Saturday, December 31, 2016

Riff on breath

Kris wrote a blog post yesterday about celebrating life's breathtaking moments and the irony that ALS literally takes your breath away.

It's a beautiful post. Go read it, if you haven't already. You'll come away treasuring life and breath more deeply. And you'll have a theme word for today, for the New Year celebration, and for daily living.

I think about breath a lot. It's the thing I need to do better as a singer. It's also that thing you're supposed to return to, in meditation or yoga or moments of panic and confusion. Like many people I hold my breath when I'm stressed, muscles too tight to allow the next breath to enter easily, naturally, fighting nature's mechanism for renewing my will and energizing my heart.

Blessedly, just thinking about it slows and deepens my breath. The hot coffee slipping past my lungs has warmed them, loosening the allergy-related congestion. Could thoughtful breathing, and caffeine,  lift the gloom of this last day of 2016?

Social media posts have been full of "so glad to say goodbye to this awful year." Woo-hoo-- except,  of course, tomorrow is continuous with today. There's no hitting the reset button at midnight, no clean slate, no "Clear history" choice on the drop-down menu. Tomorrow, or Monday, or Tuesday, we will pick up right where 2016 left us, facing the same problems, the same conundrums, the same mess. I've read two pressing-forward, we-can-do-this op-ed/think pieces this morning, and while I do have neurons that resonate with this kind of thinking, so many of life's inevitabilities don't yield to optimism.

Back to the breath—and my own breathtaking moments (sensible Kris--for thirty years he's been my roadmap to feeling more cheerful!). Here are some I can think of this morning:

  • The lakeshore when the water, the rocks and the broad horizon are as a big as God — who is as close as the breeze in the cedars and the energy in the waves. 
  • Smiles on the faces of my children, grown, but to me, still the delightful little ones of Christmas seasons past. 
  • Music-making: the magical moments when it all falls into place (sometimes in rehearsal rather than performance). 
  • ewborn lambs at the Sheep and Wool Show, and gorgeous hand-dyed colors in merino and blue-faced Leicester, alpaca and silk. 
  • Reading "When Breath Becomes Air" on a summer day in my backyard (many layers of breath-taking in that one). 
  • Images that finally appear clear on the page if you take enough words away. 
  • Strong coffee that sometimes tastes even better than I remember it, even though I drink it every day.
  • Long, fast walks. 
  • All those many things Kris listed: newborns, kisses, milestones, loved ones.

There were breathtaking images in 2016 that weren't so good: photos from around the world of people in need, dead, dying, oppressed, bombed, injured, desperate, grieving. Video of angry people, of resentment, racial hatred, misogyny, blinding arrogance, willful ignorance. Challenges to those  evils often fell short.

Breath is what we hold in common: animals breathe, plants breathe, lakes and oceans fold the moving air into the tumbling waves. We gasp for breath as we're born and again when we die. We breathe together when we sing. We quiet our breath as we pray.

Keep breathing in the year ahead!

Saturday, December 17, 2016


The sky is beautiful as I look through the web of black tree branches outside my window. The new-risen sun streaks the clouds with light. Even the clouds of smoke and vapor coming from the chimney of a home across the street momentarily catch the gold glow of the sun, still low in the sky. Beyond the clouds, the morning sky grows deeper and more radiantly blue from one minute to the next.

I'm not usually an early riser -- it's rare that I see a summer sunrise. But I see them in December, as the days begin and end gilded in pink and yellow and gold. The colors seem distant but promising as I drink my morning coffee, elegiac as I walk the halls at work and catch a last glimpse of today's sky before it's time to go home.

Our struggles are long, but life is short, and we never quite grasp all that we reach for. Yet we keep going.

I spent a long afternoon with my son Kris on Monday. He has ALS and, no longer able to work as a special ed teacher, is at home with a caregiver during the day, while his wife, Michelle, heads off to her job as an art teacher at a K-5 public school that serves children from low-income families, children whose home lives are often chaotic.

Kris sent me into the kitchen of their home, to look at the glass star hanging in the window by the sink. "We finally got it up," he said. "You gave that to us." My mind was blank at first, but then I remembered thick tissue wrapped around the glass. Where had I bought it, this arty Christmas decoration? Ah, in a little store in Granville, Ohio, where I drove to pick up my younger son, Kurt, from college, two Decembers ago.

"I am trying to get some things done around here," said Kris. "since I have the time to take care of these little things."

Getting it done meant seeing that it got done--the stick-on Command hook purchased and placed, the star hung, either by Michelle or by Emily, the caregiver, who gets him up, showered and dressed on weekday mornings, who does their laundry, makes lunch--cares for things, supervised by Kris.

Do the next thing. Do the little things. Here, in this moment, but with care for the future.

That star in Kris and Michelle's window has five irregular points--cobalt blue and bright yellow drawn into each one by the craftsman who shaped the glass. There were many stars hanging in the store where I bought it--each one different, each one formed by skill and happy accident. Each one, I suppose, a next thing, requiring care and attention before moving on.

The world seems particularly overwhelming to me this Christmas. In our family, it's the pull of ALS, drawing Kris ever deeper into motionlessness. In the news, it's a will to power, pulling politicians to lash out in ways that enrich the privileged few at the expense of the downtrodden.
Restore us, O God; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved. (Psalm 80:3)
But how? How are we saved? In the shining light of a December sunrise? In the smeared beauty of the rose colors rising above the horizon at the end of the day? Or in the dark night, the shining stable, the angels that filled the sky over Bethlehem and brought heaven's light to earth? Light that arrived as Mary labored, each pain a next thing. Light that spread as shepherds watched over the little lambs, caring for their flock's future.

God's light--shining from the distant sun, shining in us in the darkness. Stir up your power, O God, and come!