Thursday, October 14, 2021

DUOLINGO Y YO: How to Teach an Old Brain New Tricks

       For much of my adult life I have read popular science books--books written for lay people by smarty-pants scientists.  And by lay people, I mean English majors, history majors, philosophy majors--those of us who struggled through high school science classes and avoided them in college.  Stephen Hawking may have thought he was explaining physics to the likes of me in A Brief History of Time, but it wasn't "lay" enough for me. I found that although I understood most of the individual words, they didn't add up to anything that I could understand.

       And I tried twice. 

     So, I appreciate a book like Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain by David Eagleman, which I read last December.* Eagleman is a smarty-pants neuroscientist, and Livewired is a book about brain plasticity.  Here is some of what the book jacket says about it:  "The magic of the brain is not found in the parts its made of but in the way those parts increasingly reweave themselves in an electric, living fabric."  It is a fascinating book, that describes in great, and very readable, detail, the ways in which our brains reshape themselves, make up for deficits, and perform all kinds of tricks through interacting with the world.  And if I could read it, so can you.

    That said, I don't intend this post to be a review of, of plug for, Eagleman's book.  You can find plenty of those on line.**  Instead, I just want to give it credit as the jumping-off point for my looking into ways to keep my aging brain nimble.  Yes, we've all read that doing crossword puzzles is good for our brains.  But I do these regularly, so the returns are diminishing.  The idea, as I understand it, is to learn something new, and in this way, update the brain's wiring.

    So soon after reading Livewired, I decided to learn something that, if not entirely new, is at least newish.for me  As I recounted in my last post, I attended a bilingual (English/Spanish) secretarial school in my extreme youth.  This was preceded by four years of high-school Spanish.  All of which added up to, if not fluency, at least a decent mastery of the language.

    Then, because I was young and foolish, instead taking more Spanish classes in college, I tested out of the language requirement and let my language skills lapse.  Sigh - why can't our older selves whisper in the ears of our younger selves?

    This lapse continued until 1980, when I, for reasons not clear to me then or now (I am not particularly adventurous), decided to spend a month at a language school in Antigua, Guatemala. This was a very inexpensive program that involved living with a local family and taking one-on-one lessons with a native speaker each morning.  The conditions were somewhat primitive.  It was an adventure.  I learned a great deal and many of my skills came back.

       I'll bet you can guess what happened next.  Yep, because life intervened and future me was still not whispering in my ear, I let my Spanish lapse once again.  

       Fast forward 40 years, and I am seeing ads for Duolingo--an online language learning program--on Instagram.  I remember that my friend Linda has been using the program and check in with her.  She likes it.  She thinks it works.  She hasn't missed a day in over a year.  

       I decide to give it a try.  Maybe it will jump-start my brain. It works pretty well.  The program is designed to build vocabulary and verb-conjugating skills over time, using repetition and a kind-of-fun feedback loop.  

     And here's how it keeps you coming back -- daily email reminders, prodding you not to lose your streak of continuous days with the program.  Also, Linda and another friend have not broken their streaks, so, I must, of course, not break mine.

    This is good.  Until it is not.  I keep my streak for over 100 days, and then, during a very busy week, it occurs me that it is ok to lose the streak.  I don't have to compete with my friends.  No-one, except Duolingo, is keeping score.  

     Since I let that streak go, I have started another, and because I don't feel I have to engage every day, I am, in fact, engaging every day.  What do you make of that, David Eagleman?  Also, Linda, who--unlike me--reads directions, has advised me that I don't have to reach my "daily goal" to get credit for a day; I just have to do one lesson, which takes no time at all.   

     So, some days I do a lot and some days I do a little, but the net result, or so I tell myself, is new brain connections.  Much is coming back to me and much is new.  There were, after all, neither computadores (computers) nor celulares (cell phones) 40 years ago.  

     And it's fun to experience the return of words I thought were lost forever.  As I go through the lessons, I picture words crawling out of dusty file cabinets in my brain and taking an accessible place in a shiny new file cabinet.  It's fun to find myself occasionally thinking in Spanish.  I've even started listening to podcasts in Spanish to see if I can gain enough confidence to join a conversation group.    

     Of course, even as Spanish words come back, I'm losing English words.  There is only so much one can expect of a fading brain.  Yesterday, my husband was searching for a word, and, after I found it for him, I promised, "I'll be your external hard drive, if you'll be mine."  (I think there are the makings of a country song here.  Perhaps one of you can take on the project as a way of jump-starting your brain.)

     Perhaps it would be a good goal for all of us of a certain age to act as hard external hard drives for one another and to take on tasks that will keep our brains flexible for a good while to come.  

    Let's do it. 

    And now, I must away to complete a Spanish lesson . . . 

                                                Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

*    How do I know I read it last December?  See this post, in which I describe my obsessive list-making. 

** There is much more to Eagleman's book than I have suggested here, including some to-me alarming descriptions of how our brains will soon interface with artificial intelligence.  Eagleman, who is quite gleeful about these coming changes, gives short shrift to how such interface might negatively impact our lives.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

STILL SHE PERSISTED: A Paean to My Younger Self

A while back, during a conversation with a ten-year-old granddaughter, I mentioned that my earliest job had been as a secretary, that I had, in fact, gone to secretarial school after high school.  

My granddaughter turned a puzzled face to me, and asked, "What's a secretary?" 

This word was completely unfamiliar to a girl who (at that moment, anyway) aspired to be an architect.  I explained that a secretary would now be called an assistant. 

Across this stretch of years, it is hard to bring that secretary, that girl-- for girl I was, into clear focus, but I will try.   

In September of 1967, 17-years-old and fresh out of high school, my best friend and I got on a bus near our suburban New Jersey homes and headed into Manhattan for our first day at The Latin American Institute, a secretarial school located on Madison Avenue, where we would learn to type and take shorthand (taquígrafia) in English and Spanish.**  

We would take that bus every weekday for a year, immersing ourselves in Spanish and learning how to behave in an office.  (Of course, we would make coffee for our bosses.  And, of course, they would all be men.) Looking back, I am astounded by how very young we were.  (Needless to say, we believed ourselves to be entirely grown up.) No one accompanied us into the city that first day.  There were no helicopter parents back then. It was just, "Have a good day," as we walked out our doors.  I vividly remember stopping an ancient businessman (he was probably 40) as we left The Port Authority Bus Terminal, and asking him, "Which way is uptown?"  

Oh, yes, we were young.  And we swam in the water that surrounded us.  What else did we know?  This will be a stretch for those of you who grew up believing the sky was the limit, who grew up taking for granted that you could get a credit card or a loan in your own name, that you could grow up to be a politician or a doctor.  But try to imagine what life was like for a young girl just a few decades ago.  Imagine a childhood in the 1950s when every voice around you screamed boys are important--girls not so much.  Sure, your daddy might have doted on you, told you that you were pretty, but imagine a world where that “pretty” was your only passport to a good life, a world where the Miss America Pageant was a highlight of the year and where the local store displayed a row of photos of young women in tight curls and pointy bras, accompanied by the invitation to vote for “Miss Rheingold.”  

 

Imagine a world where girls wore dresses to school--were, in fact, forbidden to wear pants, where pre-schoolers wore ruffled dresses that discouraged rough and tumble play.  A world of stiff party dresses and patent leather shoes.  If it was cold out, we wore leggings (not the ones you are thinking of – these were bulky affairs that matched our winter coats) under our dresses.  


Imagine internalizing the message that girls grow up and get married and have babies and stay at home.  That was, after all, what most of our moms were doing. Imagine the message that you might have a job in the interim between leaving school and getting married, or maybe, if your husband were really enlightened, you would keep working until you had a child. Imagine that in this decade a college degree for a woman was sometimes called an MRS. degree.  Imagine, further, that well into the ‘60s, at least one women’s college taught classes in deportment – how to pour tea and step gracefully in and out of a sports car. Imagine that the only jobs suggested to you by society are store clerk, bank teller, secretary, nurse, or teacher. (There’s nothing wrong with any of these jobs--I have friends who have happily made careers of them all; what is wrong is that so many jobs were considered to be for men only, that it would not occur to you that you could be, say, a research scientist, a doctor, an accountant, a college professor.  And, of course, men were not expected to be, say, nurses or secretaries.)

 

Yes, there were little girls like RBG, but I didn’t know them. And, yes, I did have female friends who went off to college, and I expect that there were girls who were encouraged to seek a "nontraditional" job, but this was not my experience.  My immigrant parents, playing against type, did not encourage me to go to college.  The idea was never discussed in my house.  And so, off to secretarial school I went.


I did not excel.  I did not want to be there.  I liked the Spanish immersion, but my typing and shorthand skills were mediocre.  I was envious of my boyfriend, who was attending college.

 

After a year at secretarial school, I continued to take that bus to a job at an advertising agency, where I warded off attentions from my much-older boss. (Remember, please, I was still only 18 when I started that job.)  I was not happy and I was not good at my job. This was the era of manual typewriters and multiple pieces of carbon paper between the multiple copies of whatever one was typing.  It was so easy to make a mistake and have to rip all those pages out of the typewriter and begin anew.  Ugh. 


When I wasn't busy being frustrated by my ineptness, I was bored. After a year at my job, and after reading every book assigned to my college-attending boyfriend, I figured out that if I lived at home, I could afford to go to the nearest state college.  I'm not sure where I got the gumption to make this happen.  At this point in my life, I did not have much confidence in my intelligence. 


But, oh, I loved being a student.  I loved being an English major.  I had terrific professors.  I never had a TA.  I was hungry and I soaked it all up.  Living at home was challenging, but my time on campus was magical.   I had left the job for which I was not suited and headed off to college just in time for the beginning of feminism's second wave.  I loved my expanding world, a world that I hadn't, until then, realized had been so very circumscribed by our culture's limited expectations for women.  


Now that I was in the right place for me, I excelled.  I read and read and wrote and wrote.  I discovered that I was intelligent, that I was a good writer.  I began to imagine new career possibilities.  After college, I worked for a year as a journalist, then went on to law school--something that would never have occurred to my younger self as an option. (And may I add that I never stopped appreciating the secretary/assistants with whom I worked.  They were so much better at their job than I had been. It hadn't been the right job for me, but these assistants were whip-smart and kept the offices where I worked from falling into chaos.)


From my perspective in retirement, I am not sure that I would choose the law again. It was the first previously male-dominated career that came to my attention. There are other career paths that look more attractive to me now that I can see the full range of possibilities. I am, nonetheless, proud to be one of the women who stepped into roles forbidden to us in our childhood. I am happy to have a much fuller life than that allowed to my mother. I am delighted that my daughters grew up without the restraints I felt as a girl.


So, today I look back in gratitude on the girl and young woman I once was. Everything I am today began with her. I stand on her skinny shoulders. I am grateful for her courage.       

She would be surprised by this praise. It was decades in the coming.  May I never forget. And may all young people of every gender have the opportunity to do the work that is just right for them.  




Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash

** Diligent Google searches have turned up no trace of this school.  I have no idea when it it ceased to be. 

(This is my story. I acknowledge that there are many who have faced far greater and graver challenges.  I will leave it to them to tell their stories.) 

Monday, August 30, 2021

TIME'S WINGED CHARIOT

  

         "But at my back I always hear 
          Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near . . ."

                                  - Andrew Marvell 

Can you remember a time when you were not conscious of time?

The last time I can remember not having a sense of time was the summer after third grade.  The days spread ahead without end, and I inhabited each with no sense of the coming autumn.  I did not think about the next week or even the evening of the day I was living. I simply did not look ahead.  Now, I watch people read books, take classes, and meditate, trying to get to presence. But when I was eight, presence was all there was.

I don't know when I fell into time, but it was sometime after that summer.  Slowly at first, and then all at once, time took shape.  I learned to read a calendar and the calendar began to superimpose its grid onto my life.  

Still, the grid notwithstanding, before I had children, time generally moved at a stately pace. Days had a steady rhythm.  I look back and see life as a slow-moving river.  In contrast, when I look back at the years following the births of my daughters, I see a blur of swiftly moving water.  

On the rare occasions when I stopped to think about the future during those happy/crazy/filled-to-the-brim years, I assumed that when my girls were grown, life would return to its stately pre-child-rearing pace.   

Alas, it did not. 

So maybe it wasn't having children that changed my sense of time.  Maybe it was something else altogether. 

Maybe it was technology.   

After all, it was during those (for me) post-baby years of the late '80s and early '90s that the whole world started to speed up.  First it was Fax machines.  Remember those?  Until they came along, I would receive a letter at work, consider it, maybe wait a day, then dictate a reply, which my assistant would duly type up and mail.  Now, clients would send the letter via fax and expect a response within hours.  

Things only got worse with email.  There was no longer a breather between the time a fax was sent and the time someone brought it to my desk.  Now the messages were showing up on my computer.  What was my excuse for not responding immediately?

But the real change came with cell phones.  If you have a cell phone, why can't you take a business call at home?  Or while on vacation?  And then along came smart phones.  Great for taking pictures, but they also captured emails and texts.  Yikes.  

Look, I am not a Ludite.  I like my cell phone.  Most of the time.  I just don't like 24/7 anything.  I don't like the temptation to check for email or text messages when I am doing something that used to be all-engrossing.  I don't like the fact that I find it more difficult to concentrate than I did before all of these distractions.

I am very grateful that my childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood were device-free.  I don't know how to tell those of you born after the dawn of the age of distraction what those pre-distraction days were like, but I will try. 

I see myself at about age ten,  playing on our dead-end street with my friends.  There was no impulse to run home and check my iPad for messages because there were no iPads.  I just played.  We just played. 

I see myself at around age 14, walking through the woods to a local library, lost in my own thoughts.  There was no buzzing in my pocket.  No stopping to respond to a text.  

I see myself again in my late 20s, when I would sometimes, while doing something interesting, unplug my phone.  (This was back when phones were tethered to the wall.)  From time to time, I forgot to plug it back in, only remembering when I realized I hadn't received a phone call for a couple of days.

And there I am as a young mother, nursing a baby, no smart phone to interrupt my returning her steady gaze.

In that pre-digital age, days were round and whole, not fragmented. If I was reading, I was reading.  If I was writing I was writing. If I was with someone, I was with them.  I wasn't feeling a pull  to check my phone for texts or emails or voice mails.  

Of course, there is much that is wonderful about technology.  During the years my daughter Anne was living overseas, we talked weekly via Skype.  For free.  In real time. I could see her face as she spoke. What a gift. When my daughter Mara was in college, she would sometimes call me as she walked across her very large campus.  Long-distance charges were a thing of the past.  Another gift. 

I do love using texts to share photos or quick messages with friends.

And wouldn't I have liked texts or emails back when I was PTO president at my daughters' elementary school and had to use a phone tree to get a message to other parents?    

So, yes, technology is a double-edged sword, but acknowledging its plus side does not change the fact that it has (at least for me) sped up and fractured time.  With attention, though, I think it is possible to counter the fracturing.

I started this post by naming the summer after third grade as the last time I was unconscious of time.  Upon further reflection, I realize this is not true.  It takes more effort now, but there are moments--if I am lucky, hours--when I am engrossed in, say, writing or reading or gardening to the point where I am unaware of time.  This is not the natural state that it was during that long-ago summer.  But, if I turn off my phone and leave it in another room, I am sometimes able to step outside of time again.

And for that I am grateful.



                                                                                 Photo by Ivan Diaz on Unsplash 



Tuesday, July 20, 2021

SOME THOUGHTS ON BEAUTY

  “Because our present habit of mind is governed by the calculus of consumerism and busyness, we are less and less frequently available to the exuberance of beauty."

              -   John O'Donohue


Lately I have been thinking about beauty.  Noticing it everywhere.  Of course, one needn’t look far to find beauty at this time of year.  Even though some plants and trees were burned during the recent heat wave, there are yet many bright green leaves and vibrant flowers.   Indeed, I have recently spent long moments just standing in front of my garden taking in the sights and smells and bird song.  Nearly drowning in the beauty of it all.


But this is not what I want to write about today. Instead, I want to talk about human beauty.  


A week or two ago, while indulging in my first post-pandemic pedicure, I was arrested by the beauty of the young woman taking care of my feet.  She couldn’t have been a day over twenty. And she was lovely.  Long black hair, smooth skin, beautiful eyes.  


The feeling wasn’t personal.  It was like the feeling you get when standing in front of a beautiful piece of art.  Or a just-opening flower.


I was tempted to say, “Do you have any idea how lovely you are?


I didn’t, of course.  And it is likely that she, as is the case with so many young women, was insecure about her appearance and would not have known what I was talking about.  Certainly, if I was lovely at twenty, I didn’t know it.  (Now, I believe one has to work hard not to present as lovely or handsome at that unspoiled age, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that then.  As the song says, “youth is wasted on the young.”)


I found this young woman’s beauty poignant because I knew it would not last--not, at least, in this form.  As with a flower, her budding beauty would change as her life unfolded.  She might one day be a good-looking middle-aged woman and after that a handsome older woman.  But, for now, she was the epitome of beautiful youth.  


In truth, though, it is not generally the beauty of extreme youth that draws my eye. The faces of those in their twenties are a little too smooth.   I more greatly appreciate those in their thirties and forties.  They have a little more life behind them, a little more experience written on their faces. 


And why do we, in this youth-worshipping culture persist in believing that beauty ends by middle age?  There is beauty in the face of a fifty or sixty-year-old.  Life has laid down a few lines, but a smile can light up the most ordinary of middle-aged faces.


And what of those over seventy -- the cohort I have recently joined?  I see so much beauty in the faces of my friends.  It is the beauty of a life well-lived, of traumas outlived, of wisdom gained.  


It is a beauty etched by laughter and sorrow. 


Sadly, I was not able to see this beauty when I was very young.  I remember a day in my mid 20s, standing with a friend decades older than I, watching a woman of perhaps 60, who was running across an intersection.  My friend, who was constantly expressing joy, turned to me and exclaimed, "Would you look at that old girl!"  These were not words of disparagement.  He was grinning broadly in appreciation.  Although I could not then see what he was seeing, I see it now in retrospect.  The woman was smiling -- full of life.  She was exuding what the poet and mystic John O'Donohue called "the exuberance of beauty."**


There is much written on a face and it is, I think, a terrible thing to attempt to cover or arrest the signs of age on one’s visage.  I don’t mean we should subject ourselves to direct sunlight or throw away our face creams.  I just mean there is beauty in a lived-in face.  Not the untouched beauty of a twenty-year-old face, but beauty nonetheless.  To undergo, say, a facelift is to erase a life.  In any event, no one is fooled.


I recently noticed when looking in a mirror, that the sides of my face wrinkle when I smile.  I'll admit this was briefly disconcerting, but you’d better believe I’m not going to stop smiling in order to present the illusion of smooth skin.  


I’m going to keep smiling and I’m going to appreciate the beauty of those around me, whatever their age, size, shape, or color.  For when we smile, the beauty of our spirits shine through, no matter our age or presentation.


                                                            Photo by Janaya Dasiuk on Unsplash

                                                           Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash  

 ** I know some might be offended by the term "old girl." I probably would be if it were applied to me now.  But my friend was a man of his time and place and his delight in the woman's exuberance of beauty was so very clear.  

 

Friday, June 25, 2021

OF HEAT WAVES AND TRAIN WRECKS

I’m on a train and I know it’s about to crash.  There is no way to stop the crash or to get off the train.  I can only brace myself and hope I will survive.

No. I’m not describing a vivid dream.   I’m describing how I have felt this week while compulsively checking and rechecking the weather forecast.

 

Here’s what it looks like today:

 


OK, so maybe the train wreck analogy is a bit dramatic.  I don’t expect to die of this heat wave or even sustain injuries.  But, I do feel like a sitting duck – nowhere to hide—and, come on, this is the Pacific Northwest, not Arizona.  

 

When I moved out here from New Jersey many years ago, I had lots of reasons, not least among which was NJ’s heat and humidity.  I may have grown up there, but (in those pre-air-conditioning days) I never got used to the summer weather.  The PNW would be perfect for me – the climate much like Scotland, the country my folks had left behind.   

 

And it worked out well for me.  Most years we would have one heat wave—generally in August—usually in the 90s – very occasionally over 100, and almost never lasting more than three or four days.

 

And then things started to change.  Was it two years ago or three that we had more than one heat wave?  I think we had three last year and we’re into our third one this year.  

 

Friends, it’s only June. 

 

What the ever-loving #&*%  ?

 

Last year, I finally gave in to my husband’s lobbying and agreed to have AC installed in the form of a heat pump.  I was not gracious about this.  Our house, after all, is surrounded by trees and generally stays quite cool.  Only our bedroom would get hot, and this only during the above-mentioned one heat wave per year.  For those few days, we could sleep in our lower level, which is always cool.

 

The truth is I don’t like air conditioning.  I am always cold when it is on.  But, I will be glad to have it this weekend.  Big trees notwithstanding, three days of 100+ temps, followed by multiple days in the 90s will cause quite a heat build-up.   

 

And there’s this.  The train wreck won’t kill us this weekend, but the wrecks will keep coming; they will keep piling on.  Heat waves and fires here.  Drought in California.  Melting glaciers causing rising sea levels.  You know the litany. I don’t need to spell out the dangers.

 

Climate change isn’t going to come in some far-off future. It’s here now. Last summer’s fires and accompanying smoke (which kept us indoors for a week) and this year’s heat waves have brought this home to me. 

 

I have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK and MLK and RFK assassinations, the Viet Nam war, the gulf wars, 9/11, and four years of you-know-who in the White House.  All of these were awful.  But, nothing has scared or shaken me quite as much as climate change bringing its train wreck to my doorstep.  

 

I recently read a novel called The Ministry For the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson.  It takes place in the near future, and opens with a description of an unsurvivable heat wave in India that kills a huge number of people.  The  description was so horrific that I had to walk away from the book for a while.  When I returned to it, I was relieved to find that the novel went on to posit many climate fixes.  In fact, it turned near utopian.  

 

Utopia seems unlikely. My wish today is simply that we and our leaders will wake up in time to stop the train wreck. 


May it be so.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

AM I ELDERLY?: Who Gets to Decide?

Recently, I have been noticing that people in their 60s and 70s are often referred to as "elderly."  

I am 71.

I do not feel elderly.

My husband says I do not look elderly.  Of course, he is 77 . . .

To be honest, it is more how I feel than how I look that concerns me as I get older.  When I was 65, I wrote a post in which I put my psychic age at 40.  Now, I might put it at 45 or 50.  Physically, I feel as well as I did in my 50s.  So, how am I suddenly in the elderly crowd?

Of course, whether one is viewed as elderly is a matter of both the age of the viewer (to a 20-year-old, a 40-year-old is over-the-hill) and the cultural and demographic circumstances.

I remember being surprised when Dickens, in one of his novels, described a gentleman in his 50s as elderly.  But, then again, I read in a recent NY Times article that the average life span in 1850 was 35. So, one making it to 50 in Dickens' day would, indeed, be well along -- living on borrowed time.  

In this day and time, however, when people are living longer and longer, I view 80 as the beginning point of the elderly years.  (And I reserve the right to push that back if I am still feeling fine at that point.)

So far, each decade of my life has been better than the last.  Perhaps the time to call myself elderly will be when that changes.  In the meantime, I hope to stay as healthy as possible, regardless of what labels are applied to me. 

A few years back, I read a book by Dr. Andrew Weil about healthy aging.  He wrote that people seem to believe that if they exercise and eat well, they will never die.  In fact, according to Weil, the point of all those healthy habits is to stay healthy and active for as long as possible.  In his estimation, the best outcome, is a long and healthy life, followed by a speedy decline.

That would work for me.  Where do I sign up?  I watched my mother's slow decline after age 90 and do no wish to go that route.  It's not that I have a precise age in mind for my speedy decline.  It's really a matter of circumstances.  If I had my druthers, I would live only as long as these three things are true:

- I am healthy enough to take pleasure in my life

- I have not outlived all of my peers

- I have not outlived my savings

Of course, we don't get to make these decisions, do we?  I could have a speedy decline next year or I could live long beyond the expiration of my three requirements.  


I will, therefore, let go of thinking I can predict or control the future and, for now, I will continue to spend my time pursuing my many interests and tending to my relationships.  When else in life have I had the kind of time I have now to do this?

So, call me elderly if you must, but as I have written before, this phase of life really is the best of times. 












Sunday, February 28, 2021

THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE: Searching For Light in February

         Almost every morning, I sit down and perform the Quaker ritual of holding people in the light.  Although I am not a Quaker,  I have made this practice my own. In my version, I acknowledge the light of the Divine that surrounds and imbues us, hold my hands apart, and picture one person at a time bathed in this light.  I do this for people I love and for people I like, and, in particular for people who are struggling with illness or other challenges. I do it for people I don't know personally and, on good days, I do it for people I struggle to like or accept.  I conclude with a general holding of all who suffer in body, mind, or spirit.  This, of course, covers pretty much everyone.  

         Lately, though, I have struggled to find the light. The short, grey, and drippy days of February affect me physically, psychologically, and spiritually.  So, today, I’m going to share an edited and much-truncated version of a talk I gave at my Unitarian Universalist Church a few years ago.  I share it because I need it now.  Maybe it will help to pull you out of your February doldrums.  I hope so.  


 

         I am sure that many of you have sung these lines:

 

         This little light of mine

         I'm gonna let it shine
         This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
         This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
         Let it shine, shine, shine
         Let it shine!

         As a child, I sang this song with gusto.  I knew I had a light.  As an adult, I often find this hard to remember.  

 

         There is, I believe, a light within each of us.  We know this light when we see it in others. I can see it, for instance, in the Dalai Lama.  His light shines brightly, despite the hardships he and his people have suffered.  I can see it in someone who is fully engaged with a person or animal or activity that is dear to her. It is often visible in the faces of parents upon greeting their newborn for the first time.  And I sometimes see it in the dying people I visit as a hospice volunteer.  Everything else is falling away, burned off by the light within.   

 

         I like to think of the light within each of us as a pilot light—a small flame that is used to light a larger flame, such as the pilot light on a gas stove. The important thing about a pilot light is that it is always burning, always available.    

 

         Because a pilot light burns low, it is possible for us to go through our days without noticing this light within. We may entirely forget that it is there. It is lost in busy-ness, worry, and distraction.  We may forget that we are part of, and carry a piece of, something much larger than ourselves.  We may forget that there is much more to the mystery surrounding our lives than our separate egos and the stories they tell us.


         The poet William Wordsworth addressed this forgetfulness in his Ode on Intimations of Immortality.  There, he wrote that at birth we come “not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory from God who is our home.”      

 

         He went on to describe how we keep sight of the light during our childhoods: 

 

         Shades of the prison-house begin to close     

            Upon the growing Boy, 

         But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,     

            He sees it in his joy;

 

         Following this hopeful image of youth resisting the prison-house of adult cares and the concerns of the world, Wordsworth sadly observes:

 

         At length the Man perceives it die away, 

         And fade into the light of common day.

 

         And yet, even as he laments the prison house, the loss of the Divine light, Wordsworth sees cause for celebration:

 

         Oh Joy!  That in our embers

         Is something that doth live,

         That nature yet remembers

         What was so fugitive!

 

         So how do we recognize and remember that “something in our embers” that always burns within us?  I think that for most of us, this requires quiet and stillness.  If we sit in meditation for a few moments and imagine the light, maybe we will be able to find it.  And if we can find the light in stillness, maybe we will be better able to remember and find it in the middle of the noise and busy-ness of our lives. 

 

         After we have recognized our pilot light, the next step is to figure out how to use it to ignite a larger flame within us. I have a friend who ignites her flame by climbing mountains.  For me, it is immersing myself in my garden. Writing.  Spending time alone.  I don’t know what it is for you.  Maybe it is hang-gliding.  Or prayer.  Or meditation. Whatever calls to you, I believe that when we fully engage in activities where we feel most ourselves, we are both feeding the light within and feeding from it. 

 

         And not only does our pilot light keep our flame alive, it also acts as a pilot in another way, guiding us forward on our path, if only we will follow where it leads.  And I am pretty sure, that it will often lead us in the direction of others, asking us to share our flames.

 

         But maybe you think you have no light to share.  You have been wounded, physically or spiritually.  You think your pilot light is out or is too dim to ignite a flame worth sharing.  It is true that there may be times when our energy is so low that it is all we can do to wrap ourselves around our pilot light and wait. But I don’t think it is ever true that our pilot light goes out. And I don’t believe that our woundedness prevents us from owning and sharing our light.

 

         The late Leonard Cohen famously sang:

 

         Ring the bell that still can ring.

         Forget your perfect offering.

         There is a crack in everything.

         That’s how the light gets in.

 

         What if the light goes both ways?  What if the crack is also how the light gets out?    If you think about it, isn’t it often our woundedness that opens our hearts and gives rise to the compassion that will lead us to shine our lights for others?   None of us gets out of this life without being tested and pounded by our experiences.  But it is this very pounding that softens us and allows our light to shine through our thinned and cracked exteriors and outward to others.

 

         Wounds or no, our little lights can and will shine.  

 

         In seeking the courage to find and follow our little lights, we might remember that, in the middle of the last century, This Little Light of Mine was an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.  When we sing the words of this song, we would do well to hear it for what it was for those who made up this movement:  A song of radical defiance and courage.  The people in this movement refused to hide their lights.  Indeed, they shone their lights in life-threatening situations.  

 

         If they could do this, so can we.  

 

         Spring is coming, friends.  

 

         We can find and shine our lights. 

          

    

                  

                                             Photo by Paul Bulai on Unsplash