I had a nice long call with my brother the other day where we compared notes about our lives. At one point he really nailed the way you feel some mornings when he summed it up as “I don’t wanna go to school today!”. This is a huge relearning project. When you spend thirty years with somebody, just about everything you do by habit has a component of them in it. e.g.: Final step when fixing something in the house: let her know it’s fixed. Call home when you stop in the connecting airport. All those habits have to be reset.
The other week a friend posted a link to a National Geographic article on teenage brains. It talked about how well adapted the developing brain is to the primary jobs of adolescents: making new connections, learning new tasks, adapting to new social situations, all the skills needed to adjust to moving out and starting a life independent of your parents. Adult brains aren’t as good at making new connections, but we trade that off for thinking faster with the connections we’ve already made: all those habits again.
Now I find myself doing a massive rewiring job on a middle-aged brain, one that favors habit over flexibility. No wonder I’m tired a lot, and often distracted. That distracted business sometimes feels like the worst of it. I’m really getting sick of being half-present, and I worry that I am not giving back nearly as much in my interactions with other people as I am taking. It seems inordinately difficult to keep up my end of a conversation, and my diffused attention probably seems a little rude from the outside.
I owe more to the people I’m talking with, particularly the friends whose company has kept me sane over these months. It’s still just really hard to give them what they deserve. Maybe that’s why I find the group singing so attractive. Music commands the whole brain to attention like nothing else. When I am singing with a group of friends I feel like I am fully participating, not half-there.
As I think about it now, and consider my life before Barbara, I realize that was always the way I connected best with friends. I led a music group that sang at the chapel on campus, but I wasn’t particularly religious, I did it mostly for the sake of the music and the fellowship. Barbara was much the same way on the chapel on her campus, and that is how we met. We didn’t go on that retreat because of a deep religious need, each of us went because our friends saw we were burned out and needed a break, and talked us into going away for the weekend.
Lately I spend a lot of my time with a group that is built around ritual dance that has been imported for the sake of ritual itself, with the idea that the repetition of ritual builds communities. Nothing magic or supernatural, just the constant reminder of the passing of the seasons, and that life goes on in its cycles, even after a tragedy. Again, the group is held together at least as much by the fellowship as it is about the dance. I sing with friends in a choir that performs a lot of medieval liturgical music just because we like the way it sounds. So maybe I haven’t changed that much after all.
The music makes the connections when I can’t. I am slowly getting stronger, though. I have recently had the feeling that I am halfway to something- but how can I be halfway to someplace when I don’t know where I am going? Maybe it’s just halfway through that rewiring job. Just learning how to be a singleton again, after being half of something for oh so long.
Practice, repetition, ritual.
Find the pitch, learn the entrances, stumble through, get the rhythm, do it again, a little more confident the next time, again and again until you nail it and the chords send shivers down your spine.
Drill the steps, learn the figures, fake your way through, catch the music, enter the flow, again and again until it is all smooth, unforced and the team moves as a unit.
Encounter the absence, look back, hold the memory, let go of the loss, turn forward, again and again until the forward turn is no longer forced, but steeped in anticipation. Stop dreading a future alone, and start looking forward to a future of possibilities.
I can grieve in private, but I have to recover in public because there are no practice sessions for this. Excuse my stumbles this first season. I am still learning the steps, but I’m slowly getting better at it.
Practice, repetition, ritual. Unlearn some old habits, reinforce others, and make some new ones. Saturday a baptism, Sunday a choir rehearsal, Monday a wake, Tuesday Morris practice. This is the way our brain builds connections. This is the way we reinforce communities. This is the way I will make it home.