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Fri

08

Jan

2010

Retired? No; Refired? Yes: "On Call" For Collapse
Friday, 08 January 2010 14:23
by Carolyn Baker and Kathleen Byrne

It's time to act with great intention. There's work aplenty to do in this weary world and people engaged in that work. Find those people.
- Tim Bennett, "What A Way To Go: Life At The End of Empire"

To everything there is a season, the biblical bard says. There is a time to sit and be, and there is a time to act. Personally, I could not live without the balance of sitting and listening alongside doing what I feel most called to do, and I encourage everyone in my world to incorporate a meditation or mindfulness practice to complement the conscious work that fulfills their purpose.

As institutions crumble and the global economic meltdown worsens and morphs into irreversible collapse, many people feel lost and disoriented, especially if they have lost jobs, healthcare, experienced foreclosure or bankruptcy, and of course, if they have lost the funds which they may have spent decades assuming would be there for them in retirement. The seemingly endless losses of collapse can be terrifying and paralyzing, and it is always easier to complain about the culture than to take action to empower oneself and serve the rest of the community of life on this planet. It may also be tempting to assume that since collapse is inevitable and now moving along unstoppably with a life of its own, there isn't any point in exerting any effort to alleviate the misery it is manifesting everywhere by compassionately serving others, even those who may know or care little about collapse. On one level, it is easier to just sit than to act.

One woman who does not embrace that perspective and who beautifully exemplifies empowerment and service is Kathleen Byrne, R.N., who works essentially two full-time jobs as a hospice nurse and as the proprietor of a cheery boarding house and hostel in rural Vermont. Despite numerous challenges in the past year, Kathleen has been able to thrive by working in two industries which not only pay the bills but feed her soul, namely, hospice care and hospitality. A former restaurant owner and gourmet chef, she offers housing but also serves up a sumptuous cuisine which enhances the feeling of home her guests already experience.


I can't help notice that the words hospitality and hospice come from the same root word having to do with kindness toward guests. For this reason, Kathleen's two jobs complement each other, and she is the perfect person to perform and embellish both tasks.

CB: Thank you Kathleen for your willingness to do this interview. Please tell our readers your thoughts on the current and worsening collapse of industrial civilization. How have you seen it playing out in the past two years, and where do you think it's going to go, particularly in terms of its effects on healthcare and housing?

KB: I saw "The End of Suburbia" and experienced the catastrophe of Katrina within weeks of each other in 2005 and knew then that the dark times were upon us. I have not watched tell-a-vision in over 15 years and so have been able to detox from the nightly news and American culture. Like a character in an apocalyptic novel, I gauge the level of collapse we are experiencing by the news that people bring me from away-such as Truth to Power's Daily News Digest.

This summer, two different sets of environmental refugees came to the Inn. Two Alabamans came to Vermont looking for property because "the summers are too hot in Alabama now." A couple with a two year-old child stayed with me for a few days while looking for property here, fearful over the water supply in Boulder, Colorado.

This week, I received a call from a mental health counselor who wanted help for his 56 year-old client. The man had long been cared for by his father who was now a resident in a nursing home. The placement the counselor had found for the man was no longer suitable, and the only other option was a hotel or homeless shelter.

I have patients who are faced with the option of buying food or medications. I don't need to tell you how this will all play out. We have all read Grapes of Wrath. Eventually, I will be inundated with the homeless and hungry.

CB: As you know, I live in Boulder, and what we know for sure is that there is plenty of water here-for now, but what is alarming is the misuse of it and the possibility of millions more people moving to Colorado. Nevertheless, there will be many communities across the nation and the world in which collapse will produce environmental refugees.

So my next question is: Why do you think it's important to take action in the world, even as everything around us seems to be collapsing?

KB: The answer to this question lies in my Catholic upbringing and the kindness of my mother. The dictates of those early years were to give back to those less fortunate since we had been given so much. I am grateful to my father who emphasized the importance of education, my mother who taught me to read before I started kindergarten and showed me by example to be kind and loving, and the many others I have met in countless books who have reinforced the values of hard work and purpose. My favorites are Howard Zinn, Pema Chodron, and Joseph Campbell. How could I not absorb all this and be grateful and lovingly give back?

A miracle occurred on December 17th, my 64th birthday to underscore this. I celebrated by listening to the Beatles famous song "When I'm 64" and was flooded with emotions as I remembered what life was like in the 60's in our country and for me as a young woman. Life seemed simple then, but I was unformed and unfulfilled and had not yet

travelled the path to adulthood. Later in the dark of my birthday night, a former boarder came in out of the Vermont cold, a homeless 68 year-old with a limp and emotional problems. I asked no questions and welcomed him into the warmth of the inn, making sure he had eaten recently. Robert Frost said, "Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in." By trusting me and returning, this man gave me the birthday present that clarified my life's purpose. I am reminded of the stories of countless hobos on the byways during the (other) Great Depression who drew the smiling cat logo in chalk on the sidewalk of the house of the kind-hearted woman. I aspire to be her.

CB: Tell us about your work as a hospice care nurse. What makes it so enlivening and enriching for you personally? How do you feel you are making a difference in a collapsing world?

KB: In 1971, I was a VISTA Volunteer assigned to a Community Action Agency in Anadarko, Oklahoma . It was there that I saw an Indian child with fetal alcohol syndrome, a result of the rampant alcohol abuse among the Indian population. That one shocking moment directed my rather drifting 60's life to nursing school to "make a contribution to the world."

I had felt that this promise would never really come to fruition, but now, after 33 years in the profession, I have the job that allows me to fulfill this promise. I am a nurse for a home care-hospice agency in Vermont. I am privileged to care for people in their own homes with the mission of keeping them there safely. My life's purpose of being of service is fulfilled by every person I am privileged to care for: the Viet Nam Vet with PTSD and a recent amputation; the 75 year-old Vermont farm woman with ovarian cancer; the oxygen dependent woman in a trailer park that lost power after a high wind storm. One morning at 4 AM I drove over a daunting Vermont mountain to help an elderly man living alone in the house in which he was born. He was in pain and had no one to call for help but the home health nurses. The essence of nursing is to care for such an older man who is alone and in pain in the middle of the night. These older Vermonters are stoics who are used to adversity-- to the cold and snowy climate, rural isolation and the 40-mile trip for supplies. These people are my teachers, my sisters, my brothers, my mothers. And so, let me not sit lifeless and unfulfilled when there is so much work to do. Let me contribute to my community of patients bravely soldering on, teaching all of us so much.

CB: Now please tell us about your management of the hostel/boarding house you own. Has it been a profitable enterprise for you in the past year? How do you feel this work makes a difference? What has made it rewarding for you?

KB: The inn ! Oh, my! A huge blessing, great fun and a financial disaster all rolled into one! I think of Loreena McKennitt, the Canadian vocalist and composer, who said in a commencement address at Laurier College in 2002 , "No matter how much you think you know what you want, life sometimes takes you by the scruff of the neck and offers you surprises and changes, other possibilities and opportunities even in the heart of disappointments, and your talents and potential, your capacity to effect change may lie in completely different areas from where you thought they were and sometimes you need to go with this."

And so, the inn that I bought in 2008 with the hopes of it becoming an intentional community has become a boarding house and hostel where travelers and adventurers can find a good meal and a comfortable bed. The boarders get a furnished room and use of the kitchen and dining and living rooms. There have been 12 of them since March, some staying for two days and one for five months. There was a woman who left her husband and needed short-term, temporary shelter; a talented musician/botanist who works for the Forest Service; a writer/editor, and a student on his way to the Art Institute of Chicago. Sometimes there are even guests--like the two sisters cycling from California.

This 2.5 acres of permacultured land at the edge of the Green Mountains and populated by my 16 chickens, 8 cats and Rabbit is not Earth Haven. It is, however, community to the 10 of us who live here, and we have become a family who cares for each other. A baby will be born in March, and there is a beautiful, sweet 15 year-old who is home schooled. At a time in the history of the planet when we have peak oil, climate change, great unemployment and war, we have each other and gardens and the White River in our backyard and the beauty of the Green Mountain National Forest, the wilderness that is the "undiluted work of the Creator". These people and this place have pushed me far beyond my boundaries and are keeping me young....And I have found my community.

CB: You could be living a nice, quiet, isolated life in retirement, but you're obviously not. Tell us why.

KB: I always say with a smile that Goddess looks out for stupid women like me, and She has surely saved me from my father's retirement. My father retired financially secure to his bedroom where he sat for 25 years essentially going crazy from self-absorption. There I was, living in a house I had paid for with money in the bank collecting "social insecurity." The next thing I knew, my loneliness and fear over collapse had propelled me to Vermont. Who knew that I would find the light and the dark you talk about Carolyn - fun, tears, fulfillment , frustration - in other words, a great life.

As Pema Chodron says, "It's not about getting to a place that's really swell." So I have been saved from myself, the self that wanted safety and security where things were really swell. My path now is very different from any darn thing I could have imagined! Let my life continue to make a difference to others. Let me fulfill my purpose on this dark and scary planet. Thank you Carolyn for inviting me to talk with you.
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