Thursday, November 25, 2010

My left foot...

It is again Thanksgiving, a year since I starting writing this blog. I began with some fear and trepidation, I must admit, though it is hard to pinpoint why. Although I have long liked to write, I have generally been a rather private writer, putting my deeper feelings into a journal or on a scrap of paper that gets tucked away. I cannot say that I have been totally anonymous however, having written letters to the editor since I was a teenager, but somehow starting this blog seemed different. I began with the notion of writing some encouraging words to my patients for times I was not available but, as soon as I started writing, it became something more: a sort of spiritual symphony that I didn't seem to be orchestrating. Once I noticed that, my fear eased and I had only to make the time to allow it to happen. There were words that needed to be written and I realized that the story was not about me.

Speaking of stories, there is one that came to mind as I wondered what I would write this Thanksgiving. Years ago, when I was in college, I became friends with several people with physical disabilities who were activists, striving to be heard in world that largely ignored the disabled. I learned of a book, an autobiography published in 1954, by a man named Christy Brown. Christy was born in Ireland in 1932 with a severe physical disability (cerebral palsy) that left doctors thinking he was incapable of any intelligent thought. He didn't have control of his spastic muscles and could not even hold his head up as a young child. He could not speak and his siblings moved him about in small cart because he could not walk. However, his family, ignoring medical recommendations to institutionalize him, raised him as they did their other many children. When Christy was 5 years old, he surprised everyone by grabbing a piece of chalk from his sister, using his left foot. He struggled to write the letter "A" on the ground. Although his condition was not curable, once he made known that he could communicate, there was little holding him back. He typed his autobiography with his left foot, the only part of his body over which he had enough control to attempt this task. He also learned to paint with his left foot. Hence, the title of his book, "My Left Foot", which was made into an award-winning film by the same name in 1989.

As I reflect on this past year this Thanksgiving day, I am struck again by how many things there are to be grateful for. Each year, of course, has its challenges as well as its joys, and not always in equal proportions. But there are always simple things, things so basic to our lives that we often do not notice them or think to consider them "gifts". I can walk. I can talk. I can hear (most of the time). I can see. I can read. I can write. I can breathe unassisted. I have a home to live in. I have access to clean water. I have food to eat. I am loved. I am able to love. I have so much that the list could go on and on. For me, each of these things is just a natural part of life. But that is, of course, not so for many people. Some who are reading this may be lacking in one or more of the gifts I take for granted. Yet each of us has some of these "simple gifts" and it is a celebration of them that I would like to share today.

To celebrate the simple gifts, I would like to share a brief video (below) where I am celebrating the simple movement of my muscles to the Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts", written by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. Note that I am claiming only to move, not to dance, as I am not claiming any skill or talent. Thinking of Christy, I begin my movement with my left foot, out of gratitude that I can move it - and the gratitude then moves through my body with the song. If you are able to move, celebrate thankfully with me by moving too, even if just a hand or a foot. Or sing (the words to Simple Gifts are printed below). If you are thinking you cannot sing, remember that I cannot dance. But I do it anyway. Out of gratitude...

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.


When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Fall is a season with which I have long had a love-hate relationship. It is hard not to love fall, at least a little, with all of its beautiful colors enveloping us. There is a sense of awe that comes as the ordinary green leaves of summer transition to gold and orange and bronze. They even seem to make the cool, rainy days seem less bleak as their brilliance stands in contrast to the deep black of wet tree trunks.

Yet part of me has, in past years, allowed myself to take on a dread of the fall season. When caught up in this world view, I mourned the lost idyllic summer days, long with sunshine and blue skies, while I conveniently forgot the stifling heat and humidity that often accompanied them. I dreaded fall because I knew what came next: cold, dark days with snow and ice. While I was hardly unique in not welcoming the Cleveland winter, I was losing sight of the beauty before me, replacing it with dreadful imaginings about the future. And this did not have to be: I allowed it, though perhaps I did not realize it at the time.

In the last year or two, I have begun to shift my view of life and its seasons. While part of that has been a conscious effort to live more in the present, my walks with my camera have, to my surprise, made this seem so much easier and more natural. I find myself looking for the beauty now - and I am not disappointed. When I have my eyes open, there is beauty right before me - and sometimes in unexpected places. While I expected to see beauty in the maple trees' changing leaves, I didn't anticipate seeing it in a dried up weed or a seed pod exploding its progeny into the world. Yet there it was...

Even with this gradual shift in my view, it still seems that autumn is a bittersweet season. It involves a sort of "letting go", evident even in our term for it: fall. The trees are full of magnificent color ... but then the color fades and falls and decays, becoming a brown mush barely distinguishable from the muddy soil. It is like a death - and there is something in us that resists death. We fear it. We dread it. It makes us cry... We simply don't want to let go of what we have come to love.

A few months ago, I hired someone, a "tree surgeon" he called himself, to come and trim my trees. Although I have lived in this house for a good number of years, I had never done this before, being unsure of when or how often one is supposed to do this sort of thing. He was a pleasant man with an honest way about him that put me at ease as we discussed trees and how to care for them. In the course of the conversation, he shared a bit of information that both surprised and fascinated me: the best fertilizer for a tree is its own leaves. The system was set up, before we humans started tinkering with it, so that the leaves would fall from the tree, enrich the soil and nourish the tree so that it could grow and produce its blossoms in spring and its fruits in summer... This seemingly insignificant bit of information about trees reminded me of something that I already knew deep inside of me. That the seasons have a rhythm, a purpose, and that the yearly letting go and dying was an important part of the living. I have often heard biblical words to that effect ("...unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit," John12:24), but as an urban dweller, I did not particularly notice that this process was happening right in my back yard, though of course it was.

In a sense, each season is a "letting go", as each exhausts its role in the cycle of Life, allowing another to take its place. In some ways, each day, each minute of my life is like that. I give up one experience so that another can unfold. I can try and try to hold on to the moments I like, hoping to avert the ones I dread, but I only end up frustrated. The experiences and the things and the people I love inevitably slip through my fingers, no matter how hard I hold on.Yet if I open my hands and accept the letting go, the beauty of now passes through my hands, leaving them open. Open and ready to accept the next gift, born in the new moment, fertilized by the ones that have passed. Yes, even the brown mush of decay from the trees' lost leaves is a gift, a Gift that nourishes and renews life.

My life too has seasons. I accept the cycle of Life, learning to live and die in its rhythms, my hands open, letting go of one Gift so as to be ready for the next... My eyes are open and I see the Beauty...

(To share in what my camera and I have encountered, click on the image below and you will leave this site to go to a web album I have created. Click on the slideshow button to watch; hit the escape button on your keyboard to leave the slideshow.)
Images of fall...