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Archive for June, 2008

Cosmic and Particular

June, 2008

Our daughter-in-law, Jane, interprets the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” quite literally. Of course, in these days, municipal boundaries are a bit wider than they used to be: a day’s plane journey appears to mark the village limits for our family.

Which is why you would have found me in Washington, DC, recently.

We had it planned for almost a year, all of us grandparents. After the baby was born, when Jane went back to work, we would each take a turn and move in for a while: a two to three week stint, getting to know Ella Rose, helping ease the family back into a life that involved two jobs and a new baby. And lucky me—only a step-grandparent, really—but welcomed in as if this child was my own blood.

I gotta tell you, it was some grand time I had.

You all know how it goes when you fall in love with a baby. There’s the nasty task of poopy diapers turned to joy when she grabs her toes and chortles. There’s the weird feeling of a small person farting on your leg, and your own delight in her loud belch. There’s the smell of a baby’s head, oh Lord, that wonderful smell. There’s watching her suck so hard that she chokes, calming her when she’s beside herself, walking the floor singing her to sleep, cleaning spit-up off her face and your clothes. There is the reality of shaping your entire day around the needs of a twelve-pound, God-infested beauty.

In between the baby tasks and the general work of the house, I managed to read A General Theory of Love by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon. It’s a great book: if you were to pick up my copy, you’d find dog-eared, underlined page after dog-eared, underlined page. As I was learning to attend to this small being, I was reading about the profound effect that loving attention has on the open-loop physiology of an infant. It was amazing to read a scientific explanation of what I was experiencing—that because I’d paid attention to the fact that she cried a certain way when she was tired, if I didn’t get frustrated or afraid but instead held a calm place in my heart (in their parlance, did my own limbic regulation), she could let go, flop against my shoulder, sigh, slide into sleep. In a new way, I understood just how particular we each need love to be, and why we long for someone to “get” us, to notice us as an individual. It’s not just a good thing, this kind of specific, attentive love; it’s the thing that assures our very survival. It makes us whole.

I also managed, while living in the midst of this very focused love, to view a link to “My Stroke of Insight.” (http://blog.ted.com/2008/03/jill_bolte_tayl.php) In this video from the TED conference, Jill Bolte Taylor—a neuroanatomist—describes the joy she experienced when she had a stroke and the left hemisphere of her brain finally shut up. I sat in front of the computer and wept, and then I watched it again, and then I emailed to George so he could see it too. If you haven’t seen it, please do: it’s a remarkable weaving of science and the Holy that got me thinking deeply about my connection to the cosmos.

And then, since I was in DC, I had to visit the Museum of Natural History, where I stood in the rock section and looked at a tiny vial of stardust, full of infinitesimal diamonds: the same kind of stardust from which the entire cosmos was created.

That was my trip. Particular; cosmic. Cosmic; particular. I flew home thinking about how these two very different and essential realities fit together inside us, how they combine to make us fully human.

I kept on thinking about these things and wondering how to write about them until yesterday afternoon when I looked across the lake.

When I look across the lake from our house, I see the blocky peaks of English Mountain and Mt. Denver. Between them, they cup the New Denver glacier, which, like most all the glaciers across North America, is shrinking. Like most all the glaciers in North America, it will disappear, and very possibly in my lifetime. Unlike all the other glaciers in North America, this one is part of my daily life. Over my computer screen, right now, I can see its top. I love this glacier. When it is gone, I don’t know how I am going to be able to stop crying.

I’ll be weeping for more than the New Denver glacier, of course. I’m already weeping for loss of habitat, cyclone victims, diminished and unpredictable water flows, the human and animal and plant suffering that global climate change is bringing about. But I know and love this particular glacier; and it’s love of this glacier, this place, these trees and streams and bears, that has propelled me to do more intentional environmental work.

As I looked at the glacier yesterday, it hit me that I believe this is exactly the way that particular love is supposed to move us. Of course we are supposed to love particular people and specific things; that’s what it is to be a human. When Francis Geddes taught me to do healing prayer, he taught me that my first task was to open my heart to the person for whom I’m praying. I know I’m ready to pray when I look at the lines on their face or the shadows under their eyes and feel compassion.

There are some spiritual paths which seem to encourage detachment from joy as well as suffering, but that’s not my path. I think that to deny the importance of particular love is to reject humanness. I do understand the psychological importance of detachment. I just happen to believe that passion is just as important.

After all, “passion” is a central concept in Christianity: not just the suffering passion when Jesus died on the cross, but the loving passion that fueled his work of healing and speaking and touching. For me, detachment occurs when I feel deep love and concern, do all that I am capable of doing to change a situation, and then let go and acknowledge that it’s now in God’s hands. Detachment is the last step, not the first one. It has to start with passion.

Allowing the particular—my granddaughter Ella, the New Denver glacier—to ignite my passion is a damn good thing, as long as it doesn’t stop there. Were I so short-sighted as to only care about the particulars in my immediate life— unable to see the people and places closest to me as part of, a cipher for the cosmic whole—then particularity would indeed be a bad idea, sure to get me into fights with the neighbours, inflict suffering, ignite wars.

But passion, that deep love of the particular, when it’s extended and fully realized, has the capacity draws us out beyond ourselves. We start first by going to the place where we are willing to take risks and make ourselves uncomfortable for those dear to us. Then we extend that love to those that are dear to others, and finally to those whom God holds dear—to all of humanity, to all of the natural world, to the wide cosmic reaches.

There is a natural hesitation about loving so deeply because we are sure to get hurt. Loss, too, is a reality in the world of the particular. But holding back means that we miss out on the way that particularity opens into the cosmos. How love of this baby can crack us open to other babies, to doing something about famine or abuse or AIDS or education or the minimum wage. How love of this glacier can move me to love all glaciers, change my buying and driving habits, volunteer my time for environmental causes.

Mother Teresa said it best when she prayed, “Break open my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” Here indeed is the reason why we need to love particularity. Because the deep and overwhelming love we feel for our Ellas, these glaciers, this homeless man, that polar bear—these passions will break us open wide enough that we feel both the baby and the stardust beating out their cosmic tune in our hearts, transporting us from this tiny point of time and space out to the furthest end of the galaxies.

Copyright © Mary Therese DesCamp 2008