held

I slipped through the crowd in the auditorium lobby, swung open the gallery’s glass door, and stepped inside. The bustle evaporated in a holy hush as the space swallowed all the chattering voices. White walls soothed my overstimulated brain. Paintings and photographs peppered throughout did not clamor for attention. Instead, they waited patiently to be noticed.

I wandered past the entryway into the cavernous main hall, where the ceiling stretched taller and gained another story. The polished butterscotch floor reflected the overhead light. Settling myself down on a simple wooden stool, I slid off my bulky coat and laid it down atop the pile made by my purse and bag.

I’d read the description for this meditation session offered to those attending the Festival of Faith and Writing: a brief retreat from the flurry of panels, interviews, classes, and speeches to practice centering prayer. When it fit into my schedule, I showed up, hungry for quiet. I looked around as I waited for it to begin.

A three-dimensional exhibit hung before me in the center of the large room. Photographs of sky and naked tree branches hung like floating puzzle pieces above my head. A rainbow of three-dimensional leaves floated beneath each one in various stages of descent. Lights shone down on the display and framed it on all sides. Silver wires supporting the foliage shimmered when hit by the light, but from other angles, tricked the eye and disappeared. Shadows painted the surrounding bare walls with the shape of each unique leaf, providing the illusion of a deeper forest.

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Soon the facilitator greeted those of us who had assembled. She asked us to close our eyes and relax, to breathe deeply and open our hands. The words she used were few but her voice ushered us into the presence of God. As I sat and stilled in the silence, the word I heard blow through my mind as we began our centering prayer was at once both foreign and familiar:

held

I focused on my breath, allowed my lungs to expand to their limit, then deflated them slowly and deliberately. Peace washed over me as I realized: I am being held.

I flashed back to the week I’d had before arriving at this conference. My sleep was interrupted, my mind was scattered, my days were frantic and checklist-driven. Finally, mid-week, it dawned on me: I was caught in the constricting grip of fear. A legion of lies had pinned me down and drained my energy. This mob loomed large and mysterious in the dark corners of my mind. When I had finally had enough, I confronted each one, brought them out of the background and into the light. I made them stand where I could see them and state their names. Exposed, one by one, they looked weak and silly. In the light, they lost their power. Once I could name the fears I held and see they were holding me back, I chose to let them go. But I was still weary from the fight.

It’s a lesson I have to relearn time and again: fear loses its grip when I choose faith.

At first, letting go of what’s familiar feels like chaos: a free fall that begins when I give up the safety of a sturdy branch far above the cold, hard ground. Trying something new, showing up as my real self, by myself, carries the risk of exposure, rejection, and loneliness. But if I never jump, I’ll wither and waste my one wild and precious life.

The artist captured the falling leaves in mid-flight. They weren’t struggling or clinging to anything; they were free: gliding, while guided and supported by an invisible presence. No longer clustered in a clump with others, their intricate designs revealed themselves in the empty air.

They were wrapped in the wind, held by the heavens, for the whole length of their journey. (Just like me.)

The result was breathtaking, even magical: frailty that trusts learns to fly.

Held. The word was a gift to me. A whispered promise.

I emerged from the sacred space a little calmer, a little braver, and much less alone.

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*This exhibit at Calvin College’s Center Art Gallery was entitled “Remembrances” by Jennifer L. Hand. The centering prayer exercise was led by J. Dana Trent. My sincere thanks to both of you for using your gifts so others like me could be inspired and encouraged.

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the dragonfly eye

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.

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IMG_20170324_113910877I 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.

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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.

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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.

Reflection along the Monon Trail

The heavens floated down to earth this morning. Suspended clouds slipped through the atmosphere and landed upside down on a blanket of blue. Peeking through tangled weeds, they arrested my gaze. My rhythmic footfalls ceased; the world around and within me hushed. I stood rapt, astonished by the celestial masterpiece floating in the retention pond along the paved old railroad path.

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At ground level, the transcendent felt palpable, if just out of reach. A barrier of waist-high weeds, thistles and wildflowers threatened the exposed skin of would-be explorers so I kept my distance. Holding my breath, I witnessed the miracle and received its invitation, beckoning me toward wonder.

As I stood spellbound, my buoyant thoughts were punctured by a pinprick dread of the inevitable. This fluid illusion would dissolve when stirred by wind or human touch. A desperate impulse consumed me, a panicked need to capture the intangible essence. Snapping smartphone photos at different angles, I grasped for tactile proof. A postcard to document where I’d been. A souvenir proving the mirage was reality.

My efforts fell flat: my two-dimensional tool was insufficient for the task. I had no choice but to surrender, tuning in to the fullness of the moment, despite my longing to hold the whisper and carry it home.

This unlikely juxtaposition had shaken me awake. For a moment, the ordinary water, forbidden by the laws of nature to absorb the luscious colors and wispy shapes, transcended its limitations and soaked it all in, casting aside its transparence.

My stunted senses must have needed a shock to be reminded to breathe.

Immersed in beautiful absurdity of the earth-bound sky, reflection ensued. Quiet moments and still waters allow me to soak up the qualities of the presence to which I am present. But the Spirit doesn’t shout. I have to be listening, expectant, to be transformed.

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In this calm oasis, my awareness widened. Cicadas that shimmied and rattled in overhead trees guided me back and bound me to the present moment. The rise and fall of white noise grounded the mystical in earthiness, providing a soundtrack to complete my epiphany. Nature’s wild morning breath stuck to my glistening skin like a perfume mist. I breathed it in, knowing I would carry its scent long after waking from my daydream and continuing on my way.