No Excuses

Finding Restfulness in the Midst of Restlessness

Holy Week – April

It took a $38.20 charge to my PayPal account to jolt me out of my isolated lethargy of the past several weeks. I assumed WordPress would charge me for next year’s subscription close to the date it would renew, not the month before. Alas, I am in no mood to fight. 

“Perhaps,” my lazy gadfly whispers, “this might be a sign for you to whack through the weeds of your creative intentions, face your pandemic of doubt, and channel your blighted energy into your unmanicured fingertips where they meet the keyboard.”

“Yeah, whatever,” I mumble (nowadays, talking to oneself is survival, not a sign of dementia). “I’m back to my blog because I hate wasting money!”

I have no excuse. I have recently discovered that 24 hours is plenty of time in a day. For years, I have been able to safely dream outside my cone of reality knowing that I would probably “never have time” to do those things I always said I would do “if I had the time.” There were always good reasons for my procrastination like raising a child, building a career, planting flowers in the spring, and pulling weeds in the summer. It’s so much easier to plan than to do.

But here I am.

I was just getting used to semi-retirement and a recent move to the eastern seaboard when the Coronavirus seeped into every area of our world’s semblance of order. I had spent the past few months searching and exploring everything from restaurants, coffee bars, and nail salons to museums and national monuments. Where I had been able to stay busy with the mechanics of settling into a new environment, I, like so many of us, now have hours and hours to fill as I experiment with the new vocabulary of isolation and social distancing. What an opportunity, right?

I will give myself some credit. I am dabbling with – not necessarily embracing – the loftier goals of my “when I have time” ventures. I signed up for an online class focused on spirituality and prayer. I bought a new journal. I ordered a few books written by authors who kept journals. I logged into a yoga channel on YouTube. I bought six skeins of yarn. I started two writing projects. I began to track my daily Weight Watchers points.

So far, I have had some success. I follow a pretty regular morning yoga ritual. I prepare healthy meals for my husband and me. And, my obsession with knitting has inspired shock and awe among my family. My mother’s unsuccessful attempts to seed my crafting abilities took more than 40 years to germinate…but now, I am out of control. To date (since October), I have knitted three scarves, a baby blanket, six hats, three potholders, and am currently more than 60 rows into an afghan!

I am challenging myself to write, but I must admit that I suffer nagging and existential doubts that test the waters of evolving authorship. On positive days, I tell myself it doesn’t matter if anyone ever wants to read my stories; on negative days, I stop writing. 

I am exploring my religion. I have always tried to honor Church with sincerity and devotion. As I enter this stage of my older life, I find myself searching for ways that lead me beyond the rituals of my faith – which I deeply revere – and into a more contemplative place where my rational self doesn’t always have to get in the way. When I signed up for the online class on centering prayer, my intentions were well positioned, but I admit that I was probably looking for a template that would give me all the tools, provide the instruction, and then quiz me on my success. Obviously, it doesn’t work that way. As I diligently persisted through the modules facilitated by the late Father Thomas Keating, I also read one of the books that has been on my someday list for years – Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. I was inspired by Merton’s journey but naively caught myself wondering how anyone other than a Trappist monk could ever have the time and space to live such a full life, study the great religious doctors, and then ultimately find a certain freedom in literally letting much of it go. For me, when I try to sit for even 20 minutes and focus on not focusing, I begin to itch – literally and figuratively.  Perhaps that is what the centering prayer is all about – discovering those things in our lives that make us “itch” and then turning those irritants over to God. I’m trying.

Another book I am reading is called The Naked Now by Franciscan friar and contemporary author, Richard Rohr. If I am interpreting correctly, the ability to truly wake up spiritually is to let go of pre-conceived notions of how we view the world. There doesn’t always have to be a right way or a wrong way in prayer or politics or all those other big ideas that bog us down (what Rohr calls dualistic thinking). I mean really, if this virus is teaching us anything, it is to let go of almost everything except the common relational bond we have with each other to simply survive.

“Contemplation,” Rohr writes, “is an exercise in keeping your heart and mind spaces open long enough for the mind to see the other hidden material.” This makes sense to me. Right now, I believe I am discovering a purpose in the exercise…much like I do in working through a mindful pose in yoga, losing hours in the creative practice of writing, or mindlessly stitching the patterns of a knitting project. In the process, I am unearthing some of the hidden material in my life and starting to feel a little more restful even in the midst of my restlessness.

I also feel justified in accidentally marking the auto-renewal box of my WordPress subscription.  Here’s to more than a penny for my thoughts – $38.20 to be exact!  

Reading Into Retirement

October – Ordinary Time

I set my cell phone alarm for 30 minutes. I certainly have the luxury to sit and read for a half hour, right? I shift into a comfy position on the couch in our family room and swipe open my Kindle. When the alarm sounds, I am so immersed in the latest conflict my characters face that I rationalize another 30 minutes. I move outside to the patio to enjoy the fall afternoon. The alarm goes off again, and I look up to notice the late afternoon sun is giving way to a pending dusk. Dinner is simmering on the stove, laundry is in the dryer, and Joe won’t be home for at least another hour.  I make a conscious choice. I toss the phone aside and finish the novel.

It’s been about a month since Joe and I both came home to Tucson for our grandchild’s baptism. My husband went back to D.C. after the celebration with plans to return three weeks later for a business trip.  I opted to stay in Tucson for some extra grandbaby snuggles and to accomplish a few home maintenance projects. It’s been a nice break. 

However, now that my husband is here again, it dawned on us that for the first time in years, we would have only one car to share this week (the other is in Washington). Since his schedule requires transportation, I have been exiled to three acres and four bedrooms!

In the 18 years we have owned our house, I believe this is the first time I have spent four consecutive days at home. A car in Washington, D.C. is rarely an issue because of the proximity of grocery stores and metro stations. However, it is a two-mile walk along a busy road to even get to a Circle K from my Tucson neighborhood. Looking back, the only times I ever spent a full day at home were a rare sick day when our son was younger, perhaps a holiday when the family came for dinner, and maybe a day or so when we chose to “vacation” at home and enjoy our swimming pool and built-in barbecue.

My self-imposed exile is hardly a sacrifice, but all this unstructured time is forcing me to reconcile the reality of my situation. Without a full-time career all of a sudden, my Google calendar has ceased its endless chirping reminders. I even check periodically to make sure I haven’t set my technological notifications to silent. As selfish as it may sound, I have discovered that instead of feeling liberated by my new-found freedom, I am burdened by the weight of “when I have time…”

When I have time, I will exercise every day. When I have time, I will write a novel. When I have time, I will volunteer. When I have time, I will focus on my prayer life. When I have time, I will organize all our family photos into albums. But…now that I have time, I feel disoriented. 

Then: My body is used to getting up early and showering and fixing my hair and rushing off to work to perhaps stopping for a coffee and then eating lunch at my desk in between teaching and meeting parents and students to finally shutting down my computer while planning dinner on the fly before doing the bills and one load of laundry in between cooking and straightening the house to watching an hour of television to going to bed to beginning again. 

My days used to be one long sentence. Today, I have re-discovered punctuation.

Now: There are still groceries to purchase and bills to pay, but there are commas between those things I have to do and what I want to do.  This leaves space to read, to write, to re-establish relationships with friends, to exercise (maybe) and to dig into the stockpile of plans and dreams I have put aside for years. When I write, I recall grammar rules before selecting a comma or a semi-colon. I have to decide where to end a paragraph and begin a new one. Now, as I begin to “write” a new normal, I have to stop and think about ways to define the grammatical pauses in my day. For instance, my prayer life feels un-focused. My ability to sit still and read seems like a guilty pleasure. I can’t quite decide what to wear in the morning. It’s difficult to know where I fit in to a new part-time position while recognizing that those who filled my full-time position are doing a great job without me. I must learn patience with myself. I need to allow myself time to train these thoughts, and then grant myself the grace to proofread and edit along the way.

(Along with punctuation, I have also re-discovered my love of metaphors and a passion for parenthetical thoughts!)

I will have the car again tomorrow, and both Joe and I will finalize the pending details for our return to the east coast. These past few days have truly been a gift, a glimpse at opportunity knocking. I have relished getting up early each morning not for work, but to walk with neighbors up and down the hills of our desert reserve. I have read every section of the paper, had two cups of coffee before my shower…and even watched a couple of the a.m. news shows – into their second hours! While I have not battled the photo albums or the attic, I have done what I need to do each day and am learning that I don’t have to set my alarm if I want to read. Just this morning, I uploaded more books to my Kindle library. The titles mimic my mood. I am already through the first chapter of Paulo Coelho’s Hippie, which hearkens back to the 70s when I was only ten years old and very impressionable when it came to the hippies we used to emulate in our denim bell bottoms, crudely doodled peace signs, and plastic smiley face jewelry. I also downloaded The Love Letters by Madeleine L’Engle. I think it is the only book of hers I have not read. (I just counted 16 of her works on a shelf in my bookcase!) And then, there is a series that starts with Living Apart Together by Elise Darcy. The main character is woman in her 60s (I am thinking this is chick lit for the every-evolving middle-aged woman!).

I have time. And at this moment, my stomach is leading me to the refrigerator where I will make lunch out of last night’s leftovers. Later, I will post this blog (see, I am writing!), and then I should probably fold the towels that are still warm from a tumble in the dryer. After that…I might just spend the rest of the afternoon reading.