Sunday, February 17, 2008

First Aid and Instinct

I was reading about water bears the other day. They are microscopic creatures that look like tiny little bears with eight legs; their scientific name, tardigrada, means "slow mover." They can live for up to 50 years and at temperatures as low as -400 degrees Fahrenheit. If the water in which they live dries up, they go into a state of hibernation called cryptobiosis, "hidden life."

It was hard not to make a comparison between the water bears and people. They have eight legs, but move slowly. We have two legs and, most of the time, move too swiftly for our spirits to keep up. We generally live longer, but our range of liveable temperatures is so small that we find it necessary to destroy much of the natural environment to produce fuel for the heating and
cooling of our buildings.

The only thing, it appeared from my reading, that we large mammals with the abilities to reason and elaborately verbally communicate have in common with the invisible water bears is that hidden life.

Call it hibernation or cryptobiosis or privacy, the reality is that when our water dries up, when the environment in which we have thrived is suddenly and irrevocably changed, it is the nature of men and women to shut down, close up shop, board up the windows and make sure that those around us see the sign on the door that says, in big block letters, "Do not disturb!"

When I was in Girl Scouts part of what we had to learn to earn the First Aid badge was how to treat shock. To be honest, I don't remember much beyond the elevated feet and warm blanket parts. Gratefully, I never had to use that knowledge, but it bothers me a little that the instruction was limited to responding to physical shock.

No one, not the Girl Scouts or my Sunday School teachers or youth group leaders or, later, my psychology professors offered any instruction at all on how to address emotional shock, the feeling of numbness that engulfs you when the world cracks and dissolves into a million tiny shards of glass. The petrification of all thought, the inability to make even the smallest decision.

The truth is that there is no stop-drop-and-roll prescription for that kind of catastrophe. No acronym to remind you of the steps to take to make everything right again. No instructions that, if followed, guarantee a return to normalcy.

Like the water bears, we humans react without thought, with only instinct: We draw ourselves in and wait.

When the water bears are in the dormant state, they are as light as dust particles and a breeze can pick them up, toss them around and deposit them somewhere else. No resistance, no questioning. Yielded to the wind, sailing through the sky, eventually landing in a new place, a place where the water puddles or streams or falls from the clouds in syrupy drops. A place where the hidden life ends and the real life resumes.

Last week as I stood at the altar and received the ashes on my forehead, I was struck, as always, by the fragility of life. We are so vulnerable. Naked we come into the world, naked we leave and, in between, if we are to experience anything of love or joy or contentment, we must remain naked, exposed to the elements, exposed to each other.

There is always the chance that the water will dry up. Drought. Evaporation. The thirst of a passing dog. But when it does, when the unbidden and unwanted change occurs, it is good to remember the water bear who allows himself to become still and quiet and light as air.

It is good to remember that a breath of wind is coming. It will lift you off the dry and empty ground and drop you gently in a pool of water where the hidden life will thaw, where the boards will come off the windows and where the sunshine can trickle in.

Copyright 2008

Monday, February 04, 2008

Second Chances

Already the days are getting longer. The darkest days of winter are past and the sun is lingering on the horizon like a lover saying a reluctant good-bye.

Yesterday afternoon I got home a little early. After reading the mail and starting a load of laundry, I took my book out to the front porch to absorb the tender luminance of sunset. I read the words, turned the pages, but my thoughts were divided – half of them inside the story, half of them dwelling on the telephone call that had come, a few hours earlier, so unexpectedly.

"Are you by yourself?" Mama had asked in a voice that was clearly struggling against the rise of tears in her throat.

From down the hall came the voices of my co-workers and the high-pitched drone of machines. Telephones were ringing, printers were humming like helicopters about to take off. The sounds of busyness. The sounds of distraction. The sounds of an ordinary day.

Sounds that, with the question mark in my mother's voice, went silent. It was as though the mute button on some previously unknown remote control had been pressed by the finger of God.

The news, of course, was not good. Our dear family friend, a man who grew up with Daddy and whose children grew up with me and Keith, had died. Suddenly. He and his wife had been trying for years to get Mama and Daddy to visit them in Florida. Had teased, cajoled, bribed. Had even pulled me into the fray by getting me to promise to drive them.

But it hadn't happened. The last time we'd tried was in October, but corn had to be cut and a weather change was on the way and when the time came to go, I went by myself.

"Why," Mama had whimpered, "do we put things off?"

I watched the angle of the sun's light change, the shadows across the porch grow sharper. The rocking chair, arcing back in response to my push, forward in response to my letting go, eased my anxious heart into a gentle rhythm. The rush of feelings that had pounded me like the rising tide died down as the flow began its unavoidable and imperceptible turn.

Why do we put things off? Why do we, as Stephen Covey puts it, elevate the urgent over the important?

Regret may well be the most painful of emotions because it is self-inflicted. Grief and anger, joy and excitement, they all spring from points outside the self; regret has only one source. And because we expect more from ourselves than we would ever expect from anyone else, we refuse the only cure, medicine that we easily spoon out to others – a teaspoon of forgiveness, a dose of second chance.

This is what I remember about Mr. John – that he always called Daddy "Cuz," that he never seemed to mind when we played touch football in the front yard and he got all the girls on his team and that he loved to tell stories, a characteristic that on its own was enough to make me love him.

And I remember that the last time I was with him he told me how proud he was of me, something you never get too old to hear.

I have tried to live my life without regret. I've not been completely successful. Fortunately, the people I have failed still love me and because of that I get the opportunity every day to show them how grateful I am for the second chance.

That, as much as the love itself, may well be the greatest gift of all.

Copyright 2008