Before he studied to be an industrial engineer, my dad taught in a one room schoolhouse. Sometimes he would remember a favorite lesson and try to teach it to me. Once he asked me to read a sentence he jotted on a 3×5 card:
All that that is is all that that is not is not
Without punctuation, not knowing where to pause, the words were nonsensical, a jumble. Then he added the missing pauses and asked me to try again.
All that, that is, is; all that, that is not, is not.
This tautology always made Daddy smile, especially when he could share his puzzle with the uninitiated. I can still see him seated at the 1956 gray Formica kitchen table, white shirt sleeves rolled, the slide rule in his shirt pocket nudging a pack of Lucky Strikes. I can still hear his soft chuckle. Of course the statement was silly, an unnecessary repetition of the obvious. However, knowing where to put the pause gave the reader power over the text, allowed her to make the reading meaningful. That was my introduction to the importance of punctuation – and the pause.
Life can seem like an unpunctuated sentence at times. Days follow days like laundry hung on a clothesline. Where is the meaning in that? Of course, our work and our culture offer us some interruptions from monotony – the “weekend,” the “vacation” However, interruption and pause are not quite the same thing. One is happenstance; one intentional.
The pause that matters most – I believe – is the moment of chosen reflection, the drawn breath of gratitude, the recognition that life is a gift. To be aware in the present is to experience the IS-ness of life. The Biblical story of Moses and the Burning Bush (one most notable pause) teaches us that God’s name is I Am. As a result, for those who subscribe to the faith story that we are all the children of God, we know our name, too. We are the Am Family. And if all that, that is, is; and, all that, that is not, is not, then we better make sure we IS!
I don’t know how you make sure you IS, but I find that I reflect best by reading and writing. Through the power of story I can discover if I am being who I intend to be or if I need to make mid-course corrections. Reflection is a powerful tool.
The South Bend Tribune recently published an article about the Reading for Life program in which a juvenile offender is paired with a mentor to read a book with significant themes and strong heroes who must make important choices. Other communities have implemented similar programs with equal success. Why? Because a story allows humans to pause their narrow focus on themselves long enough to make connections with another, to consider our similar frustrations and pain, to entertain new possibilities for making life more meaningful.
That result is what everyone wants more than anything else in life – meaning. And that understanding happens when we struggle with the text of our own lives, when we put the pauses in the best order to make sense of what IS. Not what we pretend, not what we dream, not what we desire, but what IS.
I hugged a fellow widow at church yesterday who asked the usual question, “How are you doing?” I gave the usual response, “I am fine! How are you?” She replied, “I’m fine, too.” We exchanged knowing looks. “What are the options, right?”
Right. Except there are other attitudes to choose from. To choose to face life as it really is and yet to be grateful, to remain aware of the gift life represents, and to work through grief in hope I think represents the best path. But I must insert regular pauses to keep that awareness, to help make that meaning clear.
In life, it is not the pause with Coca-Cola that refreshes, but the pause in the Presence of I Am. Punctuate responsibly.