Yet another threshold

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Too many people see the years beyond 70 as a static period in which there is little change, just a slowing down. But in Anam Cara, John O’Donohue encourages us to “visualize the mind as a tower of windows”:

Sadly, many people remain trapped at the one window, looking out every day at the same scene in the same way. Real growth is experienced when you draw back from that one window, turn, and walk around the inner tower of the soul and see all the different windows that await your gaze. Through these different windows, you can see new vistas of possibility, presence, and creativity

I have had to look through a lot of windows recently, and ones that I would not have chosen. However, although the paths taken have not been easy, each was part of a different journey in which I learned something about myself. Recently, someone asserted that my life was “really hard.” My immediate internal response was intense irritation, but I politely noted that my life was not so hard—after all, bad things happen to everyone. I quickly realized that I was annoyed because the kindly offered words did not acknowledge that I was grateful for the many blessings that accompanied the view from each unchosen and unanticipated window.

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By now, you’re probably wondering who is this person. I am a social scientist who is always gathering data and extrapolating from those data. I am also a deeply spiritual person, so I have the tendency to infuse my experiences—which might, on the surface, look ordinary—with spiritual meaning to deepen my understanding of our lives during these challenging times.

As we age, many of us view our lives as a series of milestones and thresholds that are usually clothed in ritual. For some, a milestone marks the completion or culmination of something (e.g., college degree, wedding anniversary, retirement, death of a loved one, etc.), whereas a threshold signals the commencement or start of something (e.g., wedding, career or life transition, relocation, etc.). Crossing a new threshold is always a challenge and requires a certain amount of trust.

Nearly three years ago, for example, I said goodbye to my late husband, Jerry. This was not how the two of us had envisioned growing old together. Instead, I was called to do such difficult, intense, and sacred work as Jerry’s primary caregiver for seven years…and now that work was over—a major milestone for me. Shortly thereafter, I crossed a threshold and slowly embarked on a journey of grieving—a journey made more complicated by the COVID restrictions.

Fast-forward 15 months. My journey of more-or-less solitary grieving ended abruptly—a milestone for me—when a routine blood test revealed chronic leukemia. Even though I still had more grieving to do, the social scientist in me volunteered to participate in a 15-month clinical research trial—another threshold and a healing journey for me in the company of dedicated caregivers/researchers.

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Along the way, I encountered two unplanned pauses when nasty falls resulted in broken bones in both of my hands, my wrist, and later my kneecap. In each case, I was forced to slow down even more and give my body the time it still needed to heal. Because, on both occasions, I needed to be cared for more intensely, I joined a larger group of elderly people who were no longer able to live independently. This was, for me, a very new journey into vulnerability and community.

Gratefully, my disease is now in remission and my bones are healing—a milestone for me—and I can begin to allow myself to look through new windows at possible future thresholds. Unlike the thresholds of the last decade that I could not ignore, this time I get to decide which doors and thresholds I will open and cross.

John O’Dononue offers this blessing for “a new beginning”:

Awaken your spirit to adventure,

Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;

Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

To Bless the Space between Us

Although I’ve faced many (sometimes abrupt) beginnings in my life, I’m still not comfortable being vulnerable—or not knowing what comes next. Here are the questions that now consume my anticipated re-entry into a “new normal”: How can I take all that I’ve learned over these challenging years and choose among “all the different windows” that await my gaze? How can I make sure that the threshold I am about to cross will nurture my well-being and resilience? And, perhaps most critical, what might be holding me back?

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I now can see that I will not have answers to these questions before it is time for me to step gingerly across yet another threshold as it appears in this wild journey called life. To avoid stasis and “just a slowing down,” I must be content to make a choice and, in the words of Jan Richardson, writer, artist, and ordained Methodist minister, “Let what comes, come.”

Pause?

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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. 

Vincenzo Campi, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, c.1580

I

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

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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.