We stood eye to eye in the slight breeze of a perfectly beautiful day. I felt held in her presence and held her in mine. The sounds of cars on the road and conversations floated in the spacious silence. As much as I could hear everything, my attention was entirely on her eyes as she looked at me intently. I broke the gaze, rounded my arms around her neck and gave her a hug.
Even though she can’t identify me by my name or our shared stories, I still feel seen, remembered and appreciated. So often we self consciously wonder if we have impressed someone with our story, if we have made sense, or been misunderstood. We joke with people, hope to make them laugh, and tell stories. Yet, I have learned that what really matters isn’t the social exchange that happens on the surface, but the level of presence containing the relationship itself.
Earlier in our relationship and in her disease, my friend wanted to grieve the life she was losing, to be sad about her predicament, what would happen to her husband and daughter. All she needed from me was to empathize and to keep her company in her sadness. In between talking, laughing and exercising together, we cried, we hugged, and we sat quietly with one another.
Every week I arrived open, ready to receive her, to live in her story with her, to keep her company in a world that was increasingly lonely. When she sensed that something was wrong in my life, she sat attentive, open and ready to listen. Her warm presence itself comforted me. I knew she likely didn’t understand or remember all I told her. But, she offered me her presence and often that was the perfect comfort. Parker Palmer says, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.”
As my friend has progressed into the later stages of Alzheimer’s, fewer words pass between us, there is more touching, more eye contact, and more mirrored emotions. The other day when I visited, I played a song that I thought she would recognize and remember. I watched her face as she listened. A single tear formed at the corner of her eye and ran down her cheek. My eyes started to water. I have no idea why or how the song triggered the emotion, yet I could give her a hug offering empathy and support.
Krista Tippett writes about her time working as a chaplain in an Alzheimer’s ward, “They taught me the gravity of nonverbal presence- of eye contact and touch. I learned to accept silence, not to fill it with talk, to respect the immensity of what eyes and hands alone could express.”
I too have now learned this lesson about communication and intend to honor my friend, my teacher by practicing it in my life as fully as possible.
Almost five years ago towards the end of a particularly challenging school year where I had stress at work, at home, in relationships and in my return to theater, my body just slowed down. Workouts got harder, I felt like I could barely move most of the time. By the summer, I had weakened to where I had trouble walking, tired very quickly, had mysterious sensations throughout my limbs. It took five weeks to rule out the very scary neurological disorders which left me with what we named at home the “Mommy Mystery.”
During that five week period, I couldn’t imagine anything else it could be, but some neurological degenerative disease. So, I made myself a list of all the things important to me that I still could do. I titled the list Awareness.
Insight (is there a verb form?)
Listen to music
Listen to podcasts
Find challenges within my own ability
Find creative outlets within my abilities
Be grateful and appreciative for what I have and what I can do.
Recently, I had a conversation with someone about my journey with Fibromyalgia and how I have managed to live a full life despite the challenges of the mysterious syndrome. As I listened to myself answering questions and telling my story, I noticed how often I used the word “awareness” and how “awareness” had functioned as my compass as I navigated my journey with Fibro. Cultivating “awareness” of what I could do at each stage of my recovery, awareness of my body, of the pain, the fatigue, the just right amount of challenge and enough resting time has enabled me to build myself back to being a fully functioning person.
Wow. What an amazing tool. How else might I use awareness as a tool for transformation?
Recently, I shared something on FB that prompted a former elementary teacher to comment “Leah… I’m not at all surprised by your dedication, sensitivity and compassion. I observed these same traits from the time you were ten years old.”
Really, those traits showed when I was ten? Why didn’t anyone tell me?
Or did they?
In my early twenties I had such deep yearnings to be an actress, but barely knew how to recognize them or respond to them. I had been a dancer, and that part of me wondered how to become equally alive on stage through words instead of through music. To ease my insecurity, I wanted proof that I was a good actress, that I had talent, and that I could be competent at it.
This is why, when I found myself sharing a subway ride with the leader of an acting intensive that I was doing over the weekend, I had to ask. Did he think I was any good? He answered that acting was 90% communication, and that I was a natural communicator. His answer left me only slightly encouraged. I translated his words to mean: “Eh, maybe you have some potential”
Only in recent years, I have come to really understand how well he perceived my talents and potential and what a gift that was for me.
Just a few weeks ago, I heard from a former principal of the elementary school where I taught in Texas. She commented: “You were, are and will always be the most amazing kindergarten teacher I ever hired and had the joy to get to work with!” I was floored.
How had I come to think the opposite was true? That we had just learned to respect each other nonetheless?
In all these stories, I had been so busy focusing on what was going wrong, listening for what I wanted to hear, and caught in my own narrative, that I couldn’t recognize the acknowledgement or empowerment around me. I totally missed the recognition of my strengths and the positive reflections of how I was showing up in the world.
There is a Star Trek Next Generation episode where Captain Picard is captured by the Borg: an alien group structured like a bee hive with a queen bee and a lot of worker bees. They adopt him into their network of non-specific members. At one point we see the Captain dressed and expressionless like the other Borg, but with a single tear drop on his cheek.
I have watched a friend struggle as a disease takes over her brain, shuffling her neural wiring so that she can’t find words, memories or how to navigate herself in space. Somewhere inside she struggles with this sense of loss. Meanwhile, externally, we see fewer signs of the person she used to be. Watching her disappear is like watching the Borg take over Captain Picard.
A couple of months ago, I sat with my friend in a café over lunch. She leaned forward and talked to me in a hushed voice about how her husband was hurrying her towards death. (I can’t believe I just typed that.)
It made no sense. I listened to the words strung through grammatical logic to sound intelligent. They didn’t actually connect with any reality as I understood it. Her stories were not communications from a healthy cognitive mind inferring and interpreting human experience. Yet, to her, the stories were absolutely real. She, like the rest of us, creates stories to explain and interpret her life experience and environment. But, her life no longer follows the rules of logic, so doesn’t it seem to follow that her stories wouldn’t either?
I listen harder to what was behind the story. What was she feeling? What was she seeking to describe? I realized that she felt death getting nearer. She was fearful of something related to her husband. Fearful from him or fearful for him? Maybe some of both?
The more I listened, the more I realized that she was composing a movie worthy plot, to make meaning of what she could feel and sense through her damaged neural networks. The story details may not have mirrored any version of reality that I could see, but the story served to communicate her feelings and her understanding of her own world.
Only two months later, my friend has declined quickly and dramatically. It seems she really knew some truth that I couldn’t see.
I now understand how and why we tell stories about aliens taking over our loved ones, our cities, our planet. Things out of our control, that might as well have come from outer space, hijack and our lives and redirect them in ways we could not ever have imagine.
What might the stories we tell reveal to us about our best attempts to describe human life and experience?
How much do our own misperceptions or our own cognitive limitations interpreting our world play into the stories we tell?
I was sitting with coffee and my computer at my preferred local Starbucks when a man sitting nearby, wondered how could I see what I was doing on my small electronic screen. This began a conversation about eyesight and the bullet created eye injury he incurred while serving in Afganistan.
For fifteen minutes or so, I listened to this man talk about his life as a policeman, and his service in the military as a Navy SEAL. He described being under fire, and how he has been trained to spot threats. As he explained that anyone could walk into the Starbucks and threaten our safety, I noticed that he was conveniently seated so that he could observe all three entrances.
Having trained so hard and so effectively, he now saw the possibility of threat everywhere and was always on alert.
We all feel threatened by something in the world: ridicule, criticism, embarrassment, failure heartbreak, etc. We keep a watch for potential threats and prepare ourselves to face them.
If we can use this strategy so effectively as a means to keep ourselves safe, imagine what else this strategy could do for us in life!!
What would happen if instead of noticing what we fear in our lives, we noticed what we want to have in our lives?
What might change if we took time to notice and remember the moments around us that acknowledge, affirm and encourage our life’s purpose?
A number of years ago, at a particularly low point in my life, I started writing down the most meaningful moment of my day. As I trained myself to notice what was meaningful to me in my life, I started noticing more of these moments appear.
Over time, I took bigger risks with people as I knew it was connections with others that sparked those meaningful moments for me.
Years later, I have rich, deep relationships that I treasure, and a life focused on what is most meaningful to me.
What is your vision? What will you notice?
If you start by noticing every little piece of experience, however tiny, that is what you want, you will find that your vision of what exists in the world will change.
Contact me for a complimentary coaching session to get started!