The Art of Slowing Down (And The Wisdom of Louis Armstrong)

I’ve often heard that Lent is a season of slowing down. Of drawing closer to God, to others, to the wide open world around us. A time for spiritual reflection and inner examination. An opportunity to go a little deeper in trying to figure out Jesus. A time to pause. A time for simplicity.

This Lent, I decided to get back into biking to and from work (in addition to cold showers and placing a penny in the “Suck it Up or Shut Up” jar each time I catch myself complaining). IMG_1458
When I moved across town in June, I said I’d bike once I found a good route, but I weasled my way out of it for reasons such as having to bike through some sketchy areas by myself, something I was a bit fearful of.

Now a few days into it, I’ve found a route and a rhythm. I got off to a rough start the first day of Lent biking home drenched by the down-pouring rain. Two cars didn’t see me, causing me slam on the brakes, skidding in the middle of an intersection. Cars passing by splashed water up against me like a small ocean wave. It was cold. It was dark. And I kept making wrong turns, making my time in the rain even longer. I had a “shake your fist at God” moment, muttering things that warranted pennies in the jar, and then managed to put my sopping wet hand back on the handlebar. I thought about the journey that women in Africa make to and from water wells and firewood piles on a daily basis, often risking the possibility of getting raped just to gather these essentials for their families. Surely, I didn’t have it so bad.

And most of us don’t.

As I biked home today and pulled up to my house, exhilaration flooded my body with the sounds and sights of life around me. Daylight was still visible at ten of six. Birds chirped goodnight lullabies to their young. Soon, it will be March, which will usher in spring.

Despite all of this beauty, I was about to walk in the house to begin my usual routine: put away my dirty work clothes from the day, wash today’s lunch containers, pick out clothes for tomorrow, eat something better than cereal for dinner…

But I stopped myself. Why did all of those things seem so pressing? Why do I do each of those things the second I come home? Outside, the sky is changing hues from deep cobalt blue, to indigo purple, to peachy pink, without the help of any human hand. How can I settle for doing dishes when the world around me is putting on a symphony of light and color in the sky?

I sat on the ledge of my front porch, dangling my feet over the edge, bouncing them up and down. I looked up the block and felt gratitude to have the opportunity to live in a neighborhood I enjoy coming home to. I looked up at the two airplanes in view, traversing the sky, filled with passengers, dreamers, grace-givers, homesick spouses, screaming infants annoying the people in front of them, questioners, seekers, searchers, adventurers, and people wondering how quickly they can get off this airplane. Fellow human beings, like you, like me, in a slate colored vehicle with aluminum wings and flashing lights that can get you from Atlantic to Pacific in five and a half hours.

All of this is so amazing.

This world. It’s so beautiful. And everyday, we have the opportunity to relish it. How many days are spent checking off to-do-list items on the backs of receipts? Why do we think we’re so busy all the time? Why do I always feel like I have things to do, when really, all that I might need to do in that moment is…. slow down and look up.

Look up.

The dishes can wait. Your lunch will get packed. Come. Sit. Out here on the stone porch. Come sit and settle in with your maker, like a child and a parent snuggled up on the couch. Breathe in the world around you. Observe the movement of cars filled with people; some going home, some going to meetings, some going to fill their refrigerator with more food than we can ask for, some going to see a dear friend, some going crazy. Feel the stillness of tall trees; though brown and bare now, a metamorphosis is coming. Stop rushing. Enjoy your life. Enjoy the Earth. Enjoy every good and beautiful thing around you.

I sit outside until my fingers feel numb.

Spring’s a’comin, but it sure ain’t here yet.

I sink deep inside myself, shoulders unslumped, before heading in.

Louis Armstrong was right, I think to myself.

What a wonderful world.

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Thoughts on Solitude.

There was a bird outside my window this morning
Happily chirping its song; its story.
Another one joined in.

I’m not sure what they were saying
But I felt like their language spoke to my soul
Reminding me to go outside today
And spend some time in solitude.

So that’s what I did.
I zipped up my snow boots
And hit the trails
Climbing up powdered white paths
Sparkling like sugar cookies
In the mid-afternoon sun.

I glanced down at footprints of deer
And footprints of other hikers
Wondering what their journeys are like
And how they experience the world around them.

Sometimes I feel guilty going places alone.
Life is short
And people are beautiful, after all.

A couple years ago
I moved back to Baltimore
And within a few months, realized most of my friends had moved home or moved away
And I had a night
Where the few friends I had left
Were all busy
And I felt an immense loneliness come over me.

It was a cold, dark January evening and Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder
can be more than SAD; it can be depressing.
I was so lonely inside; I scared myself.

Have you ever had a moment like that?
Where you’re so caught off guard by what’s going on inside?

I did the one thing that I thought might help.
I called an old friend in New York just to make sure I was alive and breathing.
Luckily she answered.
She was out with friends
And I think she thought I was acting a little melodramatic

But never the less
A few words
From an old friend
On a lonely night
Melted away tears of despondency
And I vowed to never get that lonely ever again.

That was two years ago.
I’m thankful for new friends who’ve touched my heart
and for old ones who’ve stuck it out.

Although as a recovering people-pleaser and conflict avoider,
There are times when it would be much easier to keep inside my shell;
I’ve come to realize that people, community, are absolutely essential to personal growth,
apart from which my soul would deaden bit by bit.

But sometimes I don’t want to talk
And sometimes I need to be alone in my thoughts,
With God
Staring at vast skies like open pages.

I need to lie on my back
Let the grass be my pillow
And take pictures of the sun sinking behind open fields.

And sometimes,
In my calmest of moments,
I need only to be outside and sit there;
Doing nothing particular at all.

So I’ll sit on my front porch
While crickets sing to evening stars
And I’ll stare at the moon
Wondering what the moon sees when it stares at us.

All of this connects me back to the world around me
To God, to people, to the shifting Earth upon which we stand.
And all of this makes me realize
That solitude is an indispensable part of life
For wallflowers and social butterflies alike.

That solitude isn’t selfish
But creates room enough to embrace resonate beauty.
It disrupts the rush, the driving back and forth, the cacophony of sirens blaring through city streets.
It forces me to address the thoughts that keep resurfacing my mind
When it would be easier to keep ignoring them.

It lets me find myself under willow trees
Beside gurgling streams
That sound like the warm water
That will fill up my bathtub tonight.

It helps me find my center
Whether basking in sunshine
Or crunching in leaves,
Whistling along with the birds.

So may it be.

May we find solitude
That fills our souls
So that we are alone, but never really alone.

May we be filled with wonder
That prevents us from ever daring to think we can fully understand
This world, this beauty, the footprints and fingerprints of another.

May the birds’ song serenade you
Open paths guide you
God’s smile shine upon you
And give you peace.

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How do you find solitude? What do you, not do? Where do you go? Where don’t you go? How often do you experience solitude in your life?

Which is Yes…

Image“I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees,
and for the blue dream of sky and for everything
which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.” -E. E. Cummings

Aug 12: Sunlight all around, making the green fields glisten like the first coat of untrampled upon snow. The wind is lightly blowing in my face, a warm late summer breeze that feels more like spring. My legs move up, down, up, down, up, down, faster now, exhilarated by the velocity of a good bike ride, breathing heavier now. There’s sunflowers waving in the grass, some wildflowers hugging the edge of the road. There’s so much beauty to see. Orioles fly gracefully through a field, orange belly lighting up the sky. I have no roadmap, no predetermined route. I am an explorer now. And oh, by bike, there’s so much to see. So much to see…

I take a turn down a hill off to my right and cycle around a CSA farm. I can see spinach and lettuce and other greens growing off in the distance as a woman approaches the garden, presumably to help share in the farming responsibilities. It’s the aura, the ethos of Community Supported Agriculture that gets me. People coming together to grow and harvest food that will nourish brothers and sisters, neighbors, families gathered ‘round the table, and those who pine with a deep hunger to have just one meal with a family like that, ready to say grace before the passing of baskets, dishes, and salt. There’s something about this that’s heavenly and holy, divine, like that’s the way food is supposed to be- you’re supposed to get your hands dirty and know the faces of the hands that plucked your berries from the vine or the tomatoes now garnishing your salad. It’s as if you’re supposed to celebrate that the produce you’re eating was once just some tiny seed that made its way through heatwaves and deluges of rain, sunny days, cloudy days, and days in between, just growing, growing, growing…

I head back to the main road, going down streets I’ve never been on, neighborhoods and schools and hills I never knew existed. A father goes on a walk with his two daughters, one in the back of a wagon, the other blithely by his side. We smile and wave.

I take in a deep breath, filling my lungs until they say “no more,” and prepare for a steep hill, fantasizing about the view from the top. Changing gears, slowly but persistently, inching but persevering, legs getting stronger and leaner with every turn of the pedal, I make it up to the top and discover a new place that I will watch sunsets from.

It’s beautiful now, this moment, this evening sunset just doing the same thing it does night after night, only I don’t stop often enough to give it the glory it deserves.

It’s stunning, really, the sun ablaze, hovering over tree tops, trying to avoid sinking down beneath the nighttime covers of the horizon, a firery ruby orange, a sapphire in the sky.

Oh it’s so beautiful.

The whole wide world.

It’s fricken beautiful, and I have everything I need.

It’s beautiful and God, it feels good to be alive.

It’s beautiful and this Sabbath bike ride pulls me in deeper, deeper into you God. I’m pedaling downhill, I’m flying fast now; exhilarated, like a child on their first rollercoaster getting brave enough to wave her hands in the air.

Oh yes I’m pedaling harder now, making my way around the bends in the road, biking past a tall damn with geese at the top, looking over the edge. I bet they’re daring each other to jump or fly off the edge- “you go,” “no, you go…”

I bike over the bridge where I went bridge jumping with friends, wearing my cap and gown one jubilant night in May 2009 with friends. This spot always causes a smile to traverse my face, usually from the right to the left as I ruminate the rush of that plunge over and over again.

I peer over my shoulder one more time and there’s that sunset again, this time emanating from water.

It’s beautiful.

My eyes can capture each hue, every tint, every highlight of sky refracting off the water.

It’s beautiful, God, and I get to see it… get to see it, taste it, feel it, experience it.

And it was one of those amazing days composed of everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes…

On This Ground I Dance Upon Called Earth

On Rest and Renewal

I always am blown away by spring. Breathless, I delight in the colors of spring, dizzy by their hues and shapes. I am drunken by the intoxicating  fragrance of magnolia blossoms. I am constantly in awe of new buds on trees, blowing on wishies, plucking wildflowers from the ground as I place them my hair.

Today was one of those beautiful spring days where that feeling just seeps into the enclaves of the chambers and walls of my lungs, heart, and arteries; a day where you are convinced that you are literally breathing in life, with every breath.

Brian whipped out his camera as we marveled over the reflection of the blue sky on a water droplet on the leaf of a daffodil. I got up close to a baby bee roaming around on a weeping cherry blossom tree. I looked at it from different angles until I was literally staring into its eyes.

We went on a “Sabbath Walk,” where we barely spoke to each other except for a few faint whispers, “I saw a fox!” We meander through creeks and logs and hear the chirps of birds high above, singing joyfully. My mind feels like I need to be doing something, need to be praying, need to be singing a worship song to God, but I realize that I have no words; that all too often I rush around doing things when really all I need is to be. To learn from the joyous songs of the birds, to listen to the cool creek water trickle down hills, and be completely convinced that there is nothing in life I need to worry about. It’s hard to feel anxious when surrounded by such beauty. It’s hard to dwell on your fears when you realize that if God can help flowers grow, He can surely help you with whatever is so pressing on your mind.

Time stops in such moments. Nothing else matters in these moments. I decided yesterday that I will continue to create time and space to make sure I have these moments of quiet awe-filled worship on a weekly basis, because in those moments, as I’m captivated by nature, or breathless by stars that are so so so so far away, I realize that there is so much more going on here than we realize. That nothing is normal about this human experience; that there’s these little tiny things called cells and they make up the leaves to plants, animals and human beings. That right now I am actually standing somewhere on an Earth that is moving and rotating, though I can’t even feel it. I am held down to this Earth by gravity, which keeps me from falling off. I.can’t.even.feel.it.

Flipping through scripture, I am always refreshed when I hear God speak about creation. Jesus tells us to look at the birds (Matthew 6:25) and to learn from the wildflowers (Matthew 6:28). In Psalm 23, we’re told that God wishes for us to lie down in green pastures; to be lead beside quiet waters. Job reminds us that God “spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing. He wraps up the waters in His clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight.” We are reminded that creation itself is meant to teach us- yes, to learn through their actions, not their words, for they need not speak verbal language. “Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In His hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all.” (Job 12:7-10)

So today I will learn from the birds in air, and the shoots developing on trees. I will look at the wildflowers and how they are able to grow, year in, year out. I will remain in awe of you, Lord, and the works of your hands. I will remember your calm, your peace, your authority over all things, even at work this week, where there are days in which I feel as though I hear nothing but sirens, see nothing but trash on the streets, and yet find you in unexpected ways through the smile of a stranger or the excitement of neighborhood kids riding their bikes after school. And be it inner city, forest, behind the desk, or out in the community, I will ponder you, God. I will seek you, God. I will find you and be awed by you as a precarious child of you, God. And I will celebrate you on this ground I dance upon called Earth.

My favorite part of my parents' home is their Magnolia tree in the front yard.

Photo Credit: Scott Otterbein