AWESOME PROJECT: New volunteer quarters for a Zen Buddhist hospice home

Hospice work is some of the most draining work there is. Powerful, life-affirming, and rewarding. And draining. A hospice worker’s job is not to perform medical interventions, but to bring ease and peace to the dying. To facilitate creative expression or connection with loved ones, or to hold the space so that a patient can simply be present with the mystery of his or her own death.

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The men and women who do this important work need to be nourished and cared for, themselves. They need a restorative place to live. They give so much to their patients that they must be able to restore themselves at the end of the day, or risk burnout.

That’s why Enso House – a small hospice home on the southern tip of Whidbey Island, off of Seattle – is raising money for a much-needed renovation of the 70’s-built, dreary, outdated, dank basement living quarters that house its hospice volunteer workers and nurses. Enso House was founded in 2001 by students of a Zen Master Shodo Harada Roshi, and takes only one or two patients at any given time. Before you read further, take a moment to watch this beautiful video introduction to the home:

Let the light in

You can see why Enso’s volunteers and nurses, who work so hard to bring light into their guests’ final days, would need a bright and cheerful place to live. “You need some place to go that becomes kind of a sanctuary, or a respite from what you’re doing,” says Tim Tattu, a Hollywood TV set designer-turned nurse practitioner and hospice caregiver, who also serves on Enso’s board of directors. He cared for Jack, Enso’s very first guest. “They need to make a home for themselves, and right now it’s not really comfortable. The rooms are dank. Single paned glass in the cold. The windows aren’t that big. It’s not well insulated, and it has popcorn ceilings. All the doors are hollow core doors. The bathroom looks like it was done in the 70s, and it doesn’t have a window. It’s just a little smelly, moldy bathroom.”

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Arriving this season is a new volunteer nurse named Jill. She’s thrilled to begin a new adventure at Enso, because its model resonates so deeply with her. She fell into hospice work accidentally; after years of instinctively coming to the aid of the elderly and dying in her home community, moving in to their homes until they passed, she eventually decided to go to school to become a nurse. Everyone at Enso House is thrilled to welcome Jill to the community, but they wish that the building itself were better prepared to receive her. “She is a registered nurse, and she’s 40 years old, and she’s going to be staying in quarters that are not adequate for a professional,” says Tattu.

Enso House has in the past relied heavily on a steady stream of volunteers sent from Sogenji, a Zen monastery with chapters in Japan, Germany, India, and the US. One of the first volunteer nurses who was sent from Sogenji to Enso, and stayed for ten years, was so selfless that she would have, as Tattu puts it, been happy living under a rock. But as the world changes, Enso House is learning that it without better living quarters, it will be harder and harder to draw new volunteers, and to protect the long-term sustainability of its model. It is time for Enso House to prioritize not only its honored guests – whose upstairs rooms were renovated when Enso House was founded – but itself, too.


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Ready to let go

Enso’s first guest was a man named Jack; Tattu cared for him, and tells Jack’s story when he talks about the mission of Enso House. “This guy was a beatnik,” explains Tattu, “whose only forms of ID that we could find were a San Francisco library card and a bus pass. He had built a shack at the end of a beach that you couldn’t access by car. He’d hand-built it and was living there on his own. It overlooked the water. I’ve only met a few people who are as caring and selfless as Jack was. Most people who are dying tend to be scared and totally self-absorbed. Jack was very unusual, because he was completely comfortable with the fact that he was dying. When I would hold Jack’s hand, it was like he was holding my hand, like he understood how hard it must be to take care of someone who was dying. He was ready to let go.”

Jack was so ready to let go, so freed of his worldly cares, in fact, that he didn’t even want to be read to from his small, beautifully curated collection of cherished books. “He wasn’t trying to hang on to anything that I could see,” says Tattu. “He was just purely being, and was able to see other people’s characters clear as a bell.”

That’s Enso House’s goal: to escort guests to a place of lightness, from which to let go. To come to the aid of those who cannot do it as easily as Jack did. “Enso House gives people a rare opportunity,” explains Tattu, “to just be present with the process, rather than trying to intervene or step away because it makes people uncomfortable. The goal is to just be present for that person, in whatever they need.”

To donate, or just to learn more about the project, visit Enso House’s ioby campaign page here. The renovation blueprints are drawn up; all that’s needed is the money to do it. A $50 donation will retile ten square feet of the bathroom, and $120 will replace one window, letting the beautiful Washington light in!

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