Share the Music

My mom and I went to hear Itzhak Perlman play this week. In other words, the best violinist in the world played music for us this week—exquisite, rich, transcendent music. He gave us an astonishing gift by doing what he loves to do.

How remarkable that music is designed to be shared. No one practices an instrument with the goal of sitting in her room and listening to herself. Musicians play hours of scales and arpeggios so that they can perform, so that we can hear each perfectly formed note. They do all this work with the express intent of giving away what they create.

And they’re not the only ones. People don’t make scientific discoveries and keep them secret or develop medicine to heal only themselves. They don’t build buildings that no one else can enter.

My ego, on the other hand, operates in direct opposition to these examples. It has a single message, which it trumpeted loudly this week: I, or more exactly it, am the only one that matters. It’s much too smart to say this directly. It has learned the art of subtlety. It says that other people get everything they want and I don’t—during the same week I heard the best violinist in the world!—or it’s too hard to be loving and generous or I’m messing everything up.

At the concert, Perlman was joined by pianist Rohan De Silva. During the opening movement of the first piece, I thought the piano was too loud because I sometimes couldn’t hear the violin that well, but part way through, I realized that one has to listen to the two instruments together. The music is written for both of them—sometimes the violin is the main character, and sometimes it plays a supporting role. As I listened to the interplay, the relationship between the two strands of notes, a new and more beautiful whole emerged.

My ego doesn’t recognize that there’s a symphony going on in this life. It believes it can create security and control for itself, but there’s no music in that approach. Existence is shared.

I think composers must hear all the instruments supporting and taking off from one another as they write music. Symphonies must arrive as a package deal. And so do we.

Coming and Going

A friend recently texted a group of us a photo of her delightful new grandson not long after his birth. The previous text to this particular group communicated a moment of caring for her dying father.

Seeing this entering and leaving the world in such close proximity brought home to me how natural both stages are. We are not designed to stick around.

I once heard about an indigenous people—I don’t recall where they live—who instead of considering death the opposite of life considers it the opposite of birth. We arrive on this planet, spend some time here, and depart. We come into being, we exist, and we cease to be.

Richard Rohr says, “Your life is not about you. You are about life.” We participate in this cosmic evolution, this ongoing creation, but we are not the point. Perhaps getting this backward makes us reticent to even think about our own ending.

Of course the idea of not existing is terrifying because all we have consciously known is existence, but if we considered the significance of our existence differently, maybe leaving it would be less scary. We are not so much individual identities walking around as we are parts of a greater whole.

We can see it concretely in the DNA passed on from my friend’s father to his great grandson. In a very real way those genes form them but don’t belong to them. The people are expressions of the genes, which existed before them and will continue after them.

In a similar way, we are each expressions of Spirit. In her book God’s Ecstasy, Beatrice Bruteau likens God to the dancer and creation to the dance. Though a dance can be broken down into individual movements, it’s the relationship between the movements, the flow of movement, the giving way of one movement to the next, that makes it a dance.

Each movement is beautiful and necessary and significant. Without any one movement, the dance is not the same. At the same time, every bend of the knees and arch of the back exists only for the dance.

A dance is ephemeral, and so are we. It’s also beautiful, and so are we—in our being born, in our living, and in our dying.

Solidly Connected

Flying home from Colorado to California last week, I had a window seat over the wing, the perfect spot for observing the man who held the two red, plastic signaling devices aloft and walked backward, giving the pilots directions to back the plane up. It was cold in Denver—the wings needed de-icing—and it occurred to me that this man was willing to stand outside in below freezing temperatures so that I could go “up in the sky,” as the mom in front of me told her daughter.

I thought about all the people it took to make that flight happen: the engineers who designed the plane, the factory workers who assembled it, the mechanics who kept it running, the pilot, the flight attendants, the air traffic controllers, everyone who made the airport run, from the TSA agents to the baggage handlers to the custodians. All of them are willing to do what they do for me.

Granted, they don’t wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “Oh, Rachel’s going to be on this flight. I’m so excited to help her out.” They may or may not think about the people they’re serving at all, but consciously or not, they scan boarding passes and mop floors for me. That’s astonishing.

People kill chickens, wrap them in plastic, and ship them across the country for me. They test toothpaste formulations in laboratories and design packaging for me.

I have a tendency to get abstract about this concept that we are all connected, but it’s as solid as it gets. We do nothing on our own. Every moment of our lives is supported by countless other humans, animals, and plants, all of whose existence relies on the Earth and the sun.

And we’re connected through time, too. If those two brothers in Kitty Hawk hadn’t been fascinated with flight, if this planet had formed farther from this star, if our universe had expanded any faster or slower.

Generosity pervades our lives to a degree our minds cannot hold. All we can do is recognize it and bow.

Giving Light

Every time I looked around yesterday, really looked, joy was present—in the light on the pepper trees, in my home office, in the soccer game at lunch. But surely, at those same moments, many beings on Earth felt far from joyful.

Some family friends, Bella and Henry, were in the concentration camps during World War II. They met and married after the war. I met them for the first time for lunch at Red Robbins when they were in their eighties.

At one point, Henry said, “I couldn’t have imagined all this,” he waved his hand, indicating his entire life, the restaurant, grown children, a career, “when I was in Auschwitz.”

We wait, during this Advent season, for the birth of Light in the darkness, the light that “draws us outward into the world and inward into the depths of our hearts,” as Barb Kollenkark says. It draws us to these places because it is there. We and all creation are the light of the world. We are waiting for our own birth, our awakening to the reality that everything is Christ.

A friend recently reminded me that the only way we can be light in this world is by showing up where we are as who we are. All we can offer is the gift of our own becoming responding with love and joy to the reality in front of us at that moment.

“The world is shot through with poverty,” Jim Finley says. Any person we meet today may need a witness to joy. That doesn’t mean false cheer or telling someone in pain that they’re OK. It means embodying “I couldn’t have imagined all this” while being present to their suffering.

“If we want to be spiritual, then, let us first of all live our lives,” Thomas Merton wrote in Thoughts in Solitude. Our lives will contain darkness and light, and the darkness for some will be incomprehensibly deep. At the same time, “The people in darkness will see a great light.” May we be that light.

Still Life with Jello

I often ask my cat, Tux, questions he must be completely uninterested in, such as, what did I do with my keys? Others he may be tired of hearing, particularly, do you think I’ll ever get there?

“There” of course doesn’t mean to his food bowl; it means to that mythical place where I’ll have everything spiritually figured out. These days I ask it less often as I’m more and more aware that there doesn’t exist, but still, wouldn’t it be nice…

That question and I entered a new phase of our relationship this week. Intellectually I’ve understood for a little while that it’s not a useful question because “there’s no there there,” but in practice, I had just substituted “here” for “there.” Why not? Only one small letter apart.

I’ve been telling myself, if I could get really present, I would experience everything I associate with there—an uninterrupted state of peace, infinite reserves of compassion, an end to resistance, a better attitude toward the existence of jello. So being present came to mean being those ways. It became another there.

But that’s not it at all. There’s nowhere to go, period, and it doesn’t matter whether we get there, not even a tiny bit. On first blush, this sounds like a reason to eat a lot of jello, lime jello. Throw in the mini marshmallows and the pineapple bits. If it’s not getting any better than this, why not?

Considered in another way, though, it means that this moment is sacred, this one, right here, the one in which I am beating myself up or feeling annoyed or have just acted in a way that can’t quite be described as charitable. When the bathroom is dirty, when work isn’t going well, when failure or separation or despair threaten to engulf us.

That’s the miracle and mystery of it all. We are no further from God and God’s love at those times than when we are standing on the podium of life at our most shining and impressive. That’s the reason to be present—because our Life is here, right here.

The Movement of Light

If you’re longing for a “mind blown” moment, consider all the ways we’re moving every nanosecond of our lives. Earth spins around its axis and orbits the sun; the solar system rotates around the center of the Milky Way; the Milky Way travels through space. Our cells move and divide; molecules cross cell membranes; we cannot pinpoint the exact location of the electrons in the atoms that compose us.

Welcome to finitude, where being is a verb. No wonder there are so many coffee shops.

And yet, we constantly grasp for some sort of arrival. We want to locate ourselves on a continuum of achievement or progress, and we think there is a point, always in the future, where we will have enough of whatever we’re striving for, where we will be complete. We want to know we are getting somewhere, but inevitably when we reach that place, the “thereness” fails to satisfy for very long.

We are always works in progress, particles of a greater process that’s pushing fourteen billion years now. The scientific jury is still out on what will happen to the universe, but there’s no question that during this lifetime we will never come to a resting point.

Still, we yearn for peace, so how can we be at peace with the reality of never being at rest? Maybe, as with electrons, we can understand ourselves better if we stop trying to define ourselves as a particular point. Maybe we can think of ourselves as both particle and wave.

Right now, I am this moment’s self, with all my gifts and shortcomings, all I’ve done and all I’ve failed to do, but that’s not the sum of me. Considering my life as a wave, I stretch back to my childhood and forward to the unknowable future, and all of that is inseparable from all the rest of it. As a wave, I am—we all are, our lives all are—movement.

The movement of what? Energy. Light. Each of us embodies a particular frequency, so to speak, but we are all composed of Light.

This Gift We Are Living

Thanksgiving is probably the wisest of our national holidays. President’s Day can’t quite transform our outlook or way of approaching the world the way gratitude does.

Perhaps gratitude sparks such a profound shift because it puts us in touch with the truth that every moment and every molecule of this life are freely and mysteriously given to us. Here are a few of the innumerable things for which my heart breathes a deep thank you:

The repetitive and enduring nature of patience—all the times we choose not to take a mistake too seriously, every time we remember that people are more important than outcomes, each hopeful beginning again, the infinite grounding of the world in Mercy.

The expanse of Reality—the Earth, the sun, the Milky Way traveling through space at 1.3 million miles per hour, the billions of other galaxies shaped like ours, the personal imperfections we will never overcome, our incalculable and inexplicable generosity toward other beings, the presence of God in all of it.

The daily amazements—the cat’s ability to jump onto the countertop, the whir of the hummingbird’s wings, the welcome from the giant sycamore tree near the University Union, the refreshing burst of a good laugh, the reliable supply of food in the grocery store coupled with the economic means to purchase it.

This graced and charged existence we share—this breathing, this intertwining of lives, this shaping one another, this distinct being here amid the myriad possibilities that could have arisen.

The people who bless my life—family, friends, coworkers, writers who died years ago and left their thoughts behind, restaurant servers, my mechanic, you reading this.

Happy Thanksgiving. May we all live in the wonder of this gift of existing.