The rhythm of life

Two of our grandsons were at our house yesterday. Susan has been doing a bit of math tutoring for our oldest grandson and we often take care of our youngest grandson for a couple of hours each week to give his mother time to work on paperwork and communications related to her counseling practice. Schedules were shifted for a variety of reasons this week, so both boys were at our house together yesterday. Susan was at school, volunteering in the class of one of our granddaughters at the time the boys arrived, so I worked with the older one on his math while the younger played with toys. I fixed lunch for us and them and we ate when Susan returned from volunteering. We had lunch together.

After cleanup, which with a one year old is a bit larger chore than our usual, I took the tired little one and rocked him for a bit. He was soon asleep. As he slept in my arms, I found my eyes closing as I rocked. We have an antique clock in our study that ticks loudly and I was rocking the chair, with its associated sounds in rhythm to the clock. Those sounds must have been soothing to the baby for they did not interrupt his sleeping and the motion and sound made it easy for him to drop off for his nap.

Our lives are tuned to all kinds of rhythms. We are naturally attracted to patterns of sounds and live our lives in sync with those rhythms. Of course we are intimately connected with some basic life rhythms. Our hearts beat in a regular pattern, often somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 beats per minute. I have used my heartbeat as a baseline to determine the proper rhythm of music which means that I play certain pieces of music a bit slower than written because my resting heart rate is a bit slower than typical. I have a heightened awareness of my heart rhythms after suffering a brush with atrial flutter this spring. I’ve had the condition treated and am suffering no ill effects, but it has made my very sensitive to my own heart rhythm. It is not just classical music that has a connection to the rhythm of our hearts. When we lived in South Dakota, I learned that traditional Lakota drum music is timed to heartbeats.

Our breathing also has its own rhythm. We breathe at a slower rate than our heartbeat, but it is often in sync with the beating of our hearts. Much of the time our hearts beat and we breathe without paying conscious attention. Our autonomic nervous system regulates several physiologic processes of our lives without requiring conscious thought. That allows us to remain alive when we sleep and through times of distraction.

Rhythm and music are rooted in every known culture. Rocking a baby to sleep is common to all human cultures. Religious chants follow consistent rhythms. Military cadences organize large groups of troops. Repetitive or complex work often is performed to rhythmic accompaniment. Languages are spoken to consistent rhythms. Poets take advantage of the natural rhythms of speech to organize words into patterns that are memorable.

Scientists use observations of the natural rhythms of life as diagnostic tools to determine overall health. The skill of listening to rhythm with a stethoscope is a foundational skill of physicians. Sophisticated machines record the electrical signals of human hearts and aid in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Heart rhythms are only one aspect of medical diagnosis based on rhythm. Doctors also have tools for measuring brain rhythms which occur at different speeds. Subcortical structures are equipped for microsecond timing while the cortex is better suited to integrating sounds over a long time scale.

We tune our lives to larger rhythms as well, changing sleep patterns with the change of seasons, marking the years of our lives with celebrations and rituals, and adapting to the process of aging. We often speak of the phases of our lives in seasonal language, referring to the aging years as the autumn of life.

Part of musical intelligence is the ability to keep a steady beat. There are some basic rhythms that are easy to learn by memorizing music. Instructors will sing popular songs to help students learn the proper rhythm for administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Many people can recognize individual songs by the tapping unique rhythms on a drum or simply tapping a foot or finger on a hard surface. My brother is a professional percussionist and when we were teenagers he invested many hours in learning specific complex rhythms. For example, he taught himself to tap four times with one hand and five with the other in the same span of time. When had mastered that skill he practiced others: 3 to 7, 5 to 12, etc.

Researchers have found that children who recognize differences in rhythm patters and tap to a beat learn to read and spell more easily. The cadence of language is part of the process of learning to read. That is why reading aloud is so important in the process of raising a child. Educators know that reading aloud before a child has learned to read is an important part of the process of learning. Rhythm in speech tells us when important information starts and stops. Stressed syllables emerge at regular intervals and carry much of the information of speech. I paid a lot of attention to rhythm in developing my public speaking style. I find it very challenging to listen to public speaking that is not set to a consistent rhythm. I can be very critical of preachers who are less practiced in delivering words in rhythm. It is much harder to listen to someone whose pauses don’t fit into a rhythmic patter. A metronome is not only useful in training musicians, it helps public speakers become better communicators.

We speak of being “in sync” with another person. Groups of people can synchronize the rate of their breathing and even their heartbeats. Choral ensembles train to breathe together as part of making music.

Last night as I drifted off to sleep, I listened to the rhythm of frogs in the neighborhood through the open window of our bedroom. The sound lulled me to sleep as easily as the rocking chair put our grandson to sleep earlier. As I write this morning, I am thinking that awareness of rhythm is a key life skill. Perhaps the phrase, “of sound mind,” is a way of celebrating the rhythm of our lives. I hope I continue to be of sound mind in the years to come.

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