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The Sacrament of the Present Moment

The Holy Grail, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

One of the very best books I read this summer — perhaps all year — was Christian McEwan’s lovely World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. I posted an excerpt here that really spoke to me. Christian points true north in her recommendation that we reclaim quiet and slowness, and relearn to savor awareness in lives too often gone awry by speed, haste, and multi-tasking, our creativity and imagination suffocated by the noise that attends these harried, unfocused but increasingly “normal” behaviors. I have an intrinsic horror of chaos and I do not believe it is possible for me to live a truly creative life, in either a spiritual or an artistic sense,  in an environment that seeks to encourage chaos instead of order, harmony, and balance.

The truth is, I don’t have to participate in the chaos. I do have a choice, though I may be made to feel as though I don’t, or that in exercising my choice to slow down and swim on my own side of the stream I am somehow “not with it” and need to “get up to speed.” I’ve been struggling with the sense that my life, my mind, my health, and my world have all been unravelling with greater speed and urgency over the last couple of years, so Christian’s book was just what the doctor ordered. I took quite seriously her encouragement to “Choose to refuse,” and have been practicing the simple art of saying “No,” along with the attendant art of not apologizing or feeling guilty for saying it and using the resulting new-found time to be more available to the opportunities God is offering to me in the sacrament of the present moment.

Being more present to what is happening in the moment is necessarily going to look different for each person. It all depends on how plugged in or overextended you are. A good friend of mine is experimenting with unplugging from the Internet each weekend to allow for quiet spaces to process her writing. One thing I’m doing is trying to stay with the task at hand and resist heartily the urge to multi-task — meaning if I’m helping my son with his math lesson and the phone rings, I let it ring. This is extremely difficult to do because as a full-time mother and housewife, full-time home schooler, and part-time high school teacher I’ve got my hands full and there is rarely a moment when someone doesn’t want or need something from me. How do I meet everyone’s needs and still have something left over? Prayer is essential, but so is slowing down and making a place for quiet and a more moderate pace through the day.

One of the things people praise our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, for is his ability to make the person with whom he is speaking feel like the only person in the world. This is a tall order. But should it be? Why is it so hard for us to pay attention to who or what is right in front of us, without being distracted by something or someone else? Obviously, prudence and discretion is required: if I’m driving and my son wants me to look at or listen to something that requires too much of my attention, well, he simply has to wait. Keeping us alive and safe in that moment is the most important thing. But in this time of instant gratification and self-centered social interactions, this kind of patience is difficult to acquire and practice, for others and for ourselves. Yet it seems to me essential. Rather than whipping myself and others into higher speed, I must learn to be OK with allowing myself and others to move slow, appreciating the time it takes to be on task and do a job well and thoroughly before moving on to something else, and allowing the person I’m interacting with the gift of my full and undivided attention. Because God is present to me in the moment, not in the next thing on my to-do list, not in what I could be doing instead. But right there, in what I am doing NOW, in who I am with NOW.

Michelle Aldredge at gwarlingo has taken up the clarion call issued in McEwan’s World Enough and Time and has an article today about Christian and her book as part of her new series on creativity, which I highly recommend following — it’s worth every minute you’ll spend reading. You can also hear an interview with Christian on Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon. Christian’s book is worth seeking out and reading slowly. Treat it like a personal retreat, a gift to yourself, a promise to take back some of what you might be allowing to be taken from you. Reading it may be a step towards reclaiming a more creatively aware, spiritually intuitive self. Not everyone is going to be happy with your choosing to refuse and not everyone will understand the grace that will be revealed to you in each moment that you choose to pay attention and focus on what is happening NOW. But you’ll be better for it and the inner change it will work in you will be evidence that you’re on the right path to living a saner, more peaceful, more present life.

What have you got to lose?

The Summer Bookshelf

One of my favorite things about summer is the extra time it affords me to lose myself in books. As a child, I remember whole afternoons spent reading after chores were done. Sometimes I hid away in a makeshift tent of blankets. Other times, I nestled for awhile in the tree in our front yard, just high enough so the random passer-by couldn’t see me from the street. I always felt like I was doing something special and secret and wonderful. Then there were days when my friend and I would pack up some snacks and traipse across the street from her small farm in the wash that ran through town and climb to the top of the low hill to find a place under the trees where we’d spend the afternoon reading comics.

The sheer luxury of this type of relaxed reading is now whittled away by the busy days of parenthood and home schooling, work and life in general. I spend most of the rest of the year reading for work — as an English teacher this is both a privilege and a curse. I DO get to read some of the greatest works every written, but I also HAVE to read those works, whether I’m in the mood for them or not. Those days of total freedom to read wherever and whatever the wind blew my way were truly remarkable and while I can look back with greater appreciation now, in hindsight, I have a sense that I realized the gift of those pockets of time and to revel in that freedom even then.

Child Reading, By Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The reason I can say this is because I see the same awareness in my own son. At 10 & 1/2, he is aware enough to realize the gift of being given hours a day to lose himself in books and to look forward to it with great excitement. He himself has told me often that he didn’t hear me because “I was so engrossed in my book.” He has this knowing, this relationship with books, this sense of passing time without worry or care, somewhere far off. For him, one of the high points of every summer is signing up for the Summer Reading Program at the library. Actually, it’s a high point for both of us since a couple of years ago we discovered that I could sign up for the adult program and it was something the two of us could do together. We are fortunate that our main library here has an excellent Friends of the Library volunteer group which hosts a Festival of Folktales every June to kick off the Reading Program. Skippy has me mark the calendar months ahead and eagerly awaits this afternoon filled with games and music, shows and books. It’s a sign to us both that we’re done with the hard work of the year and have a few weeks to relax the pace and spend extra hours turning pages on the patio or on the beach.

This year has been particularly busy and challenging for me for many reasons. So much so that I could hardly slow my brain and heart down enough to dream about what I might want to read. As Skippy and I wandered the stacks on the Festival day, each taking turns hunting out the titles which were to earn pride of place on our bookshelf, I felt bereft and disconnected and unsettled. Nothing was speaking to me. I shared this uncomfortable and unusual (for me) feeling with Skippy.

Without missing a beat, he said confidently, “Mom, read something fun! Why don’t you read something classic? Read something you’ve read before! Books are made to be read again and again. That’s what the classics are for. Read Frankenstein. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read it before. I’ve read books over again. Read something you WANT to read.”

His words sort of stopped me in my tracks. Was this my son? Where did he acquire such wisdom, and at such a young age? Clearly, the years spent doing exactly what he was now encouraging me to do had had an impact on him. It took seconds for me to reach out then and take Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out off the shelf and add it to my bundle. A classic? Yes. Read before? Yes, nearly 15 years ago. Perfect for a summer read? Yes, absolutely.

Woman Reading In A Cashmere Shawl, by John Singer Sargent

Skippy’s advice broke the barrier for me and opened the door to a better mindset, one open to greeting summer and those delectable hours to be shared together lost in books. The Voyage Out wasn’t the only book I chose. It joined a long list of other happy choices: The Beekeeper’s Lament, A Gift From the Sea, poetry from Ranier Marie Rilke, Mere Christianity, Surprised By Joy, and Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self. I am also looking forward to (finally) finishing Treasure Island with Skippy and starting The Lord of the Rings together. We’re also planning our first excision into audio books with To Kill a Mockingbird. Finally, a friend and I are hoping to read and discuss Woolf’s Orlando together.

I may get to all or only some of these. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the hours are free to dip in and take my time and luxuriate in turning those pages for yet another summer. That I am able to enjoy this with my son, and that he realizes this gift, makes it all that much sweeter.

And you? What’s on your summer bookshelf?

Take Back Your Time

The Head of Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones

“In terms of taking back our time, the first essential tool is saying no. No to our own greed and self-importance. No to the extra work we carry home. No to hearing without listening, looking without seeing; no, above all, to the insistent voice of advertising, which thrives on our restlessness and dissatisfaction, and does everything it can to exacerbate them. A Brobdingnagian NO to all those things makes space for an even more gigantic YES.

My private code for this is to refuse and choose.

We . . . can refuse to participate in the ‘mad race of time.’ We can choose to talk face to face with our friends instead of via email or on the telephone; we can play with our children, now, this very afternoon; we can go off for long walks across the hills. We can turn off the television once and for all. In short, we can rejoice in being one of the elite who actually does have the privilege of choice instead of complaining endlessly about our lack of time.

The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse

Of course it can feel difficult to drop out of the rat race: to stand at the side of the road while our friends and colleagues race on across the horizon. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. In Matisse’s painting, “The Red Studio,” the clock has no hands. We need to find a ‘red studio’ of our own, the studio of our own insistent heart, perhaps, in which to set up an easel or a writing desk, or pull a dreaming daybed towards a broad, wide-open window. It sounds so simple — almost too simple to be worth saying — but slowing down can be a tremendous source of joy.” (Excerpted from World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwan, pp.30-31)

What would you do if you had more time? Find one thing, and then find the time and make it happen.