Angle of Attack

angle of attackAnything can “fly” if you push it through the air, or propel it, as you might have done with a balsa wood airplane as a child.   Or, if you played with dolls instead of airplanes, threw your Barbie across the room because your mother refused to let you wear your party dress to school. But if you aimed the airplane or the Barbie, or the Barbie in the airplane, straight ahead of you it quickly would have been pulled down to the ground by the relentless force of gravity.

For an object to continue on its path upwards it needs a force other than the thrust of an energetic arm to oppose the pull of gravity.   Physicists give this mysterious force the simple but poetic name “lift.”

Lift, in an airplane, is created by the difference in air pressure above and below the wing.   Due to the shape of the wing, air flows smoothly below the wing, but is disrupted above the wing by the wing’s curvature.   This disruption causes gaps in the atmosphere, lowering the pressure above the wing such that the higher pressure beneath “pushes” the wing upward toward the lower pressure.

That is why nerdy, snooty types take joy in saying that it isn’t really the airplane that is flying, but rather the wing.   For the most part, wings “carry” the fuselage and its passengers upwards. Not incidentally, when a pilot wishes to “roll” an airplane, that is, to rock its wings so that one goes up and the other goes down, he or she merely changes the shape of its wings by raising and lowering ailerons (a section of wing that is capable of moving).

Now, if you think about it for a moment, in order for the difference in air pressure to be created by the wing at all, the wing needs to have an air mass to oppose it. A wing won’t fly in a vacuum—which is why spacecraft don’t need wings at all. (Without gravity, there is no need for lift, and “up” and “down” have entirely different meanings; essentially, there is only “here” and “there”.)

Now, lest you think all this silliness is just random aviation arcana, I would suggest that it is rather important prelude to understanding the notion of “angle of attack,” which is the topic of today’s lecture. Simply stated, if you were to imagine a line drawn from the front edge of a wing to the back, and call that line the wing’s cord, then the angle between the cord and the wind is called the “angle of attack.”   It is a beautiful name, as so many things are in aviation, because, in essence, the wing attacks the wind, and the result of that altercation is not fight but flight.

If I haven’t lost you yet, you should begin to appreciate the richness of this metaphor.   First, you simply can’t get anywhere–you can’t even get off the ground, without creating a difference. Combine that difference with energy in the form of thrust and you really can take off.   It gives new depth, at least for me, to the old French saw “vive la difference!”   There really is no vive without difference.

But, too much difference may get you in trouble and lead to a stall.   You see, when a wing exceeds its critical angle of attack, the air above the wing will burble, and the pressure difference needed for the wing to fly disappears.   The wing “stalls,” is overtaken by gravity, and tumbles toward the earth.

I had a mentor who once said that the only difference between creative people and crazy people was that creative people get paid.   Sometimes, I suppose, that may be true, but sometimes crazy is just taking creative a bit too far.   Difference may be essential for flight, but too much difference may be hazardous.

As good metaphors would have it, exceeding one’s angle of attack and stalling is also a danger of metaphors themselves.   One risks the danger of creating meta-metaphors, and rapidly spiraling toward oblivion.   So, in a desperate effort to maintain your attention and remain airborne, let me lower my wings and get literal.   Perhaps it is just a simple, physical truth that in order to achieve flight we must make a difference.   That could be as simple as trying a new brand of coffee bean, adopting a neglected dog, or if you’re so inclined, creating a new vaccine.   But going too far ahead of the curve might land you out of a job or earn you a ticket to the few remaining loony bins.   Just remember to aim high, but when you begin to feel the burble, lower those creative wings of yours.

There will be a quiz next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All This Blighter Can Do

belly dancerI have nothing to say.   Not this morning as I sit here waiting for my coffee beans to extrude their bitterness into the water in which they are bathing.   Not any morning.   I am the embodiment of Billy Preston’s dictum in reverse: nothing plus nothing is nothing.   Nada.

Even as my daughter’s sweet little dog leaps up to join me in this favorite chair of mine, cuddling against my right arm and trembling, perhaps realizing that my wife is preparing to take a week-long writing retreat and leave the two of us to fend for ourselves—even as I sit here now fueled by darkly roasted coffee beans steeped long enough in the French press to enable most humans to leap tall buildings in a single bound, I can offer you, dear, sweet, patient and charitable reader of mine, nothing.

I can hear Julie Andrews singing in my ear: “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through– First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?”

‘Fraid so, Julie. You see, in the mid-seventies, as a graduate student in Murray, Kentucky, we had a visiting professor come to teach a course or two.   Michael Kaye was a graduate student himself from some other university, an “ABD” as we called them (having completed “all but his dissertation”), and he was simply brilliant, or at least that’s what my 23-year-old, barely crinkled brain thought.   He lived with his short, stocky, effervescent girlfriend, who once popped into the living room in full belly dance attire to entertain my then-girlfriend and I in their living room, the image of which I still have trouble wresting from my mind.

I admired Michael, in spite of his choice in girlfriends, and asked to read the most recent draft of his dissertation.   It was, as I recall, an extraordinary tome, literary and conjectural, and I told him that I liked it so much that he should publish it as a book. He didn’t hesitate to tell me that he had “nothing new to say” so wouldn’t even consider publishing it.   Was this humility, I wondered, or was he simply making a fair point?

Many years, perhaps decades later, I was teaching family therapy at Harbor-UCLA Medical School to psychiatry residents and a sprinkling of psychology fellows. One of the psychology fellows—Martine Van Milders, devoid of any trace of obsequiousness, commented after one of the classes that she enjoyed the way I presented family therapy, and that I should write a book.   Channeling Michael Kaye, and quite honestly, I simply expressed gratitude for the compliment, and added “But I have nothing new to say.”

Clearly more perspicacious than I at a similar point in our careers, she didn’t hesitate to set me straight: “No one has anything new to say.   It isn’t whether you say something new that matters, but how you explain what everyone else has to say.   That is always new.”

Comeuppance sings and hums like a perfectly tuned airplane engine, and learning from our students is especially sweet, in that “child is father to the man” way. Martine’s encouragement was a turning point for me, providing the rationale I needed to write my second book (the first one being a schlock collection of “activities” written with the jejune and dubious motivation of getting a book published before I turned 30).   So I wrote a book with nothing new to say, although I said it differently than others, contributing a single snowflake to the vast storm of family therapy literature.

These days, as I sit in fear of the dying of the light, I can’t help but find myself wondering why on earth any of us—what we do or who we are, matter in the brief moments between the before and after.   In the vastness that is the universe of space and the infinite of all that came before and all that will come after, I can’t help but wonder—perhaps in the renewed adolescence that seems inextricably woven with senescence, what meaning to attribute to this minute speck that is each of our lives.    Sometimes, I imagine, we are merely God’s expendable playthings, little marbles forever lost under the couch.

Perhaps, some of us will be remembered for a brief period after our corporeal deaths. Perhaps, a few of us will be quoted generations down the road.   But none of us, I imagine, will have had anything new to say.   Perhaps the only task that is embraceable is to simply say it all differently, to live a life that is uniquely ours.   We have little choice in that, I suppose, other than the choice of how fully to embrace that task. We can certainly choose to not bother to read or write because it has all been done and said before.   Or, we can embrace it, and write about nothing in our own unique and hopefully gratifying way, or hell, who knows, maybe even break out into a belly dance, chunky middles and all.

Grounded

I am so grateful for those of you who read these posts, and for those who take the time to comment either via the “comment” function below or by writing me personally.   Based on some of the responses I have received some of you may not realize that, while occasionally some news event prompts me to write a reaction that I send out right away, most posts are written well in advance of the time they appear.

My writing comes in fits and starts.    Sometimes, when the moon is just right and the stars are aligned, the words come through me like a cool breeze and with just a touch of editing they are ready to go.   But frankly, that almost never happens.   Most often, the post starts with an idea, a title perhaps, or an observation, and then I struggle to write something coherent about it.   And struggle and struggle.

All of the posts you have read since August (except this one) were written in August while my wife and I were up in Point Arena, where we have been fortunate enough to escape the Southern California heat for the last few years.   I was able to finish about 6 to 8 posts there, sometimes writing only three lines a day, and due to the wonders of the internet I was able to schedule those posts to appear at the rate of once every two weeks through November.

While I try to write in ways that have some significance, I fear that much of what I say are platitudes.  In the face of real pain, real suffering, words have little meaning.  Real suffering has a life of its own, and each of us responds in our ways to the various acts of kindness we hopefully receive.

The last post, for example, was written on the topic of dealing with crosswinds, and refers to a crosswind landing I was particularly happy to make in Nevada.   Within that post there are all the intended inferences to life’s crosswinds, but I can tell you very clearly that flying is not life and life is not flying.   Life’s crosswinds don’t always end up well.

I say all this because I have been royally grounded.  Not due to the kind of weather you encounter when you step out the front door, but the kind of inclement weather that resides within us, and can release itself into the most terrifying kind of thunderstorm.

Here is what I wrote yesterday, on the day the crosswind post came out: I am writing this in a place I would rather have never gotten to see in my life, on the infusion unit at City of Hope, where I am receiving my first infusion of chemotherapy that will hopefully begin to shrink the cancer that is growing rapidly on the base of my tongue and in my trigeminal nerve.

It has been a few weeks since I received the diagnosis, confirmed by biopsies and every kind of scan imaginable.  It probably started months, even years earlier, and was not symptomatic so I had no idea it was there.   In retrospect, there were minor signs, but they were minor, and I have had many regular physicals that couldn’t catch it.

Staying in the flying metaphor, I have performed all my scheduled maintenances, done all my pre-flights, but even still, things can go terribly wrong.

Although I know that flying can and even has been terrifying at times, and even though that terror stems from what appears to be imminent death, there is nothing in the flying world that I have encountered that comes close to the abject terror I have felt once I learned of my cancer diagnosis.

To some degree, terror is terror, and in the panic of terror our frame of reference narrows, our thoughts become unreasonable and constricted, our hearts race uncontrollably, and our minds wander to the worst case scenarios.

My tumor is large, and I try to judge by looking into the physicians’ eyes how hopeful or hopeless the situation is.   The best doctors seem to have the best poker faces: they typically repeat, “I don’t know,” when it comes to any statement about the future.  Occasionally they leak something that is not encouraging, but I have little choice to go with the program.   I have trust and faith in my doctors, and I have an extraordinary family and friends surrounding me, researching for me, sticking close by my side.

One thing that is clear is that I may never fly again; if I do, I will be one fortunate bastard.  I have looked back a bit at some of my earlier posts, and I realize at once how silly some of them are, how trivial, but also forgive myself because my intent is also to entertain.  Occasionally I take something away, like the post I wrote about flying through the crash.   There is so much more to say here, but I am well over my self-imposed limit of 700 words.  One thing I feel strongly about is this:  I am deeply grateful for those of you who take the time to read these posts.  I know most of you have better things to do with your time, and it is an odd way to feel connected to someone.   But without you, this practice of writing would be merely a therapeutic exercise, rather than one of connection.   And I do believe, to some extent, there is healing in that.

Maintaining Intention

Unknown-2My yoga instructor, Charles DeFay, is a kind, well-intentioned man, who is undoubtedly sincere in his beliefs, despite delivering his instructions a bit like a drill sergeant on Ritalin.   He repeats the same phrases along with the asanas (the positions) in each session; sometimes the phrases serve as punctuation, but just like the asanas, they are always the same.

This drives me crazy, because I despise conformity, and repetition of phrases, unless it is great poetry or literature, makes me want to tune out.  The phrases are recited as though they were scientific facts;  some are simply incorrect, while others, such as energizing “protons, neutrons and thought-trons” are just plain well-intendedgobbledygook.   But every once in a while a phrase pops up worthy of some real debate.  “Intention is stronger than will” is one that has perplexed me now for quite a while.

Now, I am a big fan of intention, or intentionality, as the existential philosophers like to call it, but I am also a big fan of will, and in a fight between these two superheroes I’m just not sure who would win.   While it is easy to fall into a pit of semantic mumbo jumbo, let me give you an example where I do think intention just might have an edge.

There is a common saying in aviation that if you believe you are going to crash, your job as the pilot is to fly through the crash—not into the crash, but through the crash.   I love that idea, because it rests on an assumption, a set of beliefs, that one can survive anything, that the situation is never hopeless, that one must never to give up.

If you intend on surviving a crash, while there are certainly no guarantees, you will give yourself every opportunity to make decisions even as you go through the storm.   On the other hand, if you simply willed yourself to survive, I suspect you would be more likely to stop making decisions, and in those particular moments, the Force may be busy with someone else, Luke.

Will usually has an object attached to it, but in its rawest form it is like an engine that roars but has no place to go.  Intention is the direction we give our will to go.  That is why, when an autopilot fails, instead of calling it George or Otto, I like to call it Willy Nilly.

To say that intention is stronger than will presumes that they are separate entities.  But if anything, will feeds intention and intention requires that food to survive.  I certainly intended to go to yoga today, but it wasn’t that intention that got me out of bed.  I am certain of that, because I stayed in savasana (corpse pose) while I tried really hard for the intention to get me upright.  Without pure will, and a whole lot of it, I wouldn’t have made it to yoga.

If you are inclined to argue with me, and if you are anything like me, you will be, then you could always argue that it was my intention to go to yoga that drove my will and not the other way around.   Or, even, in its more fundamental form, it was my intention to live a long and healthy life that drives the will to do so.  I am not going to argue with you.   I am only going to say that intention alone gets me nowhere slowly.   It is my will, a fundamental life-force not unlike Freud’s libido, that powers this fragile vehicle in which my intention resides.

At least that is how my thought-trons see it.

 

 

 

Grushenka Turns Final

GrushenkaI lost my beloved German shepherd Grushenka a couple of weeks ago, the family having made the decision to end what increasingly seemed like a hopeless string of hospital visits, unwelcomed medications and transfusions.   She was only seven or eight years old, much too brief a lifetime; at least too soon to say goodbye to that extraordinary, powerful spirit of hers.   We were all so blessed with her presence, and now, out of that sadness arises gratitude for all the joy and complexity she brought to those around her.

Certainly, none of us get out of this life alive, and I’m sure most of my readers have had many losses in their lives.     Nearly all pilots have known fellow pilots, as well as friends and family, who have “gone west.”    Death seems to come in waves, and I’m all too rapidly approaching the age my parents reached when their friends and family members seemed to die off one after another.    I talked to my father about how hard it must have been for him, outliving so many of them.  He was a very sensitive and emotional man, but after a while he became inured to it.   I remember when he heard the news about one of his friend’s passing, he just mildly shrugged, said a brief “hmm,” and went about his business.   At some point, I suppose, it all becomes too much.

There is no way to truly understand death, at least not scientifically.   Science can explain certain aspects of it, but science is ill-equipped to handle the big questions, especially those having to do with consciousness, and what happened before and what happens afterward.  All we really have to understand death are narratives and metaphors.

Sometimes I think about life as if it were the rectangular pattern around an airport.   Grushenka was a rescue dog, so I have no idea how she entered the pattern.  She had a rough upwind leg, struggling with two TPLO (knee joint) implants, but she recovered well, and eventually had a smooth downwind leg, carefree with the wind at her back.

Turning base, she somehow developed an autoimmune disorder, and her red blood cells were constantly being attacked.  For a while, there was some hope, with steroids and transfusions, and she was fighting the crosswinds well.  But eventually, turning final, the headwinds were too much for her, and she seemed to be giving up the fight.   Her landing was forced, as a pilot might say, but the euthanasia, surrounded by her doting family on the spot where she stood guard over the house, made it a good one.  Sadly, this was the one she couldn’t walk away from.

 

 

Leaving Home

images-1You know life is going pretty good when you wake up in the morning thinking about baseball and soccer.   The question I must have been tossing about in my sleep was one of the great questions of philosophy:  why is baseball so popular in the United States and soccer so unpopular, when the reverse is true in the rest of the world?

The conclusion that woke me up (not an easy thing to do) was this:  baseball is quintessentially American because the struggle that it represents is archetypal and etched deeply into the American psyche.   Baseball is about leaving home when the odds are stacked against you, struggling to get through obstacles until hopefully, you finally return home victorious.  Soccer, on the other hand, is about kicking a ball around endlessly with little hope of accomplishing anything, rarely using your head, and having your hands essentially tied behind your back.

Americans are uniquely obsessed with leaving home.  I certainly was, as was almost everyone I knew.  In fact, if I weren’t, my parents would have no shame in kicking me out so that I could learn to make it on my own.  That push to rugged independence is what built the American landscape, and what still characterizes much of it.

Parents of children with autism in the United States have a unique challenge.  Although it could be argued that all children, by definition, are unprepared to leave home, children with autism clearly, also by definition, do not have the requisite skills to make it on their own.  So what is a parent to do?

Many American parents buy into the cultural myth that leaving home is always a good thing to do—that independence is the thing to be celebrated.  (We don’t have a “Dependence Day,” do we?) It is made all the more attractive by the harsh reality that life for parents of children with disabilities is just harder than it is for others; in fact, they face Herculean obstacles.  And then there is the fear that I hear parents tell me so often, that should something happen to them, how would their children survive?

The pressure parents feel is magnified by the extent to which they buy in to the myth that independence is always good.   In many other cultures children with autism are thought to be a curse, bring shame to the family and are hidden away.   Yet in these same cultures “typical” children are not expected to “leave home,” but instead are incorporated into the body of the family.   This brings great relief for the biological parents, as children are raised by a combination of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings.

While we inevitably struggle to teach our children the skills they need to reduce the likelihood of their becoming victims, perhaps it behooves all of us to consider the benefits of a different cultural view, but without the shackles of shame.  When there is a child transitioning to an adult with autism the larger community should be brought in where the extended family once was.  Parents of children with autism, as do all parents, need a break.  They need time and ways to find lives of their own, and to reclaim their identities.  In a parallel way, they also need a way to “return home” to a comforting place.

We can’t always hit home runs each time we are at bat, and we can’t always make our homes the safe harbors we would like them to be.   But perhaps the more players we have on our team, the better able each of us will be to play the game.

 

 

 

 

 

Lacking Perspicacity

In the mid-70’s, a blind, retired neurosurgeon came to my office in Westwood with a profound dilemma. He had been happily married all his adult life, and just before his wife died about 7 years earlier, she made him promise never to kill himself. She knew their love was the thing that sustained him, and knew he would want to end his life when she was gone. He reluctantly agreed to the promise, but now, seven years later, unable to do surgery or even to teach, his depression was intolerable and he no longer wanted to live. He was caught between his promise to his wife and his passionate desire to die in order to escape a life that became meaningless, lonely, bitter, and exquisitely painful.

I did what a novice therapist might do in such a circumstance, which was to offer some words of encouragement, explore other possible ways to find meaning in his life, but was mostly flummoxed. I talked to my supervisor, who wondered along with me why this wealthy, highly successful neurosurgeon would seek therapy in the first place from a young inexperienced man in his twenties, but offered little else that I could grasp. I did in fact discuss this very thing with the patient, but he didn’t reveal how he got my name or why he chose to see me. I offered him the opportunity to see someone else, but he declined.

At the end of the second or third session, which was to be our last, the patient dismissed me, telling me I did not help him at all, and that I lacked perspicacity. I didn’t know what that meant, although after I looked it up that night I never forgot the meaning. Of course, in retrospect, he was absolutely correct.

Over the years I have thought about that man often, wondering if he went home and injected himself with the combination of drugs to which he had easy access and that would end his suffering. But mostly I think of things I would have said and done differently, and wish, as I have about so many other things, that I could do that one over with the knowledge I have now.

I can never know that if I were to face that blind neurosurgeon for the first time now, with the nearly 40 years and many thousands of hours of experience as a therapist behind me, I could say the right words and offer the right guidance that would effectively ease his suffering. I know that I would approach it differently, but that is all I know.

What I lacked the perspicacity to know in my mid twenties as I sat across from that blind neurosurgeon was that I too I am that blind neurosurgeon, and most likely so are you. Those of us who love deeply also suffer deeply. Those of us who pledge ourselves to a path will meet crises along that path that will feel too big to bear, and those of us who insist on having hearts will have them broken. The suffering that allowing ourselves to feel alive inevitably brings with it is not the thing to be feared; it is life itself.

Yesterday, on my sixtieth birthday, my daughter asked me what the positive aspects of turning 60 were. I was ashamed that I couldn’t think of any, and in her characteristic way, she offered, “Well, at least you’re not 70.”

In the moment, I lacked the perspicacity to tell her that it was being there, with her and the rest of my extraordinary family that was most valuable about turning 60. Maybe, if I make it to 70, I will gain the perspicacity to treasure each moment as if it were the last. Maybe not.

Air Hollywood: Flying the Friendly Skies

brace positionThe tagline for this blog begins with the words “aviation” and “autism,” and to say the least it is difficult to find ways of integrating the two topics.   A company called “Air Hollywood” has now made it easy.

Air Hollywood is not an airline per se; it is, as their name might suggest, kind of a fictitious, Hollywood airline.   Their business focuses on providing sets for the entertainment industry, including interiors of any kind of airplane you can imagine, cockpits, terminals, gates, etc., as well as stock footage and almost anything imaginable that is needed for movies and is aviation-related.   You have seen their work in films such as “Flight,” “Wolf of Wall Street,” and “Kill Bill” as well as hundreds of others.

Recently, Air Hollywood took on a new project.   They have decided to offer classes on preparing children and adults for the entire commercial-aviation related gamut of challenges that face them.    Over-stimulation at check-in areas, fluorescent lights, airport waiting areas and queues, boarding airplanes, and sitting in a confined airplane, all can pose challenges to those with autism.  They call their program “Open Sky for Autism,” and it is being offered for free.  It promises to help acclimate those with autism by using supervised repetition during simulations of airport arrival, ticketing, check-in, baggage check, TSA screening, boarding, in-flight simulation, and deboarding.   They even do one better than the “real” airlines, and offer complimentary lunch and refreshments!   Their opening event is scheduled for April 5th.  Here’s the link:  http://airhollywood.com/opensky/

If you have been following either this or my last blog for a while, you know that I am more than intrigued by people who do good things when they don’t have to.    I don’t know the folks at Air Hollywood, but I do know that for whatever their reasons they have decided to do something good for a chunk of humanity that needs it, something that is frankly difficult to do and outside what a typical therapeutic agency or clinic has the means to do.

Every religious tradition with which I am familiar preaches charity.   Growing up, I learned that the yields on the corners of each of your agricultural fields should be left for the hungry and poor.   I applaud any company that uses its resources to do good.

 

 

Sleeping in Security, Waking in Happiness

images-2 With apologies to Coleridge, behavior analysts are capable of “all things great and small.”  You might recall the story of Skinner covertly conditioning a hand waving response in a Freudian nonbeliever at a meeting in the psychology department at Harvard.  In case you haven’t heard it, Skinner was attending a faculty meeting when a guest psychoanalyst was criticizing behaviorism. Skinner wrote a note to the colleague sitting next to him, saying something like, “watch while I condition a hand-waving response.”  Each time the analyst gesticulated with his hand, Skinner smiled at him.  Sure enough, after a while, the analyst was waving his hands wildly.

If behavior analysts have the skills to covertly condition a hand waving response, teach a child with autism to talk, teach me how to tie my shoes (I need a refresher on this one), and keep people awake at nuclear power plants, then certainly we have the skillset to contribute to making the world a kinder, more peaceful place.

Behavior analysts, and psychologists in general, have often tried to extend their reach and apply their knowledge not only to the lives of one human at a time but to humanity as a whole.

Montrose Wolf, one of the pioneers and creators of the term “applied behavior analysis,” moved to Kansas primarily because it was there that he was given the opportunity to create solutions for problems of segregation and poverty.  Skinner, whose shoulders Wolf and other behavior analysts stood on, wrote “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (and perhaps “Walden Two”) in order to address societal ills, and psychologists from nearly all disciplines have typically expanded their focus from the individual to society at large, often toward the waning years of their careers.

Not long ago, a conference entitled “Behavior Change for a Sustainable World” took place in Ohio; behavior analysts from around the world met to discuss how they could use their skills and knowledge to combat climate change and other threats to a sustainable world.

Most behavior analysts I know are overwhelmed with the challenges of helping even just a handful of children, as the rest of us are often bogged down daily with the tasks of caring for our families and ourselves.   So it is only for the purpose of inspiration that I present to you these thoughts:

22 years ago, while under house arrest, Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize she could not claim until just a year and a half ago.  When she finally appeared before the peace prize committee, she gave one of her typically extraordinary speeches.  (You can read it in its entirety here.)

When referring to the international plight of refugees, Suu Kyi said the following:

“Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world in which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.  Every thought, every word, and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome is a contribution to peace… Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution.  Let us join our hands to try to create a peaceful world where we can sleep in security and wake in happiness.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Recalling a small Miracle

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Some Sundays ago in Point Arena I decided to skip yoga and convinced my wife to go to church with me. Every decade or so this nice Jewish boy likes to get a dose of how the rest of the world operates, and I do appreciate “the message.” I had originally wanted to attend the Catholic mass, but I knew I had a better chance of enticing my wife– someone I would consider very spiritual but not religious, if I baited the hook with the likelihood of getting to sing some of the Methodist hymns she loved so much as a child. It worked.

The guest speaker gave a charming lecture, which he opened by asking anyone in the congregation of eleven septuagenarians and one young mother with a baby in her arms to raise their hands if they believed in miracles. I raised my hand, but I don’t know if I would have raised my hand had I not had a firsthand experience of a miracle. It was a small event, made eminently more credible by the fact that it was shared with my cousin Paul, who to this very day, nearly a half century later, remembers.

Three days after my beloved grandmother Gussie died, my cousin and I boarded a bus to go somewhere in Queens. We were both in our early teens, and we walked to the empty seats in the back of the bus so we could look out the large rear window. There was another bus right behind us, and there, clear as day, my cousin and I watched in silent awe as we saw our grandmother boarding the bus behind us. The two of us were speechless; we just sat there and watched her slowly walk from the sidewalk up the steps and onto the bus. Our bus then departed, and when we lost sight of her, my cousin and I just looked at each other. Eventually, one of us said, “did you see what I saw?” The other one of us, as I recall it, just nodded silently.

I recently picked up a 2004 book by Todd Michael called “The Twelve Conditions of a Miracle” at a library book sale. Michael dissects the parable of the loaves and fishes (the only parable that appears in all four gospels) in order to uncover the conditions for a miracle to occur. He goes to the original Greek of Matthew, rendering the translation in greater depth than is offered in the King James Version.

As the title states, Michael discerned 12 ingredients to a miracle stew. The vision of my grandmother did not have all 12 ingredients, but it clearly had the first. Michael talks about the need for a “vacuum,” a space which nature abhors and within which a miracle can occur. The loss of my grandmother, a source of kindness and warmth in a family filled with conflict and pain, left a gaping hole. In the story of loaves and fishes, it was the hunger of the masses that was the void. In the resurrection story, it may have been the loss of a loving and compassionate minister in a troubled world that created the vacuum leading to the vision of Jesus rising three days after his death.

I have often thought that what my cousin and I might have witnessed was simply a woman who looked a lot like our grandmother, and that our vision wasn’t a miracle at all. I don’t think either my cousin or I believe that, but after all a belief is just that. In their seminal book called “The Social Construction of Reality,” Berger and Luckmann posit, as the title suggests, that those beliefs that comprise that which we think are real are in essence just socially agreed upon constructions.

When most of us think about miracles, we think about good things that happen that are inexplicable by the laws of science we have come to believe. What is a miracle, then, but  an event that somehow lives just outside the meandering border of the socially constructed rules of science?

Michael suggests that meditation is the most effective method for creating the condition of a vacuum. I am not sure that one needs to be in a vacuous state in order to experience a miracle, but it makes sense that however we come to a place of heightened receptivity, being in that place of openness to receive whatever the universe may bring our way leads to the greatest likelihood that we will experience the miraculous. Believing in miracles infuses that which lives just outside the border of belief with a precious sense of awe. And in my view, it is in that feeling of awe that we come closest to experiencing that ineffable construct that many of us refer to as God.