I am doing what I do best: Eavesdropping.
The couple is leaning on the upper deck railing of a Washington State Ferry on a summer day. We are headed across the Puget Sound, from Seattle toward the Kitsap Peninsula. I can tell it’s their first ferry ride, first trip to the Pacific Northwest, and likely a very special occasion. The Olympic Mountains, still snow tipped, fill our panorama. I have lived in this neck-of-the-woods over twenty years, and this tranquil scene–a melding of pewter blue water with a hunter green tree line–has not yet failed to give me goose-flesh. Whenever I return from a trip, the mountains and water always re-orient me. Listening and watching this couple, it is apparent, that they too are plum-tickled, finding enchantment and solace in nature’s pageant.
“We should do what?” she asks.
“Take these kind of trips,” he tells her. And gestures, “Take the time to enjoy all of this. The fresh air, the mountains, the blue sky, no kids or grand-kids and nowhere to be and no time to be there. It’s our chance to slow down.”
“But we’re doing it right now,” the woman offers.
“Yes,” the husband persists, “but think of all the opportunities and years we’ve missed.” He begins the very long litany of all the trips that should have been…
I realize that I need to intervene. “Dude,” I say, benevolently, “If you don’t shut up, and you’ll miss this trip too.”
Here’s the deal: We all practice a finely honed skill of expecting life to reside in an event or experience or occasion other than the one we are in right now.
There are those lucky moments, when we recognize and embrace the here and now. But I’ll be, if we don’t want to bottle it up and sell it on e-bay. (This makes me think of the Transfiguration story in Mark’s Gospel. . .Peter is so worked up he wants to build three condos and call it permanent). Or worse yet, we feel compelled to evaluate or measure each experience, as if a superlative is a requirement for its enjoyment.
Wherever you are, be all there. Jim Elliot
This sounds great. It’s just not so easy to pull off. I was going to spend some time wrestling with the wisdom of Elliot’s statement, and distill it for the Sabbath Moment, but Brian called me this morning with “an exciting opportunity.” His name didn’t ring a bell, but Brian chatted like he knew me well. And, it’s not everyday you get offered an exciting opportunity. Brian wanted me to have a Free satellite dish. All for me. This kind of generosity makes you all tingly inside, doesn’t it? I could get 500 channels, Brian told me. And all these options provide me “so much more to enjoy in life,” Brian chirped (literally, he chirped). And (Brian’s spiel had no pause button), I would never have to be “afraid of missing anything,” because I could record all the good stuff. I didn’t want to burden Brian with the fact that being faced with a lot of options–like standing in the grocery store trying to choose cereal or toothpaste–makes me want to beat my head against a metal pole, so 500 channels might send me straight to the floor in a fetal position. Instead, I told Brian that while I was “in awe” of his offer, I asked if I could make my decision after I spent some time potting some new cuttings, filling my bird-feeders and taking a brief nap in my lawn chair. Brian was quiet. I’m not sure Brian understood.
Here’s what I do know.
While waiting for perfect, we pass on ordinary.
While waiting for better, we don’t give our best effort to good.
While waiting for new and improved, we leach the joy right out of this, or any, moment.
There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to something. Like my friend who likes to say, “I’m not going to have a mid-life crisis until I can afford to buy a Mustang.” Fair enough.
But most of the time, Alfred E. Newman is right, “Most of us don’t know what we want in life, but we’re sure that we haven’t go it.”
In the grocery store the other day I overheard another couple, discussing their list for a dinner party. “We need wine,” he says.
“We have that nice bottle of Cabernet at home,” she tells him.
“I’m not wasting a good bottle of wine on your mother,” he huffs.
This will be a dinner of good will and revelment, I think, and I’m sorry I’m going to miss it.
In a culture of lottery winners and bigger and louder and faster and newer and shinier, ordinary gets lost in the din. Ordinary, like watching dusk settle while reading on the patio, counting nuthatches when they return to the feeder, enjoying a handful of fresh strawberries from the garden (they sit on the tongue with a sweetness that makes you believe in heaven) and playing golf with my son on the back lawn. Ordinary, yes. But a day without the heaviness of expectation, worry or fear.
How’s your summer been? I’m already bemoaning one of the drawbacks to travel for work. Too often, when I return home, instead of seeing what is, I see all that I have missed. Peonies now in bloom, profligate and splendid. My favorite Japanese Iris–with its short window of bloom–exquisite, delicate and arresting. Penelope, the first rose to bloom in my garden, a shade of soft pearl.
Yes, I confess to whining about time flying by, or some other variation on jammed schedules, stretched resources and altered expectations. But I’ve found the wisdom of May Sarton fitting, and her sentiment is mine, “There is a slight lifting of the air so I can smell the earth for the first time, and yesterday I again took possession of my life here.”
Tonight, dusk gives the horizon more substance, the sky the color of ink. And I think again about shadows, and smile. In the past I have written about shadows–those veins of disappointment, doubt, sorrow, disillusion, insecurity, disenchantment, un-fulfillment, heartache, or shame that can course through our psyche. I know that there will always be someone, usually in the name of God, to tell me that I need to pray more, or believe more, or try harder, but I find that having someone say to me, “I don’t know how you lost your way today, but if it’s okay by you, I’ll sit a spell with you on the back deck, just to see if we can’t enjoy the colors the shadows make at dusk.”
Even in the shadows, wherever you are, be all there.
An island friend’s son (in his 30s, from the big city) spent the weekend here on Vashon. He asked his mother, “What are we going to do today?”“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Are we going to sit around the house today and do nothing?”
Ahhh. . .wonderful ordinary nothing.
Reminds me of another comment I overheard, “I want a different kind of life.” I understand the sentiment; I just didn’t know that life came in kinds. With the incessant pressure to live a life other than the one we have, we are susceptible to the same malady that plagued the guy at the ferry boat railing: missing out on the very life we long to live.
Do me a favor, would you? Eliminate the question, “What did you accomplish today?” Whenever any asks me, it makes my head spin, and I find myself scrambling for the right sentence just to impress the questioner.
I have a friend who jogs on the path next to Lake Washington, “for cardio vascular work,” she insists. But she spends a good part of her walk stopped, standing there, just to look at the sky and the clouds. “It’s okay,” she says, “This is so much better for my heart.” How right she is.
Even in the unaccomplished ordinary, wherever you are, be all there.
There is a slight lifting of the air so I can smell the earth for the first time, and yesterday I again took possession of my life here. May Sarton