Several weeks ago, I attended a contemplative writing session with Reverend Karen Hering, whose skill at eliciting new thinking always amazes me. That evening, however, I found myself befuddled by her first question: When have you paused? .
It took me several minutes to think of any time when I have paused in a memorable way. During most of my life, I embraced the ideal of being busy, being of concrete use to other people, and, above all, being productive in a way that could be counted. Like many (most?) women, I found it hard to say no, which meant that both at work and in my personal life, I was often overloaded, constantly prioritizing which obligation would get the most attention at any given moment.
I reveled in the research suggesting that multi-tasking is a female superpower….
In other words, there were few pauses. As I scrolled through my past life, my first hit responding to Karen Hering’s question was the last month of my first pregnancy: It was a torrid August in Massachusetts, and I was not working, largely immobile, and waited on by my husband. However, it was less a pause than a period of intense anticipation.
A few days later, I smacked my head and remembered that, as an academic, I had regular long sabbaticals, whose purpose is, in theory, a time for renewal and reflection, to live fully in the ideal of the Torah: “…in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard “ (Leviticus (25:4-5). But in the modern university, that ideal is as far from reality as the typical observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest. Instead, when I filed my sabbatical plans with the university, they included writing, data collection, and a projection of the usual output of publications, research proposals, and new course syllabi.
It is obvious that the usual American vacation – one or two weeks, crowded with delightful activities – may provide novel adventures but hardly qualifies as a pause….
The expectation that we should be doing something useful barely shifts when we retire, as we are urged make and then to work down our “bucket list” of experiences that we have been putting off. And don’t forget the podcasts and books urging us to find a new purpose that will keep us sufficiently busy that we don’t sink into a Laz-e-Boy with a TV remote and a glass of wine. But there are equally pervasive expectations that we should build yoga and meditation into our schedules. Pausing has become a big business, especially for we retirees, who are also urged to remember that aging is expected to bring sagacity and spiritual growth.
But these mixed cultural messages beg the real question that has nagged me since my disquieting evening with Karen Hering: Why pause? And, in my case, how to recognize “pause opportunities” rather than additional programmed obligations?
I thought about my recent efforts to do anything that might lead to meditating. Long ago I read a book about different forms of meditation – I can’t remember much except that it gave permission to apply the label to almost any practice that clears out incessant to-do messages. It remains my goal rather than a scheduled event most days, and when I decide to take a break, I try something. Most of the time I successfully reduce my creeping anxiety about the to-do list, but I am also occasionally startled by an insight or a feeling that emerges not out of thinking, but out of emptiness. I am willing to call those insights accumulating wisdom, even if I can’t easily name them.
Then there is the unanticipated stop-in-your-tracks that occurs as I practice reading slowly, a skill that atrophied during the years of skimming piles of student papers with red pen in hand. When I encounter an unexpectedly beautiful sentence, or a poem that just appears when I pick up a book, I sometimes feel my heart beating faster.
And there’s the benefit of having a young child in my life who has not digested the ideal of productivity. To walk around the block with a four-year-old can take an hour, because it is in her nature to pause. New flowers (or weeds) blooming (“What is that one called? Smell it!”), A bug eating a leaf (“it’s so blue!”). Yards with intriguing ornaments, whether kitschy or real art, that are always worth re-examining. When I feel today’s time ticking away, I remember how quickly four-year-olds turn in to teenagers and adjust my adult cadence to her desire to observe intently, with no real purpose in mind.
— Jimsonweed, Bandelier National Monument
Sometimes I think that my granddaughter is channeling Georgia O’Keefe:
Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.
So, if pausing is a value that I am starting to savor, what knot does it unravel other than being, for a moment, less engaged with busy-ness? Yannis Ritsos suggests that these encounters with the intangible may be fundamental to my evolving consciousness:
I hide behind simple things so you will find me….
Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.
As I read this, I am aware that it is not big planned or anticipated pauses that give me the greatest joy, but the small ones that knock on my door—and then ask me to change. Ordinary time is suspended in wonder and, as Ritsos claims, becomes an opening to the “thin places” where I am able to experience life beyond that which I can touch. When I meet a sense of communion with a granddaughter or friend, a feeling, a nascent idea, or a burgeoning of love, perhaps I am simply experiencing a flow that cannot be programmed. The real problem solved is the (re)cognition that much of what I value most at this stage in my life is not planned, but experienced – often as a pause.