On the Changing of Seasons

Lately, I’ve been fighting it. Pandemic life has meant so much change already. I’m feeing less and less desire to adapt. I’m feeling strongly protective of things I wouldn’t have expected to hold onto so tightly. As summer passes and days shorten, I find myself feeling inordinate amounts of grief about small things like the loss of bike rides before work.

Sound silly? It’s true. Much as I’ve hated the pandemic, both COVID summers had me working remotely and relishing early sunrises on commute-free days. I’d often take a bike out on the rail trail near my home, riding north past restaurants that smelled of frying bacon, steering clear of pedestrians leaving coffee shops with their to-go cups and pastries. I’d notice changes in the feel of the air and coloring of the sky, amazed at how many different ways the world could look before 7 am. 

I knew that I’d never begun days so well. Rituals can remind us of bigger pictures, and that bike ride ritual began my days by reminding me of life beyond my email inbox. I’m really, really missing those rides.

I miss Steve’s smile. I never even learned Steve’s last name, but I learned to recognize the grin that would spread across the face of this older walker when he’d see me riding towards him. In our world of masks and Zoom-mediated faces, I found unmasked human beings and their smiles on that rail trail, and I loved it. Maybe Steve did, too. At first, we only waived to each other as we passed. Eventually, when we’d introduced ourselves, we’d stop and chat. I heard about his wife and his upcoming hip replacement surgery. He heard about my concerns as the end to my working remotely approached.

“Will you go back, or will you find a new job?” he asked. “I hear more and more people are doing that.”

“We’ll see,” I said, laughing to find that I was suddenly not worried about the future when I could stand under a shade tree, chatting my new friend. 

Those mornings along the rail trail kept reminding me that life had not ended, pandemic notwithstanding. Life moved along with a series of rapid and profound changes, and Steve and I and a lot of other people had been finding ways to move along with it. Those mornings kept me out among people, engaged by what I could still do and discover, experiencing newness as something beautiful rather than frightening. That time became precious. I’m missing it. When I think about all these things that time has meant to me, perhaps I shouldn’t feel surprised to find myself missing it so much.

The passing of seasons can feel bittersweet at any time of life, as it often means losing what’s become familiar and comforting. I wonder: does the passing of pandemic seasons feel extra difficult? Though life hasn’t ended, it has changed rapidly. Many of us have lost more this last year and half than we even know how to explain. One way or another, we’ve had to find things with which to steady and orient ourselves. No wonder I’m finding it difficult to let go of the pandemic summer comfort I found in those morning bike rides. 

I try to be gentle with myself as I bear this in mind. I try to be gentle with others, too. I try to be gentle, and I try to give myself time to enjoy those memories of summer things that brought me gladness and comfort. Taking time to remember can honor what seemed good and right. However, remembering doesn’t only focus us on the past. Remembering what seemed good and right can also help us focus on what may yet become good and right in new seasons ahead. It helps me, at least, to remember what I’m watching for. 

I’m watching for good ways to start my day, for one thing. I need morning rituals that remind me of bigger pictures and of life beyond my email inbox.

I’m paying attention, also, to how much I need those settings where I get to enjoy being with people who are enjoying their world. Morning bike rides meant getting outdoors into settings where I could soak up the smiles and gladness of others exercising, contemplating, and otherwise greeting the day. (Sometimes I have my own smiles and gladness to share, and some days more than others I need to draw gladness from the people around me.)

I’m also on the lookout for Steve. I haven’t seen him since his hip surgery. I knew recovery would take time, though, so I’m not worried. I’m just making sure to get out as bright and early as possible on my days off to watch for him as he works his way back to the distances he used to walk. 

I trust that we do tend to find what we’re looking for, however unexpected the form our findings might take. I remind myself to stand down from fighting all the changes of season underway (both in Indiana weather and in a global pandemic). I hope to draw wisdom yet from the grief I’m feeling as I say “goodbye” to summer.

I’ve been taking my bike out in the evenings after work lately, and going up the rail trail the other day, I found something new that I’d been waiting to see. A tunnel that had been closed for a while had reopened. Five young people with paint brushes stood inside, studying the tunnels walls while trying to stay out of the way of foot and bike traffic on the trail.

During the tunnel closure, I’d read that a mural would be going up. I saw it now: piano keyboards, violins, and instruments of all kinds danced the length of the tunnel walls. These five young artists must have had detail work to finish up, for they laughed with one another as they dabbed their brushes at the wall. They acted so engrossed with their project and with each other that I wondered if they even noticed the cyclists flying by so close behind them. I watched them enjoying this new thing they were doing, and I let their smiles make me smile, too. 

Monon Greenway tunnel mural by Carmel High School students. Photo by Callie J. Smith.

What will you be watching for this fall?

What to Do with Too Much to Do

What do you do with too much to do? 

I remember carrying that question around in my head for quite a while before, one day, a classmate of mine asked our professor how to find her own voice in the writing assignments we did for class. By way of an answer, the professor asked another question:

“What do you enjoy reading?” After a pause, the professor continued: “Find the voices you love, spend time with them, and they can tell you a lot about what your own voice might become.”

I hadn’t been wondering how to find my voice. All the same, the professor’s response (another question) seemed to speak to my own unasked question of what to do with all that I had to do. The names of plenty of people popped into my head: writers I’d enjoyed over the years as well as people or things that I’d found energizing. I knew I didn’t feel that way about our classes. Interesting as I’d found it to work with our class topics and readings, the efforts of school drained me. No wonder going back to school while working full time had left me feeling weary. It meant less time with what I loved.

Bodhisattva the cat

I think a friend must have heard the weariness in my voice. Leading up to the Christmas holiday, she sent a care package in the mail. I opened the package and stared inside, stunned. She’d sent things that only someone who’d known me as a child would have thought to send: pastels, pastel pencils, colored pencils, watercolor pencils, charcoal pencils, sketching and drawing pencils. I spread it all out on the kitchen table, where I sat with a little black cat named Bodhisattva (or “Bo”) on my lap. I hadn’t thought about drawing in years. Really, I didn’t have time to start thinking about it then, either, but I took time. I pulled some sketch pencils over beside me and started filling a sheet of paper.

What do you do with too much to do? 

What if we asked, instead: what do you do that you enjoy doing? What suggestions do those things seem to offer?

I remember the year I discovered pastels in elementary school. Mrs. T arrived as the new art teacher, and I fell in love with the broken pastel sticks that she kept in shoe boxes in her classroom closet. On the days those shoe boxes came out, I’d press the chalky colors into soft paper, making pictures of horses and dogs and interesting faces. At the end of class, we’d shake our extra pastel dust into trash cans before setting the pictures with hairspray. I’d take those pictures home to show my parents and, come the weekend, to share with my grandmother.

We regarded my grandmother as “the artist” of the family. She’d taken an oil painting class after she and my grandfather retired, and her years of painting blossomed from that. Her pictures won ribbons at fairs and sold at festivals. She painted things she found interesting, like old barns set back from the road and the lilacs and marigolds in her yard. Sometimes when I’d visit, after I’d show her my pastel pictures, I’d ask her to teach me something about drawing or oil painting. We’d sit down together at a table with her supplies.

Granny’s lilacs

As a young person, I remember feeling bad for my grandmother that she had to wait until retirement before finding something she ended up loving so much. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the lateness of her discovery. My grandmother had raised a family. She’d done crafts at home and told “felt board” stories for Sunday school classes. She and my grandfather had spent years working and saving. Her oil painting may not have spanned her entire adult life, but it did meet her just in time to shape a new phase of it. As her world changed with the beginning of retirement, it seems to me that she spent time with something she loved and let it show her what her life might yet become.

What do you enjoy? What do you love? I wonder what those things might be showing you just now about your own life.

The winter that my friend’s care package arrived, I didn’t quite know what was up with my life. I decided, though, to take some time with those art supplies and see what I could do with them. Homework received much less attention. I sketched a few evenings a week, finding photographs of friends and colleagues whose faces I tried to draw while Bo the cat sat on my lap. It took a frustrating while before the faces in my sketch pad looked human, let alone female or male, but eventually they started suggesting particular people. 

Sometimes, finding a way to capture a face showed me that face I thought I knew in an entirely different way. One night, as I tried to draw a colleague’s nose just right, I suddenly realized that he must have broken it. Surprised, I sat back and put the pencil down. I’d looked up into his face all this time and never once noticed that sign of an old injury. I saw it in the photo clear as day now, though, with the sharp angle that the bridge of his nose took just between the eyes. I stared at his photo, wondering what else I hadn’t seen. 

Odd as it may sound, I relished the way those sketching evenings felt like a pause with what I loved: the cat on my lap, the people whose faces I drew, the memories of my grandmother filtering back over time. Those evenings didn’t lead me to the beginning of a new artistic career. That wasn’t the point. Those evenings did give me some helpful perspective as I made decisions about which things I wanted to keep in my life and which ones I could bring myself to let go of. Taking time with what we love can tell us a lot about what our lives might yet become.

Bodhisattva in the sun

One sunny Saturday, I finally set aside the sketch pencils and charcoal that I’d been working with and unwrapped the set of pastels my friend had sent. Bo warmed herself in the window ledge with her little face turned up to the sun, and I’d noticed with amazement how many colors showed up in that black fur. I took a picture of her and sat down with it, picking up the brand-new pastels, ready to see what they could do. Working on this pastel portrait of Bo, I realized I hadn’t done a pastel portrait in over 30 years. I hadn’t done a self-portrait in all that time, either. I wondered:

“What would I see now if looked at my own face?”

I made a mental note to take a selfie for my next project.

On Mountain Biking and Trying Again

I remember lying on my back, looking up through tree branches. Leaves crunched under me, and my new mountain bike lay on top of me. It was not a promising beginning. In fact, it was a broken rib.

Painful as the injury felt, I actually found it a bit comforting. This fracture gave me a perfectly understandable reason for hurting. I had a broken place to which I could point. Unlike the pain of a divorce earlier that year, I could easily explain my bike hitting a tree. For my divorce I didn’t have many words, not for others or even for myself. You might say that was why I climbed onto a mountain bike in the first place.

When I’d moved, newly single, I’d expected to return to the stack of books always waiting for me, but they didn’t hold my attention. That felt odd. I wondered what people did with themselves who didn’t turn to words.  

I borrowed a mountain bike one day wondering if it could hold my attention. I hadn’t been on a bike in years, but I rode up a hill and found myself soaring down into the woods at a speed I could barely control. I felt scared, but not so scared that I shut down. I became alert. Flowing through the breeze and grinding musty leaves under my tires felt exhilarating.

I bought a bike and took it as often as I could to the trail. I’d make my way over tree roots, up and down hills, and around tight curves, surprised by each new thing I found I could do. 

My mind got space to roam, too. It was spacious enough out there to wonder about love and what happens to it, about hurt and what allows trust to return. Throwing myself into this new thing felt life-giving. Even if I wasn’t trying a relationship, the sheer trying of something new reassured me that I hadn’t come to an end of my possibilities. I spoke to myself about such things out there and, while I was at it, found myself speaking to the trees and to the God I believed to be listening. It felt like prayer.

One day I spoke with a hiker who’d stopped at the top of a root-covered hill.

“Look,” he said when I paused. He pointed to a birch whose white bark stood out against a dark, distant tree line. “See the bald eagle in the upper branches?” 

I saw it. A huge head glowed as white as the birch bark. We gazed a long while before I turned back and found the hiker grinning at me. I didn’t know which felt more amazing: to see a bald eagle in the wild or awe in a human face. 

I could still share wonder with another human being – I’d needed that. Divorce is one of many things can shut us down and make us doubt ourselves with others, so it felt good to notice how easily my heart warmed up. I even looked forward to seeing the creatures on the trail, like blue herons by the creek and snakes that sunned themselves by the prairie grass. They reminded me I wasn’t alone.

Then I broke my rib. Then the pandemic came.

I craved the chance to get out of my lockdown isolation, but even after the rib healed and I could have ventured further, my chest would tighten at the thought of returning to the trail.

“I can’t handle any more pain right now,” I thought. “I can’t justify that risk.”

Near-constant pain in my ribcage, recalling the feel of a marriage falling apart, now masking up in COVID-era fear of human nearness – all these visceral memories blurred into one big overwhelm. Yet, I missed my critters and hikers. I missed the conversations with myself, and trees, and God. I’d begun to suspect that falls – off a bike, out of a marriage, into a pandemic – will happen sometimes and are less dangerous than the fear afterwards.

I finally emailed someone from church who’d been mountain biking for years. I worried that we didn’t know each other well enough to ask in-person favors during a pandemic, but I wrote anyway. I asked if he’d meet me at the trail one day and – socially distanced – give me some pointers. I explained that I hadn’t ridden since a rib injury months before and needed help trying again. 

Bless William. He showed up at the trail one morning with Jon, who was also learning to ride. We chatted about technique, and then Jon rode towards the trailhead. William gestured that I go next.

“No,” I said. “I’m slow. You go next.”

 “Go,” he said. “I’ll give you space.”

I went. My shoulders tensed when tree roots twisted across the path. When I saw the place I’d fallen, I stopped abruptly. William stopped, too. I turned back and called:

“Please go ahead so you can enjoy your ride.”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “You’ll be more confident knowing someone’s back here to scoop you up if you fall.” 

I noticed his reassurance didn’t say I wouldn’t fall. He seemed to assume that trusting I’d have help would make the difference. I wasn’t so sure, but I went on. 

Slowly, I did begin enjoying the trail’s flow again, relishing some speed and noticing lines through obstacles. In the parking lot afterwards, we stretched and talked of favorite moments on the ride. I felt amused that we’d never chatted this easily during “fellowship time” after worship. 

I may not have had words for my deeper pain, but this time together with things we enjoyed touched me deeply, too. Christian tradition offers a table with bread and wine as a place where we meet, where the broken belong. These communion “elements” are everyday things we turn to – together – for nourishment, things held and blessed by God. The table is a place where we receive what we need – together – to go give life another try.

A divorce had pushed me into trying new ways of being with myself and others. The pandemic had kept us three outside our church building to notice elsewhere the wondrous presence of God and one another. After this morning’s communion on the trail, I couldn’t help but think that many of us might find ourselves bolder and braver at the end of our pandemic and chaotic times, resilient with experiencing these wounded places as exactly the places where we – and life – become new.

____________

Originally published in the January 26, 2021 issue of Bearings Online.

Step Back a Moment

Shaking it up, changing scenes, doing a new thing – it’s energizing. It can also be draining. Stepping away from normal routines is a form of disruption, after all, and disruptions often cause extra work. I tried doing some new things this summer, and it most certainly took extra work. Vacation time gave me a precious opportunity to travel.

On the one hand, it was a gift to be able to find new experiences in new places. On the other hand, I admit, it felt like a big challenge to get all my projects to places where they could do without me (or with less of me) for a while. Stepping away from things wasn’t easy, but I found that the energy it took to step away was a good investment.

Coming from a Christian tradition, I had the concept of Sabbath on my mind. Hebrew scriptures associate the Sabbath pause with disruption, and understandably so. Local economies had to bear the burden of losing an entire day’s worth of productivity. All the same, those scriptures emphasize the Sabbath pause as important, powerful, and even life-giving.

Not at all the same as getting in some vacation time, the concept of Sabbath encourages people to take on the sometimes-energizing, sometimes-draining, always-sacred act of stepping back from the work, habits, and assumptions that have shaped their days. Why? The book of Genesis describes a creator using the seventh day to pause and look at the creation that had emerged, calling it good. With that in mind, pausing and looking at what we’re doing becomes something valuable for everyday people, too. Disruptive as it is, pausing to step away from our normal routine gives us opportunities to notice good things we might not otherwise notice.

Have you noticed anything good lately?

One thing I noticed during my own summer pause was enjoyment. It started on a rainy morning outing in Times Square that turned up tickets for a stage play starring Denzel Washington. I knew the man was a skilled and gifted actor, but I hadn’t imagined what it would be like to see him perform in person. It’s amazing to experience someone brilliantly enjoying what he does and helping the people around him enjoy it, too.

Since that day, I’ve been a little more aware of enjoyment: doing things with someone I enjoy, getting out and finding people who are enjoying what they’re doing, finding new things I enjoy. There are all sorts of variations on enjoyment. The key, and the thing I don’t always make time to do, is noticing it. That’s where pausing and stepping away came in.

Stepping away from normal routine gives us time to glimpse new experiences and perspectives. It can help us downshift into reflective mode and work through problems better. It can help us notice possibilities that we hadn’t even imagined. I found that stepping away this summer, however draining it was to make that possible, refreshed deeply me in other ways.

So I wonder: what kind of pauses will your schedule hold?

– excerpted from “Step back a moment and be aware of joy that is all around you,” originally published in the Indianapolis Star (August 12, 2018)

All Those Who Wander: the Spiritual Practice of Walking

I could have driven to the coffee shop. I’d have stayed warmer and drier. But, that wasn’t the point. The point was that it was time for a walk. So, inside heavy wool coat, hat, scarf and mittens, I set out on foot into the swirl of damp snowflakes. They stuck everywhere: on my nose, on the backs of geese in the river, on bare branches hanging over my path. There I was, in the middle of something gorgeous that I could never have planned.

For me, this habit of venturing out on a daily walk feels like anything but one more thing on the to-do list. Sometimes, it feels like an adventure as snow, wind or rain call me out to play. Sometimes, it feels like a visceral kind of letting go as car, cell phone, calendar, email and projects remain behind. Invariably, it feels like something precious to receive this time each day that is both open with nothing and open for everything. It feels like a gift.

Wandering along a city sidewalk one day, I stumbled onto the filming of a brand new television series, a mystery. A small crowd of people, paid “extras,” lingered outside storefronts and watched (so I was told) for the famous actor-turned-director who was rumored to be in the tent down the street. So, I wandered down the street, wondering why I hadn’t heard about any of this. At the far end of the shopping area, having seen no one famous along the way, I surprised myself by not veering left into a quieter, more relaxing stretch of neighborhood. Instead, I retraced my steps, letting my thoughts flow back into this mystery-in-the-making that I had found my way to.

What kind of character would I be? I wondered as I walked back past tent and vans and unloaded equipment. What if some nearby camera were capturing random street footage even now and caught me, right here? (I suspected that wasn’t likely how filming worked, but since when does likelihood limit imagination?) Sunday evening television viewers months from now would sit down to watch a new mystery series and might just see me strolling up the sidewalk, at this very moment, in the background.

Who would they see? Would they peg me for a local office worker on break? What about a college professor? A martial arts instructor? A member of the clergy? A barista or journalist or high school teacher? I’d dreamed of being all of these people at one time or another in my life, and I’d even become a few of them. As I mused over how many of these dreams might still linger in my pace and outerwear even now, I felt surprised at the memories welling up inside of me. It was as if I returned that afternoon chatting with a crowd of friends, these long-lost companions who were parts of myself that I had not paused to catch up with for a long, long time. Isn’t it amazing what we can discover inside of ourselves sometimes? It’s almost as various (and amazing) as what we can discover outside of ourselves.

I am neither Christian monastic nor Buddhist practitioner, but I read of the religious practicing meditation and mindfulness, silence and simplicity, poverty and prayer, and I suspect that this walking does something similar with me. Calling me to pay a different kind of attention to life around me, this walking habit surely becomes every bit as much a spiritual practice of vital inner work.

Far from deprivation or cruel discipline, spiritual practices can actually sensitize us, allowing time for pieces of life to mingle and steep without hurry, creating space for whatever has been whispering to us quietly, nourishing dreams inside us that have begun craving the chance to be dreamed. Especially in the rush and press of contemporary life, we human beings need “free” space. Call it prayer, call it Sabbath, call it walking or biking or even simply sitting down for dinner – we need space for that inner work which lets us relish the life within and around us, receiving the gift of an ongoing creation in which we find ourselves again, and again, and again.

Wandering a rail trail not long ago, I met a man from Egypt. He was returning from the grocery as I was returning from a walk, and we fell in step together. A young man with dark, playful eyes, he talked enthusiastically. We spoke of work and the city, of where we were from and where we were going. Since we turned out to be almost neighbors, I was not surprised when a few days later I passed him again as he cooked over a grill with other neighbors. They waved me over. The smell of spices and warmth of welcome were more than I could resist. I stopped, sitting with them under the trees and eating savory roasted potatoes, laughing and noticing yet again how it felt to receive and relish something I could never have planned.

originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of Branches magazine (vol. 28, no. 6), p. 7.