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Bearing Witness

If you’ve ever slid on an icy road, or rear-ended someone, or upended your car, or been a part of any number of mishaps, you’ll know that life seems to slow way down, when you’re in that split second before disaster.  I’ve always been fascinated by that.  Our brains must be so focused, so in tune with our surroundings, that we see and know things we wouldn’t otherwise know.

How many things do we miss things because we’re not always so focused?

This comes from Life is a Verb by Patti Digh:

“As adults, we see things from such a sophisticated, disinterested, fast-paced distance that we can barely even register them anymore.  A fire hydrant to a 45-inch-tall child is an Event, a Shining Glory, a Sphinx.  To us, it’s often invisible.  Neighborhood dogs become alien invaders when seen from Tess’s [her daughter’s] angle and vantage point.

“At a recent retreat, we asked everyone to gather at the lake near the lodge one morning.  ‘We’re going to take a long walk to China,’ David told them.  ‘In real terms, that means we’re going to walk around this lake in the next ten minutes.  But if I see you move at all in those ten minutes, you’re moving too fast.’  It took a moment for these instructions to sink in.

“From my vantage point, the group looked like a fantastical, life-size sculpture garden.  There was only imperceptible movement for the next ten minutes.  Some moved a few inches, others only a quarter of an inch during that time.

“When we talked about it afterward, it became clear that every one had their own unique response and strategy to the exercise.  Some focused on a distant point either across the lake or across the world; others were frustrated by their inability to reach the goal; one focused on a pagoda and then wanted to change direction but couldn’t decide whether to walk all the way back to where she had started (even though her movement had all taken place inside her head) or just launch into a new direction.  Whole journeys took place without moving.  Several people marveled at the insights they achieved by focusing on the micro-movements necessary to take a step; by slowing down their movement in the world, they could feel each contraction, each lift, each anticipation of movement….

“Lucy Lippard wrote of walking in a straight line to measure rage: ‘An Eskimo custom offers an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system in a straight line across the landscape, the point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.’

“How far would your rage get you?  St. Louis?  Cheyenne?  Taipei?  And what if you walked in a straight line to measure your love?  Would that take you farther?

“Pilgrimages also involve walking, creating straight lines toward faith, toward Adam’s Peak, or Mecca, looking for something larger than ourselves: Each step is a thought, and a becoming.

“Look at your feet on the ground you call home. Ground yourself, place yourself, literally, and live close to the ground as a four-year-old does.  Tear away the frame and be in the scene, near the pavement.  Be completely in contact with it all.

“Notice your steps, even the anticipation of steps, the way your toes grab hold of the earth beneath you; if you are a wheelchair user, notice the ground moving beneath you as you move through the world.  How are you in relationship to it?  What shadows do you cast?  In what direction are you moving?  Slow down.”

[Post image: Last garden flowers for the year]

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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