Getting Still: Why Are We So Afraid?

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It is only framed in space that beauty blooms.

~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

My mother used to send me letters in college, averaging one a week but sometimes two or even three. Most were quick notes reminding me to check the tire pressure on my little red Datsun B210 . . . to write a thank you note to my grandmother . . . or treat myself to a Dilly Bar at the local Dairy Queen.

Some however were just an envelope containing a single piece of paper. Opening the envelope, the smell would arrive first. A sharp chemical odor of paper copied by a circa 1970 home Xerox machine.  I know what’s coming.  Appearing is yet another mimeographed page copied from my mother’s well-worn King James Version of the Bible. 

Underlined in blue ballpoint pen would be a passage or two, usually from the Gospels. Rarely was there a note or explanation.  Sometimes however, in case she was worried I’d miss the point I guess, there would be exclamation marks penned in the margins.

I was usually left guessing why she’d selected that particular passage. In the sideways, passive-aggressive way that southern women have perfected, I was trained to infer a “kind suggestion.”   An attempt to set me straight, show me where I’m falling short. Be nicer.

I’d open the envelope, quickly scan her ‘helpful’ suggestion scrawled in her shaky handwriting.

Feeling the familiar prick of criticism, I’d throw the letter away.

In one of her last “Bible” notes to me, I opened the envelope and see two Xeroxed pages, one from the gospel of Matthew, the other from Luke.  They both have the same passage underlined from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow:  they neither toil nor spin”                                                   — Matthew 6:28

Four exclamation points follow.

Is this admonishment about working too hard in school?  Or maybe the opposite?  Work harder!”  Toil!  Spin!!  Become a lily!!! 

I’d never learn to decode my mother’s hidden messages.  I will say that, oddly, it felt safer to assume these were words of criticism, never failing to land with the piercing impact that only a mother’s words can have.  Again, at 19, I hear additional proof that I was somehow doing it wrong.

I crumpled up the pages, tossing them in the trash on top of the latest draft of an English paper that I later got an A on.

Rising out of the mist of my dreams or the empty space that lies in between thoughts, a line of a poem or passage from a book appears out of nowhere. Like a toddler tugging at the hem of my skirt, the words persist and don’t let go, relentless in pursuit of my attention. 

Most times when this happens, it’s a line of lyrics from a tune I’m working on with my guitar, a poem that I’ve run across, or an excerpt from one of the many books I’m reading at the same time.  But other times, the words float in from the past, like a fog drifting in over the distant ridge line.  An old gospel stanza from a Methodist hymnal —  “The Old Rugged Cross” or “How Great Thou Art” – or maybe, on occasion, the Scripture.  

Lately, in my daytime and nighttime dreams, I hear “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin.” 

Thirty years later, these words sound different to me now.  Perhaps because they arrive in my imagination rather than an envelope from my mother, they sound less preachy and sharp.  Less like criticism, more spacious, more poetic, more possibility.  I understand metaphor now, and I think about the deeper meaning of these words.

I let the words sink in fully.  In a deep and visceral way, I can feel their truth in my cells, my bones, my tissues.  I can hear the subtle, ever-present frenetic voice that whispers to me:  “keep moving, keep striving, don’t stop!  It’s much better over there!” 
Anywhere, but right here.  Right now.

See how the lily grows. I think Jesus is asking us to reflect on Nature’s way, her effortlessness and grace, without goals, to-do lists, and vision boards.

What would happen if we tune into the low-level hum of restlessness and agitation, an unsettledness that drives so many of us into whirling dervishes of escaping the discomfort of . . . what exactly?
What lies waiting for us if we simply unsubscribe from all the external messages that tell us we’re not enough, and get still?  Allow it all in.

All of it. Boredom. Grief. Joy. Sadness. Rage. Judgment. Blame. Love. 

Doing so asks of us to empty ourselves of distractions, making space – breathing room – to allow our innate wisdom and impulses to guide us.

Nature, She neither toils nor spins….there’s no trying, fretting, hurrying, judging, future-tripping.  A lily simply submits to the next right step, guided by its innate impulse of who it is and surrendering to what it wants to be. 

Maybe that’s what Mom was trying to tell me all along.

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