms where my life was transformed. The renovations, as amazing as they were, were crowded out by the memories of friends who had welcomed me into their lives and graciously showed me how to live, and yes, how to die.

As I returned to the main meeting area, someone said to me, “Isn’t the remodeling beautiful?” I smiled, nodded, and said “Yes,” although I was unable to remember even the color of the newly painted walls.

For me, the beauty was in the memories that followed me from room to room: The gay man who reluctantly accepted my “straightness” and welcomed me into his life. The very proper university professor who thanked me every week for emptying an overflowing urinal, and a multitude of other people who invited me into their lives at its most vulnerable time. As I left the dedication service, the memories lingered, almost as if they received a shot of adrenalin.

What I’m beginning to understand is that our memories serve as wake-up calls when our hearts try to disengage from the world. Memories don’t just bring the past into the present, they say “Hey, why aren’t you feeling me anymore? What are you afraid of?”

It may have been the love you no longer feel because a partner of forty years is gone; the joy experienced by completing sub-four-hour marathons now replaced by slow walks around the block; the social connectiveness that evaporated when a job was outsourced; or the friendship you mourn whenever you drive past the house of someone who rejected you.

Unfortunately, we live in a world populated by disquieting events and people. Our usual method of minimizing their effect is to isolate the memories and hope they will remain incarcerated in a hidden, rarely visited part of our subconscious. But, with the persistence of a telemarketer, they return, arriving at the most inappropriate times. And when they do, we try to push them back, repeatedly.

It might be time to try a different approach.

There is an old Tibetan saying: “Bring closer to you those things that are the most frightening in order to render them harmless.” It’s good to have you back, Guest House, my heart has missed you.

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Stan Goldberg

Stan Goldberg is a Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University. For over 25 years he taught, provided therapy, researched, and published in the area of information processing, loss, and change. Stan has published seven books, written numerous articles and delivered over 100 lectures and workshops throughout the United States, Latin America and Asia. He is currently working on a novel and a book on loss. He also consults on issues of personal, institutional, and corporate change. He has served as an expert legal witness in high-profile court cases and is a consulting editor for Oxford University Press. Stan leads workshops for adults whose lives were suddenly and traumatically changed. He serves at the bedside hospice volunteer in San Francisco for Pathways Home Health Care and Hospice. and is a featured columnist in the Hospice Volunteers of America quarterly magazine. His published magazine articles, essays, poems, and plays have received numerous national and international writing awards. Written with humor and sensitivity, they have appeared in magazines ranging from Psychology Today to Horse and Rider. His latest book is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life http://lessonsfortheliving.blogspot.com. It’s a memoir of his six years as a bedside hospice volunteer; an experience that taught him to accept his cancer and live fully, no matter how long that might be. He can be contacted at stan@stangoldbergwriter.com. Numerous downloadable articles appear on his website www.stangoldbergwriter.com

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