In sound’s absence waits a presence,
a shaped silence, full and round.
The humility of stillness holds
unknowing where the Known is found.
In sound’s absence waits a presence,
a shaped silence, full and round.
The humility of stillness holds
unknowing where the Known is found.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I hiked California’s Sequoia National Park. Its beauty was breathtaking. Thin air and a cloudless sky formed a haze of unreality. Skyscraper trees towered over us in the aptly named Giant Forest. Black tattoos branded their robust, ruddy trunks. Following well-tended paths atop a pine-needle carpet, we spoke in hushed tones like nervous children in a fairy tale wood. Our necks ached from craning to glimpse their tops from where we stood, far beneath their outstretched arms. Nature’s majesty made us feel small in the best way.
But fear almost kept me from this adventure. Traveling outside of my comfort zone makes me susceptible to scary whispers. Potential dangers rattled around in my mental backpack as we prepared for the journey: an airplane crash, a bear attack, a fall off the side of a rocky mountain cliff, an impending nuclear warhead reaching the west coast. They tempted me to sink my roots deeper into the solid ground of the known and to stay put.
Despite the worst-case scenarios that haunted my imagination, I pressed on to see these natural treasures firsthand. I wasn’t disappointed. My Midwestern eyes widened in disbelief as I used both hands to grip the pinecones-on-steroids that littered the forest floor. Up close, I marveled at the magnitude of the sequoias, wrapped my arms around a portion of their prickly girth, and breathed in the earthy musk of their perfume. We walked across a fallen giant large enough for a car to cross. Took pictures in the monstrous shadow of its gangly root ball. The reality of their presence inspired reverence like a photograph never could.
Reading the text printed on placards throughout the park, I learned that in the early part of the twentieth century, the superintendents of this national park practiced ongoing fire suppression in order to protect the sequoias. Their motives were good, at least on the surface. The goals were to preserve the natural beauty while also earning profits from tourists who flocked to see it. It seemed wise to limit or remove the risk of fire damage to the trees and the surrounding man-made structures. But over time, the forest started to die.
Scientists began to second-guess this strategy, suspecting that efforts to prevent all fires stunted growth and prevented regeneration. Human interference in the form of both invasive development and extreme fire suppression was robbing the trees of a healthy environment. Fires that did occur were becoming more catastrophic. Their research led to the eventual acceptance of a theory that once seemed counterintuitive: Some fire is necessary for growth in the lifecycle of the trees.
A sign along the path entitled “A Fiery Life” states: “Fire has influenced every sequoia in the Giant Forest. Over thousands of years, lightning fires have burned here as often as every 3-9 years.” I read on to discover: “Curved healing rings grow over wounds, restoring the trees’ protective surface. Every mature sequoia has healed many wounds. Most are caused by fire.”
Blazes brand and carve out sections of their towering trunks. But they continue to grow.
Another plaque listed “Fire’s Friendly Effects.” While fire kills some of the sequoias, it also:
There is purpose in the process. Benefits result from the burning. Human attempts to control the forest’s environment threatened its very health and existence by preventing necessary fires.
I am guilty of the very same thing.
The forest reminded me that risk suppression is an ineffective method of fear management. Avoidance of unpleasant realities leads to unintended consequences.
Overprotected sequoias suffer from problems including “lack of mineral soil, inadequate soil moisture, plus low-light conditions under a dense forest canopy.” Fire ecologists have stated that “without fire or other kinds of disturbance, sequoia seeds either do not germinate at all or seedlings do not survive if germination does occur.” (Restoring Fire to the Sequoias, National Park Service Website)
Translated to soul-level: overprotection stunts our growth. We add fuel to an eventual catastrophic fire when we snuff out every potential spark. Symptoms may include: spiritual shallowness, blindness or tunnel vision, unchecked pride, and death. If I attempt to live pain-free, I’ll be insulated, isolated, and unchanged. When I let fear rule, it smothers both the bad and the good.
Long is the list of threats and dangers I try to suppress. Physical discomfort. Uncomfortable questions. Unpleasant news. Distasteful opinions. Hurt feelings. Bad memories. My own mistakes. Potential failure. And not only for myself, but for my children.
I reflected on fires I’ve already walked through: unexpected losses, injuries that took time to heal, disappointments, unanswered questions, discouragement, and conflicts with loved ones to name a few. When I’ve engaged and faced them head-on, they’ve been productive. By burning away my self-centeredness, pride, sense of entitlement, and the illusion of control, God has used them to help me grow. In the aftermath, I’ve been more receptive and responsive. Seeds of compassion, understanding, gratitude, and trust have taken root.
The dictionary definition of “life” is the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death. I have a long way to go, but to stay safe and static is not the way to really live.
Fires will come. If I spend my life obsessed with pain prevention, I’m wasting my energy. Better to allow the necessary fires to do their work. If I don’t, I’ll be consumed. Mature trees bear their scars proudly, as proof they have persevered. Change comes slowly, but no experience is wasted if we’re planted in good soil.
The giant’s head rests
atop textured concrete tendons
in city center park planted.
Spackled stone freckles speckle
a long neck stretched
above a ground-green blanket
to display her fractured face.
Mirror images frozen contrast,
transfix. Her personality split
along vertical midline seam unzipped,
suggests a need to be fixed.
She is a woman divided.
Incomplete puzzle forged
her Picasso skeleton forms
from geometric shards.
Scaffolding etched in charcoal smudges,
winding steps of Escher-drawn staircases
built of cranial bones stripped bare.
An unfinished soul.
Neurons scurry to assemble
a pieced-together-whole from disparate parts.
Sky fills the spaces between features,
paints her skin unblemished blue.
My eyes untangle curves,
unravel, find fullness
as cascading colors ignite her frame.
Her blue eye widens, surprised
by the miracle. Transformation.
Ruby lips part to form
shapes of yet unspoken words.
My brain reassembles the broken visage
repairs the crumbling facade
of the woman caught in the midst of becoming.
She stares straight
at and through me
below in the spiderweb of shadows she casts.
I swear I saw her wink.
*poem inspired by the statue “COMING TOGETHER” by Niki de Sainte Palle, Sept. 2001
It’s the unspoken but inherent risk we take by living: Any day your heart could break.
The body’s intricate infrastructure is inevitably infirm. The invisible bonds knitting us together are capable of unraveling. The castles constructed by the work of our hands are as temporary as held breath. Loss or injury to any single part affects the wellbeing of the whole.
Everything beautiful is breakable.
Any day your heart could break
…on some ordinary weeknight, as you empty brown paper bags to unload the groceries. Left simmering too long, your blood can thicken. While you stack silver soup cans, it strains through narrowed passages hardened by everyday erosion. Twisting the faucet to pour a glass of water, your own rerouted flow slows to a trickle. Inside your pipes, relentless pulsing pushes miniscule sediment into a dam. The broad bank between your shoulders swells. Tingling fingers hang heavy at your sides. Your head floats in the thinning air. You’ll clutch your clenched chest, blinking to wipe away tears as your vision blurs and fades.
Any day your heart could break
…shattered by the impact of a high-pitched cell phone ping! alerting you to nonsensical text you’ll read again and again. Someone’s fingertips can crush your unsuspecting brain. Disaster reverberates through invisible wires somewhere above your head, the ones linking life to life. Electric surges sizzle your nerves. Tremors seize the atmosphere in upside-down earthquakes. Aftershocks knock you down. A handful of letters can shift your trajectory, careening you into an unimagined future. One simple message can interrupt the orbit of routine revolutions, upset internal balance, and introduce chaos. One blow can take down the entire system and leave us all in the dark.
Any day your heart could break
… blown by the breath of the wind, washed away by tears from the clouds. Handmade masterpieces shatter in silence. Like a weary spider at sunrise, you’ll mourn the erased evidence of your late-night labor. Connections woven with sparkling threads can collapse in an instant: strung up by starlight only to be weighed down with thick morning dew. Destroyed by distance when stretched too thin. Brushed aside by sleepwalking giants, the delicate remains left sticking to some stranger’s skin. Utterly undone, you will be forced to await the evening to begin the cycle of creation anew.
Any day, reality may shift and leave us stunned.
The breaking unmakes and reshapes us.
Disorientation forces us to regroup. Dawn awakens as night shatters. We take time to let our eyes and our understanding adjust. Waves peak and crumble into stillness. We emerge from below the bubbling foam and gasp, grateful for breath, and start treading water. Shaken by circumstances, our quivering voices falter to reveal vulnerability. We reconnect, bound by love, until we are once again renewed.
I stepped outside into the calm of the retreat center grounds. The calendar had announced spring’s arrival a few days earlier. Though the world was slow to wake, everything felt possible in the glow of the morning sun. The neon green of emerging grass contrasted with the dull bark on naked trees and the litter left by last year’s leaves. No chlorophyll canopy covered the bordering woods, so I still could see deep within. I remembered: resurrection begins at ground level, then rises. I descended to sit next to some small shrubs lining the walkway.
The ground chilled me through the seat of my jeans. I considered how silly I must look, a grown woman seated on the sidewalk, toy in hand. Luckily, here, few people would pass and notice. The birds don’t laugh, and even if they did, their teasing doesn’t translate. It sounds like music to my ears. Their high-pitched chirps and trills swallowed my senses. I looked around, wondering where to begin.
I brought with me a borrowed “dragonfly eye” that promised new views of the world. This bell-shaped instrument in birch casing survived many moves and Goodwill purges to maintain its place on my friend’s bookshelf. I’d unplugged from the world for a fresh perspective and a little worshipful play. This tiny telescope made me feel like an explorer.
I pressed the narrow end of the dragonfly eye up to my face and pointed it toward the ground. The beveled glass lens manipulated a spiky sweetgum ball resting in the rocky soil. Magnified and replicated, the image filled my entire visual field. Browns and grays poked at my eyes with their sharp edges.
I aimed the tool upward to find some branches of the little tree not yet adorned with blossoms. Thin lines crisscrossed into knots. All I could see was chaos, a tangled mess. Then, with another half turn, I struck gold. Star-shaped forsythia illuminated each tiny window. Its delicate yellow flowers exploded and sparked surprise.
I rotated and reflected until I’d lost all sense of time. Any one angle was incomplete. The fleeting glimpses didn’t form a cohesive whole. Pinhole snapshots made vision a piecemeal process. My mind couldn’t hold them all. I spun the glass eye until my head dizzied. Before I attempted to stand, I chose a single spot and focused in order to restore my equilibrium.
The name of the toy intrigued me, lingering in my brain long after I left. Through the dragonfly eye, the world around me shrank into manageable pieces. My view was the opposite of panoramic: myopic wallpaper. Mere scratches on the surface that never widened to unite with the whole.
I wondered: how can the dragonfly navigate the world or orient itself within it with such limited vision? (For that matter, how can I?)
Curiosity drove me to find the facts. I learned that eighty percent of the dragonfly’s brainpower is dedicated to its sight. Wide, multifaceted lenses allow it to see in all directions simultaneously, giving it a 360 degree view. Thirty thousand pixel-like facets cover most of its head.
In addition, the dragonfly displays an almost-human capacity for selective attention. Its ability to zoom in and focus enables it to capture and eat prey, as well as to mate while in flight. This incredible creature is present to the full reality of its surroundings: alert, responsive, and nimble.
The dragonfly’s iridescent body reflects different colors depending on varying angles and polarization of light. Its lithe core dances and paper-thin wings shimmer as it flies. Not only does it possess the ability to see a wider and deeper reality, its very being stretches the vision of those who encounter it.
The disconnect between this new information and my experience prompted me to consider: perhaps the limitation lies not in the toy but in the viewer. When overused, my selective attention becomes a disability.
An hour after I went to bed one night this week, I laid awake, filled with anxiety. Unsure as to why, I reviewed the details of my day. I’d spent hours taking in news and stories. Podcasts about weighty topics. Audiobooks with heavy themes. Facebook updates and tweets linking me to upsetting world events. NPR alerts about an elementary school shooting in California. Threats of war on the evening news. My porous eyes had soaked too much in through a dark and limited lens. When I closed them at the end of the day, I started to drown.
The next morning, the state of my soul showed on my sleepy face. “I wish everything would just bloom already!” I said with a half-hearted smile to an acquaintance who inquired about my irritated eyes. I blamed my appearance on allergies because I was too weary to explain. The truth was too complex.
That next day, I made some changes. Filled my ears with poetry and music instead of incessant talk. Read only that which inspires. Rehearsed truth and offered honest prayers. Connected with the people around me instead of merely observing the whole world from a distance. Adjusted my sensory input to ease my soul back into balance.
When my gaze is fixed only on the broken, it colors my vision and leaves me unsettled, lacking hope, on edge. My view is limited. Focus matters. I need to rotate the lens to take in the just-as-real beauty all around. With each small turn, I let the light fall on me anew.
Beneath the glassy surface, upside-down branches doubled as desperate roots. The puddle painted a bizarre image, prompting me to do a doubletake. When I looked down, I saw the sky lying among the submerged clumps of fallen leaves. Sunlight pierced the clustered January clouds. My eye was drawn to this unusual reflection formed in the remains of unseasonable rain.
At first glance, the emptiness was masked by fullness. Dead leaves reattached to naked branches. Decomposition regenerated before my eyes. I wondered what the trees were thinking. If they bought the beautiful illusion or looked deeper to confess the truth about their current state.
In the midst of a tangled mess, still waters make the cleanest mirrors.
Nature whispered: Be still. Lean in. Look closer. Stand in the light. Pay attention.
This tableau embodied the state of our nation and of my own heart. Muddled and messy, layered with confusion. Dead leaves obscure the view. In this brave new world where lies dress up as alternative facts, the emperor has no clothes – and we the people see ourselves with broken mirrors as well.
We see what we want to see.
This image made me consider the mirrors we use: how they reflect, if we notice them, what we see in them, which ones show us our true selves. I’m afraid I see what I want to see more than what’s really there. And I don’t think I’m the only one.
I project my expectations onto my reflected self and the world around me. I’ve almost completely weeded out my social network of offending opinions, wrapping me in a bubble of comfort. I often filter the daily news through political humor which points out the irony with precision and wit, allowing me to digest it without indigestion. Some days, I throw a blanket over the glass because I just can’t look anymore.
I need a mirror that doesn’t change and doesn’t lie to me to feed my ego. One that shows me plainly the plank stuck in my eye so I can take care of it before I try to help another with the speck in theirs. One that doubles as a prescriptive lens – correcting my vision as I untangle the truth of this confusing season and allowing me to see others for who they really are.
It must begin with stillness. It’s time for a long, hard look in the mirror.
The true state of our hearts is reflected into the world. Our deeply rooted beliefs take shape when we exhale them into words. If we don’t pause and reflect on the truth of what is in us, we buy the illusions. Cracks in our mirrors formed by our projected fear, pain, and selfishness warp our self-image and allow us to drift farther from reality. Confession is good for the soul, freeing us to receive forgiveness and begin again. When we get out of our own way, God gets to work.
I don’t pretend to know how to bridge the divide in this country or how to best make a difference. But I know enough to start bridging the divide in my own soul, by coming back to what matters most: love. Galatians 5:14 reminds me: …the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I spent time today meditating on the definition:
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice, but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7)
Without love, nothing matters. Without love, our well-chosen words become annoying noise. Our knowledge, understanding, and faith are hollow. Our pious behavior, sacrifices, and good deeds gain us nothing.
No matter what I say, what I know or believe, or what I do – it’s all worthless without love. Love seeks the good of the other person first. Love starts with listening. Without love, it’s all about me, me, me. The “me” that is capable of self-deception, and yet is deeply loved in all my mess. Just like everyone else. I need to see the complete picture.
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.
If you claim to be religious but you don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (James 1:22-27)
Today I will reflect and choose stillness. Connect with the Creator whose understanding far exceeds my own. Choose to listen before I speak. Care for the vulnerable and hurting in my path. Err on the side of love. Refuse to mirror back chaos and hatred when I encounter it. Breathe in the perfect love that God has for us. Believe it’s working to transform me from the inside out.
My “one word” focus for the new year arrived as a gift on a silver necklace pendant wrapped inside a small box. The engraved quote by Maya Angelou reads: “Be present in all things and thankful for all things.” This message is written in tiny cursive letters I must squint to see clearly. I have to concentrate to focus. That’s the point, I realized. In order to cultivate gratitude and happiness, I must start by paying attention. Being PRESENT.
The word danced around in my brain before settling down to make itself at home. PRESENT. The more time I spent with it, the more my fondness for the concept grew. It blossomed until it revealed its distinct three-dimensional shape which embodies the wholeness I seek.
Present (ˈprez(ə)nt) is a noun meaning either a gift or the current moment. Present is an adjective that describes one who is attentive, conscious, and actively existing. And present (prəˈzent) is a verb that denotes the act of offering a gift of words to others.
I knew it was the “one word” for me when I felt a simultaneous urge to embrace and to escape it. While PRESENT extends a hand to usher me into a deeper, more connected and meaningful life, it also requires a lot from me.
Temptations for escape from PRESENT abound. Digital distractions, endless chores and errands, to-do checklists, and upsetting news headlines all add noise to my inner world. When I’m tired, bored, or overwhelmed, the last thing I want is to be fully conscious. I hide behind a screen, choosing entertainment over reality. Or I double down and plow through tasks, whizzing through my days, avoiding the present in the blur of constant motion. Or I line up all my ducks in tidy rows, reining in my worries with organizational muscle. Meanwhile, the gifts to be enjoyed now get ignored. The words I can offer are crossed out and drowned out; they never make it to the page or through my lips. I’m too busy thinking about what’s next to engage with the life right in front of me.
A little dictionary noodling landed me at etymonline.com, where I read that present has its roots in an Old French term meaning “existing at the time, evident, at hand, and within reach.”
The phrase “at hand” reminded me of Jesus, who proclaimed “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) His initial sermon included this simple invitation.
Jesus had entered the scene: present, in the flesh. The Greek word for repent (metanoia) means “a transformative change of heart” or “to change one’s mind.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.) To change direction, to make an about-face, to think new thoughts and act accordingly: that sounds like a fresh start to me. Suitable for a new year’s resolution.
The presence of Jesus inspires me to see everything in a different light. God is within reach. PRESENT. But I will only encounter and experience God if I, too, am present.
Like any relationship, it’s interactive and alive, an ongoing sharing of moments. I must stay present to recognize God’s presence, to notice the gifts and hopefully to become one.
My goal for 2017 is to wake up each day expectant. I’ll be praying that this little word will come to define me. PRESENT: counting the gifts, offering my words to others, and living awake in each moment.