Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Susan Baller Shepard on Awareness

I’ve found there are moments that leave me aching for something I know ahead of time, moments and times that leave me unable to formulate words to convey what my heart already knows and pre-grieves. In the Midwest, we know this anticipation, the winter storm warning on TV, letting us know what is to come, what we need to brace ourselves for, before the winds pick up, before the roads get slick and undrivable.

The year before my oldest child Alex left home, I heard white noise in the background of my brain. It was constant static coming through loud and clear: He’s leaving. He’s leaving. The hiss and sputter: He’s leaving. He’s leaving. All I had done for eighteen years was coming to fruition, the very thing I’d worked hard for was happening. The hiss and sputter proved relentless as time.

As a toddler, Alex looked like an angel with blonde ringlets. As a preschooler, he became all business, wearing glasses and cardigans, and telling me he was “studying,” and not to disturb him. I’d find him in his room sorting Matchbox cars by color, or reading through a stack of books. Or he’d create a spine out of plastic tooth flossers. This smart boy was now all grown up, having survived a lucky run of childhood, ready to fly out from under. As a mother of three, my son Drake would follow shortly after, and my teenage daughter Lizzie, having just entered the eye-rolling adolescence, would follow soon after Drake.

The launching of children is an old story, but this time, with these kids, it was my story. It was not the dry dusty story of someone else’s parenting. It was real. It was close. It was heartbreaking.

The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) is not a dry dusty tale either. The CMB has proven to be a gift that keeps on giving, like lessons in parenting, they just keep coming.

A year after I was born, in May 20, 1964, in the midst of the commotion of the space race, the civil rights movement, and yet another war, in the midst of this noise, other noise was coming to earth, telling a deep story, with a much longer storyline.

At Bell Telephone Labs, in New Jersey, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were trying to determine the spaces between galaxies by using what had been a commercial antenna to detect radio waves bouncing off satellites. They were trying to reduce all noise, but couldn’t. They kept getting the hiss and sputter of persistent static. Penzias and Wilson were concerned the static might be due to the pigeons and their droppings, sure that something was interfering, gumming up the works. Nothing was clear.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far away, or thirty-seven miles away, at Princeton University, three astrophysicists were trying to find microwave radiation from the Big Bang, work predicted by earlier scientists. These astrophysicists figured they’d find this early microwave radiation in microwaves, if it could be detected. It would be a birth announcement of sorts, containing information from way back in time. These two groups doing research were connected via the conduit Bernard Burke at MIT, who told Penzias about the work being done at Princeton by the astrophysicists seeking microwaves. Penzias and Wilson at Bell Telephone Labs realized that the noise they were trying to get rid of was actually what they were seeking all along. It was real. It was close. All this background noise— they thought they needed to get rid of—instead contained the meaning they sought. The static was a treasure map, and the treasure, both.

Who knew that in this excess noise were answers to the origin of the universe? Who knew?

In How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, Dr. Seuss writes, "Oh, the noise! Oh, the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! That's one thing he hated! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!"

The fact Alex is a drummer adds to the excess noise that comes with sending Alex off to college, because the silence when he is gone is deafening. “Why don’t you plan to meet your roommate before you live in the dorm?” I asked. “I want to be surprised,” Alex responded, “I don’t want to ruin it.”

There’s a switch that clicks on when a child is in utero. The switch has a “High Alert!” function, which acts like a large antenna, picks up on if the baby isn’t kicking much, or doing lots of somersaults, or if there’s bleeding, or any number of other concerns. Once the baby is born, High Alert! becomes an active remote sensing system for infant coughs in the night, the sound of ragged breathing, changes in skin or face or temperature or smell. A parent becomes a multi-modal center monitoring an infant’s every system: How is respiratory? Respiratory seems fine, how is Digestive? Digestive system is a-okay, taking care of business. On through the line-up the parent brain goes, for this little one who weighs about as much as a gallon of milk.

The thing is, this High Alert! software program in my parenting system, is becoming redundant. Like other parents, I’ve had to shut off zones as my kids have gotten older. The infants became children, the children became teenagers, the teenagers became young adults.

  • Driving a vehicle with a permit? Turn down the safety zone.
  • In the basement with a boyfriend/girlfriend? Turn up or down a zone, depending….
  • Moving out? Leaving for college? Shut down many zones all at once.  

The static in my head didn’t tell me what it meant. It merely whispered that there was more happening than met the eye, in my son’s senior year. Then he was gone.

I opened wide the door to his bedroom, kept it propped open, no one was there anymore. It stayed the way he left it, the fifteen-year-old goldfish “John” swimming in the murky tank, dirty socks all over the floor. From afar, I tried to parent using innate remote sensing. My antenna was alert for subtleties, in tone of voice, in affect, as we Facetimed or texted or talked on the phone. I studied the child-adult hybrid, the child I knew and the one I didn’t fully know yet. This shift made me keenly aware of my built-in obsolescence as a parent. I watched myself to sense how I could gum up the works, sabotage their leave taking, prolong childhoods a little longer.

The subtleties of Alex in my home would be no more: the particular cups he used and never with a coaster, the scent of his room full of sweaty drumming shirts or basketball shorts, his heavy footfall, the way he closed the back door. With my three kids, without seeing them, I could tell by their echoes, who just came in the door, by how they walk, how they put things down, where they go. This has changed. The radar signals I send out for this child stop bouncing back, the child has moved away.

Poet Walt Whitman, in “Leaves of Grass,” wrote,
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, 
    You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach, 
    Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know, 
    Perhaps it is every where on water and on land.

Perhaps at the end of the day, love and the Cosmic Microwave Background are a lot alike. Cosmic Microwave Background radiation goes out in all directions. CMB radiation fills the universe, it can be detected in each direction we look, and perhaps if we could actually see it, we’d see it was everywhere. Just because we can’t see it with our eyes, doesn’t mean it’s not there. The sky is bathed in it. It’s a matter of knowing it’s there.

Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard is a co-founder and editor of Spiritual Book Club with its blog "Real People, Real Lives, Real Spirituality" with over 200 interviews from around the world. Susan blogs for the Huffington Post religion section and is author of Matching Yu. She teaches religion at Heartland Community College in central Illinois, where she lives with her family.

The author reminds us that "Just because we can’t see it with our eyes, doesn’t mean it’s not there. The sky is bathed in it. It’s a matter of knowing it’s there." Can you think of an experience in your own life that opened your eyes, made y ou acutely aware of things, people, feelings you often ignore or simply do not notice? Explain.

Please share your reflections with us here.


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