A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Heart of Silence

Our Wednesday night class on being a social worker who works with people at what may be the end of their lives is an intense one. Sometimes, I cry. Sometimes, everyone cries.

Our professor begins each class inviting us to sit in silence, often doing a guided meditation. The practice is healing and centering for me, and our professor sees this connection with sacred silence as a way of life. So do I.

In our first session, our professor asked, “What do you think of when you think of silence?” She seemed to anticipate the responses. I did not. People said things like, “Uncomfortable” and even “Painful.”

Last week, as the class discussed starting fifteen minutes earlier, and some people said they couldn’t get there that early, my jovial classmate Brian said, “That’s okay, it’s just silent then. It doesn’t really matter.”

To this, our professor responded with the closest thing to a yelp and howl of laughter as I have seen. To her, this moment of silence is essential. To me it is, too. (If I were still teaching, I think I would do this at the beginning of my classes. Sister Jen says that one of my niece Isabella’s teachers at her boarding school does that. Smart. Since I’m a student now, I’m getting to think about teaching from the perspective of the learner, something I did hypothetically as an instructional coach.)

I am often surprised by how different I experience the world than so many people around me. It seems like I’d expect it by now. In contrast to my classmates, I seek silence. For me, silence is a warm presence: in it I feel much like I felt in a warm Costa Rican bay as I struggled with depression so many years ago. In silence, my body and my spirit, which can come apart, drift gently back together. In silence, for me, there is healing.

Of course, I know from listening to Simon and Garfunkel that for many the sound of silence is the sound of loneliness and disconnection:

"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you.
Take my arms that I might reach you."
But my words, like silent raindrops fell,
And echoed
In the wells of silence.

There have been times for me, too, when silence was painful. In junior high school, I was the lone young one on the varsity high school volleyball team. My teammates were kind to me, but I was overwhelmed by my loneliness among the ladies who seemed so close to being grown-ups. I’m not sure I spoke in practice all season except to call “mine” when the ball coursed over the net in my direction or “out” when it was.

As an adult, I have experienced painful silence, too. Once on a hike in the first year that Ann and I were together, she asked me why I didn’t talk anymore, why I was so silent. I hadn’t realized I’d stopped talking. The winds of discord in my brain, as I dealt with the darkness of not having known myself before coming out, were so loud that I did not hear the silence. Thank heavens, Ann got me talking again. And noticing silence as a gift again.

In teaching, my colleagues and I sometimes organized an activity I called “Board Talk,” a variation of the Coalition of Essential School’s protocol “Chalk Talk.” At the beginning of the year, my 75 juniors could participate silently by writing on white boards for maybe ten minutes. By the end of the year, they could sustain the silence for 90 minutes. This unusual way of being together, in thoughtful and quiet reflection, was a favorite time for me.

Once my students embraced the quiet, they celebrated being together in this way. And this silence wasn’t just a gift that my suburban advanced students enjoyed. When I moved to urban schools with high levels of poverty and violence, my freshmen participated thoughtfully in this silence, too. In grad school (different degree) even my adult colleagues seemed to appreciate it.

I have never been one for background noise: I only want the television or the radio to be on if I am focused on them.  Otherwise, I’d prefer silence. When I get my hair cut, I don’t really want to jabber with the person cutting my hair unless we have some real connection (and I always appreciated Ray, who put the scissors down when we talked.) After brain surgery, my head ached when the puppies next door barked or the workmen hammered on a new home nearby. Then, silence was a gift.

Though noise doesn’t generally give me a stabbing headache anymore, I still prefer silence to the onslaught of wave after wave of racket. (That’s what my grandmother called it: “Robert!” she’d yell at my grandfather. “Quit makin’ all that racket!” It always seemed ironic to me that she yelled this.)

Why do I prefer silence to background noise? I want to be present in the moment. I see so many people these days as they walk down the street distracted from their reality: young mothers pushing baby strollers as the mothers talk on their cell phones, ignoring their children; teenagers with their hoods up and heads down, oblivious to traffic as they cross the street; teens with large headphones keeping them incased in a world of their own (because with my disabilities it’s difficult for me to move out of someone’s way when they’re not paying attention, I sometimes have to yell at a person wearing headphones and fingering their smart phone so that the person does not plow into me. “Look up! Look up! Look up!” I yell. I generally see someone’s eyes for a moment as that person sees me and mumbles, “Sorry,” but before the person has passed, the head is back down again.)

I want to say, “Look up!” both physically and metaphysically. “Notice the world, how lovely it is. Be here with me in this moment and in this place.”

It’s funny that in many ways, our birth does not prepare us for silence: I have heard the sonogram of a baby in the womb, and the whooshes there are not quiet. When I am quiet, I hear the noises around me: cars going by, people on the street, a distant siren. It’s this quiet that I love.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, “I love the silence of the church better than any preaching,” resonates with me. I love that silence, too, or the grace of the choir practicing, their sound waves all aligned (that’s such a miracle to me).

Pablo Neruda’s poem “Keeping Quiet” (trans. Alastair Reid) is my favorite on this subject:
And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Yes, please. Silence, do interrupt this sadness. Stay with me and my world while the poet goes. And bless us all.

Friday, October 25, 2013

I Feel a Funeral in my Brain

This morning and last night, I’ve felt a funeral in my brain. Though these headaches are not uncommon since neurosurgery six years ago radiation to my brain three years ago, fortunately they are not typical.
When I was in the hospital after brain surgery six years ago, I had some doozies of a headache, as you might imagine. My doctors and nurses took my pain seriously, thank heavens, and I don’t think the headaches ever got beyond an 8 on a 1-10 scale. (That’s what people in the hospital always want to know… How is your pain on a 1 to 10 scale with 0 being no pain and 10 being excruciating pain? —so it’s really a 0-10 scale, I guess.) I learned that the doctors would intervene at a 7, so that was a key number for me. Anything over a 7 meant, “Please help me.”
When I returned home after almost a month in the hospital, my head rang when the puppies next door yipped and the hammers across the alley pounded. I can’t remember the process over the next couple of years, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t regularly have headaches for a while.
Then the headaches started again, and I was diagnosed with a second brain tumor. When I had a spinal tap to see if any tumor cells were heading down my spine, the needle punctured the lining of my—something—whatever holds in my spinal fluid, and I guess the fluid from the water system in my head drained into my back, and I had an awful headache. This one was my only 10, and I went to the emergency room where they put an IV in my arm and defeated the headache. This was a migraine. If you experience migraines, I have great respect and compassion for you.
When I had radiation for my second tumor, I again developed awful headaches. After a year of these headaches (was it that long?), I started taking a neuro-transmitter blocker each night, and the headaches mostly disappeared. I also learned some exercises that dissipate a headache. I don’t usually have headaches now, but today I do, and I tell you true when I tell you that my vision hurts, and I smell the color blue.
The pain in my brain brings to mind Emily Dickinson’s “I Felt a Funeral, in my brain.” When I was teaching American studies to high school students, I often taught this poem, and I hated the textbook’s interpretation questions with this poem. They led students to believe that this poem was either about a headache or a decent into madness. To me, the headache was too literal for Emily and the descent into madness was a misreading of the poem and a misunderstanding of the proximity of madness to wisdom. This poem, I believed, was about the descent into wisdom, something we more often imagine as an ascent, which is part of what’s interesting. Now that I’ve experienced these headaches and perhaps my own descent into wisdom, I think the poem is about both of those. I still don’t think it’s about madness, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.

The poem begins:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

Yes, I feel (literally) now that a headache is like an internal funeral and the “in my brain” places the event in a particular place in my body, but is parenthetical, not essential, information. It’s true that my head hurts, but really it’s my whole Self that hurts. And “treading—treading”: Yep. That’s what happening in my head: “treading—treading.” Let’s continue with Emily:

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb –

There it is, “beating - beating-” And yes it’s my mind, not my brain, that’s going numb. My brain feels the pain of this internal funeral, but my mind is shutting itself to the pain. Or maybe to anything but the pain. Back to Emily. So far, she’s talking about this headache. (I wonder if she had a brain tumor.) :

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,

Yes, the creaking is across my soul, not just my brain. To borrow from another of Emily’s poems, the creaking is “where the Meanings are-” This eternal part of me aches. And yes, these mourners wear “Boots of Lead”: a heaviness. “Again.” And yes, space begins to toll…perhaps I’m being too literal here, but there’s a high whine in my universe that is perhaps like the toll in hers.

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

Ah. She’s nailing my headache here. I feel as though my head is in a giant bell. I’m standing in the bell with my head just above the clapper, and I don’t just hear the clapper hit the bell: I feel its vibration. That's probably what causes the nausea. All of me is receptive to all of the vibrations of the universe: My being is but an Ear. I make no vibrations myself. I just ring with the universe’s noise.

And I, and Silence, are some strange race. We are alone in this reception of the ringing. This is not the silence of the Christmas hymn “Silent Night.” This is The Silence of the Lambs.

After describing this pain, Emily describes her existential falling into wisdom. The world of her mind changes, and the poem in no longer about her syntotic experience of an internal dying:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then –

So is the grad school student who must have written the textbook right? Is the poet describing going mad? No, I don’t think so, though perhaps madness is one of the Worlds she hits as she plunges. How do we read that last line? It’s key to where she lands. Is “knowing” a gerund, a verb used as a noun, and did she “Finish” in the state of knowledge, or is “knowing” a participle, a verb used as an adjective, and does knowing describe her as ending with knowledge? The two possibilities contradict each other, and yet each works.

As the poet Walt Whitman noted, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” Every teenager and all of us who remember what we learned about ourselves as teenagers, understands what it means to contain multitudes. Emily’s contradicting herself. So I’d say, it’s both: she ends in the state of knowing and she ends her previous state of knowledge. To move into a new way of knowing, after all, requires the death of the old way of knowing.

And why does she end with “then--”? The dash is key. Then…what? Don’t know. Just “then--” That’s what happens when we go into a new way of knowing. Something indefinable past that space.

And if I’ve moved at all closer to wisdom, this process of moving into wisdom has required the painfulness of a kind of death. Later, I suspect, I will be very wise. Maybe that’s the “then--” Or maybe not.

Maybe or maybe not: That’s the beauty of Emily Dickinson.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Bird Came (Face) Down (on) the Walk

I love the brooks which down their channels fret
Even more than when I tripp'd lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born day
Is lovely yet;
--Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”

Monday morning, I walked to yoga as I often do. I could feel autumn: the air was crisp, and though it wasn't yet raining, there were dark clouds covering most of a blue sky. A block away, I heard Garfield High School's bell ring, indicating that it was time for students to change classes. Then I heard morning announcements: "Good morning, Students!"

           "It's fall and kids are back in classes," I thought. "I don't get to be there anymore." The thought didn't make me feel sad or angry for having left my 26-year career in secondary education because of my brain tumors. I just felt reflective as I noticed time passing.

           I wound my way through the neighborhood streets, choosing the route that I always take because on my route the sidewalks are least broken and the crossings least likely to have cars racing through: a carefulness in choosing my routes that helps me remain upright as I struggle with balance and walk with a cane. As I crossed onto the sidewalk that would lead me to the bus stop and then on to yoga, I saw on odd sight on the left edge of the sidewalk: a small brown bird, maybe a wren as it had a long tail feather, had died and looked whole and unwounded. It tilted forward on its neck, its beak parallel to the ground and its little feet in the air, its tail raised like a flag. It looked like it had fallen forward. It didn't look uncomfortable in this pose, only unnatural.
            I thought, ironically perhaps, of Emily Dickenson’s poem “A Bird Came Down the Walk”, in which the bird’s liveliness amuses the poet and me:
A Bird came the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow raw….

           I paused to wonder how my bird might have died: I saw neither feathers ruffled nor wounds, so "No trauma," I thought. “That’s good.” I've heard that birds are anxious and have exceptionally fast heartbeats, so maybe its little heart had an attack. Or maybe it was just old. (It didn’t have grey feathers, but I don't know what birds look like as they age), and it took life's natural course and died as the fall chill settled in, harbinger of winter days to come. 
I walked on. What more was there to do? This little bird had lived its life—for better or for worse, I have no idea. I guessed this death was natural and gentle, but I couldn’t have done anything now even if it weren’t. So on I went, and began to think again about my own death, as I have many times since my first brain tumor, six years ago.
The first death I experienced was my grandfather’s death when I was three years old. I remember my grandfather, a man who I’ve heard described as an “angel on earth” and “a gentle soul.” I don’t remember his death, but Mom says that she took me to the grave after the burial and tried to explain that Granddaddy was in the ground. She says that I looked confused and upset and kept pointing to the sky and then looking back at the grave.
I am dying. Everyone is, but perhaps those of us who have experienced serious disease—and those who have loved us and witnessed our fragility (and thus their own)—are more aware of our passing days than those who have not glimpsed "the immortal footman hold our coats" (as T.S. Eliot's Prufrock describes his own intimations of mortality).
I am not afraid of death. Though I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, it was a church focused on social justice in the here now. I don’t remember hearing about death in church, except when, as a teenager, a boy a year my senior committed suicide. I don’t even remember hearing about heaven or hell, except as places humans created on earth. I've never been a hell-fire and brimstone person. In fact, the concept of immortal and brutal punishment seems unfathomable to me. I believe in a loving God, and hell just doesn't make sense to me: not for punishment or disbelief or anything. I can see that some people live awfully hard times on this earth: traumatized by the cruelties of war or torture, poverty or addiction, existential or physical pain, but when I have met people who have lived what seemed to me a hell on earth, I have been surprised to learn that they have joy, too: they laugh and love and see the sun. Hell doesn't make sense to me, and it doesn't scare me.
I don't know what Death is. Not really. I don't know what God is either. "Death" and "God" are just words for things that I perceive vaguely. (The poet Rumi said that we should not confuse a finger pointing at the moon with the moon, which I think means that we should not confuse a word, which is a symbol, with its essence. I think Rumi's right.)
Who or what is God? I don't know. It does seem to me that there is a Great Spirit, for want of a better word…or maybe Energy is a better word…or Grace. I suspect that "God" and "Allah" and "Yahweh" and "Om" and so forth are all words pointing to the same essence, something like the American Transcendentalists' notion of the "Over-Soul." (Oh there's another word: Soul), which Ralph Waldo Emerson called, “that great nature in which we rest…that common heart…the wise silence; the universal beauty; the eternal ONE.” For Emerson and for me, “In sickness, in languor, [it] give[s] us a strain of poetry, or a profound sentence, and we are refreshed….The soul is the perceiver and the revealer of truth.”
            This God, this Over-Soul, neither punishes nor rewards. This God simply is. Life simply is. And so Death is, too. For the Transcendentalists and for me, our bodies die and return to the earth: “dust to dust” as the old Anglican burial service has it. Our spirits remain with the Great Spirit. I don’t really know what that means, but I believe that it is so. Perhaps, as the American Romantic poet Walt Whitman writes, “Death is different than anyone supposed—and luckier.”
            I know I will die, and I am not afraid of Death, but I don’t want to die: not now and maybe I won’t ever want to die. I love my life. When I prepared for neurosurgery, I did not want to die, but I did not fear Death. I did not even fear pain. After surgery, when I hallucinated that I was in the crematorium, I was not upset, only frustrated because the hospital was so inept. (My surgeon was upset and reduced my steroids.)
I did not fear my death, but I feared losing my Self, my personality. I must admit that I am attached to my Self. This amuses me because I know that I’m happiest when I’m so absorbed in something or someone that I forget my Self and time and place. Perhaps these moments when I lose my Self will be like my death. Perhaps my body will be a clod, and my soul will return to the Light. Perhaps my soul won’t experience emotions, neither joy nor sadness, and perhaps my Soul will experience neither love nor hate. Perhaps my Soul will not even be mine. Perhaps then, my Soul will just be.