close enough to see you sweat

objects appear differently in close proximity than they do when they are gazed at from afar.

the first time i was given the opportunity to watch a professional ballet company rehearse, i sat in the studio in awe. with no stage/audience separation and only the rehearsal piano as accompaniment, i was shocked at how loud and “clunky” toe shoes sound against a wood floor. the feats which had seemed effortless from far away took on a different look and feel when i heard the loud “clomp” of toe shoe hitting ground. the sweat soaking through the the dancer’s warm ups belied the effort with which they danced and their deep breaths were audible upon exertion. similarly, i recently attended a small studio concert of a favorite local band. i had never before heard (or even noticed) the hollow and audible breaths the cello players took as they gave themselves to the songs they played. within this tiny shared space these “from the deepest place within the player” inhales and exhales were reminiscent of those of the best yoga teachers who make their breathing audible to model for their students. while at first i was distracted, as i sat taking it in, the breath became a beautiful part of the playing and i felt sad when it was missing in the recording i listened to on the way home.

closeness gives the gift of authenticity. the closer i allow you to be to me the more you know about my internal values and external traits. authenticity means letting you experience the less than perfect parts of me. it doesn’t allow me to appear as though i dance through life making only light landings or that i don’t show signs of exertion when i try hard at things. when you’re close you see me sweat. or say stupid (or inaccurate) things.  

this is, of course, too simplistic. authenticity can be lived out even when space separates the viewer and the viewed. the hearer and the heard. and so on. closeness, however, has a way of forcing the issue of what is actual. when i keep you at a distance, i feel as though i have so much greater control of that which you see. when we communicate only via channels that allow me to maintain distance i can pick and choose what i reveal. when i merely “update” you instead of sharing time and space with you, i have the luxury of things seeming the way i’d like them to seem. i can edit and place emphasis on that which i would like you to notice.

no one is more guilty of this than me. i share in a seemingly basic and automatic human drive to put one’s best foot forward. the world of social networks, of texting over talking, and of having access to a world of information and entertainment 24 hours a day has only made this drive a more viable opportunity. if we are lonely there’s little need to “expose” this to others when we can simply numb ourselves with a constant flow of youtube clips and netflix queues. when we feel insecure we can torture ourselves by trolling everyone else’s perfect lives on facebook, reinforcing our tendency to keep making space, or amass “positive feedback” by sharing an easily likable status update. when we’re angry at being let down, a text can communicate so much more “cleanly” than our voices ever could.

and yet...what are we missing out on?

in the recording studio the band can “quiet down,” or eliminate all together, the breath of the musicians and the sounds that distract from the desired impact of the recording. the seeming effortlessness of a professional ballet performance is aided by the distance between the dancers and their audience and grand musical scores which drown out the sounds of heaving and landing and breathing like an athlete.

do we really desire a relational landscape where these “edits” and altered realities are all we know of others or allow others to know of us? sure, no one “deserves” access to your internal world without having earned it. too-much-too-soon vulnerability is rarely a good idea. boundaries are important for a reason and we all need some moments of seemingly flawless spectacle to entertain us now and again. even still, i respect ballet dancers so much more since i’ve seen the state of their feet, heard the weight of their leaps land abruptly on hard ground, and seen the strain of exertion that lies only barely behind their pleasant expressions. i listen with greater interest to the music made by cellists now that i have witnessed, up close, the embodied-ness with which they play. i am grateful for these opportunities to understand more fully the reality that goes into the gifts these artists give us.

i am similarly grateful to those of you who allow closeness. mine and yours. each of us has a gift (or gifts) to give the world and only rarely is that gift one that is spot-able from a distance. more often than not it’s something much more subtle that can’t be seen from far away. frequently you might not even see it as a gift but, to me, knowing that you sweat too, that your body feels jarred when you land, and that your breath is labored when you try hard is a relief and inspiration beyond all others. so i will keep making efforts to present my authentic self rather than my distanced, staged, status conscious one and will gladly welcome yours.


presence vs fumbling for a phone

i just completed a month of senior events and graduations. final recitals. senior plays. farewell assemblies. all topped off by the graduation ceremonies themselves. i went to several this year, including that of my daughter, who chose a very unique senior year at a waldorf high school. her graduation ceremony was a thing of true beauty. each student was honored by a faculty member who spoke of them with care and grace. corsages were presented to each parent and an incredibly appointed buffet and live band reception followed. the gym was transformed to a sacred space of sorts and a reverence hung heavy about the room. unlike every other graduation i attended, there was an absolute absence of people taking photos with their phones. this was true at the senior project presentations and farewell assembly as well. as i looked around at each of these events, i blushed at finding myself the only person recording anything on a digital device.

waldorf education is built on tending to the whole person. waldorf educators commit to welcoming their students with respect and reverence and endeavor to speak to the mind, body, and spirit of each of them. in waldorf schools computers are not introduced in the classroom until high school (sometimes middle school) and families are encouraged to limit the consumption of media in all its forms. whether one loves or questions these ideals and distinctives, i am here to tell you that waldorf adults experience their children’s/student’s important moments in a way that is increasingly counter cultural. they are not fumbling for their phones. they are not recording videos. they are simply experiencing. fully. hands free (for clapping, hugging, wiping away the tears that result when one is fully present). eyes looking into eyes (instead of screens).

when i am in a crowd with these folks, it’s noticeable how truly present everyone is. it looks so different from the images i’m used to seeing. news stories clad with photos, the foregrounds of which are filled with small rectangular cell phone screens shown recording the moment in real time. flashes from the next table over as diners capture images of their meals. concert goers working harder to video the act than to actually see the stage. it feels different too. there is a quietness. a reverence. a sense that what is happening is important. so important that you don’t want to miss it. so important that experiencing it might be more meaningful than capturing it digitally.

in beauty: the invisible embrace john o’ donohue wisely states:

“traditionally, a journey was a rhythm of three forces: time, self and space. now the digital virus has truncated time and space. marooned on each instant, we have forfeited the practice of patience, the attention to emergence and delight in the eros of discovery. the self has become anxious for what the next instant might bring. this greed for destination obliterates the journey. the digital desire for the single instant schools the mind in false priority. each instant proclaims its own authority and the present image demands the complete attention of the eye. there is no sense of natural sequence where an image is allowed to emerge from its background and context when the time is right, the eye is worthy and the heart is appropriate. the mechanics of electronic imaging reverses the incarnation of real encounter. but a great journey needs plenty of time. it should not be rushed; if it is, your life becomes a kind of abstract package tour devoid of beauty and meaning. there is such a constant whirr of movement that you never know where you are. you have no time to give yourself to the present experience. when you accumulate experiences at such a tempo, everything becomes thin. consequently, you become ever more absent from your life and this fosters emptiness that haunts the heart.”

anymore it feels like our life journeys have little intentional rhythm. we don’t live rests and patterned notes. there is little difference between foreground and background, crescendos and decrescendos. instead it often feels as though we are all trying to capture as many conversations, pictures, videos, and people as possible and hold them in our pockets. rather than leaning into the moments we find ourselves in, we often escape them to share them with others who are present only digitally. we leave present circumstances to check in with our games, the news, the twitterverse, or our social networks. without fully playing the present measure, we skip forward to the next line of music.

i believe that much of this has to do with our ever dwindling ability to be still and our shrinking capacity to be authentically, vulnerably present as full selves in an uncertain world. we don’t like to be caught off guard. we don’t know how to handle the unknown. or make eye contact. or navigate an unforeseen conversational lull. boredom is our enemy and we have made the pointing out of the “awkward” a national obsession. 

i went to what was supposed to be an outdoor concert today. the band included five musicians who had traveled 7 hours to play what would normally be a packed venue. due to rain, the event had been moved indoors. when i found the new location, five minutes into the first set, i felt instantly awkward when i entered, from a door alongside the stage, a mostly empty room. only one table was occupied and it held two people. as i settled into my seat, it would have been much more comfortable to take out my phone and surf the web, check my email, or text someone than it was to sit there, face forward, eyes open, making direct contact with everyone on that stage.

i frequently go to concerts alone specifically to be anonymous. to lean into opportunities to be lost in crowds, part of experiences that are bigger than me and that are feasts for all my senses. this was exactly the opposite. i could not blend in or be lost. my presence, as well as that of each of the 7 others in the room, was remarkably obvious. it struck me, however, that if i felt uncomfortable, very likely everyone else in that room felt the same. and so, i sat and i engaged fully. i forced myself to not look away when a band member made eye contact. i didn’t lock my face to a screen (which would have been oh-so-convenient) to avoid the chit chat that i feel so terribly inept at between songs. i didn’t say, like i wanted to, that they could really just take a long break and grab a few more beers when the others left the room because i really wasn’t enough of an audience to play for. and, i think, i grew a little. or at least i didn’t reinforce the messages i tell myself that i’m a terrible chit chatter and not a worthy audience. i gave them the gift of enjoying their offering and, since i didn’t allow myself to escape to other places via my phone, i enjoyed the offering much more fully. i noticed the skill of the slide guitar player, the nuances of the lyrics, how each song made me feel, and the way the light moved across the room. 

bringing ourselves fully to a moment requires effort and intention, especially when so many enticing distractions are available to us every moment of every day. we must, then, decide ahead of time how we want to engage in each time and space that we find ourselves in. we must plan to navigate awkward moments, pregnant pauses, uncomfortable glances (or stares). we must train our selves to be sturdy enough to stay present even when (or maybe especially when) all we want to do is capture the moment so we can “share” it with others or escape it altogether by engaging our digital universes. perhaps our desire to do so detracts from our ability to experience it ourselves. fully. with all our senses. in embodied ways. how the moment smells and feels and tastes and sounds and looks.

perhaps this kind of attending requires bringing the self to moments in new and different ways. for me this means that i experience a play differently if i dress up to attend it or a concert more fully if i force myself to keep my phone in my back pack because i’ve decided ahead of time that i am where i am to be at the concert not to tell others i am there. i attend to conversations differently when i enter them intentionally, without ringers or vibrations alerting me. i arrive to the present with a new reverence if i’ve taken time to determine these things ahead of time. if i agree with myself to be with myself and others fully in this place called my life.

john o’donohue says, “our neon times have neglected and evaded the depth kingdoms of interiority in favour of the ghost realms of cyber-space...we have unlearned the patience and attention of lingering at the thresholds where the unknown awaits us.” 

and so, i am endeavoring to live life in greater deference to the interior world.  mine and yours. i am trying to linger at the threshold of the unknown, trusting that doing so will grow me. i may not have as many photos to share or videos to show but my internal experience and the intensity of self i will have available for attending to you will be enhanced. for this, i am eternally grateful...even if i am awkward.