healing

After the Fall

joan xray 2Conscience makes cowards of us all, the Bard observed. And after a fall and consequent wrist surgery and three days of hospitalization, I would add that that pain makes cowards of us too.

There was a point when a chasm opened, and I was a helpless crawling worm. Forget all my noble Buddhist thoughts about the difference between pain and suffering. Forget my prayers, my devotion to the 23rd Psalm, yogic breathing, meditation or mindfulness.  There was nothing I could do or think or imagine. No self to ravel up the loosening parts. No one home.

Except there was. My husband. Who came with tea and the next dose of pain meds.

We do need each other. Absolutely. Undeniably.

In my fitful meanderings yesterday I looked up the origins of the phrase “apple of your eye”. This mysterious phrase first appears in Hebrew Scripture, including a description of God’s care for Jacob. “He found him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste. He encircled him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye.”

Apparently this phrase was also translated as little man of the eye– the reflection of yourself that you see in another’s pupil if you are gazing deeply into each other’s eyes. I’m still pondering the depth and wonder of this metaphor of relationship. A sacramental image of intimate knowing.

Last night in a dream I was instructed to start writing. So I have. With one finger of my left hand.

I think there will be many more reflections to come.


 

Posted by admin in personal reflection, religion, spirituality, 2 comments

The Negativity Bias

 

Still Life With Jar, Cup, and Apples, Cezanne, www.metmuseum.org

 

Good news. Things really aren’t as bad as we think they are.

I’ve been learning about neuro-plasticity lately—the study of how brains change.  Not just over millennia but in weeks, months or years depending on the stimulation given.

Apparently our brains have a built-in bias towards the negative. They’re like velcro for negative impressions but teflon for positive ones, according to Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness. The good just slides right on by, in and out of consciousness, while the negative sticks.

The negativity bias makes sense given that our ancestors needed to figure out where saber tooth tigers lurked, remember their telltale traces and communicate that information to the family. Our brains have dedicated significantly more storage space, neural wiring, and chemical transmitters for avoiding tigers than for appreciating butterflies.

Finally I understand why negative political ads are ubiquitous. Why headlines scream horrors. If it bleeds, it leads. And why parking lot conversations are so often downers.

I’m not advocating a Pollyannaish attitude to life. Just think positive! No.

Horror, suffering, and tragedy are real. But so are beauty, joy and love. Even though our brains would tell us otherwise.

 

I volunteer weekly with women in a court-mandated residential drug treatment program. They’re in very difficult situations, with many negative aspects to their lives. We’re going to spend the summer noticing the positive.

Yesterday I took them outdoors.  They called out everything positive they noticed: sunshine, breezes, how good it felt to get outside, the smell of mown grass, stretching, breathing, laughing.

Once they started talking, the words poured out. I was astonished at how much they noticed. How much they savored. And how much lighter they seemed afterwards.

Back in the musty house we acknowledged that the challenges have not gone away—their court dates remain on the calendar, Child Protective Services still control their children’s lives, jail is still a possibility—but they marveled at how much stronger  and calmer they felt.  As if the dark realities were storm clouds in a larger sky.

Do this daily, many times a day, I urged them, as I handed out logs to record small moments of goodness. In thirty seconds you can notice, savor and store a positive experience. Do it! When bad experiences come along, your brains will have pathways towards hope, antidotes to despair.

Still Life With Jar, Cup and Apples, Cezanne, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


 

 

 

Posted by admin in Inspiration, 2 comments

An Elephant Pilgrimage

Mom Elephant

 

We are in Africa so my mother can see elephants. She has a special reason for loving elephants. One saved her life when she was caught in the Hartford Circus Fire at the age of 10. She and four other girls were there for a birthday party. When the circus tent caught fire, amidst the flames and smoke and chaos, Mom saw an elephant stoically holding up the burning stairs. She and her friend ran down the stairs and escaped. The other girls, who were seated separately, did not make it out.

 

Mom has only told this story to me a few times.  I was shocked to stumble upon an independent account of the fire when I read Modoc, The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, by Ralph Heffer, which describes Modoc’s life-saving efforts.

 

At any rate, we’ve come to HHuluwe so Mom can see elephants in the wild. She is 84. We are here, 6 women from the family, our own kind of herd.   We are on a pilgrimage.

 

With some hesitation, I privately told our guide, Rian, the background story behind our trip. He proceeded to look for elephants for us. Yesterday, just after sunrise, he spotted three massive grayish lumps on the hillside opposite. Even with binoculars, I could not detect they were living creatures; they continued to look like boulders. Rian, however, knew exactly what they were, what they were doing, and where they would go next.

 

He maneuvered the Land Cruiser through the brush for about 20 minutes, stopping in a stand of acacia trees. In a few minutes, three elephants lumbered in front of us. They were 3 ladies, Rian told us, two sisters and one three-year old calf. They paid no attention to us, but proceeded to demolish an entire acacia tree, placidly reaching up with their coiling trunks, delicately stripping off leaves, yanking down branches, and finally uprooting the whole tree, and stuffing its roots in their mouths.  We watched in awed silence as these massive creatures went about their business, oblivious to us, though we were only 10 feet away.

 

My attention was torn between the elephants and my mother, who was seated in front next to Rian. She looked like a child again, gazing in wonder. A half hour later, the elephants lumbered off into the bush. When they were out of sight, just as Rian started up the engine, I heard Mom tell him, “I was in a circus fire once…”


 

Posted by admin in family, travel, 4 comments

Life From Death

Recently I encountered Kate Munger at a conference. Kate founded the Threshold Choir, which sings at bedsides for the dying.  I told Kate about about a life-changing experience with the choir.

It began in tragedy, when a young man drove into a tree, and 3 passengers were killed, including his brother.

This tragedy rocked our small community. So much death. So much loss of life, of youth. And the fate of the driver, who agonized in jail, completely bereft, perplexed us all. Three lives had been lost. Was a fourth life, that of the driver, to be lost as well?

The driver’s mother sang in the local Threshold Choir. His father sang in a performing choir.  The parents of one of the deceased sang in the same performing choir. The four parents had volunteered at a local school; they’d sung together; they’d been friends. How were they to encounter each other now?

Song was part of the answer.

Several weeks after the crash, mutual friends invited the couples to come to their home for their first face to face meeting after the tragedy. The driver’s mother asked the Threshold Choir to come and surround them with song. The choir’s music is spiritual but not explicitly religious and sung without accompaniment. The music is lullaby-like, archetypal in its evocation of love.

I was one of the four or five singers who gathered at the bottom of the driveway that Sunday afternoon. We rehearsed a few songs quietly. At the appointed time, we started up the driveway, singing Ubi Caritas, our voices blending in a soothing chant. We opened the back door, still singing, and filed slowly through the kitchen, into the living room. One couple sat on a couch under the window. The other couple sat on chairs opposite.  The hosts were in between.

We never stopped singing, moving seamlessly from one harmony to the next, creating a surround of song. The music filled the space, weaving a connection. The parents sat with eyes closed. Tears ran down their faces. Their hands reached out for each other.

We sang for about ten minutes, then walked out and continued singing all the way down the driveway. We didn’t talk much once we reached our cars. I was overwhelmed by the courage of the parents and their decision to work towards forgiveness and healing.

This took place several years ago.  Last December, at the performing choir’s annual concert, I saw all four parents embrace. The young driver was miraculously given a merciful sentence, in large part due to the request of all the parents of the deceased.  He now works with high school students, sharing his story as part of recovery programs and prevention efforts.  Life has come from death. I know of nothing more inspirational.


 

Lilies, Eugene Atget, 1916-19, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Posted by admin in arts, community, Inspiration, spirituality, 0 comments

That Which Persists

oak tree winter photo

Yesterday I walked a half mile to Starbucks with my dear friend Gail. It was an immense journey. Gail has had 6 strokes in the last 9 months. She lives in a constant present moment, which may be a spiritual ideal but presents  challenges when you cannot remember your address or how to turn on your computer. Let alone what year it is or who is president. 

But this blog is not about loss or suffering.  Or about her husband’s nobility as he rises to this new situation with dignity and compassion. This blog is about what has not changed: Gail’s luminous spirit.

During her long hospital stays, she was unfailingly gracious, thanking everyone who entered her room: aids, doctors, friends, family, therapists. Not knowing who anyone was, she smiled and said welcome.

Lying in that hospital bed, she was no longer an Executive Director, Academic or Philanthropist; she was bereft of all personas, stripped of  every identity. Helpless. And in that radical exposure, her deepest self was revealed: a self that is open, gracious and grateful.

It is a current mantra that we should live in the moment. But what if that moment is filled with terror? If every moment is a succession of fear, anguish, loss? For Gail, this is not so, although it certainly could be so, given that the strokes seem unpredictable and largely inexplicable.

Gail remains herself because she continues to say Yes. A deep and profound Yes that is not intellectual and not egotistical.  It is a Yes that comes from a deep core of goodness that is the signature of her being.

As we walked to Starbucks yesterday, I told her of my daughter’s recent engagement. Gail clapped her hands with delight, asking question after question. She was unable to see the photos on my phone, but she asked for detailed descriptions. Her face glowed. “This is so good,” she said. “I’m so happy. Nothing could be better than this. Thank you for this wonderful news. For this perfect day.”


 

An Oak Tree in Winter, Fox Talbot, 1842, Getty An Oak Tree in Winter, Fox Talbot, 1842, courtesy of  Getty Museum

After the Sixth Stroke, a poem about Gail

Bedside, a poem about Gail

Posted by admin in Inspiration, 0 comments