Sunday, August 30, 2015

The great gift of being alive

Sometimes I recognize myself in those hardy souls who board watercraft at the beach, because like them, I feel the need for speed.

When I was a young girl, I raced my bike down the steep hill where we lived, and in the wintertime, sled with equal velocity.
I remember the first time I flew on a plane and the adrenaline rush I felt when I hurled through space and ascended into the heavens. “Houston, we have ignition.”

After driving sensible, nondescript, used cars for most of my life, I bought a new blue Crossfire, a sports car with a powerful German engine. My friends and colleagues were amazed with my choice of a muscle car. I told them simply that this was the real me.

While I never break the sound barrier or the posted speed limit, I have no reservations about accelerating from zero to sixty in a heartbeat, then clicking on cruise control. I also enjoy hugging the curves in the road.

Consequently, I identify with my counterparts at Fogland who crave recreational life in the fast lane. They crank up their outboard motors and careen over open waters with a look of sheer delight on their faces. They fly like the wind into the wild blue yonder, hanging onto their sailboats and catamarans for dear life. They windsurf at breakneck speed.

While walking toward the salt marsh, I watched two men in wet suits approach the cove on their jet ski. Carrying equipment to shore, they prepared the chute for parasail waterskiing.

Returning to their jet ski, they sped to the center of the bay, pulling the airborne balloon behind them.

Then, one of the adventurers drove while the other waterskied. Back and forth they zigzagged across the Sakonnet River with the chute mapping their coordinates.

My heart was racing along with theirs.

Sitting on a stone at the shore, I also noticed a herring gull hovering overhead. New England’s most common seagull, the white bird with its silver back and wings floated gracefully, buoyed by its four-feet-ten-inch wingspan, then suddenly it dived headlong through the air and into the water.

It got me thinking.

While I spend time in prayer and meditation barely moving a muscle, I have an alter ego that yearns to propel me out of my comfort zone.  And when I acknowledge it, I feel the heart-pumping excitement of the great gift of being alive.

I like the phrase “contemplative in action.” The Rev. James Martin writes in “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” that St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, counseled his followers that they were always to carve out time for prayer but were expected to live active lives as well.

“Most of us lead busy lives with little time for prayer and meditation. But by being aware of the world around us – in the midst of our activity – we can allow a contemplative stance to inform our actions,” writes Father Martin. “Instead of seeing the spiritual life as one that can exist only if it is enclosed by the walls of a monastery, Ignatius asks you to see the world as your monastery.”

The way to jump-start that awareness is to seek God in all things, even when you’re travelling at hyper speed.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The sounds of silence

This week I did the unthinkable. I unplugged from technology for five days.

During my last vacation, I found myself answering emails, making calls, looking for story ideas, scheduling appointments and writing. I knew that the only way to distance myself from my work would be to disconnect altogether. This vacation would be different.

My laptop lay lifeless on my desk, a shiny, black, unopened box, along with the cell phone silenced nearby.

With no email, Google, Facebook, Twitter and text messages at my fingertips, I literally dropped off the planet. I was unreachable.

Unable to respond to the stream of summons that sought me every minute of the day, I discovered a new kind of freedom.

“The noise of the world is preventing us from hearing the gentle voice within that always counsels us,” writes Matthew Kelly in “The Rhythm of Life.” “We will begin to hear this voice again only when we make a habit of withdrawing from the noise of the world and immersing ourselves in silence.”

The first thing I noticed was the absence of the sound of my own voice. There was no need to carry on ordinary conversation or to respond to something I didn’t want to think about.

Consequently, my thoughts turned inward; and my senses sharpened. I marveled at the sound of my own breath, the beat of my own heart.

One of my favorite biblical passages is when God told the prophet Elijah to go outside and stand on the mountain because He would be passing by. (1 Kings 19:11-12):

“A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord – but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire – but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a still small voice.”

Like Elijah, I listen, longing to recognize the presence of the Divine.

With a heightened sense of awareness, I walked the seashore. The wind urged me forward over the uneven, rounded stones that littered the beach at high tide, insisting that it had something to show me.

For a long time, I sat on a boulder and listened to the gentle lapping of the blue-grey sea as it rhythmically raked over the pebbles.

But the Lord was not in the waves.

I meandered through the salt marsh straining to hear the whisper of the sea grass yielding to the wind.

But the Lord was not in the breeze.

Outboard engines groaned in the bay, and a small plane puttered overhead.

But the Lord was not in the din.

A fisherman cast his line into the water, and the spinning reel whirred.

But the Lord was not in the cranking sound.

Trudging through the wet sand, I heard the crunch of broken shells underfoot.

But the Lord was not in the tinkling patter.

The cries of crows and gulls continued to interrupt my thoughts, and I grew tired of their squawking.

“Lord, where are you?” I asked in my silent prayer.

“Plug in,” said a still small voice.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Along came a spider...

Beach roses grow along the seashore near our summer house.

Sometimes I can time travel.

Whenever I sit under my favorite tree at the summer place, I am a child again.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time here, mostly reading, thinking and dreaming.

Consequently, I still yearn for solitude on weekend mornings, when I can give my imagination free rein.

So today when I pulled up a chair under that tree, I let my mind wander, expecting to revisit happy summer days. But instead of conjuring up fanciful things, I am fixated on the ugly wound just over my ankle on the inside of my left leg.

I love nature, and I write about God's handiwork in all its manifestations. I even have a healthy respect for insects. Whenever I find a bug inside my house or at work in my office, I carry it outside and give it a second chance.

Lately I have been rescuing lots of gypsy moths. My kids joke that I brake for ants.

A musician, I have performed with a 30-piece concert band for most of my adult life; and a month ago we played in an open grassy field at a beautiful complex.

It was the perfect venue: the sun was shining, a slight breeze blowing and an appreciative audience clapping.

However, midway through one piece, I felt something bite me near my ankle. I am a professional and kept right on playing, even though I am sure I winced.

When the number was over, I quickly changed music and continued with the performance like nothing happened. Frankly, I chalked it up to just another mosquito bite.

Fast forward a day later in the middle of night. I felt feverish, and the two puncture wounds burned and itched. All day I tried to put the sensation out of my mind, but my leg began to swell and the skin was red and on fire.

By the next morning the wound was gigantic and filled with fluid. I took a photo and texted it to my daughter, an eye doctor.

“U need to go to urgent care… that is severe inflammation,” she texted back. “U don’t want that stuff to get into ur body… People get paralyzed from spider venom.”


At urgent care, the doctor did a double take. He said the spider bite was rare and took out a syringe, draining the fluid and sending it to the lab to be tested for black widow and brown recluse.

I went home with a huge bandage wrapped around my leg; instructions for treating cellulitis, an infection of the skin and tissue beneath it; a healthy dose of antibiotic; and a warning to report to the Emergency Room if the conditioned worsened.

A week later I returned to my primary care doctor for a follow-up. “It will take months to heal,” she said.

So today I praise God for the warm sunshine, the gentle lapping of the waves in the distance, the seagulls circling overhead and the birds nesting in nearby branches – but not for the spider.