Monday, October 20, 2014

October Column in Register-Guard

Note: After a few months of writing for the Register-Guard every three weeks, I'm back to writing once a month, but still rotating with Bob Welch and Carolyn Kortge.  Apparently, readers wanted to know exactly which Sunday they could expect to read each of our columns.

Letter from Harrisburg

Are we all busy, or just confused?

Mostly, I listen to birds.
A truck shifting gears far away and an irate dog nearby, but otherwise the still, early-morning air in this Thailand neighborhood is full of chirps and twitters and coos. Over there a sharp choppy caw is answered by another, and a deep-voiced hammering sounds to the south.
Constantly, over it all, a loud, clear bird-call seems to come from everywhere, sounding urgent but kind, like mothers calling children, with a strange tone that reminds me of bubbles rising, as though the warm, heavy air were actually water, and the birds’ friendly calls across the neighborhood were bubbling upward in the thick humidity.
I sit at a little round table on a tiled balcony with a white rail. Two trees — one like an overgrown rhododendron, the other with fern-like leaves — obscure much of my view, but between them I see a line of single-story houses with red-tiled roofs and simple iron gates across the driveways. Miniature temples sit on elaborate posts in the corner of the yards, fresh with colorful streamers, giving off a hint of incense.
The jungle seems close here, even in town, and one gets the sense that if you turn your back for 10 minutes, it will take over again. Trees arch over the fences and far into the streets. Every untended area looks dense and overgrown — the neglected yard across the road, the swampy area between fences. Huge bougain­villia flowering in an exotic purple peeks through the trees down the street. At another property, snake-like leaves of a roof-high plant drape themselves over a 5-foot-high wall.
Doves with tiny heads and speckled shoulders pause on one of the 10 electric wires going by between me and the ferny tree. A small bird, maybe a hummingbird, buzzed into the neighborhood not long ago. Others are exotic black birds with white shoulders that swoop across the street in pairs or little sparrow-like birds that burrow with frantic rustling into the leaves.
Some time ago, when I felt like I had more going on in my life than I could possibly handle, someone told me to define what “rest” looks like for me.
Now I think: It’s actually happened. This is what rest looks like. This is how it feels.
Our oldest daughter, Amy, moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, last January. She immediately began taking Thai classes and learning to teach English as a second language.
Paul and I try to visit our children wherever they scatter, for both their encouragement and our reassurance. Paul was asked to speak at a youth conference in Nepal in October, flying into and out of Chiang Mai, so it was the perfect opportunity to spend time with Amy. Since her house is tiny, she arranged for us to stay nearby in the home of generous friends who were away for a month.
In the weeks leading up to our trip I cooked for seven people every day, hosted guests, canned green beans and 81 quarts of grape juice, watered flower beds, put a new book together and got it off to the printer, and took 10 children camping at the coast, returning less than two days before we left for Thailand.
I was home alone for less than an hour between mid-May and well into September.
Now and then, I wondered how this happened, this constant rush, the flood of responsibilities, the default answer of “busy” when people asked how I was doing.
“The glorification of busy,” some call it, theorizing that we choose too much to do because, in our culture, it gives us a sense of importance.
“Most people that are really busy are actually just confused,” says my neighbor Anita, and I suspect that’s the case with me, since it never feels like a deliberate choice. How could I have known in June, when I planted a late garden and took in my dad for the summer, that the green beans would coincide with grapes and guests and galley proofs of a new book? Rather, it seems the responsibilities just show up, usually in the form of blessings and loved ones, and I could never tell them to go away.
So the way to stay sane through this stage seems to be in choosing time away, making it happen, giving it priority. We observe Sunday as a day of rest, technically, although for a minister’s wife it’s often as taxing as any other day.
I hunted in the Bible to see what it says about rest and found it presented as both a command, to be chosen deliberately, and a reward, given unasked, which is what this trip has turned out to be.
While Paul is off in Nepal I sometimes ride across town on the back of Amy’s motorbike with the sun burning our arms and the hot wind whipping by. As we roll past cement trucks and buses close enough to touch, I think, “I might die, but what a fun way to go.”
I wander down the street and buy iced coffee while Amy is in class, and then we zoom off to lunch at a little open-air restaurant and go shopping in the garment district with its endless fabric pieces rolled up on long tubes set upright on the floor.
Despite the exhaustion of a day among wild traffic and sights and smells, I feel my soul unwinding.
But mostly, it’s the time alone that has proven the sweetest. That first morning, I opened a door and found this inviting little balcony, waiting for me.
“Come ye apart, and rest a while,” it said, paraphrasing Jesus’ words long ago.
So, recognizing a priceless opportunity when I saw it, I have been going out every morning with a pot of tea. I watch the morning light spread over the greenery and the tiled roofs. No one speaks to me, no phones ring, no messages beep, no one knows I am here.
In the Beijing airport, almost hidden among shiny shops full of expensive perfumes and thousand-dollar purses, there’s an area, beautiful but not ostentatious, featuring subdued colors, two large lily ponds crossed by a pretty angled bridge, gracious pagodas with little wooden tables and chairs, and two little tables offering squares of red paper, a bowl of ink, and two long paintbrushes for practicing your Chinese writing.
I sat there and drank coffee and felt nourished in senses and spirit. It seemed the structure, like my delightful balcony, had been built with exactly that purpose in mind.
Maybe we busy Americans need to do this, I thought. Not to disdain our work, but to see stillness as necessity rather than luxury. Maybe we each need to create a little place in our lives for deliberate beauty, for intentional rest, for bird calls rising, for restoring the soul's capacity to care and work and invest joyfully in all the people and opportunities that come its way.


  1. My mom has been saying this for years.

  2. Enjoy your busyness. It is a privilege denied to many. My mom is almost exactly your age, but has ALS. She used to be the hardest worker around. Reading your blog sometimes makes me grieve for the life we used to have.

  3. I agree ... the times I take to get away and journal, talk to God and read are definitely rejuvenating! Thanks for sharing this challenge to all of us!