We’re all QuietKeepers now

When I started this blog, living a more serene life was largely a choice involving a move to a more rural area and other intentional lifestyle changes. But thanks to the coronavirus and the imposition of stay-at-home orders, it looks like we’re all QuietKeepers now.

Although I’ve heard many positive reactions from people who are finding some enjoyment in more scaled-down lives, there have been plenty of negative ones related to boredom, isolation, and depression setting in. In offering my thoughts here, I should be clear that my own immersion into quietude has not been free of struggle and at times a longing for more activity and interaction with others. This was especially true at first when I missed my former proximity to an interstate highway along with the stimulation of the newsroom where I had spent most of my career. But even after I had mostly adjusted and began to write this blog, another change presented new challenges.

December sunset

For the last five years, my husband and I have had to limit our travel to attend to his elderly parents, both of whom have since died – the last in December. During that season of caregiving, as we were experiencing a mode of “sheltering in,” most of our friends and other family members were vacationing and “enjoying life,” often sharing with us their photos, experiences, plans, and delights.

As this pattern continued, my husband often said, “If we don’t learn anything from this and we don’t make changes in our lives as a result, then we will have lost an opportunity.” Those words helped me eventually to stop yearning for the way things used to be and get on with what needed to be done, staying alert to what I could draw from the experience. Although it still could be difficult watching friends and family breeze through lives that seemed ruled by fun, I found that by cooperating with my circumstances and duties, I began to change.

Now that restricted movement and enforced isolation are upon all of us, I can say that, although I haven’t welcomed these new circumstances, I was at least somewhat prepared for them by what I had gleaned from the last few years.

As I pondered my own situation during that period, I recalled something a woman who had known many a lean season once told me about how she sought to “live large,” even in reduced circumstances. Because she had an eye for beauty and was determined to make room in her life for it, she had a way of making a simple meal seem elegant in the way she prepared and served it. In her hands, a modest home or wardrobe could appear stylish because of a few well-chosen accents. Her way was inspiring, not because she filled her life with stuff and activity, but because she created space for what was truly valuable to her and so lived with an attitude of abundance.

I began to think about ways to follow her lead interiorly in the midst of boundaries that had been pulled in, plans that had been postponed, and dreams that were starting to fade. And so I no longer lived for the day when I would be free to do this or that, but chose to look for and enjoy what was already around me. Sometimes, it would be something as simple as allowing a constellation in the night sky to illuminate the inner darkness that awakened me in the wee hours. Or, letting the song and sight of a Dickcissel cheer me on a spring walk. In winter, while traversing a desolate landscape, I could feel heartened by a Northern Harrier coursing over a field in its hunt for food. And, at the close of a day filled with missteps and mishaps, I could sense that all was well for the moment in a sunset of brilliant color infused by light.

Dickcissel singing

Then, I read this in Interior Freedom by Jacques Philippe: “ . . . even in the most unfavorable outward circumstances we possess within ourselves a space of freedom that nobody can take away . . . without this discovery we will always be restricted in some way, and will never taste true happiness.”

Philippe offers as “a witness for our times” Etty Hillesum, who died at Auschwitz in 1943. In the diary she began keeping when the Nazis were systematically stripping Jews in the Netherlands of their exterior freedoms, Hillesum could write of “enjoying the broad sweep of the sky at the edge of the city, breathing in the fresh, unrationed air.” While acknowledging the reality of persecution and its effects, she insisted, “They can’t do anything to us, they really can’t. They can harass us, they can rob us of our material goods, of our freedom of movement, but we ourselves forfeit our greatest assets by our misguided compliance. By our feelings of being persecuted, humiliated, oppressed. By our own hatred.” Because Hillesum believed she had the power to determine her reactions to her circumstances, she could say, “I find life beautiful, and I feel free. The sky within me is as wide as the one stretching above my head.”

For Philippe – as for Hillesum – God is the source and guarantee of the inner freedom we all can possess if we learn to let it unfold. “. . . Then, even though many things may well cause us to suffer,” Philippe writes, “nothing will really be able to oppress or crush us.”

This is clearly a difficult time in our nation and our world and many are suffering from even more than limitations on our freedom. But during these days, I’d like to think that we will not just get through them, as one state official suggested, by “snuggling up to Netflix,” but that we will seize the opportunity to “live large” amid the restrictions and find true freedom within them. If we do that, perhaps when and if this period of sheltering-in ends, we will have discovered a new way to live – one that reflects what truly matters.

Learning to be

“There are seasons when to be still demands immeasurably higher strength than to act.”              

— Margaret Bottome

As students head back to classes on campuses around the country, I have been thinking about the school our family has been enrolled in for the last few years. It’s one we didn’t choose to attend and the curriculum is a bit erratic.

I call it the School of Being, because it describes what we are learning about one of our family members who has dementia.

Although like most people in our culture, we want to “do” something in the face of any suffering or loss, in this instance we are finding that often our greatest act of kindness is to “be” with Pops.

Sometimes, he requires action: a shave, help in the bathroom, his glasses cleaned, or hearing aid located. But the focus when we visit him in the memory-care unit where he now lives cannot be on these acts. It has to be on him and where he happens to be at the moment.P1000218

Early in this journey with dementia, someone told us, “You have to enter their world.” And so we do.

That usually means a simple and cheerful greeting and then waiting for a signal. Often, we simply pass through the looking glass with him and see what he is seeing, hear what he is hearing, ponder with him what he is thinking. This can involve answering the same question multiple times as if we are responding for the first time. Or, it can mean summoning our imaginations and indulging in flights of fancy and even a bit of nonsensical speech, the kind we use with little children.

Frequently, Pops reveals a kind of idee fixe that sets the tone for our time with him. It could be “Where’s Mom?” meaning his deceased mother or his very-much-alive wife, or maybe both because he’s mixed them up in his head. Or, if we find him just waking up, we might be treated to some spirited, repetitive commentary on how well he had been sleeping.

One day, while seated at a table in the dining room, he lasered in on several chairs in the next room, saying he was going to sit in one. He remained where he was, however, continuing to talk about his plan to get up and relocate. We encouraged him, reviewed the choices of chairs, and which seats were available, all without any action on his part. Finally, the locus moved to a woman who was sitting – and sleeping – in one of the chairs, so we talked about her and the various aspects of her state of slumber. “She’s really snoozing.” “I think she’s catching some flies.” “Yep, she’s out like a light.”

Another day, Pops told me he had been on an airplane the night before. I learned that he and his wife had been separated so that each was on a different plane. “I bet you didn’t like that,” I said, to which he replied, “No, I didn’t!” And so we were off, chatting about this as if it had really happened, because for him, it had. Whatever the source or reason, it didn’t matter. He was where he was and I was right there with him.

At still other times, Pops becomes agitated if there is too much activity around him or if he sees that we are conversing with an aide, another resident, or visitor, and we are reminded once again of the importance of being with him and being present to him.

P1030986So it is that we are all learning new lessons in this school that has no vacation or seasonal breaks. “Being” is not easy to master in our action-oriented, instant-response world, one in which all our minds are racing toward doing something. It requires slowing down, stilling our thoughts, and, in our encounters, trying to sense where the other person is before we speak or act.

For my part, I’m discovering that I’m still too absorbed in a jumble of thoughts when alone and too quick to jump in and share my own opinions, stories, or ideas when with another. Typically, my own experience or state of mind springs to the fore when someone is talking and, instead of listening, I plunge in with advice or a “that’s just like when” comparison. Or worse, I don’t listen at all.

Being with someone whose cognitive functions are compromised is forcing me to stop, look, and listen because I’m clearly on unfamiliar ground and need to find my way.

As a creature of our active and materialistic society, I am learning from someone whose life has been reduced to the essentials that the most important gift I can give is a quiet and receptive presence, one that waits to see where the other person is and then remains there for a while. Sometimes that means saying nothing and just being there, and accepting that it is enough. The late Fulton J. Sheen once said, “The world’s greatest need is . . . someone who will realize that the real worth is achieved not so much by activity, as by silence.” I think Pops would agree.

Growing contentment in the garden

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth. 

 — Dorothy Frances Gurney (1858 – 1932)

From the time I was a small child growing up in a religion rich with liturgical smells and bells, church had been a place where I experienced a sense of God. There, the scent of incense lingering in the air consoled and the candle that flickered day and night in a red glass lamp served as a soothing sign of the divine presence.

All that was altered, however, with the death of my parents. Church suddenly became a place of sad memories: of pushing my mother’s wheelchair in and then struggling to get her to the basement bathroom mid-service. Or of beginning to notice how gray my father’s skin was looking against that of others beside him as his condition worsened.

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Brunera, top, and Woodland Phlox in bloom.

After my parents died within a year and a half of each other, I wasn’t angry at God, but church was simply not the place of peace it had been for me in other seasons. I continued going there in this extended state of grief and spiritual numbness, knowing that it was important to maintain a connection to my faith at such a time, but I was surprised to find more tangible comfort in a new place: my garden.

I had been something of a gardener since marriage eight years earlier had brought with it an acre of unwieldy property peppered with huge pine trees and assorted nooks and crannies that seemed to be begging for attention. But now, I started to attack the dirt with new energy. One day, I noticed that a gentle peace I had not felt for months would settle upon me as I weeded, dug, and watered.

I began to go back for more. Over time, I would not only sense a comforting presence in the garden, but through the growing cycle, I would glean practical spiritual lessons from tending a troublesome plant or discovering the dangers of admitting invasive varieties into my space.

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A male Indigo Bunting, known to sing all day.

I eventually recovered a sense of peace while being in church as memories from that difficult period of loss healed. But I have continued to find solace in the garden, as I know many gardeners do. Perhaps it is because the act of working with our hands frees our minds to listen to a voice that speaks in whispers, in “the kiss of the sun” and “song of the birds,” as Dorothy Frances Gurney says so nicely in the above excerpt from her longer poem, “God’s Garden.” I discovered Gurney’s lines on a decorative plaque as I was venturing into gardening and warmed to them immediately. The words come home to me again and again as I take in bird song and bask in the sun, pausing to consider the richness of my surroundings.

I sometimes think of deceased family members who were gardeners – my husband’s Uncle Bill, to whom my patch of Bee Balm stands in silent tribute; my paternal grandmother, who planted snap dragons with her vegetables, and my father, who left me two precious garden tools from his years of growing a small patch of onions, peppers, tomatoes, and garlic, likely as a holdover from the Great Depression. I understand better now what drew all of them to the dirt and why they seemed so contented when they were communing with the growing cycle.

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Bee Balm, introduced to me by my husband’s Uncle Bill and a favorite of hummingbirds.

Although the words Gurney wrote about gardening were inspired by a very proper English garden at Penshurst Place in Kent, and my own garden is decidedly on the wild side, their sentiments speak to me whether I am reflecting on the beauty of things in bloom or cultivating their home.

Recently, a friend who was surveying my garden when it was much in need of a spring cleaning asked, “Do you ever just get to sit and enjoy this, or are you always working on it?” I do have time to rest on the front porch or stroll through and gaze at the fruits of my labors, but I also am much at peace while planting and pulling weeds. There are exceptions, of course, like when I’m being buzzed by a deer fly or mosquito, dig into a colony of ants, or pick the most humid day of the year for mulching. But on most of the grand days of the growing season, those are mere distractions in what to me is still a refuge, a place where I listen and God speaks.