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.

My “Week Off”

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I was supposed to take this week, the last week of summer school, as a week off writing. I’ve finished my novel revision, and that was my reward: scrapbooking, some time sitting outside in the quiet, a shopping trip, maybe even a couple hours in front of the TV.

Well, I have deadlines, so forget that. Boo hiss.

So my “week off” became “two hours off” (three, including transit). About ten minutes from my house is Finger Lakes State Park, which is a reclaimed strip mine with a water trail. I’ve been on it once with my family and another family who are friends of ours, but with 8 kids, you can imagine that day was not a particularly peaceful one.

Yesterday morning was absolutely perfect. Cool, quiet–so very quiet, back there on the water trail. Just me and the frogs and the birds and the cicadas. Even the highway was obligingly quiet, for a change.

And since, you know, deadline, I’m just going to share some photos taken with my not-phone (what do you call an old iPhone with no service plan, so it only functions with wireless internet? We’ve tried ipod, but somehow “not-phone” seems most accurate). In any case: not fabulous photography, but enough to say: a wonderful week day couple hours off.

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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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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.

Breathing Free

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-- MA PETITE PLANETE-- poesie des couleurs de ...

Monday afternoon, I loaded the two little ones into the van and then ran to put the Netflix disc in the mailbox. And in the instant I stepped from the shelter of the garage into the single-digit cold, it registered: Silence.

It should have been obvious to me a long time ago that there is no silence in my life. But, like most parents, I tend to fix on these magic words: nap time…bedtime, to help me keep my patience when nonverbal children are fighting over a toy or whining because they’re unhappy about who knows what. (Being stuck inside, most likely.)

I get those “quiet” times…when the little ones are downstairs playing nicely together, or they’re sleeping upstairs. So why did the quiet outside instantly pierce my soul, as if something deep in the core of my being had been flailing around, searching with increasing desperation for something I wasn’t giving it, until that grace-filled moment when I had to run to the mailbox?

Naturally, we were pushing late, and I didn’t have time to analyze the feeling. Sighing, I bowed to the inevitable. I got in the van with my two squealing children and went to pick up Alex from kindergarten.

But that night, after doing Christmas crafts with the kids, after doing dishes and praying a decade of the Rosary with Alex and tucking three children in with kisses and munchies…after all the business of the day was done, while Christian sat down to send a couple of emails, I slipped on my fur-lined boots and zipped my coat, and I stepped out onto the deck.

Of course, it wasn’t really silent. We live in a huge cookie cutter subdivision, a mile from the interstate. Silence isn’t in the cards here. And yet it did the trick. All the seized-up tension in my chest gave a great shudder and released as I looked up at blurry gray stars in an orange-charcoal sky. I stood for about three or four minutes until it simply got too cold to be outside, but when I went back in, the house felt like a warm, inviting cage.

I realize now that even during nap time, my quiet house is full of the noise of enclosure: the hum of the computer and the refrigerator, the low rumble of the dryer and the noisy hiss of the dishwasher, the shhhhhhhhh of the heater. Noises I filter out, but which put pressure on all the nerve points nonetheless. Going outside, everything is different. Without walls around me, my soul reaches out to touch the expanding universe as it whispers, and stretches…and breathes.

Where does your soul find rest?