Low, charcoal clouds race by my window, like a herd running from some unseen danger lurking in the distance. Three of my four hens have jumped down from their roost to see what’s going on. The long sheet of thick black plastic I laid over a new garden bed vibrates and leaps, yanking at the heavy jagged rocks anchoring it, creating quite a loud, flapping raucous. But I feel safe in my writing perch, my cocoon. I feel calmed when storm clouds march by, wind whipping in the stiffening trees and shaking the window screen; provided there’s no tornado siren, of course.
Peace of mind can come in many different shapes and sizes. And despite my terrific fear of tornadoes, I feel most strikingly at ease when a good ole’ storm brews. It’s partly the exhilaration of things rising above the boring same-old same-old. (ADHDers around the world, high five). It may be that calamity in nature makes my internal chaos look tame by contrast. But it feels more like those moments when, just before you fell asleep in your crib, you heard your parents puttering around the house, their voices slurring into a comforting hum. When storm clouds roll, I know God’s up to something up there, beyond the bounds of my individual-ness, outside the scope of my life. And the perspective is comforting. I become smaller, and so do those things that trouble me.
Standing on the edge of the overlook above the chalk ochre chasm of the Grand Canyon has much the same effect. Vastness. Expansiveness. Perspective. We need God to remove the lid now and then off our simmering pot of person-hood to release the steam and stop the boiling; then all that heat can escape into the atmosphere we somehow forgot was there, that something bigger than ourselves. When the sky is still, it almost becomes a flat canvas painted over our heads and we come to believe we’re the subjects of the painting. Happy trees, happy water, all just standing there waiting for us to be amazing. But flood the sky with torrential rains, bolts of cracking electricity and churning wind, and we remember we are in part bystanders, witnesses to all of creation- not just humanity; born to participate, not play the only role.
Oceans, too, have a way of gifting us with perspective. The wide, seemingly endless expanses of water calm us, as evidenced by the number of people who choose to live by their shores despite hurricanes, tsunamis, land slides. Studies supposedly show that people who live near the coast experience better mental and physical health. One study apparently reports people looking at ocean photos while undergoing stressful dental procedures are more relaxed. Other studies supposedly tell us that sea air reduces stress, increases alertness and concentration, and diminishes depression- increasing an overall sense of well-being.
That’s cool, but I don’t need studies to tell me that; and for me it’s more abstract. When I walk the beach, the ball of my foot pressing half-scoops into the coolness of the firm, wet sand, the warm, clear water chasing tiny fish around my toes and splashing the rolled-cuff of my pant legs, stress leaks out of my every pore. My vision widens to meet the distant horizon, patiently waiting there for me- broadening instead of shrinking to squeeze me into a day. The steady whoosh of breaking waves speak of continuity, the effortlessness of moments ticked off one at a time, not in the rushing, demanding voice of office clocks and car brakes. Concerns are suspended until I am ready to observe them, often melting away before then. My ruminating disentangles from around problems; I think with more clarity, and find solutions with better perspective.
Perhaps in the same way I need these moments at the expansive ocean to unwind my mind and buoy my soul, relationships need expansiveness, the stretching of time, the relinquishing of expectation. I’ve been looking at this all wrong- seeing community as just more people who expect and need something from me- now. And that is frightening when you’ve been abused, overwhelmed, or just burned out. Perhaps just being among others is enough, untangling any expectation of them and of myself.
Yesterday my friend Julie read from Flight Path, her newly published book of poems. Perched on a tall chair in a candlelit room amidst several dozen friends, she effortlessly read each word with the same measure of economy with which she penned them. No dramatic voice, no awkward facial expressions to create mood or convey meaning, just the carefully chosen words from her massive vocabulary arsenal in precisely the order to move us gently into the interior of her sensitive vision.
“I believe art inspires art,” she said in my direction. She introduced the lines she’d written after I’d described the sensation of writing with calligraphy pens on rough watercolor paper. She reminds me of the feeling, there in that poetry reading, though I’m empty-handed. I am transported to my art table, and re-live it. Art inspires art; yes, it’s true.
Through the reading aloud of her beautiful poetry, Julie coaxed forth in me just the wingtip of the muse so that I wanted to run home and create something…anything. An artist needs the salon of other artists, elbow to elbow amidst clanking coffee cups. The writer needs feedback, inspiration and affirmation from fellow writers. The hum of honest affirmation and mutual inspiration, much like the voices of your parents in the other room, gives rise to comfort, confidence, and bravery to take the next risk.
As we mingled there over coffee, basking in the creativity, a friend told me how life had turned around and that it was collaboration with supportive people that made it possible. I was the one who’d suggested it to him, and that one thing had been crucial: the outsourcing of those tasks where he’s weakest so he could focus on his God-given strengths. He described joyful hours spent brainstorming with friends and colleagues, and the momentum that grew within and from these encounters. I suppose that’s what community looks like; others’ strengths supplementing your efforts, filling in your weak areas, cranking the engine of motivation when you yourself had been out of fuel and limped the last mile on fumes.
If we don’t allow our weaknesses to be visible, don’t give them voice among trusted others, we’re trying so hard, expending our energy to maintain our staunch independence, our soliloquy, until we stall out on the side of the road, miles shy of our destination. And here are two brave friends, marching toward their destination, taking inspiration from me that I myself have yet to act on. It’s time for a little bravery, a little community- and perhaps a trip to the beach. There, dark clouds will race in- but always roll on out soon after, leaving the wide, inspiring sky before me.