MLK/We the People

MLK

Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized…

There is plenty of evidence pointing to all the ways that the human body uses sleep as a time for healing and making needed adjustments in our brains and bodies. Until we evolve past a need to sleep it remains a necessary part of life, and during our sleep we dream. And when we dream we process ideas that we might have only vaguely been aware of during our wakefulness.

This coming Monday, when our country formally remembers the work of Martin Luther King, the word “dream” takes on even more significance.  His was a dream that came from being fully awake in a segregated and gaze-averting world, but the song MLK, performed by the group U2, expresses a hope that King’s dream will be realized during his “sleep” (as one euphemism for death goes). Healing, along with dreaming, happens while we sleep, and healing seems more integral than ever to realizing King’s dream.

If the thundercloud passes rain, so let it rain down on him, the U2 song continues. Thunderclouds seem ominous, charged with electricity and brooding power. The rains and winds they bring can be dramatic, even frighteningly violent – but ultimately the air is clearer, the dead branches are blown out of the trees, and the rains bring new life. Dreams and thunderclouds…those both feel like potent symbols of this country’s continuing struggles with racial understanding.

We the people

I had the good fortune of visiting the then new memorial dedicated to Martin Luther King on a beautiful summer evening several years ago. It was crowded, but deep thoughts were clearly moving behind reverent faces and faraway looks. It was my privilege to be there with my mother-in-law, an African-American woman who is King’s exact contemporary, and I only wished that her ninety-nine year old mother could have joined us as well.  I had seen pictures and read about the memorial, knew about the controversies that surrounded its creation, and wondered if it could possibly hope to represent the magnitude of what King gave to this country, all the while thinking that as a work of art it was hardly breaking any new ground aesthetically, and in fact it looked rather Stalinesque to me in the photos I had seen.

images

How good to be surprised. The quotes are strong and (sadly) as appropriate to our own time as four or five decades ago.  I knew there had been criticism by Maya Angelou, among others, of the expression on King’s face, but we studied it for a long time and what we saw was a man who didn’t like what he was seeing, gazing, as he is, at the conflicted slave-owner Thomas Jefferson across the Tidal Basin. Or perhaps it’s an expression of discomfort, knowing he was being called to do dangerous work that required his reluctant response, found in words of the prophet Isaiah…here am I, send me.

Arms crossed, expression stern, King seems poised to do something about the inequities around him. We slowly read each of the quotes carved into the monument’s stones and mourned the lack of such soaring rhetoric in our own time.

On the way out a park ranger heard our conversation and stopped to ask what we thought of the memorial, and we asked him in turn what his impressions were. He told us that when he had first seen the memorial, weeks before it opened, he wasn’t very impressed. As soon as it opened to the public he realized that the memorial had been missing something. People.  People walking and thinking and quietly conversing, teaching their children and asking their elders – that’s what made the memorial a success in his opinion.

From the mountain of despair, a stone of hope, so the memorial is called.  We the people, so begins the U.S. Constitution. The people, each of us one stone of hope. Each of us called to be a dreamer.

Peace,

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Passivity

Well, being passive is not a quality we often aspire to or one that we admire in others, is it. We are a culture of opinions and strongly-held views, of action and moving forward. Those do all seem like good things, and yet…

Summer seems like a perfect time to lie fallow, to purposely be idle with the intention of increasing our fruitfulness later, and yet…

These are not times for passivity. Political and social trends require more engagement, more caring and more interaction, not less. By making a case for passivity I’m not suggesting that we be  uncaring, disinterested, or disengaged. Nor that we cultivate a “wait and see” mentality or turn a blind eye to life’s woes. I just see some merit in stepping back, giving ourselves a chance to observe the world from a little distance. Because a lot can happen when we’re passive, and a good place to start practicing is by simply sleeping.

Through most of human history we likely had two periods of sleep – with a quiet time in between.  Clocks and electricity changed our relationship to natural light and darkness, and industrialization channeled us into a more regimented existence, but some have always found their greatest creativity in the middle of the night.  A time that author Marilynne Robinson calls her “benevolent insomnia”

That world between sleeping and waking has a name – hypnagogia – and it’s been studied and appreciated for the affect it can have on creativity. Hypnagogia has been described as the shortest path our subconscious has for its communication with our conscious self. I find some freedom in knowing that I can let go of a problem and passively allow my subconscious to work things out while I sleep! How many times have you woken up with the answer, or just the right words, or a clear plan? I read somewhere recently that it’s not such a bad idea to go to bed angry. Sleeping on it can be a useful tool after all.

If we can fend off anxiety about not being asleep, we might enjoy the stillness and lack of distraction during a period of hypnagogia. It could be a time when we feel a stronger connection to our dreams and find more meaning in them. Often the solutions to problems come to us when we are sleeping because of a phenomenon that cognitive scientists call “pattern recognition.”  Our dreaming or hypnagogic mind finds links between new information and memories, because the brain is in a relaxed enough state to create new connections and neural pathways. Pattern recognition, by the way, is how we remember faces, learn language, and appreciate music. All of those things require memories from previous experiences coupled with the ability to absorb new information.

The monastic practice of rising in the middle of the night to pray during the sacred office known as “vigils” surely evolved in some part from this biological need we seem to have once had for a first and second sleep. I have to believe that monks came to those Vigils in a drowsy, yet receptive, state of passivity which helped them to absorb the readings and prayers even more.

Contemplatives talk about “resting in God,” a kind of letting go that is difficult for a lot of people, but have you ever had the experience of getting out of the middle of a problem and having the solution only then become apparent? Passivity, like sleep, has a purpose, and when we’re quiet perhaps that’s when the Holy Spirit finds its way to us more easily, speaking to us and sharpening our sight.

The word liminal is used by anthropologists to describe that time during a rite of passage when someone is on the threshold of change. People of faith use it to describe sacred places where they have an experience of God. These are in-between places, like our periods of hypnagogia. What seems clear to me is that when we are in such a place, we can’t actually do anything to hurry things along. These are times of opening ourselves up to something – whether it be change, understanding, peace, or whatever it is that we actually need.

I rest my case in support of (short-term) passivity. Read a book review in The Washington Post that happens to agree with this idea.

There is a surprising amount of music online related to the word “liminal” – bands and songs and an Icelandic festival even.  This is one I particularly enjoyed: Liminal

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.