I once had a friend, Lista Foster, whom I came to love very much. She was a member of All Saints, already in her late sixties when I met her. I learned about Art Basel from her and when the Queen Mary II docked in Fort Lauderdale, during her maiden voyage in 2004, Lista had a big party in her small and lovely apartment so we could share in her wonder, watching that big ship come into port. She was funny, she was smart as a whip, she had that combination of transparency, vulnerability and grit that comes from being a person in recovery. Most of all, Lista was blessed with faith, curiosity and kindness.
In 2003 or 2004, I led an adult program called Journey in Faith, a very Episcopal kind of weekly study/discussion/reflection group at All Saints, that met over dinner on Tuesdays. We took turns seeing to the different aspects of our meetings and one week, it was Lista’s turn to lead the opening prayer. She brought a “mindfulness bell” and led us through a lovely meditation that began when she rang the bell a single time. I was entranced.
Life went on, we finished our program and a couple of years later, Lista had a massive stroke that robbed her of the gift of speech. Her fine mind was still there, that was obvious. You could see the anger, the frustration in her eyes, as she struggled to form words, to write, to do anything to let you know she was still there. She got more and more frail and finally, one day she died. There was a sense of relief for her. I preached at her funeral and as I prepared, I kept coming back to that single bell peal that Lista had used to lead us in prayer. I could imagine Lista, her life, as that beautiful tone that was created, went forth with such clarity and preciseness—it was this tone, not that. There was a radiant singularity to her being. While Lista’s speech became more and more garbled and “meaningless” after her stroke, who Lista was always rang true, and strong, it lingered and joined with other tones.
I always meant to get a meditation bell and of course, never did. Then recently, I listened to another one of Krista Tippett’s wonderful interviews, this time with a neuroscientist who does fascinating research on how the brain is wired and rewired over and over, through the choices we make in our lives. The podcast made reference to a 10 minute “Bell Sound Meditation” and on a lark, I decided to try it. I’ve been using it regularly as part of my prayers since then. Close to the end of my walking route, there is a small park that’s usually quiet and still by the time I get there, right before closing time in the evening. I have a bench I’m particularly fond of and I sit there with this unexpected gift.
One part of the reflection invites me to hear the bell ring again in memory, paying attention to its “onset, tone, reverberation and its fading away”. In some ways, I find that segment to be the most intense part of the meditation. Maybe because I’m new to this, I strain to remember as completely and correctly as possible. Each time, I discover some small new truth about that sound I can’t hear yet continues to fill me. I also find myself listening even more attentively and carefully when the bell actually rings. I have a new way of thinking about “presence in absence” and how lucky we are to keep the music going even when all there seems to be is silence.
At a conference a few months ago, I was introduced to the concept of the “threshold of memory”—there’s a new finality to our own death on the day the last person who remembers us dies. Even though there is something sad about the truth that such a day comes, I delight in remembering Lista often these days. I am thankful for the ways she is now present to me. I wish I had listened more carefully, gotten it more right about her, captured more of the complexities and nuances of who she was. But I heard enough to know that she was beautiful and her song still makes my day better. I remember.