Nature’s At-Onement

When alone in nature, I can feel, at times, an emerging awareness of deep connection, a sense of belonging, coupled with a sweeping experience of awe and wonder.

This most often awakens an acute inner awareness through the interplay of light and shade with waltzing shapes of leaf and limb, when tilted sunlight and its breeze waft through a forest sub-canopy in early morning or twilight’s verge.

Following this may come an enveloping, uplifting sense of embodiment within another realm, a shimmering new presence within the inhabited world; or perhaps, imbuing this world with presence.

And I am a member of this new world–this Heaven on earth, as it might be described–fitting in as a thread in a rich tapestry of many colors and patterns. Everything is enfolded in light, and emanates, from itself, the self-same light.

Peace pervades, and a thinning of all space that lies between.  There is, at once, not only a sense of my own uniqueness and authenticity, but also a sense of the presence of many different “others.” This experience of the “other” is completely devoid of judgment, comparison, or assignment of hierarchy, and is framed with unbidden compassion.

Only authenticity, vulnerability, honesty, acceptance, life and love remain after the last leaf has fallen.

All of this is recognized as gift, pure and undeserved, drawing forth well-springs of gratitude.

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He Taught Us How to Listen

In the paper yesterday I read of the passing of a good man whom I was fortunate to know.

He was well-respected and accomplished and had done a lifetime of good work. When some friends and I knew him, he had developed Alzheimer’s, and it affected his language prominently. But he still had much to say.

One day, while we were near him and listening, he managed to get out a story that was very important to him — something he needed us to hear. It was a story about a meaningful time in his life when he had done a selfless act for his colleagues. It took several minutes for him get the story out, piecemeal, but the more words and thoughts expressed, the richer and deeper the impact of the story on all of us.

That day, he taught us how to listen — intently, mindfully, compassionately — and he taught us about the rewards to be found if we do.

He showed so much courage in sharing his story, when many may have chosen to be silent out of frustration, fear or shame.

What he shared was the content of his character. And Alzheimer’s hadn’t taken that.

Could not. Cannot, in fact.

So thank you, brave and storied soul, for venturing out with your Self.

Rest in peace, R –

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Incarnate Moments

Life fully lived strings 

from thin space to thin space, 

each moment of authentic self realization 

and intense relationality blending into the next. 

Looking back, these are the times of enrichment,

of transcendence; pillars of immovable, illimitable time, 

standing forever in what must be the Divine awareness. 

In these silent spaces, walls break down and connections are made, 

or rather, are discovered, as they must pre-exist in the gaze of God. 

The illusionary separation between what is defined as “me” 

and what is defined as “other” melts away like morning fog, 

and the space between glows with the fiery breath of God 

like a cloud of innumerable particles in endless daylight dance. 

The nature of this experience draws out and twines together 

everything that is true and lasting in me and in the other, 

like together with like. Water that clears increasingly 

as the welling depths are tapped, the cores mined 

to their purest elements, coming together 

with the richness and strength of One.

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All in a Face

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou

Last night, our daughter suggested that her mother and I join her in watching The King’s Speech, one of our family’s favorite films. A scene (one of many) in the film defies description. I am going to attempt to decipher its effects on me.

King George VI of the United Kingdom has just given the famous address to his subjects as World War II is commencing, having done so beautifully conducted by Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who liberated him from the life-long prison of a terrible speech impediment. The whole plot has moved to this moment of trial and triumph for the king, to which he has ascended through enticement of the inner voice by Logue and his acrobatic, graceful, sometimes scandalous techniques.

Having made a historic and monumentally important delivery, George (or “Bertie,” the title reserved for blood kin and Logue) entered a room full of relieved and adoring statesmen, family members and advisers a changed man, appearing regal and confident for the first time in the film, already having fought what may have been the most important battle of his reign: that over his own pain, fear and associated disability.

As the light of glory supported the statuesque monarch amidst the admiration of his associates, the camera panned to Logue at his position in the wings. It is this epilogue that I find to be the most moving scene of the story.

Enfleshed in the face of Logue (played brilliantly by Geoffrey Rush) is expressed a most honored and humbling realization that teachers, mentors and parents have described to me, and that I, myself, have experienced. A voice instructor of mine said it best: “My job is to help you to find your true voice,” recounting the pride and gratitude that comes from knowing one has played a role in that discovery for a student.

The skill, humanity, and passion with which Rush displayed and communicated those emotions that Logue must have experienced are awe-inspiring, at least for me. Looking deeply into the actor’s face, however, so much more was to be found. Joy was there, to be sure, but tempered and tamed; a settled rest at the end of a struggle, experienced in a heart that has gone no short distance along the painful, yet valiant journey of a traumatized child crying in staccato bursts through cracks in the frightened, frustrated, stuttering façade of a man.

I am thankful to have experienced that moment in the film, to have seen the light in Logue’s face, moonlight to Bertie’s sun, from the quiet conductor of a stirring concert of speech that bolstered the confidence of thousands, sharing hope and courage from one who may have discovered those qualities in himself through the efforts of an unlikely teacher to a king – one who believed in his pupil – who had heard the still-hidden voice and knew it could sing.

Ironically, then, the most powerful message of the film was communicated entirely without words.

For stories worth retelling, for teachers with the skills and desire to bring out the best in others, for artists who possess the gift of communication, and for the incredible power of human perception, I am grateful, today.

In Gratitude

I woke this morning and drew a breath of clean, sustaining air, stood on legs that held me securely on a floor that I did not build. With eyes that still can see, I made my way down stairs with balance enough to keep from falling. I was greeted by a little dog wagging with joy to be alive, knowing no other way to be, and happy to see me. The melodies of waking birds awoke my ears, and I was able to step outside and feel cool ran drops on my skin. I have the comfort to know my family is safe and protected, as I sit in silence to read and pray. I am relatively free from pain, and I can look at life with a radiant hope because the light of God has risen in my heart, and darkness has not overcome it. I can rise, live this day, and lie down to sleep at night knowing that I am eternally loved and free, and nothing can change that. I have a purpose and a calling that is greater than my weakness and mistakes. I’m forgiven, embraced, and empowered. Pondering all of this brings me to my knees with humility and gratitude for nothing that I have done or have deserved, but for what has been done unto me in compassion, mercy and generosity. A heart so full has no choice but to sing.

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To Be Known

In my experience, people with dementia will continue to express/exert their personhood all the way through the course of their lives. Innately, all of us do, but it seems there is a purity and authenticity to this expression that develops as cognition declines.

Pillars of personhood, the unique characteristics and gifts of the self, will continue to be present, and care partners can build a relationship around these elements. But it requires that we hone our listening and perception skills, get rid of pre-judgements and limiting expectations, be intentional about meeting them in their reality and affirming/validating them there.

We must train ourselves to look for any expression of personhood, to believe that we can find it, and when we see it, to affirm it immediately. In this way, we can show them that they are remembered, loved and appreciated precisely for being who they are. When we behold something so sacred as the self, we should honor it, and be grateful to have seen it.

As their condition advances, personhood may only manifest as a sense of presence or a spiritual identity that we are able to perceive in quietness, through touch, or by the comfort we can share through a song, through movement, or through being with others who know and love them (personhood is intrinsically relational). In this way, their innate personhood is honored, and they are never seen as “less than.” In fact, they are known, and to be known is always to be “more than…”more than a label that bears the name of a disease or disability. I don’t think we ever lose the desire, the need to be known.

What a privilege can be ours: to demonstrate to others, through our empathy, compassion, validation, intentionality and care, that they are known.

(Watercolor art by Lester E. Potts, Jr., an artist who had Alzheimer’s disease)

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So, What is Lester’s Legacy?

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the essential lessons contained within my father’s story of artistic creativity in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Though the story teaches much in the realm of dementia care, it shares larger life truths, as well:

–Beauty and truth in you begets beauty and truth in me, and vice versa.
–Authenticity is more beautiful than perfection (a late and hard-earned lesson for me).
–Believing in one another helps (enables) us to become our true (best) selves.
–We become our true and authentic selves in relationship with other true and authentic selves, and the product of such relationships paints the world in beautiful colors.
–When, with fearless compassion, we touch our own wounds and the wounds of others, transformation will occur.

In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks speaks about resume virtues (those qualities we put forth to achieve outward success), and eulogy virtues (those qualities that emanate from the core of our being, like honesty, kindness, and integrity), the latter often developing through hardship. I don’t know about you, but in the past, I’ve spent too much time cultivating resume virtues at the expense of eulogy virtues. With God’s help, that pattern has changed.

Lester’s story of beauty, courage and triumph of spirit through suffering leaves us many gifts. But the greatest for me, and one that I’m enabled and called to share with others, is this: Lester – his life, art and story – has unlocked my inner artist, my True Self, the part from which emit any eulogy virtues I may have (though, in honesty and humility, at times I’ve done a poor job of showing them).

That’s what the world needs from all of us, our greatest gift. True colors. Authentic selves. Our very souls.

Collectively, humanity can’t afford to lose one single hue from God’s color palette.

So, what is Lester’s Legacy?

Me. You. And the art of our broken but beautiful lives well-lived and shared.

Thank you, Papa, for having the undaunted courage to sing your soul song, and for helping me find the courage to sing my own.

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