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.

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my three-dimensional focus for 2017

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.

img_20170104_110007338The 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 img_20170104_105828219reach. 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.

The Labyrinth’s Invitation

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My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I do not do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Expectant, I approach the labyrinth, wondering how long it will take to complete. It isn’t what I imagined it would be. I envisioned tall, thick hedges trapping me in a maze where I am a mouse feeling its way to the cheese prize. Instead, a map stamped into the concrete courtyard of the retreat center is laid out in plain sight. Its concentric swirling rows remind me of a Celtic knot. Unable to untangle the pattern, I look down and plant one worn-out running shoe in front of the other. I begin: heel-toe, heel-toe, embarking on my quest to reach the center.

The morning air vibrates with pulsing crickets, punctuated by intermittent chirps from overhead birds. The surrounding woods provide a buffer, absorbing the angry grumbles of accelerating trucks on distant roads. Sunlight pierces through the trees, illuminating patches on the ground and leaving others covered by shadows. With each tick of the clock closer to mid-day, the sun continues its ascent. We seekers are increasingly exposed to its penetrating heat.

I am the obedient pencil, tracing this puzzle with each willed movement, staying inside the lines. I enter into the flow, picking up my pace on straight stretches, curious and eager. Then the winding footpaths bend, forcing me to change direction and return to the border of the circle. Momentarily disoriented, I grow restless, discouraged by illusions, uncertain of my coordinates, doubting my progress. These temporary setbacks slow and humble me. I’m relieved when the path reverses, pointing me back toward the goal.

Along the way, I encounter other travelers, fellow participants on this retreat. A sideways shift of my shoulders and a brief step out of bounds allow us both room to pass. Exchanging knowing looks, we remain silent, walking alone together on the journey.

Delicate leaves dangle above on weeping branches, then descend to join their fallen brothers crunching beneath my feet. I move through the tears of a changing season waiting to be wiped away. The other side of this winding path is clear, as if a custodian left the job half-done. The smooth portion is guarded by evergreens holding tight to their bristling needles. I traverse the divide, unwittingly wandering from one into the other and back again,  as I follow the course.

I am free to exit the path at any time by breaking the ‘rules,’ stepping on cracks, and forging my own way. But the labyrinth whispers an invitation: Come. Follow. Seek. Find.

There is no way to get lost. I need only to take the next step and trust.

I keep my eyes fixed on the ground so when I arrive at the spacious center, I’m surprised. Admiring the intricate pattern, I grieve that it’s over too soon. “Teach me to number my days aright, that I might gain a heart of wisdom. “  Psalms echo in my quiet soul, wrapping words around my grateful heart. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”  

first memory

My first memory is a snapshot in time, slightly out of focus. Facts are fuzzy, but the feeling of restless frustration left an imprint on my brain. Just shy of five years old, I ride in the backseat of my parents’ boxy station wagon and gaze out the window. The ruby red vinyl seats squeak and pinch as I wiggle around, straining for a better view. Our young family had just moved to the small town I’d call home for the remainder of my childhood. My sandaled feet dangle off the edge of my seat, nowhere near the firm foundation of the floor. Oblivious to where we are or where we are going, the knee-high cornfields, freshly mown golf course and picket fences blur before my eyes.

The well-worn Bert and Ernie Sing-a-Long cassette bubbles through the speakers. Rubber Duckie, you’re the one…You make bath time lots of fun…My baby brother babbles along with the music while I muster all of my big-girl energy to focus. I stare at the secret codes printed on the movie theater’s marquee, the fast food signs, and community event banners, trying to figure out what they mean.

IMG_0987-001It has recently come to my attention that they are composed of the letters I learned in preschool. The grown-ups have conspired to communicate among themselves, but I’m on to them. I teeter on the edge of a breakthrough that promises to unlock so many secrets. The vibrations of each letter sound linger on my clumsy tongue. I move my lips and string them together, listening for familiar patterns. The big world teases me, dangling satisfaction just out of my reach.

*****

But it won’t be long before the puzzle pieces settle into place. My new superpower will become automatic, an involuntary function of my physiology. Those roadside signs concealed meaning only trained and focused viewers could locate, much like the trendy “magic eye” posters which will become popular in my high school years. But once I learned the trick, hidden messages and shapes like dolphins and sunsets burst out of their complex landscapes. They became so obvious it was hard to imagine that others couldn’t see them.

My change in perspective will allow me to read words on sight, without thought, as if wearing invisible secret decoder glasses. Even graffiti in rest stop bathrooms will leap off the rusty metal stalls and dive into my brain, taking shape with or without my permission, much to my mother’s chagrin. I will indulge my voracious hunger and gobble up stories on the page. From there, I will carry them onto the stage, embodying characters and stepping into new worlds. My childhood will contain countless summer afternoons in the shade of the trees at our local pool, filling up yellow legal pads with dialogue for my troupe of wannabe thespian friends.

*****

When I think back on my little girl self, my heart swells with gratitude. She didn’t give up. She had no idea that her struggle to become fluent in the grown-up world of words would unlock a lifetime of joyful discovery. And yet I have to chuckle at her rugged determination. Now a mother myself, I have had the opportunity to relive the process by watching my own kids learn to read.

All that prep work is necessary, of course, but phonics alone don’t flip the switch. When the light pops on, it’s simply magic.

 

shadow play

IMG_20151026_140259258When the heavenly spotlight beams on my back, my shadow-self takes the lead. I recognize her even though she lies flat on the pavement. In crisp contrast with the surrounding light, she stands out, distorted but distinct. Mirroring my movements, she morphs me into dimensions beyond my domain. I play along in childlike wonder. Second grade science escapes me and I struggle to remember: Am I tall and thin in early morning? Short and squat in afternoon? How much of my size is determined by the sun’s position in the sky? How much depends on my own here on earth?

I am certaiIMG_20151025_165515597n of only this: my frame’s footprint is fickle. The light itself, unconcealed by clouds, is warm, true and good. Today I try to catch her in a game of cat-and-mouse, stalking her with my smartphone camera, seeking the sweet spot where it will be swallowed by my form. I lose myself, entranced by the shifting shapes I create, a real-life shadow puppet dancing on the illuminated screen of the created world.

seasons change

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One would think that after nearly forty times around the sun I’d be used to the circular pattern of the seasons. And yet I repeatedly fall for the illusion that the way things look or feel at any particular point in the journey is how they will remain.

The same helpless longing rages in my heart every autumn, as I watch the surrounding beauty fade into barrenness. The lush green landscape evolves slowly as the air turns crisp. Leaves cast off their chlorophyll, revealing hidden hues, warming up the world in a technicolor transformation. Just when I awake to the majesty of this miracle, the trees shed their leaves like tears, and begin undressing for the long, hard winter ahead. All I can do is watch. I try to soak it in, breathing deeply and painting the images into my memory. I clutch onto unrealistic hope. Powerless, all I can do is wait for the end to come.

This time around, I ache as I notice how nature mirrors life. A dear friend is struggling with a major life change looming dark on the horizon. She is preparing to say goodbye to her not yet sixty year old mother, who is in the last rounds of her battle against cancer. The waiting and the watching are so hard. Months have been numbered, options are few, and the brutal treatment that’s helped save her many times before may only be adding misery to the little time she has left.

My friend grieves that their remaining days are slipping away. And yet she is calm because her heart is surrendered. She is choosing to be grateful to the best of her ability. Her family is in a state of preparation, bravely talking about things that matter, voicing and celebrating how much they have loved their season together on this earth. There’s a rare beauty in how they are faithfully attempting to live with purpose and without regrets in this in-between space.

It’s commonplace and therefore easiest for us all to live self-absorbed, believing the lie that what is now is what will always be. The irony is thick: we are born dying, and yet change and death always surprise. Whatever bombards our senses in the current moment or fills our daily routine becomes our reality. Our worldviews are built around unmet longings or present responsibilities. Our perspectives are limited because we are nearsighted.

I remember well the endless days of monotonous early motherhood. Diaper changes, nap schedules, and tantrums consumed me. I got lost in my new role, despairing that my self was forever hopelessly entwined with my babies. I believed the lie that my own story had to end so that theirs could begin. But day by day, these little ones grew, changed, and became ever-so-slightly more independent. Which meant they were less dependent on me. I found some room to breathe.  My withered soul inflated slowly until I finally recognized myself in the mirror once again. What I thought was a permanent change had only been a season. It had passed, I was still here, and I was still me.

Life keeps happening, whether or not we pay attention. The merry-go-round keeps spinning until our turn on the ride is over. We don’t get to pick when the operator will push the button and stop. We’ll get queasy and frustrated by the motion unless we use a technique used by dancers, those who float through life with grace. The trick is to keep our eyes fixed on a single spot. Only then can we complete each rotation without succumbing to vertigo and collapsing into a pathetic heap.

We can’t freeze time or fast forward through the waiting or the hard. We can only weather the changes by fixing our eyes on the One who never changes, surrendering to the rhythm of the cycle: birth – growth – death – and resurrection. Paying attention to the gifts and yet holding them lightly, we live free: ready to let go of one season and able to move bravely into the next.

(This post was written in fall 2014. The seasons continue to change. The fullness of summer is now at hand, and I’m still trying to remember what I learned the last time around the sun.)