Being There

It’s Tuesday evening. I’m at home. Ana is over at the nursing home, being with Sylvia, her mom, who is in her last days. If you’ve followed this blog for a while you might remember Sylvia. I wrote about an experience she shared with me once here, and again when she first went into the hospital, more than four years ago, here. Over the past four years we have had hours of conversation, shared dozens and dozens of books (Sylvia is a ravenous reader), and she and Ana have unpacked entire luggage stores’ worth of suitcases stuffed to overflowing with memories and reminiscences. But the time for reading books has turned its last page, and the energy for conversation has dimmed. What Sylvia needs right now is not someone to sit and talk to her, but someone simply to sit by her bed, hold her hand, and be fully present. In her twenties Ana was a professional dancer who performed internationally with a dance company. Dancing came easy to her, but counting did not. According to her, she had a really tough time keeping the math running on those beats. Fortunately for her, she was able to compensate for what could have been a fatal handicap: while she may have been weak at counting the steps as she danced, she was strong at being present to the rhythm of the music—and in dance, the movement is only as powerful as its relationship to the music. It’s not about count, but about flow. It’s about being present with the movement of the dance. This is what she’s doing right now....

A Choice of Perspective

Positive perspective is less an inborn trait than it is a skill. Like any skill, it can be learned, practiced, and mastered. And it’s not something that requires you to go up on a mountaintop or into a deep retreat and struggle with it for weeks or months before you emerge a transformed person. It’s something you develop in small bites, every day. Something you build, like a muscle, by exercising it moderately and consistently. How? By the choices you make in how you see the everyday events around you. “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them. It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” So said the Greek philosopher Epictetus. So, what views do you take? What reactions to you have? That’s what positive perspective is: a choice. Or more accurately: a long series of little tiny choices. Late in life my father traveled to Omaha to attend a music conference, where he not only gave lectures on Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew but also conducted a performance of this magnificent masterwork. At the time, this was a rare thing for him. He had been an active conductor for many decades in his earlier years. Now in his seventies, he worked almost exclusively as a scholar and teacher, and he seldom performed. It was a glorious trip, and he returned home flush with triumph from his week of being revered as the grand old master of Bach. He was, however, soon returned to earth, when my mother, her trademark wry wit tweaked by some...

Perspective Changes Everything

A knock came on my front door at a few minutes after eleven o’clock at night. My son and I were watching television together in the living room, sitting not ten steps from the door. I got up, padded over, and opened it. A very big guy, mid-twenties, loomed on my front step. “I need your car keys, man,” he said, in a tone both apologetic and firm. This was fifteen years ago. In the years leading up to this moment I had made a great deal of money, then lost it. (“The first million,” my friend Scott observed philosophically, “is to blow.” Apparently.) At the time I was freshly post-divorce, living in a small apartment, and struggling financially. And doing even worse than I thought, because here was a repo man standing at my door, about to take away my Lexus. And now the $64,000 question: what is the most effective way to deal with a situation such as this? Here’s what I did. The next day I called the Lexus financing company, in full fury. They had not given me warning, I told the operator, simmering rage barely in check. Yes, they’d sent me overdue notices, but none had specifically informed me that I was on the verge of repossession. She pointed out that they’d tried calling me. Numerous times. “But you never left a message!” I shot back. What was I was thinking? That my unassailable logic would cause the company to suddenly change its mind and give me back my car? That righteous indignation would prevail? In any case, that didn’t happen. The call did...

Let It Snow

My decision, at the age of 17, to leave the established school system and join with some friends to start our own high school was inspired in part by my sophomore-year high school English teacher, Mr. Gimbel. Inspired, though not in a good way. One cold gray November day, we were all bent over our desks, quietly studying a chapter on poetry. Mr. Gimbel was bent over his own desk likewise. (Perhaps he was grading papers, or preparing a grocery list.) The kid seated next to me nudged me, then without a word nodded toward the window. I looked up. It was snowing: big, fat, luscious flakes. The first snow of the season. We both stared in awe at its silent beauty. Another kid, sensing the shift in our attention, looked up as well, following the direction of our gaze. Soon half the class was looking out onto the world, transfixed by the glorious spectacle of crystallized water vapor pouring over the planet’s surface in eternally non-repeating manifestation. It was as if heaven itself had chosen this moment to sprout a chorus of ethereal dandelions, blanketing the earth with its milky-white seed heads. Suddenly Mr. Gimbel glanced up and realized we were all staring out the window. Leaping to his feet he shouted, “Hey, stop looking at that snow and get back to your poetry!” It was the single funniest thing I heard during all that year. It was also the moment I thought, “We need a new high school.” We went on to build that school, and it was a great success. We studied history, writing, dance, music,...

A Walk to Remember

Did you know you have a seahorse in your head? You do. It’s a delicate little thing, and it’s important to feed it — because it helps you remember who you are and what you’re doing here. It bears a fancy name: hippocampus, which is simply the Greek word for “seahorse.” Of course, it isn’t actually a seahorse at all, it’s a tiny neural organ nestled deep within the rich fatty tissues of your brain. But it’s fitting that it so closely resembles an ocean creature from prehistoric days, because it plays a crucial role in sorting through the ocean of data and information swimming through our brains and gathering them into concrete memories. As I said, it’s is a delicate little thing, and easily affected by stress. Combat veterans, victims of violence, and others who suffer with post-traumatic stress syndrome often show diminished hippocampus size. The greater the trauma, the greater the shrinkage. It is also one of the first regions of the brain to show signs of deterioration in people with Alzheimer’s. Even healthy people typically begin to exhibit atrophy of the hippocampus with age, starting about 55 to 60. (In otherwise healthy people the shrinkage is roughly 15 percent; in Alzheimer’s patients, up to 50 percent.) Happily there is a great exercise you can do for your memory-horse that has been proven to help it grow big and strong. You can take it for a walk. Three years ago researchers at the University of Pittsburgh studied 120 healthy but sedentary men and women, averaging sixty years of age, randomly assigned to two exercise groups. One group...
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