This Morning

This morning, while driving in a slow rain on my way to work and pondering the melody of Elgar’s “Nimrod,” I saw something that will hang with me like a painting and speak to my soul for a long time.

A slender high school-aged man wearing glasses that sat just a hair off level and looked a bit big and dated for his face, stood wearing a green over-sized raincoat under a worn black umbrella at a school bus stop near the end of his street. Beside him stood a young girl, probably early teens, if that. I couldn’t make out her features or her garb, as she was partially hidden in the raincoat folds hanging just to the young man’s side. There they stood, sister and brother, I presume, silent and still in the coarse mist of a fall morning, framed in wet light and shadows like a freshly-stroked impressionist painting. They could have been anywhere, at any time. But they were to my immediate right as I was driving in. To think, I almost missed them.

My perception was that traffic around me slowed, perhaps to pay them homage, but I could be wrong. If it didn’t, it should have. In recent memory, I have seen no more poignant expression of the totality of the human condition than this young pair of sentient beings, leaning in to each other at the intersection of have and have-not streets while waiting in the nearly-not rain of Wednesday morning.

Like a visual depiction of hope, sanctuary and benediction threaded through the melancholic lines that bow and weep and sing in Elgar’s elegy, the young pair tightly held onto each other in this lean-to shelter made of their small bodies and their spirits’ filial bond.

I saw gray and I saw rain. And I saw a rainbow and I saw pain.

And I saw a love light hiding under a bushel, as worn black cloth folded up and the doors sprang open on a yellow bus, and I sped along to work in the glowing midweek mist.

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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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