Friday, September 18, 2015

The Canopy of Conversation

When we are small, a canopy of conversation spreads above our heads. Before we can speak it is a part of our environment, like the trees rustling in the forest when we walk. The texture of voices and the emotion they contain inform our sensibilities long before we begin to decipher that other layer of language, that which we impose upon words and call meaning. But there is another sense in which language has meaning, apart from even the words themselves, and this other form of meaning teaches us just as much. Sometimes words obscure those other meanings and become like clouds covering over that sky spread above us.

As we grow taller, we begin to poke our noses into that canopy, begin trying the words in our own mouths: we engage. And after adulthood we have so few new occasions to experience that sensation again, of finding a new world of language. I think that is why I enjoy the ladies' locker room at the gym so much. I go midday, to change before I go on a run outdoors on my lunch break, most days of the week. At that hour, I am by far the youngest person there, in my mid-30s. Everyone else is 70 at least, and they come every day in large groups to take fitness classes in the pool. They all know each other and the place is filled with mirth. (In fact, just the other day one of the women forgot her underwear so a whole group of the ladies decided to go commando with her!)

But mostly what I overhear is conversations about visiting their grown children in other states and trying not to impose; who they hired to do their yard work; things their doctors told them. One woman brought in a quilt she had made to show her friends one day. There's a rich social environment there that I want to be a part of-- not now, but some day. I want to be the kind of person who behaves that way when I'm 80-- someone who's still meaningfully connected and engaged, thoughtful and open. I guess I am at least in the right place.

I have the feeling, when I am around them, of being a child again in a grown up world that I am not yet ready to access or even to fully understand, but one that I hope to gain the language for one day. It's a precious thing, at 36, to be able to feel that way. It reminds me of running around extended family members' houses on holidays playing games with other children while the grown ups cooked the meal-- feeling carefree and surrounded by the ones who are carrying the real weight of existence, because they are a head taller than I am, rustling above me, forming the shape of the larger world around me. One day I hope to be one of the few left looking out above the forest canopy and still shaking my leaves with laughter while the children run around my feet.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Do Not Grudge Her

Do not grudge a woman her quiet imitation of a flower,
Though you may say it's only a daisy, and how obviously
She's tripping over metaphors.

Maybe she never knew how to open her face like that
And honor the sun with her simplicity,
Without holding a thousand small intentions in reserve.

And maybe she's never known the art of holding her own space
Without her silence turning into acquiescence,
Trusting the slender stalk of her being

To waft her fragrance out across the field grasses
She towers over, wondering when the wind
Will come to stir her essence up

With others now that she has learned how to be still,
To bend and open.
Do not grudge her all the beauty of her silence.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Passive Awareness

While most of our daily endeavors require our direct attention, and preferably concentration, there are certain activities for which it's beneficial for our attention to be directed elsewhere. Like safely viewing an eclipse, it's better to look at them indirectly. Take, for example, the placebo effect. If we know that medication we are taking may be just be a placebo, it is best not to think too much about that possibility because doing so will undermine its effectiveness. Yet I have found, much to my surprise, that holding such knowledge in passive awareness is not detrimental.

I experience this on a regular basis when I take Melatonin pills to help me sleep at night. I take them and immediately, when my head hits the pillow, I go to sleep. I know that it's not possible for the pills to work that quickly-- it has to take at least 20 minutes for the hormone to be absorbed into my bloodstream. Yet it works. And oddly, my knowing that it is just a placebo effect and acknowledging that fact to myself somehow does not undermine it. I suppose if I were to dwell on it, it would. But I hold that knowledge instead in a sort of passive awareness, a knowledge held in check, given a nod and passed over without too much deliberation. I think this type of awareness can be useful in other arenas as well.

One arena that is directly related to my Melatonin example is the process of falling asleep itself. There come these moments every night when I am aware that my mind is slipping off into a sort of dreamlike consciousness. Thoughts will begin to occur in nonsensical patterns, with images and feelings and words falling out of joint into new relationships with each other. I know in those moments that I am in the process of falling asleep and soon will be slipping away from my own consciousness. I used to think that if I were to acknowledge to myself that I was falling asleep in those moments, it would break the spell and I would rouse myself back to full wakefulness, but again, to my surprise, that doesn't happen if I hold my knowledge of my impending sleep state in a sort of passive awareness, where I give it a silent nod and then don't deliberate on it.

It strikes me that this same sort of passive awareness is useful in all kinds of activities where we are pushing our minds to do something; recognize that we could undermine our own mental process; and need to step out of our own way. This applies to coming up with a solution to a complex problem, a situation in which often, after conscious weighing of pros and cons, need to "sleep on it," to let the unsolved problem lie dormant in our subconscious mind and not pick it up again until sleep has done its work of sorting the issue out in our minds. Often we wake up with a clear answer, or a clearer one when we have let our minds do this work away from our direct gaze. It's often tempting to pick these problems back up for conscious deliberation (often in the middle of the night), but doing so will only hinder the work our minds must do without our interference. In those cases it's best to give the silent nod to the existence of the problem, and then turn away again from direct deliberation so that we do not interfere.