More than ever lately, I find myself needing moments to be quiet. It seems the habits, rituals, and what we always seem to refer to as “demands” of daily life leave very few pauses, chances to “stay,” as Pema Chodron suggests, with whatever emotion might be calling. I looked up “demands” in the thesaurus and found this list: Stress, strain, hassle, burden, weight, anxiety, difficulty, load, requirement. Why not just jump off a bridge now and get it over with? Wow. What if we referred instead to the “gifts” of daily life? Offerings, contributions, help, assistance… suddenly it feels like the Universe might be lending us a hand with whatever comes our way. Or how about “choices” for a change: Options, variety, abundance? Such different flavors come with shifting perspectives.
Last night I went down to the lake by myself. I knew that some sadness was lurking, the kind that only has a chance to exit my body when I make a point of getting quiet. I sat down with my notebook and a pen, staying in the moment, aware of the almost-tears springing up behind my eyes. Stopping like this often makes me realize that life has been whizzing by and whirring around me, as if I’ve been on a train speeding through foreign countries where I’m pretty sure the landscape might be gorgeous but haven’t had a chance to get off the train to walk around. It takes a little time to adjust to being still. It’s like spinning around and around as a child, then falling down while the world continues to spin. It takes a while to settle in. It takes a while for the world around us to catch up to our stillness. Sometimes it never does.
One thing I thought about last night is that the train is crowded. The one I’ve been speeding around on is filled with clothes, clothes, clothes – I dropped off seven bags at Salvation Army yesterday, only to came home to find some friends had delivered several boxes of hand-me-downs to our doorstep – and loads of little red, orange, and yellow plastic containers filled with goldfish and pb&j sandwiches with the crusts cut off; also canvas bags for side trips we might someday take, stacks and stacks of books, small mountains of quilted and knitted blankets, embroidered with the names and birthdays of my daughters. The box cars carry the many remnants of our former selves. This train also contains my family, my friends and neighbors, teachers. Life is full and good – and that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes need a break. It’s old news, this whole fast-paced world business.
We’re taught that keeping something of yourself for yourself is selfish. I would make a case to the contrary. Slowing down the train and staying with what is gives us a chance to take things in. Look out the window. We are coming to a stop. Where do you receive? Receive care, receive inspiration? Where do you breathe? Like anything else, we have to practice receiving if we want it to become a habit. Sitting by the lake, I reflected on how often I feel “too busy” managing myself and my life – making sure there’s dinner to eat, that diapers are changed and deadlines are met – to receive. And that’s not a good sign. Or maybe it’s just the sign I need, the one that says, “Stop ahead.” Stay here.
I miss myself when I don’t get off the train. It’s less that I always feel run ragged by my days – I sometimes nap with the girls, for example – and more that I get so dispersed, so scattered, I give out a lot of energy – to kids, clients and computers – that I just need a chance to let my face fall slack, to not be on for anyone. A ribbon of emotion gets balled up inside of me. That is why I write or run or sit or walk quietly – in order to pull on the end of the ribbon, gently and slowly snaking it out so that it can billow and dance in the wind by the water, stretch and lengthen, loosen and fly.
Learning to stay. When I feel depleted, used up, when I need to let down all appearances, when I need a good cry but can’t quite get at it, I sit alone, anonymous, just me and my notebook – no email, no telephone, no child tugging at my ankle or my heart, not inspiring anyone or taking care of anyone or accomplishing anything. For some reason, I’m reminded of a poem by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, perhaps because it steps us out of the linear trajectory of busy time, inviting us off the train into some dream station. Here it is.
In Praise of Dreams
In my dreams
I paint like Vermeer van Delft.
I speak fluent Greek
and not only with the living.
I drive a car
which obeys me.
I am talented,
I write long, great poems.
I hear voices
no less than the major saints.
You would be amazed
at my virtuosity on the piano.
I float through the air as is proper,
that is, all by myself.
Falling from the roof
I can softly land on green grass.
I don’t find it hard
to breathe under water.
I can’t complain:
I’ve succeeded in discovering Atlantis.
I’m delighted that just before dying
I always manage to wake.
Right after the outbreak of war
I turn over on my favorite side.
I am but I need not
be a child of my time.
A few years ago
I saw two suns.
And the day before yesterday a penguin.
With the utmost clarity.