By BERT DOTSON
In Frederick Franck’s book, A Way of Seeing, he wrote, “We do a lot of looking: We look through lenses, telescopes, television tubes … our looking is perfected every day … but we see less and less.”
Never has it been more urgent to speak of seeing. Gadgets, from cameras to captures, from art books to videotape, conspire to overtake our thinking, our feeling, our experiencing, our seeing …. Quickly, we place labels on all that is, and we recognize everything but no longer see anything.
Millions of people, unseeing and joyless, bluster through life in a half-sleep mode, hitting, kicking, and killing what they have barely perceived. They have never learned to see or experience … What looking and seeing both start with sense perception, the similarity ends there.
I think there is a certain fitness we are reluctant to talk about. These are the struggles and disciplines that keep our spirit fit. Forcing us to ponder the question, what do I stand for? The process and effort takes time … It takes … a lifetime.
I love to listen to someone else’s journey and learn what life is teaching them. I always learn something. Our journeys have similar threads. We each struggle with relationships. We are usually influenced by someone in our life who has made us sit up and take notice. There was something … about her. We want to model our lives to her beliefs and courage.
We seem to follow the patterns of our parents. I can remember thinking, when I was growing up, that I would not do things the way my mom did. Or I would not say the things she said. Well, I do. I could not believe I was repeating the cycle. Sometimes when I do or say something that mom would have said. I look up, chuckle, “Hey ma did you hear that?”
Sometimes we see those patterns in our uncles, aunts, and grandparents. Cokie Roberts wrote a book discussing this very thing. She was doing and saying the same things her mother did and said. Our ancestors help us form an understanding of who we are. We all have stories to tell about the journey we have traveled and the life we have led. The way we see shapes our world.
For me, I was deeply affected by my grandmother’s teachings.
When I was growing up, they didn’t use the word “elderly.” My grandfather died before I was born, and Granny lived with us. It was obvious Granny thought differently. She was American Indian, and I was left in her care when my mom was busy with farm work. I was the youngest of five children. My Granny was “simple wise.” She had a way of living in the present. She had an interior silence that she spoke out of. She didn’t say much but when she did, you should listen.
I was 8 years old when she took me into the woods. When she did that, I knew I was going to be taught a lesson. She sat me down on a tree that had fallen on the ground a long time ago. The old smashed, brown, rotten tree had turned a light gray with long black streaks in it. Green moss grew in spots. She pulled me down on that dead trunk and said, “Sit and see.” I had no idea what she meant. When I got antsy and jumped up, she would pull me down and say, “Sit and see.” After much time and many trials passed, I began to see. I first saw little things crawling on the ground. I noticed leaves that had different shapes, sizes and smells. I noticed a quiet, a stillness that was filled with presence. I was caught up in a presence’s where a moment existed. Those experiences gave me the first clue that the earth contained many surprises and wonders. I walked into nature and nature walked into me. We became one.
She would say to me, “You can’t stay in yesterday. Tomorrow is not here yet. All you have is today. Make it count. It will not wait for you.”
Another great teaching of hers was how important it was to understand that I was a part of everything that had life in it. Another time in the woods, she directed me to a big tree. She walked me right up to that old ugly pine and said, “Put your arms around the tree. You must become one with it.” “Why?” I asked. “Because all living things become a teacher.” I finally understood she wanted me to feel the presence of life, even in a tree.
Granny taught me how difficult it is to stay spirit fit. It takes time and discipline. Probably the hardest task to conquer is discipline. We must stretch it everyday.
The teaching is simple. You sit on the beach, or somewhere outside before the morning appears. You sit in the silences. Slowly, you see the rim of dawn, gray streaks on the horizon. The gray turns lighter as the sun rises. You are caught up in the splendor in front of you. You want to reach out and touch its wonder and can’t, yet something has moved and lifted you beyond all you can see.
You see hundreds of people out in the world with the same desire to maintain fitness. You see thousands all over the country, on television and in your neighborhood trying to keep fit in many ways and forms. You are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Not just about things, but your … soul.
Folks don’t talk about the soul much anymore. It’s so much easier to talk about things. It is easy to get caught up in the outer world, the things we’ve never had time to do. Doing things is cold comfort on a winter night or when you’re sad or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve gotten back test results and they’re not good.
Let me introduce you to Jennie, who is 78 years old. That is her age in years, her inner fitness has no age. She refused to accept the stereotyping that society wants to place on her. She does not fear the changes in her body. She does not try to hide the lines in her face. In a heartbeat, she will tell you a story of how the lines came to be. As she tells her story, you are caught up in her excitement of life. Her eyes are filled with wonder and joy. Jen has learned to retain the mental openness and elasticity of youth. She did this through hard work and discipline. She will tell you there were times in her life she doubted. She doubted when her 16-year-old son, an only child, was killed by a drunken driver. She doubted when her beloved husband died of cancer. She will tell you it took great strength and a lot of courage to survive. Through her willingness to enter her own spirit, that mysterious gift hidden deep in her heart, to love through pain and the light radiating from her experience, she persevered.
I know that what I do is a gift from God. I have worked with the dying for 27 years. I have been around dying people all my life. My mother would drag me with her (I was the youngest) when she would sit with our neighbors when they were dying. It seemed a natural thing to do. It is not that I am especially good at it but the gift giver … is very good at it. I have to work at keeping my heart open. I must always remember, I am only the journey walker. I learned to look at the good in the world and try to give some of the good back because I believe in our loving each other completely and utterly. I try to live each day as if it might be my last. I make it count.
You and I are on the same journey in this life, we walk in the same direction and death is our exit … into eternity. If we live with joy, compassion, reach out and help the poor, sick, the dying and be with people we love and who love us and remember that love is not leisure time, it is work … and spiritual fitness demands discipline.
Bert Dotson is the volunteer coordinator/bereavement counselor for American HospiceCare in Bluffton, and a member of St. Gregory the Great Church with her husband, Deacon Bob Dotson. Excerpts are from her book.