Almost But Not Entirely Alone

Each afternoon he took his pipe
and led his goats beyond the pasture
to a neighbor’s field behind his farm—
not exactly his but not exactly not.

As the goats clipped the tall grasses,
he sat in the chair he never failed
to bring. Sometimes he read, most often
not. The vetch climbed the goldenrod,

the dandelions turned from gold
to globe, and every day he went,
thinking to himself how good it was
to be almost but not entirely alone.
~Michelle Y. Burke “A Life” from Animal Purpose

At times, when things seem a little too quiet around here, I remember my past days of working motherhood when the only moments during my day when I was alone was when I went into the bathroom and closed the door. Often that wasn’t even sacrosanct.

During those very busy years, I truly forgot how to be by myself, just existing without outside distractions and others’ input to keep my mind occupied. Now, it is too easy to rely on a phone in one’s pocket to avoid ever being “alone” just sitting with my own thoughts.

So I go out into the field whenever I can – simply to be – almost, but not entirely alone. I won’t forget that I’m never really alone – and that is always forever okay with me.

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The Importance of Doing Nothing

He thought of all the time he wasted
being good. Clutched by the guilt
of excellence. Polite.
Well-trained. But when
the long summer afternoons came,
too hot to move
from the window fan, scent
of vapor rising
from water jackets, he found pleasure
in doing the nothing that had no regrets–
wasted afternoons
under the Wisteria vine when no one
was watching. Aroma thick
as a breeze on his shoulder.
Thinking of women constantly, forgetting
to water the chickens
in the barn. He was beginning to feel
the release of duty, to feel
what it’s like to feel.
Demands waiting like barking dogs
at the periphery. His good intention
to visit the sick woman
falling aside
as he listened to the rattle of starlings
in the rafters––discovering that strange lightness
of the body. And the new importance
of oak branches
where they separate from the trunk.
How far out the leaves
begin to spread.
The startling arrangement
of moss
like whiskers without discipline.
The long plains of earth
reaching to the clouds
behind the back yard fence.
How the ground pushes back when you walk.

~David Watts, M.D. – “Another Side of Transgression” from Having and Keeping

Decades of demands and responsibilities become a falling-down fence line with no end in sight. Having been raised an obedient person with a heightened sense of obligation about constantly fixing what needs repair, I’ve done what I could, where I could, when I could, how I could, though too often ineffective in my efforts.

I’ve always moved from task to task to task – life’s string of fence posts held wires that always needed stretching and patching and straightening. By continually working, I hoped I too would remain standing and functional.

It’s clear the fence isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be. It has served a purpose, as have I. Now I wander along the fencerow, focusing on the walk and the view rather than searching out every little thing which is leaning or loose or gaping.

This walk feels good, lighter, almost cushiony, almost like rolling with joy in the freedom of it. I’m ambling along for no particular reason at all, which is almost intoxicating.

I think I’ll get used to the importance of doing nothing whatsoever.

A new Barnstorming book is available for order here:

The Road Ahead

He sometimes felt that he had missed his life
By being far too busy looking for it.
Searching the distance, he often turned to find
That he had passed some milestone unaware…

The path grew easier with each passing day,
Since it was worn and mostly sloped downhill.
The road ahead seemed hazy in the gloom.
Where was it he had meant to go, and with whom?
~Dana Gioia from “The Road” from 99 Poems: New and Selected

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.
~J.R.R Tolkien from “Roads Go Ever On”

Like many others, I have experienced the disconcerting feeling of traveling a familiar route with my mind completely disengaged. Suddenly I find myself at my destination without a conscious realization of how I even got there or what I saw along the way. Or maybe I was doing a routine daily task and later couldn’t remember having done it (did I shut off the barn faucet or are the water barrels flooding over all day?) because my head was somewhere else.

We describe this as “auto-pilot” or “body memory” or more distressingly “dissociation” — most therapists prescribe “mindfulness” to reengage us in our daily lives and thoughts. I’m not sure it is mindfulness that I practice, but I do force regular “brain check-ins” to anchor me to a time and place and task. (“yes, I have just passed that intersection where that truck and trailer almost hit me years ago and I am grateful to still be alive” or “I am now shutting off the barn faucet and won’t have to think about it again until tomorrow, thank you very much!”)

I regret “missing out” on experiencing my journey because I was so busy scanning the horizon for what is to come or looking back at where I’ve been, or watching where my feet will land or thinking about anywhere but where I was in the moment.

I need to acknowledge the milestones and not pass them by unawares — stopping at the view points, reading the historical markers, taking a breather at the rest stops. I seek to find the hidden paths and explore them rather than be solely destination-driven.

I must pay attention to who is alongside me and be ready to steady them if they trip or stumble, and pray they’ll catch me if I start to fall.

And most importantly, may I stay pointed toward the lighted inn that is awaiting all of us.

The Pearl of Great Price

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The secret of seeing is, then the pearl of great price. 
If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever 
I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. 
But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought.

The literature of illumination reveals this above all: 
although it comes to those who wait for it, 
it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, 
a gift and a total surprise.

I return from one walk 
knowing where the killdeer nests in the field by the creek and the hour the laurel blooms. 
I return from the same walk a day later scarcely knowing my own name.

Litanies hum in my ears; 
my tongue flaps in my mouth. 
Ailinon, alleluia!
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.
You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see
and my self is the earth’s shadow
that keeps me from seeing all the moon.
The crescent is very beautiful
and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see;
but what I am afraid of, dear God,
is that my self shadow will grow so large
that it blocks the whole moon,
and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know You God
because I am in the way.
Please help me to push myself aside.
~Flannery O’Connor from A Prayer Journal

 

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Sometimes the hardest thing is to step out of the way so that my own shadow no longer obscures what provides illumination.  I am regularly so blinded by busyness and distraction that I lose sight of God Himself.

Surprise me, dear Lord.  Though I regularly lament in the shadows, help me lift my voice in praise and gratitude for your gift, the pearl of great price you hold out for me to take each day.

 

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On This Surge of Hill

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Here, on this surge of hill, I find myself
not as I am or will be or once was,
not as the measure of days defines my soul;
beyond all that a being of breath and bone,
partaker of wind and sun and air and earth,
I stand on the surge of hill and know myself
Below, the stars sink landward, and above
I breathe with their slow glimmer; fields are gone,
the woods are fallen into the speechless dark;
no claim, no voice, no motion, no demand.
It is alone we end then and alone
we go, creatures of solitary light;
the finger of truth is laid upon my heart:
See and be wise and unafraid, a part
of stars and earth-wind and the deepening night.
~Jane Clement

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I don’t do alone well.  Never have.  I’ve always preferred plenty of activity around me, planning gatherings, and filling days to the brim.  Very little of my day is spent by myself and I designed it that way.  But once in a while there comes a time when I must quiet myself, be still, and simply be, with no agenda.  With our children grown and gone, this is happening more often than I prefer even though the love of my life and I often commute to work together, eat meals together, spend our evenings and nights together.  It is just so much … quieter now.  So quiet.

Typically I don’t prefer my own company but I’m slowly learning the lessons of spending time alone.  There is no glossing over my flaws nor distracting myself from where I fall short.  Alone is an unforgiving mirror reflecting back what I have kept myself too busy to see. It is going beyond all that a being of breath and bone can become.

Slowly but surely I sit within my own skin more comfortably, gaze out through 62 year old eyes attached to an over-capacity brain and begin to appreciate thinking random uninterrupted thoughts as they occur to me, as the finger of truth is laid upon my heart. 

I might even decide I’m fit company for myself.   Maybe someday.  Probably not today.

Anyone up for a cup of coffee?

My treat.

 

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