Open Minded Possibilities (aka, eyes to see)

open minds open roads

Photography by, Greer Snyder

One clue my body supplied that I was turning on the 50 mark was my eyes’ seemingly belligerent refusal to make sense of the printed words in my hand. I have worn glasses for reading since about my mid-twenties, but if I concentrated enough, I could still read. But when it became dangerous to look down at my Waze app while driving, and even the street signs took a bit longer to resolve, I knew it was time for bifocals. And I acknowledged I was firmly situated in middle-age. With the expert flip of the phoropter’s trial lenses my ophthalmologist determined the optimal curve and thickness to make reading near and far a cinch.

A recent paper in the Journal of Research in Personality rather compellingly established that the personality trait of openness is related to the very physical sense of visual perception. That is, “openness is linked to differences in low-level visual perceptual experience.” Those who scored high on a measure for Openness to Experience could hold two images simultaneously in the brain. Whereas, as once thought to be a universal operation, those with a lower score alternately flip back and forth between two images, the brain suppressing one image than the other.

The research design and type of results indicate it is unlikely there is a personality type response bias. They also found that priming test subjects with an imagination task coupled with music increased the mixed percept experience, especially for the high Openness scorers. And with the mindfulness research that show how mindfulness spiritual practices increase openness to the environment in general, it seems in the realm of possibility that low scorers can train their brains to hold two images as one.

This is important because it affects the way we interact with the world. For instance, though it has always been possible to mix red and yellow and see that together they make orange, if the media were not available, some brains could conceive it. How much more might I miss if my mind remained fixed on seeing that your imaginative genius is true about you and reading is difficult for you, but not see that together those qualities make you a remarkably creative computer programmer? Indeed, instead of encouraging you to learn and develop those skills, as a parent I might force you to labor over those essays and quench your spirit. And the world would lose; I would lose.

I love this kind of research that shows how brains work, and how much our behavior and personalities and circumstances affect its operation. Sometimes just by knowing something, understanding a process, it becomes easier to nurture that mechanism or change a behavior in order to encourage a new process. I am not a robot. I am not consigned to one way of thinking—thank God! But it is much easier to hold to one particular perspective. It takes energy and courage to admit that my perspective is monocular. But once I allow the trial lenses to flip, bring into focus two perspectives, the thrill of expansive perception is thrilling. It is spiritual. It is Love.

In what ways might I allow God to switch up my lenses and understand the movement of the Spirit in a more expansive way today?

 

You can find more on mindfulness practices in my book, here.

To Remember is to Be Human

grandpaAremember

Memory is a funny thing. We remember certain details of an event over others. The memory of a thing will change over time, or at a retelling, or at hearing the perspective of another who experienced the same event. Sometimes we remember someone else’s experience as our own. Sometimes it is a choice – I rehearse an event by retelling, dwelling, journaling about it. Other times there is a trigger – a whiff of curry, a Steely Dan song, the angle of the sun’s rays on freshly mown grass just after a rain (oh yes, that house on Cornell from my childhood).

Then, there’s forgetting. I can’t remember where I set my phone. I suppress the memory of an embarrassing encounter at school. Or, perhaps some traumatic episode forced my brain to shut off an entire segment of life from memory. And likely one of our biggest fears, the threat of cognitive decline in one form or another as we age.

Today is, for U.S. citizens, a day of remembering. Instituted in 1868, Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died while serving our country. There is record before this time of memorializing with flowers the gravesites of soldiers, but it was the civil war and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination that initiated its institution. But, as with any 1st world experience, a holiday is gladly accepted yet actually recalling that which secured freedom and relative ease is lost in barbecue and beer.

The Hebrew Bible is really a perpetual account of God’s relationship with Israel and instructions for how to remember God’s action therein. This account includes all the ways Israel forgot, and is an exquisite example of how all of humankind forget – forget the struggle, forget the rescue, the redemption, forget the reason for the struggle to begin with . . . and we forget that we’ve forgotten.

My daughter recalled today a phenomenon she has observed far too often – when a person experiences a negative interaction with one who is different, and then applies that negative appraisal onto all who share that difference. Memories that surround an especially emotional scene, in fact, include fewer details and less factual information than more benign settings. When I feel strongly about something as a result of a highly charged encounter, my memory of it cannot be trusted. This is exactly how prejudice is provoked and perpetuated.

Entire communities, nations even, will harbor the imprint of an explosive memory—usually as a result of invasion or war. And these wars continue while each “side” remembers only the offense perpetrated by the other, forgetting the atrocities executed by their own hands.

First remove the log from your own eye, then attend the speck in your neighbor’s. (Mt7:5)

My memory is imperfect. In fact, I have great difficulty remembering color. I have a very trained eye to distinguish nuance and subtle difference in the shade and hue of specific colors, but I regularly will remember something that is actually purple as green, or grey as blue. It is strange, but a good (less emotionally charged) reminder to hold my memory of an event provisionally. It also reminds me to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of color (and all that surrounds me just now) in this moment, as it is, and be thankful.

So today, I remember my grandfathers, Raymond Frederick Oliver, who served in WWI, and James David Albright, who served in WWII. I also take notice that the sky is absolutely clear (not a given in Chicagoland!) and the sun brightly shining. There is a breeze that keeps the heat at bay and my children are currently enthralled with Running Wild with Bear Grylls. This particular episode features Julia Roberts who enlisted Bear to help her bring life-saving vaccines to children in Kenya. I am grateful to live in a country that insists on freedom for everyone, and I pray that I remember rightly the cost of such liberty—and the errors our ancestors made in the process. And I hope – because hope is human, too – that as U.S. citizens we expand in capacity to hold lightly evocative encounters and treasure the gifts of what is right in front of us.

No one has

Greater love

than this:

to lay down one’s life

for one’s friends.         John 15:13

50, Jesus, and Stardom – Day Forty

jesus christ superstar

Last night, my dear husband surprised me by taking me to see a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. He scored tickets in the 8th row of this stunning venue built in 1931 with the second largest subscriber base in Illinois. It was probably the most amazing show I have ever seen and this is why.

To start, director, Ron Kellum, shares in the playbill his experience as a young man of color wondering whether there was space for him in theatre, to tell truths that translate to the whole range of audience members. Of this show he writes, “What would Jesus say if he came back today? I hope he would say, ‘Keep telling my story. Keep telling it in many different ways, but always come back to the truth of my story: the message of love and inclusion.’” I can’t imagine it told better than the cast last night did. Each person possessed supreme talent – not a single mediocre performance, regardless of the part.

Second, storytellers are most compelling when they identify with, believe the story they tell, the characters they portray. It was hard to miss the conviction with which Peter sang, “could we start again please?” and Mary, “I don’t know how to love him,” and Judas? oh, Judas – everything he observed, questioned, processed – he is all of us. In the cast bios, many included a scripture reference, thanks to God, quoted “faith without works is dead,” #EquityWorks and #GodIsThePlug, or #blacklivesmatter; Rufus Bonds, Jr. (Pontius Pilate) was even honored with Lifetime Achievement Award for his body of work by President Obama. Remarkable people.

Third, I went to Church. This story highlights the suffering of Jesus—not just the cross, but also his weariness toward the end of his ministry. Jesus knows our suffering, and I heard God speak that truth so clearly in the song, “I Only Want to Say.” The scene is Gethsemane when Jesus asks if the cup might be taken away. He sings, “I have changed, I’m not as sure as when we started. Then I was inspired. Now I’m sad and tired . . . expectations . . . Tried for three years; seems like thirty . . . . Would the things I’ve said and done matter any more?”

This, I think, is at the heart of my disquiet, the ambivalence with turning 50. I spent a good part of my adult life inspired, motivated by solid convictions, working hard to be a part of making things right in this world. And I’m tired. I wonder if any of it has mattered. And then feel ashamed that it should matter so much to me that it does.

“Then I was inspired. Now I’m sad and tired . . . I’ve tried for three years, seems like ninety. Why then am I sacred to finish what I started – what you started?” There is nothing that we experience, that we live, that God does not know, that Christ has not lived. “39 Lashes.” every. single. one. counted. Jesus knows the suffering of the slave, the wrongly accused. “Who are you to criticize her, despise her?” Jesus knows of the anguish of the woman abused, used, misunderstood. “Why have you forgotten me?” Jesus knows the despair of the overlooked, the marginalized, the left behind.

And this telling of Jesus’ story asks the crucial question – the question of belief. “Jesus Christ Superstar, are you who you say you are?” If I believe that Jesus is who he says he is, I must know, then, that Jesus knows my location in time and space. I must trust that the Jesus left the Advocate for me to empower, to be wisdom, pour Love into and through me, to strengthen my frame and do the work I cannot – because we are Christ’s body—together!

And yes, it all matters. I matter in this space-time. You matter in yours, and to me. And I am grateful to the incredibly talented people who sang words of truth and love and shone so brightly who they are last night, in a way no one else could have just so. #blacklivesmatter

Have Courage, Wait – Day Thirty-Nine

courage and wait

The Aracuraria Chilean Pine Tree can live to 1,000 years, with its upside down paintbrush-like shape that might have prevented plant-eating dinosaurs from grazing the forest’s floor. Tasmania’s Trakine Forest is home to the 3,000-year-old Huon Pines, and rivers that nurture lobster-sized crayfish in its currents. And the Japanese Cedar, or Yakusugi, thrive and have done so for about 7,000 years. But the Inyo National Forest in California guards the estimated 4,843-year-old Bristlecone Pine, Methuselah – the oldest living tree on earth. There’s also the Norway spruce in Belarus and the Baobab in South Africa, and a few others that dot our globe, that existed before homo sapiens – and persist.

The Japanese have a beautiful tradition, the practice of Shinrin-yoku. It means, taking in the forest atmosphere, and is the therapeutic, rejuvenating process of intentionally surrounding oneself with nature. The practice encourages healing as it reduces stress just by calmly walking among the trees and foliage, absorbing the sights, smells, sounds of nature. It seems fitting that this tenacious life that emerge from the earth and securely anchor to it would be a source of healing our fragile bodies and minds, soothe our weary souls. It is a reminder to me that life persists even as the moments in my own life seem to zip by at sometimes frightening speed.

Today was the last (half) day of school for my sons, another marker passed, the next stage in view – time zips and hurtles by. But I am at a waiting stage – a marker that feels like for me a perpetual state. It’s as though everything around me moves, is in constant motion, still, I must wait. I have always come to accept the recognition that God is working whether or not I accomplish anything, but as I hang on by the tips of my fingernails to 49, it is especially uncomfortable. These nearly forty days of meditating on my fast-approaching place in 50, I don’t think I’ve come to any profound conclusions. Though, I am not sure what I expected, necessarily, to emerge from this 40-day practice, I’ve been engaging this practice in community.

The tree featured in the opening picture is Brazilian, but transplanted to the Singapore Botanic Garden. It is robust, with ancient roots, yet flourishes on another continent. It is a stunning reminder to me that though I have been moved to many places around the world and the country, my roots are ancient and robust and eternal. Everywhere I go, a forest of exotic, unique, healing foliage surrounds me – a community of souls that thrive and grow with me. So, will you wait with me today? Wait, listen, ponder, soak in the beauty around you, around me? May we be refreshed and rejuvenated today. If you have the time to find some nature, try some Shinrin-yoku, and please share your experience! If it is not possible just now, listen to the sounds in the link below and meditate on my picture here, or others you might have. Imagine. Dream. Have courage. Wait.

 

 

Walk This Way – Day Thirty-Eight

walk this way

And when you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear the word behind you saying, ‘this is the way, walk in it.’ Is30:21

Getting my bearings, a sense of direction, has never been much of a problem for me. In fact, it is often easier for dyslexic processing brains to create an imaginary map, visualize space and ones place in it. I also grew up in the Mile High City – Denver, Colorado – and the mountain range was my magnetic field, the force of orientation. In this way, when we would visit friends in Colorado Springs, we traveled to higher elevations, so it felt like going north to me. I have been all over the world and can easily map north and south in my brain, but set me in my family’s home and I am upside down; north is south, south, north.

It was the same with life direction, for me. I always had a strong sense of God’s call, a sort of positively-charged particle oriented by Lorentz-esque-force electromagnetic field of the Trinity, if you will. The direction was formidable (China), and while decisions along the way were not always easy to make, they were usually evident. Until poor health interfered, disrupting a feedback loop – or so it seemed.

But in this feedback loop scenario particles can also generate new electromagnetic fields (I’m no physics expert, but I love the analogy). And one infinitesimal particle only registers – is observed – by its effects, and that, by what is being acted upon it – the compelling force. They will know you are compelled by Christ – by your love . . . They will know you are God’s – by the fruit you bear . . . .

This formation-force-field I traverse is vast, complex, beyond comprehending. I am a nearly negligible particle within it. At the same time, my place in it is not static nor is it irrelevant. My existence has an effect, carrying its own force. And while I am still uncertain about the direction I must take into 50, I am certain about the Force that acts upon it. I am equally convinced of the bountiful elements that live and move and have their beings in my proximity.

And so I wish to move in the direction that is most life giving – for me and for those around me and in the effort (energy, force) to making things right in this world. That direction is traveled best with gratitude. And I take to heart the words of Ellen Bass:

The world has need of you . . .

But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,

the earth, ever so slightly, fell

toward the apple.

Savoring Goodness – Day Thirty-Seven

Savor God's goodness

One time when I was about four or five, it must have been Thanksgiving, I was sitting with my brother and two other children at the kids table in the back room. It was a communal meal so all the families contributed and somebody brought a dish of boiled peas and carrots. Peas were at the very top of my Can’t Stand list of foods, and I could only tolerate raw carrots, not cooked. But to refuse it would be impolite and my father insisted. Being the good little girl I was, I complied and took a bite. And promptly regurgitated the mess back onto my plate. I still can’t stand peas.

Science shows that children possess taste superpowers – their tongues are especially sensitive to bitter flavors, and react accordingly. Previously accepted data held there is a veritable map for various taste sensors (one part detects sweet, another tastes bitter, etc.). Now it is understood that they all work together to inform the brain of the flavors at work. And as we age taste buds stop regenerating making us less sensitive to nuances in the flavor. This makes it easier to stomach foods that tend to be healthier and promote longevity – and are more bitter.

At the same time, less sensitivity tempts us to ignore the potion of herbs and spices that infuse the mango that roasts with garlic on that lovely piece of salmon. Or allow the hints of mint and basal linger on the tongue before washing it down with a sip of wine. In this way it also creates the conditions for overconsumption since I can rush through the meal more quickly than my stomach can tell my brain it is full. Too I did not take the moments required to find enjoyment in the way an interesting combination of ingredients make a chicken breast taste—a practice that improves a sense of well-being and staves off a common reason for eating more than is healthy to begin with.

Along with my connective tissue disease, I am also allergic to wheat, dairy and coconut. My diet is much different from when I was a kid, and sometimes it is easiest to limit what I eat to what I know is healthy and will not trigger an asthma attack, while also providing enough calories. Sometimes I will eat something that I find no enjoyment in purely because I need to eat something substantial and do not have the energy to explore other options. But since Greer has come home we’ve had many conversations about how controlled we are by food, instead of appreciating it in healthy ways—and that it is a luxury that many in the world cannot conceive.

There is something mystical and alluring about Psalm 34:8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” This idea that the sense of taste can bring insight—vision—to understanding the goodness of God, is evocative. The images of the banquet table and narratives around a meal and creating the best wine for the wedding party, these are scattered liberally throughout scripture. It can run both ways: when I notice and savor the goodness of God I can almost taste the nearness of God’s Spirit, ingest the aromas and flavors of heaven; and, when I allow a bite from the meal prepared by my sons – or an expert chef – to linger, notice the delicious concoction and appreciate the company around my table, heaven is at hand.

This weekend I will celebrate my birthday with my husband, and my brother and his wife around a meal and drinks. It is always a beautiful time with them to linger over skillfully prepared creations and freely chat and laugh and be. And as 50 is fast approaching I am hyper aware of the necessity for being intentional about savoring each moment. Will you practice with me today, the very spiritual mindfulness practice of relishing each food and drink consumed?

Inhale the aroma wafting up to nose.

Is it hot or cold, somewhere in between?

Do my taste buds wake up and tingle inside my mouth?

Exhale and receive the bite.

Inhale as I allow the piece to mix on the tongue, the senses register nuance.

Is the flavor strong? Can I distinguish the ingredients?

What memories do these flavors conjure for me?

Exhale and remain a few moments with those thoughts.

Be grateful for God’s goodness. See, the Lord is good.

Music is Human – Day Thirty-Six

listen music is human

Some of the most popular songs in 1967 included, the Beetle’s “Penny Lane” and “All You Need is Love,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” “Light My Fire” – The Doors, “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave (though many will know it from the Blues Brothers), and the Tremeloes’, “Silence is Golden.” In Gospel music that same year “Oh Happy Day” resonated with its hopeful tune of deliverance and salvation in the bleak time of the Vietnam War. And “Amazing Grace” is the all time most popular hymn since the reformation.

Thomas Aquinas defined a hymn in this way: “Hymnus est laus Dei cum cantico; canticum autem exultatio mentis de aeternis habita, prorumpens in vocem.” (“A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.” But not until 1820 was approval given to sing hymns in the Church of England. Indeed, the Wesley’s were not afforded the luxury of singing Charles’ hymns in church in their lifetime. What is more, Charles only provisionally included a single melody line with his poetic theology because he was ambivalent to the suitability of singing parts. And John and Charles did not even agree with each other on what was an appropriate level of affection in the lyrics.

Music is by far the most prevalent subject of disagreement in the church. Just yesterday Howie was cornered by someone accusing him of single-handedly ruining his church by leading with subpar, non-hymn/Wesley-prescribed music. Greer noted that in every church in which we’ve served, music has been the biggest source of criticism and venom. What is it about music that provokes such scorn, so much bitterness? Mozart was considered an apostate in his time, for heaven’s sake!

Scientists have dated flutes made from bone to 42,000 years ago, and one large collection of musical instruments dates to 7,000BCE China. Clearly, creating music is a key feature of being human. But just as each person is unique and every culture is distinctive in societal expressions, ought not a variety in music style and composition provide a greater, richer expression of devotion to the Creator God that made us creative in the first place?

Music heals. Music congregates. Music lifts the spirit and wallows with it in agony. It carries sentiments of love and strengthens the summons to revolt. Rhythms and tones are discerned in the expert thumping of hands on animal skin, carrying a message or supporting a communal dance. Music clears the mind and can clear a space, and it touches the deepest parts of us, indelible. A song can conjure the angsty, stomach-churning feeling from junior high while ice-skating with friends (and that boy I liked); or the comfort I felt when hearing my father sing How Great Thou Art beside me in church.

The power of music is indisputable. And it is incredibly fulfilling to really appreciate all types of music (well, except Country—I just really can’t appreciate Country music). It has changed throughout human history; the combinations of sounds and the sequences of chords are infinite. There is no inherent virtue in any specific sequence. One cannot determine an ethic of sounds ought or ought not to be combined. Music is art—it is an audible expression of the soul, meaningful to the composer and capable of evoking meaning for the audience. And music is to be celebrated.

We do not all appreciate the same style (or volume) of music. Why would anyone think that any community that gathers on Sunday morning would always fully appreciate all of the music all of the time? Charles Wesley wanted to put theology to music, expressions of devotion to Jesus in song, so people might carry them through the difficult week and be encouraged.

But I suspect the deeper issue is not that I think this music is unholy or that song not appropriate for church. The weightier concern is that change is uncomfortable, and listening to each other is work. It isn’t the music. It’s that I am more concerned about my well being than those in the community. And then I miss out on hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit in a new way. And sometimes, there is music even in the silence. Because it is not until I have ears ready to listen that we can grow together—in worship, in community, in Love.

Practice with me mindful listening: sound a chime or bell (the one on your phone is fine).

Listen for that space where the sound ends and the silence begins.

Listen some more.

What do you hear?

Rustling in the kitchen?   A bird chirping outside the window?   Water running on the other side of the wall?

Listen.

Be grateful.

See and be Known – Day Thirty-Four

see and be known

When I was growing up, our family lived in four different houses, but they were basically in the same school district. So, for me, I went to one elementary school, one junior high, and one high school. Then I went to university in the same state, but began a (thus far) thirty year succession of moves—out of country, different states, more education, different jobs . . . . One thing I learned quickly was that each new place harbored new bugs, and the first year is one of accepting new illnesses while my body’s immune system learned how to fight them.

When I finally discovered some of my physical pain was due to autoimmune disease, I began a life-long journey of finding a balance to supporting my immune system. Autoimmune disease is basically an internal overreaction. Certain sectors of the immune system no longer focus on disease but attack healthy cells. So, many “normal” modes of targeting a virus can trigger a heightened attack on my joints and nerves. It requires listening to my body, noticing how it responds to certain supplements and foods, exercises and activities. It is a mindfulness practice that, for me, holds some urgency.

It seems as if we do a similar psychic thing to ourselves. That is, maybe I am overreacting to an internal judgment about my inadequacy and undermine – attack – the healthy strengths I do possess, rendering myself socially or professionally infirm. Also, perhaps we do this as a society by passing judgment without thought, without real insight, and attack the whole of another’s position. In doing so, we debilitate constructive civil conversation.

Recently, I have been reading some of the musings of the German-Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt. She writes about that intersection of thinking and action—that both are necessary for making things right in the world. An expert on Arendt, Lyndsey Stonebridge, observes, “Thinking, [Arendt] says, is not the same as judgment, but it creates the right conditions for judgment. But also, she says, if you can’t have that inner dialogue, then you can’t speak and act with others. What she called ‘the banality of evil’ was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the world, the moral world.”

It is this sense that is so important for our time as it was in Arendt’s, found in a concept she coined and elaborates on: “organized loneliness.” It is this experience of living in a society in which individuals are unseen and disconnected, of feeling superfluous in the world. It is certainly something that I wrestle with as I draw closer to turning 50. And it seems to be an overarching universal experience in our globalizing world—more connected and more isolated. But just as I cannot really see a truth about my capabilities until another person observes it, sees me as I am, so as a society we cannot see our system for what it is until we can understand it from another cultural perspective.

Of course, that is a very oversimplified observation. Still, though I feel like I cannot really change a political system, I can be a part of changing culture. One way is to actively open my eyes to see another person, another culture, another belief system. And when my eyes are open, they remain open for another to return that gaze. It is vulnerable. It is frightening. It is thrilling. How beautiful it is when two people extend trust and really look at one another. I am changed, and just maybe, together we can change our culture, and the world.

How do I need to change my perspectival lens so I can really see someone today?

Life and Breath and Meaning – Day Thirty-Three

the air I breathe

All that lives must breathe. If it does not breathe, it is not living. The trees and shrubbery outside my window inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. The birds in its branches and the 2nd grader walking home take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. The tree and the girl exist because the other does. Indeed, a coal miner might take that same bird into the cave to test the breathability of the air. The bird stops breathing, the miner is soon to follow. Find oxygen. breathe. live.

Breathing is at the forefront of my mind because for me it is not a given the function will behave properly. For some reason my lungs do not make the O2 – CO2 exchange correctly. Apparently, my heart is skewed at an “awkward” angle, the pulmonary arterial valve allows some regurgitation, and the pulmonary artery strains with pressure. So, when I performed the comprehensive pulmonary functions test this morning, I nearly ended up in the ER. Thankfully, my doctorate in mindfulness practices became useful, preventing me from passing out. Ugh.

The device for measure pulmonary function has been around for quite a while. Originally invented in the 1840s by the British surgeon, John Hutchinson, the Spirometry, spiro (to breathe) and meter (to measure), provides diagnostic information to assess lung function. Other devices and technology are now recruited to gauge a range of elements that impact lung function. That my daughters and several nephews live with impaired lunch function, I am grateful for these specialists who can monitor this very important somatic task! God bless Gale who did just that – expert and with great compassion – for me today.

But there is so much more involved than the inhalation of air, the expulsion of carbon. Our bodies are complex systems, each affecting the other, and when one piece isn’t working properly, other vital organs react. And everyone has unique reactions to dysfunctions that may occur. And these physical operations within the body are affected by equally complex outward systems of atmosphere, climate, social interactions, emotional counteractions, and countless other effects in between. I love the observation made by Pablo Neruda after a childhood exchange with another boy through a hole in the fence:

“To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses — that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”

A simple exchange of a toy for a resin pinecone inspired Neruda to poetry, to leave gifts of words to those he would never meet, but with whom he will ever be connected. And this is the source of art, the reason we do art – it is human to create. It is divine to create.

My words, my being are linked to you, as you are to me. And just as the shrub outside my window exists because the girl walking past it does, I thrive because you are also in this world. Jesus said, As the Father loves me, so I love you; abide – live, breathe – in my love. And as I love you, love each other. My life for yours; yours, for each other. (Jn15:9-13) Yours is the air I breathe.

Breathe in gratitude for the stranger who offers unexpected kindness today.

Breathe out the fear from not understanding exactly what is going on.

Breathe in a sense of the very presence of the Holy Spirit.

Breathe out the remaining malaise and unease.

Breathe in gratitude for the gift of each breath.

Creative Conversation – Day Thirty-Two

Relationship changes us

When I returned home from visiting my daughter in Indonesia bands of muscle in the guise of steel ropes threaded with industrial hex nuts formed a latticework on my back. No amount of stretching, yoga, or deep breathing seemed to loosen the grip these giant pods of lactic acid had on my back. This morning, my dear husband had some extra time to finally begin work on the trellis. Thank you, God, for giving me this man! I believe my neck is a full inch longer now. (note to Howie: I think you’ve only loosened a top layer)

Message therapy can be traced back to 2800s BCE Egypt and China. Hindu practitioners perfected the Ayurveda art of healing touch through the millennia, and then a Swedish doctor (former gymnast) developed the “Swedish Movement System” in the early 1800s. This and Japanese Shiatsu seem to be the most commonly used in the western hemisphere. Interesting, recent research found that the efficacy of massage therapy has more to do with the mechanisms of DNA than squeezing out lactic acid. It actually triggers the process that turns off the inflammation-promoting gene, PGC-1alpha, and turns on the gene, NFkB, that contributes to healing muscle tissue. As one with a connective tissue disease, this information is enlightening and strengthens my resolve to appeal for regular massages. (ummm, Howie?)

There is so much more that happens when a massage is given. First, the action occurs between two human beings (massage chairs and tables notwithstanding). And when a friend or lover performs the therapy, it is an expression of compassion, an act of love. It is relationship, it is being human. Maria Popova goes so far as to ascribe this as the perpetuation of creation: “Action is therefore the most optimistic and miraculous of our faculties, for it alone gives rise to what hadn’t existed before — it is the supreme force of creation.” Because when Howie gave me a massage this morning, he was putting his declarations of love into action, and we grew to know something of each other afresh.

You see, relationships cultivate, prune and transform our truths. Adrienne Rich poignantly explains in her 1975 essay: “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” Our words carry the truths, but truths spring from action.

It is not enough to say, “I love you,” though often it is sufficient in the moment. To love is to act on that love. And keep on.

It is not enough to say, “That is unjust,” though many times it sparks a movement. To make things right is to act on the system that supports injustice. And keep on.

It is not enough to say, “I believe,” though frequently it reawakens the seed of trust buried deep within. To believe is to live that belief. And keep on.

Still, Popova warns, “contrary to the popular indictment that speech is the cowardly absence of action, action cannot take place without speech. Above all . . . it is through the integration of the two that we reveal ourselves to one another, as well as to ourselves.”

Speech and action. Act and being.

Another May-born, Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861–August 7, 1941) places all the weight on relationship: “Relationship is the fundamental truth in this world of appearance.” It is not as if I know precisely what I mean when I speak, articulate a position. I may not even understand precisely what I want to say about how I feel. To speak it, to say it out loud, I do not know whom I reveal when I disclose myself. But with Hannah Arendt, I must “be willing to risk the exposure.”

When we are with one another, and not necessarily for or against—actively with the other—such risks seem possible. And worth it. Throughout these 40 days of meditations on turning 50 I’ve been a bit more vulnerable, exposing some struggles and many perspectives previously hesitant to express. Yet, I have discovered a few beautiful souls who are with me, hints of what is possible after I pass through next Friday, with these people – and others along the way. I also know that I am different from when I said “yes” to Howie nearly 24 years ago. I am constantly amazed by how much we are changed when we converse, share our thoughts—it is a creative moment, creating more of ourselves, becoming more.

So how can I be with someone today – and create something more, something beautiful?