Bigger Than Me

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Sometimes, I just need to get away.

Leaves

No matter how much work is hanging over my head, I know I need to make the time to hike, or bike, or kayak—and always, to find a quiet, beautiful spot to sit and be still. It’s necessary for my mental health. Sometimes I get a twinge of guilt, thinking of those I love who also need this time but don’t get it. But I realize that depriving myself of it won’t help them. If I’m grounded, my head is clearer, my stress is lower, and I’m better able to ease the stress of others.

Plus, in the silence—away from the dings and red “new” notifications on email—I can get a better perspective on situations that seem frightening or overwhelming. I can see myself more objectively—better recognize my faults, not just in the abstract, but in the specific situations I could or should have handled better.

Yesterday I sat beside the Missouri River at flood stage. It’s been flooded most of 2019, and the already-steep slope of the riverbank has been carved into a sheer drop. Shrubs whose branches used to bob under and resurface in the shallows have washed away. The river is running fast these days, a wide, noisy, roiling, swirling thing. Sometimes a whirlpool rushes by, sucking at something invisible, until suddenly a whole tree, stripped bare, surfaces for one gasp before submerging again.

River

A towboat pushing three big grain barges was roaring its way upriver when I first arrived. It was struggling make any headway—it took nearly forty minutes for the barges to pass by and disappear around the bend in the river, leaving silence. Meanwhile, a two-foot piece of driftwood shot past the other direction, headed for the Gulf of Mexico. I thought: even great big powerful things, things that make lots of noise and leave a wake that takes twenty minutes to settle, are small compared to the earth they inhabit.

It reminded me of Danny Glover, in the movie Grand Canyon, saying, “When you sit on the edge of that thing, you just realize what a joke we people are. What big heads we got thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much. Thinking our time here means diddly to those rocks. It’s a split second we been here, the whole lot of us. And one of us? That’s a piece of time too small to give a name… Yeah, those rocks are laughing at me, I could tell. Me and my worries, it’s real humorous to that Grand Canyon.”

Poignant words. I’ve been wrestling anxiety again lately. I’m watching myself carefully, giving it a few days to see if some distance from the trigger will sort things out. (I think it will. It seems to be so far.) But if not, to be ready to reach out for help.

Sitting beside the river puts everything into perspective. There’s so much to be thankful for out there: the beauty of the light dappling the leaves; the clarity of the blue sky; the silence and solitude; the sparkles out on the water; the pattern of light and dark on the leaves; the 5-mile bike ride required to reach this spot I love; the gnarled beauty of the vines hanging into the water; the way the light plays with shadow and color on the leaves (are you sensing a pattern?).

Leaves sparkles

Being out here gives me that sense of distance, of perspective, of the relative importance of these things that so preoccupy my thoughts. It allows me to relax a bit, to remember, in the deepest part of my soul, that whatever comes next, everything will, in fact, be all right.

I’ve Forgotten How To Be Still

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Photo by YasmingLP, via Flickr

When I was in the sixth grade, I wore soft contacts that I had to stick in this boiler thingamabob every night. And every night I would open the lid and unscrew the contact case to make sure my contacts were still in there. Not just once. Again and again, until the case got to hot to handle. Because you know, it was possible that I bumped the case when I opened it the last time, and the contact fell out.

I was thinking about this Monday night as I was speeding down the highway to spend three days at a gathering of liturgical composers. Because I was also thinking, What have I forgotten to account for in my plans for the family while I’m gone? Wait—I didn’t doublecheck to make sure I stuck my computer and my suitcase in the trunk. What if I get to St. Louis and I have no clothes? Even though I knew I had loaded both much earlier in the day so as to ease the stress of departure time.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a control freak or if this is one of the many sneaky ways anxiety tries to re-insert its soul-killing presence into my world.

(I’m sure the answer is: “Yes.”)

But truthfully, it got me thinking two things: first, that my neuroses have been with me much longer than I ever realized; and two, that I’ve forgotten how to “be still.” I still pay lip service to the idea, but it’s been months since I just went out into nature to sit, with no computer, with no agenda other than to exist and quiet my mind.

And my mental and spiritual health is suffering for it.

I could expound upon this subject at length but even I think it’s a tedious subject. Still, that memory of a young girl turning the light back on three or four or five times in quick succession, because irrational fear had her in an unbreakable grip, is a sobering reminder of how important it is for me to put the brakes on and regroup. To get back to my spiritual center, and quit gnashing my teeth at losing productive time to do it. Everything in the writing business is glacially slow, anyway. What do I gain by pushing so hard? Nothing at all.

I’m typing this post late on Tuesday night, hoping a brain dump will help me get to sleep. We had a break over the lunch hour today, and although my heart was longing to do battle with a novel title and either set of revisions suggested to me right before I left home, I knew I was being called to something simpler. I went outside and sat on a park bench beneath a cell tower disguised as an improbably tall pine tree, and I tried to shut my brain down by focusing on the whisper of the wind in the real pine tree and the blessed brightness of the watery sunshine. And then I took a walk through the Stations of the Cross here at the Mercy Center before coming back inside.

It was hard work. But I was better when I came back in. Not perfect. But better. This is my week: not a time to squeeze an hour of novel writing into the only break in the day—but a time to step back and truly retreat from the world—while I’ve done the weeks’ upon weeks’ worth of work to make my absence possible for my family.

Pray for me, these next two days, would you please?

The Courage To Be Still

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sunrise-arms

Image via Pixabay

There are 553 books on my Goodreads “to read” list.

 

I have at least three more flute pieces to write, and I have four novel ideas, one awaiting another major revision, and one that is 3/4 drafted.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, we have two kids out of the house at 6:45 a.m. to get to band; every Wednesday it’s three of them at 7 a.m. for choir; and on Fridays, it’s 6:45 a.m. again for Julianna’s physical therapy. Michael goes to school for three hours in the afternoon, but too many of those hours are chiseled away by appointments and busy work.

All this to say I don’t have time anymore: to scrapbook, to garden, to practice my flute. Sometimes my kids are raiding the clean clothes pile for socks and underwear for almost two weeks before I have time to fold it.

My heart feels frantic. If I opt out of the nasty election news (and there’s plenty of that, isn’t there?), I feel remiss in my duty to be an educated voter and an informed citizen of Planet Earth.. But listening to it undermines my hope in the possibility of a better world. I turn on the radio in the car and I listen and listen and listen as my insides wind tighter and tighter.

And into this smoldering, writhing mass of not-peace drops a headline:

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

I don’t even click through, because I remember reading it before. We need to be still. It’s not just for introverts and aspiring contemplatives. It makes our brains grow, it makes us better people, more cognizant of ourselves and our place in the world. Seeing the headline pop up on my Facebook feed is the road sign from God I didn’t know I was waiting for.

How long has it been since I took time to “come away”? Weeks? Months? I’ve been oh so productive, but I’m feeling disconnected from my life, scrabbling at its messy edges instead of living gut deep.

But the longer I wait to shut down my brain, the harder it is to do so. I get antsy with the quiet in the car. I long to fill it. Nervous with the silence. I play games: I can turn the radio on at the next stoplight. When I turn it on, my addiction to stimulus kicks in and go, “ooh, that’s  niiiiice…” for about three seconds, until I realize they’re arguing about something they have no control over at all. I think, “How is this enriching their lives or mine?”

And so, finally, I grit my teeth and summon the courage to enter the stillness for real.

It takes a full day to relax into the silence in the van. A full day for my brain to figure out what to talk about with my ride-along little man, whose last year of small childhood I’ve been so recklessly squandering with all that productivity and serenity-shredding noise.

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Image by revmrb, via Flickr

And today, I sit at the edge of a creek, watching the leaves fall: twirling like helicopters, tumbling end over end, dive-bombing the limestone or landing noiselessly on the surface of the water, where they embark on an unhurried journey downstream. Watching them drift out of the shadows and into the sunlight and back again, until they catch on a submerged log or get waterlogged and sink to the bottom to become next year’s silt. Watching the play of sunlight on golden trees and the red-brown carpet of fallen leaves on the steep slope across the way. Pausing to write, and then, again, to summon the courage to be still.

We are made for more than this, but we are also made for this.

A History of Anxiety, Part 2: The Onset of “Freaking Out”

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Scared child

Image via Wikipedia

For part one, click here.

When I introduced the topic of anxiety last week, several people commented that they had struggled with it as well. Before I go on, I need to clarify that I have never been diagnosed with any form of clinical anxiety; I never saw a doctor or counselor. I went through it “by myself.” Actually, I got through it solely by the grace of God and a very patient boyfriend/husband. So what you will not find in this post is expert information—only my own, very personal, experience.

After breaking up with my fiancé, I spent a lonely summer in transition. In the fall, I started playing and singing with the choir at the Newman Center, a commitment that was to change my life in many ways, giving me both a vocation and the man I was going to spend my life with. We went out on our first date early in November, and by the end of the night my body was buzzing. I knew. He left the next day for a business trip, so I didn’t talk to him for a week. By then, I’d spent so much time reliving and analyzing the experience that doubt had wormed its way in.

And not just doubt, but full-blown panic. I’d promised God that I would never ignore His promptings again—but with the screaming voices in my head, how could I tell what was God and what was the enemy?

This was how I discovered that my seemingly clean recovery from the breakup was anything but.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last decade or so trying not to overthink this period of my life. It’s too dangerous. At this point, I can’t even tell you what most of the fear was. And I’m not so sanguine about my recovery that I am willing to go crack the Journals open to find out, either. Some things are better left in the past. I can tell you that it was more than mental; it was a full-body physical reaction. Hot flashes, fingers trembling so badly that I couldn’t function properly, brain paralyzed to the point where in the middle of a practice session I’d have to put my flute down and sit for ten minutes, trying to stop my heart pounding. I can tell you that my fears seemed utterly rational. Most of all, I can tell you that I was just afraid of making the wrong choice.

I wanted to follow God’s plan for my life, but freaking out made it impossible to know what that was. What if I wasn’t supposed to be with him, and I tried to force it? I’d already followed that road once. What if I was supposed to be with him, and my inability to silence the voices of self-doubt was destined to derail God’s plan for me altogether?

Meanwhile, Christian was dealing with fears and anxieties of his own. For at least a year, we went back and forth: one of us was freaking out, the other acting as support. We traded roles constantly. When I think about it now, it’s truly miraculous that we got through it at all.

But Christian is not nearly as prone to self-analysis as I am. Slowly, his anxieties eased, and although he wasn’t ready to leap into the unknown of lifelong commitment, he spent more and more time being the supporter, a burden I know he grew very tired of carrying. Meanwhile, instead of finding my fears resolving, I found new ones. No one is superhuman; no one can take the emotional beating forever. Every time I freaked out (which was almost daily) I was also afraid that this might be the line in the sand, the point at which he said, “Enough. I’m done.”

In such times do we discover the power of real love. Love that never ends, that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, as in I Corinthians 13.

It took more than two years for “freaking out” to fade to a dull background of anxiety. I prayed a lot. I exercised “letting go”—a search for stillness of mind and heart, to allow God to speak. I still had the niggling doubt in the back of my mind: Is this what I’m supposed to do? But it no longer ruled my life. We started talking about marriage, about how to structure life together and how we felt about kids and child rearing. And by the summer after my first year of grad school, when we’d been together for 2 ½ years, I thought freaking out was, at last, in the past. Two weeks before I went back to school, he proposed in front of the whole church. I was on cloud nine. No doubts in this girl’s mind. I knew now that I was where I was supposed to be.

Don’t breathe your sighs of relief yet; the story’s not done. But this is a long, dense blog entry already, so I’m going to leave it there for today.

For part 3, click here.