I got laid up with a nasty cold after an entire week of “writers block.” But it’s never really writers block. It’s monkey mind; restless thoughts gone completely unchecked.
When there’s something chewing at my mind or my spirit, I go quiet. Because when the inside noise gets loud, I can only make sense of it when I quiet the outside noise first. I love connecting with people yet my most recharging gift to myself is time alone. This frustrates me, because in a world with a husband, two young children, a toddler, 2 businesses, and a ministry, “time alone” is harder to find than “jeans that fit” or “a unicorn.”
I actually posted some of my finest literary work on social recently: There were five minutes when no one needed me for anything. Then they did. The end. (A Short Story for Moms Everywhere.) I enjoyed those 5 glorious minutes absorbing vitamin D because I am like a houseplant that wilts for lack of sunshine.
It's frustrating to have to constantly budget my schedule for “time alone.” Yet as I’ve earned more lived years on the planet I’ve learned to respect myself enough to honor my own simple need for quiet. I saw this the other day and laughed out loud:
Our brains have limitations
There’s actual science behind this meme. Our instinct to down the radio in order to see better is just one example of our brain’s natural biological response when we need to focus. Eliminate one processing “task” from its list (listening to music and lyrics) and it performs better at the more important task you’re asking it to accomplish (finding the turn you’re supposed to make). Essentially: limit one sensory intake and you heighten another.
Mental multi-tasking is super bad for our brains. It causes restless thoughts, stress, and actual physical damage.
So last week my monkey mind was swinging its restless thoughts from the trees. And it’s no giant surprise I got sick afterwards. I hadn't taken the time to get quiet and sort through the mental maze, and that unresolved anxiety stressed me out. THIS IS WHAT STRESS DOES. Stress makes us sick, and the correlation between stress and illness/disease is staggering and scary. Mental and emotional stress take a bigger toll than we realize. We have got to slow down and take care of ourselves. Nobody else is going to. (Although this morning my husband took the baby to swim lessons and threatened to take all my devices with him so I would take a nap. I did take the nap and if you heard the faint sound of angels singing it was from my house. The nap was glorious.)
I woke up with images from my childhood in mind.
Isn’t it funny what we hold onto? What sticks in our memory banks for unknown reasons, and then resurfaces when we least expect it?
I went to sleep with crazy restless thoughts, but what I woke up with is a peaceful and relatively frequent memory. One with my grandparents when I was very young.
My granddad was a Methodist minister in Missouri, a devoted servant of the church and impassioned voice for justice during his civil-rights-era ministry. My grandmother served with him in every supporting role imaginable. Her series of memoirs, beginning with Preacher’s Wife, is a historical and family treasure; in her books she shares stories of growing up as the only daughter of the owner of her rural town’s General Store and then her adult life as a wife and mother. On holidays or other special occasions, she still sends written stories for us to add to our collections – most recently, a story about how my grandfather (newly deployed in WW2) still managed to send her flowers on Valentines Day.
These stories are treasures.
I have sweet and special childhood memories of visiting “Homestead” in Terre du Lac, Missouri, nestled down a white-rock gravel road covered in Queen Anne’s Lace flowers, just a short walk or drive away from two small lakes we loved to swim and play in during the summer. My parents’ retreat, Egret Acres, is modeled after Homestead – cut into the side of a hill so only the 2nd story is visible from the driveway, and the “downstairs” actually appears as though it’s underground.
My memory serves that we usually visited only in the summer, usually via road trip through the gorgeous Ozark mountains. My granddad tended a beautiful vegetable garden in the front yard. Fireflies came out at dusk and we never got tired of chasing them; a welcome contrast from Texas mosquitos.
We played croquet (or some game that utilized croquet equipment) in the side yard and down the giant hill the house sat on. Our favorite game trick was to use the cylindrical black plastic gutter pipe to redirect the croquet balls in wacky directions, and if you angled the pipe right down the hill, the balls would take a flying leap over anything you put at the bottom. No one dared run down the hill though, because at the end were thorny brambles so thick you'd get your clothes stuck inside. And we had no idea what lay hidden in the forest behind them.
There was a creepy house across the street we thought was haunted, although in my adult life I realize it was probably just occupied by a hoarder. They had a screened-in porch that contained all kinds of weird items, the most visible of which was a vacuum cleaner that for some reason felt very scary to me as a kid.
Whether it was just my little family of origin visiting, or my mother’s 3 siblings (and our 7 other cousins) joined us, there was always something fun to do. We churned homemade ice cream on the downstairs porch, put on plays and dressed up in my grandmother’s square-dancing costumes, and listened to her play piano in the basement. Every note was right in her head and if I could ever invent something magic, I’d invent something to unlock and store her mind forever.
We played Pit around the kitchen table with the leaves put in and rocked in the wooden porch swing piled on top of each other. We marveled at the giant glass General Store jar that held Pensacola sand and shells and tried not to smash our fingers in the roll-top desk. I don't ever remember watching TV. We just played.
My grandparents had that classic beautiful amber-colored glassware and my grandmother was (is) an incredible cook. I can still remember the way the house smelled. I have such good memories there.
One summer when we were visiting, my grandparents took my sister and me to a place called Elephant Rocks. It’s a geological state park that features billion-year-old boulders standing end to end, like elephants. There’s a ton of neat mining and railroad history there, which of course we sisters did not care one bit about. We were fascinated by the giant rocks.
We arrived and ate my grandmother’s ham salad sandwiches for lunch and then set out exploring in nature’s beautiful noisy quiet. Right near our picnic there was a wide and shallow stream with a rocky riverbed that had stepping stones to a giant boulder right in the middle of the water. I’m sure we were scolded for venturing in, up, and on top of the rock, but this is the memory and image cemented in my mind.
This picture pops into my head often and after a week of restless thoughts and now illness, it visited again today. I think it shows up as an oasis, a peace offering, or maybe just a clear SOS from my inner psyche begging me to calm the $&%@ down.
Quiet the restless thoughts and find the lesson
If we’re willing to look for it, there’s significance everywhere, and in everything. I love when God uses the simplest things to open my eyes: this sweet little memory that bubbles up like spring water even into my adult life.
Am I the rock? Am I the climber? Am I the water?
Am I the rock, solid and secure, confident and strong, immovable and unchanging?
Am I the climber, adventurous and unafraid, willing and eager, tossing caution to the wind, eager to see the world from new heights?
Am I the water, steady and constant, clear and calm, quietly reshaping and renewing my landscape as I go?
I’m all of them, I think. So are we all. Each in our own time, in different seasons.
I wish I had a picture of Elephant Rocks for you. It’s stunningly beautiful. In the words of my good friend, “Google that $#!%.”
Interestingly and coincidentally, My mom has been sending me old pictures frequently. Funny; yesterday she sent one of my Grandmother holding G as a newborn, and today came one of my Grandfather holding my 3-year-old hand in front of the waves in Pensacola (where we were supposed to be for Spring Break this week until the weather turned awful).
There is nothing restless in those two pictures. Quite the opposite actually: these two photographs are the most beautiful illustrations of peace, love, comfort, relaxation, contentment, presence, and joy.
Sort through the discomfort
As Lent begins, I’m grateful for the opportunity to take stock of my life and my faith. This past week has been uncomfortable, but the good kind of uncomfortable. The kind of uncomfortable that taps at you until you stop to pay it the attention it deserves. For me that discomfort usually means I need to take inventory of my thoughts, or reconsider something I was certain I knew. (This requires awareness, humility, understanding, compassion, and often an apology. I am terribly bad at all of these things.)
Or sometimes that discomfort is pressing me to release something I’m holding onto in my heart that is keeping me from peace in my relationships. (And this requires honesty, spoken words, admission of hurt, request for forgiveness or reconciliation. I am even WORSE at these things. Speaking up for my own feelings feels incredibly scary. What if no one cares? Or worse, what if they say “no?”)
Our minds and bodies and souls are incredible creations. They know before we do when something is wrong. Ignoring them only causes us pain, sickness, heartache, and creates obstacles in the way of creativity and peace. We can’t create anything good out of chaos. Restless thoughts don't make for easy reading. And therein lies my case of writer’s block.
Listen to your thoughts
I don’t really know what was causing my monkey mind. Maybe a wild schedule, or some old dusty skeletons that tried to come play. (Note: 10 days have now passed since I originally wrote this piece, and I have realized EXACTLY what restless thoughts were - and still are - chewing on my internal wiring; that's a different story for another day.)
I’ll continue to listen patiently for the right answer and learn from its whispering. And in the meantime, I’ll keep drinking hot tea and doing my part to shine light into my own little corner of the world while I’m working on “homework” for two big upcoming projects: one on prayer and one on spiritual leadership within the family. You know, little light topics. Send cookies.