What Does Success Look Like?

On Monday evenings, my son and daughter-in-law take me to adaptive yoga at the Courage Center. It is a remarkable experience; you have never seen so many challenged bodies in power wheelchairs guided in yoga by such thoughtful teachers. The founder of this adaptive yoga is a man by the name of Matt Sanford. I will not relate here his life and calling; he tells his own story far more profoundly than I possibly could. A masterful teacher, Matt’s story is unapologetically human.

Matt teaches from his wheelchair, asking from us a practice of yoga that is thoughtful and demanding.  He stops and corrects and questions and observes, skillfully engaging each of us individually.  Matt freely admits little experience with ALS, so it should have been no surprise that he  asked me, “What does success in yoga look like?” I was in the middle of modified sun salutations, my son and daughter-in-law on each side of me raising my arms and helping me to drop down while lifting my chest, drawing in a centering breath. My eyes were closed as I sought memory of the motions required, forgetting that there was something of equal importance outside. I stopped. I thought. And I answered, “I guess just being, here, in this place is success enough for me.”  It wasn’t quite what I meant, but it was the best I could do at the time.

Silence, then, “I guess I wasn’t expecting an answer quite on that level.”

I’m not sure what he meant, but I know the experience of asking a question and receiving an answer from a different place.  He asked the question two more times that night, each time causing me some internal turmoil.  After all, ALS and success are not often tied together, but the struggle was instructive and in many ways symbolic of a week that was.

Last week, I experienced one of the highest highs and one of the most humbling lows since my diagnosis. And somehow, the consideration of success coming out of my yoga course, in the presence of a teacher who I do not yet know excepting his authenticity, seems meet and right and totally appropriate. Last week, many members of my former church choir showed up to surprise me with a gift of song. Last week I ended up in the emergency room; my non cooperative body further refusing to cooperate.

How wonderful it is to be surprised by song from people you love.  A lifetime ago, we spent such meaningful time together—they put up with my jokes, my cajoling, my coercing, sometimes my overbearing personality, and still found a way to make beautiful music. They gifted me by singing three pieces sung together so many years ago, and it was absolutely divine. They sang so well, incorporating small but significant interpretations that we had arrived at together, echoes of music that still resound within my deepest meditative soul, polishing the sheen and shine on these three choral jewels that were and remain expressions of the beauty and possibility humanity can glimpse through the artistic endeavor.

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Of course, I blubbered and cried and sobbed with joy for life so blessed that friends would sing for me.

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And there was more to it than the singing, for I had not seen so many of them in years. What a commentary on the pathways of life this was. All of us had been lost and found in life’s ever-divergent paths – children and history and marriage and divorce and new careers and no careers and sickness and health and emotional upheaval and moving on. I wish I would have had the strength to insist they stay the hours until the evening had ticked away one delicious second upon another, but my beloved Ev had forewarned them that my stamina is compromised. And so they lined up and one by one took my hand and talked a little and reminisced a lot and cried in unison and harmony and love and affection, a sacred polyphony of friendship built upon the beauty that making music together spawns.

To see them all, to hear them all, to breathe them in as one would inhale spring after a gentle rain and a drying sun, lifted my heart for just a moment into a place that I know still exists, even though I do not perceive my presence amid those lofty arches anymore.  Thank you Judith and Andy, thank you all – my beautiful beautiful singer friends.

But balance mandates new lows, offsetting such a soaring high.

One of the afflictions for anyone who spends the majority of their time in a wheelchair is plumbing mishaps. The details are not important, except that two nights after the beauty of my choral gift, Ev delivered me to the emergency room of a local hospital, hoping to address the pain and dysfunction of a body that refused to operate normally. By the time I reached the hospital I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. And over the next several days, the fear of going back and the recovery needed from the physical manhandling that must take place in an emergency room situation was my reality, my raison d’être, my conscious being.

What do you think success looks like now?

By the end of my yoga class the question arose two more times. I was tempted to stay in my ALS space clumsily describing physical progression, cautiously retreating from any activity that might result in pain or damage. The space was safe and the advice was prudent, not profound. But deep learning does not take place in comfort. With one phrase, my teacher opened vistas of possibility that my body might occupy even as physical capacity wanes. With one phrase, my teacher reminded me of the balance and the center when we accept the unity of body and mind and spirit and life. With one phrase, inner and outer, horizontal and vertical, down and up, reflection and narrative opened up the holy possibilities before me.

“You existed before this,” he said.

At the very end of the class that was far more physical than I ever thought possible, at the very end of the week that had left me soaring in the emotional stratosphere and groveling in the ditch of human existence, at the very end of a day that had left me so tired that I was searching for every excuse not to attend my class, I think I glimpsed what success looks like.

In my life, there will be ALS, not to be fought, but rather embraced. Now ALS is me and I am him. He will require all manner of experience that feeds my soul, balances his presence, and moves me on into the next challenge. In so many ways, life with ALS bears remarkable similarity to my life before. It is always about balance, and balance is only achieved on the sharp end of the needle threading its way in and out of the cloth of the task at hand, and binding new threads to old fabric.

Friends sing, and bodies break, and courage is centered in existence before this.

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15 thoughts on “What Does Success Look Like?

  1. What an inspiring post. I have met with Matthew a few times and am awed by his calming spirit. I read his book…quite an amazing story. Enjoy reading your posts.

  2. I am thrilled you have found Matt (or maybe the other way around). The first time I heard him speak was on MPR with Krista Tippett and I thought of you. Your blog had me shedding tears this week as I thought about limitations, often limitations we impose on ourselves. And possibilities, possibilities often left by the side of the road because of disbelief or fear. Thank you for reminding me about believing, about how highs cannot come without lows, and about the connections we make that never really go away.
    Tanya

  3. Ah, I hear your beautiful voice again! The gift of song can absolutely carry us to new vistas and your beloved choir has done just that. Your writing today has left me with new questions, ponderings on what success looks like in multiple venues, limitations and possibilities. This is particularly timely as we held Clinical Practice Orientation today with those eager yet anxious faces staring back at me. Thanks for adding the photos, Bruce. Now if only we could hear the music!
    Carole

  4. Matt spoke at one of my PEO meetings a couple of years ago. He has a connection to Miriam Richert at Good Sam. What an amazing story he has.

  5. Bruce, our paths have rarely crossed – but each time has been deeply memorable. Who knew I would meet you after teaching Ev in a class at UST. Who knew I would see you conducting the choir at church (Radiohead has never been the same for me and you always come to mind!) Then, who knew you would be the smiling face and first hand I shook as I received my graduate degree. And now, more than you could ever know, who knew that your words and your struggle would become such an inspiration and touchstone for me in my daily life. As you have faced great losses, your impact on me and my life has increased. I always hear your MPR interviews as I get ready for school, and read your blogs, and keep up on Facebook. These distant communications somehow feel close and sink deeply into my spirit. I have battled MS for 14 years. I am fortunate to currently be symptom free and doing very well – but the “what if” question and the “how would I handle loss of (fill in the blank, it is a roulette type of situation)” has been in my sphere of life for years. I now know that I would try to face the future with the same realness and depth of spirit that you model for all of us. I wanted to let you know that you are giving more than you may realize, and that you have made a huge difference in my life.

    Peace,
    Beth

  6. Amen! The test is to find the center…balance. You are a beautiful man. Namaste…the spirit is me greets the spirit in you.

  7. Stunning post. As always, I come away from your writing unsure of which part I loved most. Today it might be “deep learning does not take place in comfort.” Or it might be “the week that had left me soaring in the emotional stratosphere and groveling in the ditch of human existence.” Or perhaps that “balance is only achieved on the sharp end of the needle threading its way in and out of the cloth of the task at hand, and binding new threads to old fabric.” Stunning.

  8. Thanks for sharing, truly two beautiful experiences. As an ALS caregiver to my husband for 7 years, I ask for help in writing to the FDA before the 8th of February and share how ALS has affected your life and your family. You can get more information at MDA.org. The ALS community needs every voice to find the cause and the cure for this disease. Please write the FDA! Thank you.

  9. Anna and I would have loved to be a part of that choir. Singing with those people under your conducting is something I miss very much.

  10. Bruce, what an inspiring post about life and the love of it. I am so glad you have found the yoga class and that it is lifting your spirit. The concert sounds like it was truly a wonderful gift from wonderful friends. Much love, Alice & Don

  11. Dear Bruce,

    Thank you for candid diary and exquisite, precise writing.  I am an adaptive yoga teacher from Springfield, Illinois.  Your blog teaches me.  I trust it will make me a “more successful” teacher.

    I’ll be attending Mind/Body training for adaptive yoga teachers this April.  Perhaps our paths will cross.

    Sincerely, Juliet (Slack)

    ________________________________

    • Dear Bruce,
      In a recent conversation with our daughter, Catherine, she shared with us your blog and her recent visit with the choir. . While we first met you on a few occasions at the Good Shepard church, our fondest memory is the gift you gave to our family when you traveled all the way to British Columbia to sing at her wedding in 2004. Please know that you have truly touched many lives and we share your story with heartfelt caring and compassion

      Doug and Joanne Leatherdale

  12. Oh, how I wish I could have been there. I see so many beloved faces in that last photo: Lael, Mike, Jen, Andy, the Merrys. I understand this post so much because my own recovery involved yoga, and the necessity to accept the highs and lows. My first yoga teacher (across from Good Shepherd) told me, “The goal of yoga is to forget about the goal.” It is not the end, but the experience that matters. Even now, as I type this from a pub in Punakaiki, New Zealand, I must remind myself of those words, because it is only then that I can learn, and grow, and survive. It is only then that I truly realize the importance of loving others and accepting other’s love in return.

    Sending much love to you and Ev,
    Michelle

  13. Hi Bruce,
    A few weeks ago, I gave this speech at my Toastmasters meeting. It was presented to a group of people interested in leadership and communication, so it might strike you as true but not complete. I couldn’t possibly cover all the ways in which you are wonderful.
    Carol

    Introduction: For a decade, Bruce Kramer shared his musical gifts with the Good Shepherd choir. Here is the story of Bruce, the choir, and a gift of song.
    A Gift of Song
    It can be magical singing in a choir, because even a mediocre musician like me can be part of a great choir. I was once a small part of one. Our director, Bruce, made it all possible.
    About 15 years ago, Bruce became my church’s music director. The congregation was small but had recently started attracting more members and younger members. The same holds for the choir. We had begun to have real potential, but we needed someone to show us the way.
    Like many musicians, Bruce had a day job, in his case a demanding one, as a professor at the University of St. Thomas. He, his wife Ev, and their two teenage sons had just returned to the United States after years abroad. Bruce had been a music teacher and later a principal in Norway, Egypt, and Thailand.
    Bruce had eclectic musical tastes: Renaissance, shape note music, spirituals, classical, rock, folk, international music. We sang many songs that weren’t traditional church music. An e.e. cummings poem set to music. A piece for Pentecost timed with a stopwatch during which the choir babbled the syllables of “alleluia” in a random order. Over the years, we did it all, and it was a joy—if only to see the congregation’s faces on that Pentecost piece.
    Bruce included some easier pieces to allow us time to work on the more difficult ones that would stretch us. Those challenging pieces became favorites, and our skills increased. He expertly altered some of the music to match our abilities. He didn’t limit the vocal range to what most members of a section could hit. If one soprano could hit that high note, then it was her note. We’d have three altos softly sing the note an octave down to give it more resonance. Once, I got bragging rights for being the only alto who could hit the lowest note. Nobody else has ever asked me to sing at the lowest end of my range, except as a stand-in tenor.
    Especially for those more difficult pieces, Bruce would have to show us how we could do it. Sometimes, we were skeptical. I remember one piece in which the altos started way low, built higher and higher, and that last high note … we were supposed to hold it for 20 beats. “What drug was the composer taking, when he wrote that?” we demanded. But Bruce showed us how we could get there, as a group, with some help from the sopranos in sustaining that high note.
    A watershed moment for the choir came when we performed Hymnody of Earth by Malcolm Dalglish, which is about finding the divine in nature. It was the first time that members of the choir sang all the solos, instead of brining in professionals. After that, we knew we had all the talent we needed internally, and Bruce selected major works that would use and develop those individual talents: Mike, Lael, Jen, Andy, Catherine, Camille, Kaarin, Judith.
    Bruce made singing in the choir a spiritual experience too, in part through his selections and through discussing their history, meaning, and interpretation with us. You might imagine being in a church choir would automatically be a spiritual experience, but it’s so easy for the technical requirements to overpower the message. I owe my appreciation of sacred music—and the sacred in music—to Bruce.
    Eventually, Bruce left to direct another choir. Our new director was quite accomplished, although more traditional. The choir Bruce had built remained strong and vibrant.
    Now the story becomes difficult.
    Three years ago, after a year of intense discussion about the future, my congregation voted to merge with another one nearby. Some members left over that decision, including about half the choir. Overnight, that treasured connection vanished. It was painful. I stayed with the merged congregation.
    A little over two years ago, Bruce was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. For the sake of simplicity, think of ALS as fast-forward aging. Bruce is in a body increasingly defined by what he can’t do anymore. We’re all still working through our grief.
    In early December, Judith (bless her) started the idea of surprising Bruce by going Christmas caroling at his home. She got an enthusiastic response. It took a while to get off the ground and changed format, but the result was amazing.
    In January, we gathered to rehearse: former Good Shepherd choir members, a few musical non-choir members, and even a couple people from the combined congregation who hadn’t sung with Bruce but knew what he meant to us. Old hurts were set aside. We chose three pieces we loved, about God’s abiding love and the promise of a life to come. Whether we could sing them without crying was outweighed by knowing they would be meaningful to Bruce.
    Even though it had been years, we remembered how Bruce had directed those songs. We sang them as we had before, and our voices blended together. It was like coming home to be there again singing with those people. It was poignant, but it was also once again magical.
    The next Sunday, we gathered again for a brief rehearsal and then went to the community room in Bruce’s complex. As he rolled into the room, we yelled “surprise!” Then, with smiles and tears all around, we shared with him the gift of song.

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