A few weeks ago my husband and I visited a long-time friend of the family in her new home in a care facility. The visit with her is never easy, since conversation is getting more and more difficult for us all. Her memory moves in and out, and with it the ability to talk about anything at length. As we drove into her neighborhood, I noticed the sameness and sterility of it all. Every building, for several blocks, was new and orderly and exactly alike-equally spaced in its yard, windows closed, curtains pulled, exact same colors, exact same yards. It would be easy to lose ones’ way in this neighborhood where individual differences were not apparent, at least from the outside.
Inside the memory care unit where she lives, twelve women were seated in a circular arrangement on a variety of chairs and couches. They sat closely, two or three to a seat, yet not one of them was looking at another. The silence was deafening. These women of differing ages, backgrounds, and health were just sitting. There was no joy in the sitting that I could feel, no words, laughter, or good smells of home cooked food. Just silent, barren sitting.
We learn in yoga that sitting with oneself is important, yet this was so completely different. Sitting alone by choice gives us time to reflect and tune into our own thoughts and processes. But this was a different sitting. This was the sitting of isolation within a group. There was no energy, no discovery of self or of others here. Only waiting, for something undefined.
I wondered how to reach a person who is locked into a journey into themselves without the ability to make that choice. We are a social people and need others to share with, care for, and communicate with. Words and thoughts bind us together. Even for those with dementia, the give and take of language is critical to well-being and connecting.
We sat at a table with our friend, still struggling to find common ground, when suddenly one of the care providers turned on some music. Hymns from long ago, probably when most of these women were young, filled the room. I was reminded again, as I so often am, of the power of music. What words can’t do, often music can. And so it was here. Slowly, one or two voices at a time, the women began to sing, first with deliberateness and soon with more joy. Their voices filled and warmed the room. The language of their childhood music was still inside each one of them. The young care worker sat between two very elderly women, not sure of the words or tunes but sharing the music book and singing along. She too had a smile on her face. Music was giving all these women connections with their past, their present, and with the young care worker-the future generation. The transformation in the room was palpable. We joined in as well and I was reminded of my early years, sitting with my grandparents in their small church in rural Herman. Then I listened to unfamiliar verses, today I knew them by heart. I was getting as much as receiving here in the place.
We are in the most social, family centered, contemplative time of the year. We struggle to keep our lives meaningful and calm. For many of us, our yoga practice and inward reflections are what keeps us grounded. With our practice we are more available to others. As we honor the longest day, celebrate the darkness that provides us a path inward, and make our pledges to uncover our own inward needs and strengths, remember that it many not take much to share who you are with others. A song, a family game around the kitchen table, a special meal from an old family recipe. These are the pieces of our lives that connect us to each other.
And as we begin this new year, think of someone you many know who lives in a “sterile” place right now. How could you reach out to them, and receive in turn the gift of sharing? Is there a small bit of joy you are overlooking in your life that would grow by sharing with another person? Is there a new place you can turn something from sterile into joy? Take time for yourself-to sit alone in silence to find your own joy. Then take this outward, into the light, and the company of others.
Here’s to a joy-filled new year!
Ann Christy Dybvik