Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Great Outdoors & Sabbaticals

"Go outside and play!" was a common refrain from my childhood. My parents, like theirs, sent me outside. We climbed trees and got stuck, pretended we were scouts, hid in our wild grass fort, thought the woods were a magical place, and sometimes played neighborhood games of tag, hiding-go-seek, and, later, wrestling. As puberty began, the boys, five of them, pushed me away. It forced me to expand my horizons to a neighbor girl down the road. She loved fashion, magazines, had a dog, and a pair of roller skates. I'd say Trish was my first girly friend. We moved not long after that time to Spain. As a fully formed teenager it was all about my friends anyway which meant we did a lot of strolling about and hanging around in man made structures from school to pool to friend's houses- from a childhood spent in the boughs of trees to an adolescence spent in the depths of concrete. Some of my imagination may have gotten lost along the way.

In Trainspotting, the character Tommy takes his friends to the country side. After stepping off the train they protests; he says, "It's the great outdoors! It's fresh air!" Followed by "Doesn't it make you proud to be Scottish?" There is an earnestness to Tommy's attempt to get his friends away from the drug infested squalor they endure, but they are conditioned to their world and want to stay there- the wide open space does not speak to them. We persists too long in places that are hard on us.

Forgetting the widgets, the office, the papers; the simplest way to be in the moment is to go outside. An element of the wild- the lone butterfly fluttering about, a blooming flower- can substitute until the chance comes along to go to one of those beautiful places. Until then I toil in my yard, I bike down to the store, I sit in warm patches of sunlight, very still, and I always feel better. The real issue is why do we have to get sick, ill, tired, or overwhelmed before we do more of these things? I am always amused by these foibles of human nature- I don't think I am the only one who persists in continuing habits long past their prime or in avoiding some I need to acquire. Effort is required to maintain habits- we inherently get sloppy with things we know well, so we need a checklist or we need to mix it up to keep us on our toes and keep us honest. Mostly, I find I take the lazy option and do what I already know how to do.

Unexpectedly, my husband was in the hospital which resulted in him not eating food for five days. He commented that he had a new awareness of tastes he had not noticed, at the same intensity, before. It made me think of fasting. I can't say I have ever truly fasted except overnight to get blood work drawn. I tried negotiating with the obstetrician at my daughter's delivery for juice; I was starving. So though I have had little interest or experience with fasting, perhaps this reset of our senses is a reason for doing it.

Sabbaticals, fasts, time in the wilderness, making time for stillness and quiet are in essence a way to stop our worn ways. A time of fasting can renew tastes; a rest can help us see a new direction, yielding in a change of thought or routine. Vacation'a focus is on fun with a tendency toward excessiveness- food, sights, and delights of all sorts so perhaps is not the kind of break we need. A book title on the NPR website caught my attention:A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor. He writes about his shift in awareness going from the noise of Paris to the silence of a monastery:

A Time To Keep SilenceThe explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack on any stimulus or nourishment. The the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy; there were no automatic drains, such as conversations at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life.

There is a need for this experience in every life not just a monk's. We all have need of space and quiet whether we are aware of it or not. Modern life seems so noisy and busy and connected that quiet space is rare and undervalued. We might find we have new tastes, new delights, and more rest if we take a break- whether time outdoors or in silence.