How I quit gasping for air
An image swirled up from memory, her third birthday. She wore a black coat with a hot pink hood, and her blond hair caught the warm October sun as we ran through a park frequented in my own girlhood. We stood over a Colfax creek, throwing sticks down one side, rushing to the other side of the bridge to watch them pass beneath us on top of the swiftly flowing water. There lay the last leaves of autumn, brilliant scarlet and yellow, plastered on the rocks and sand of the creek bottom, shining in the rays that glinted through the bare trees. I lifted my camera and slowed the shutter speed to blur the rushing water and focus on those little gems of leaves lying still below the deep clear water. I didn't know it was an image that would save my sanity in the weeks - and years - to come.
Several weeks later, she lay semi-comatose on a hospital bed, and I was curled around her in the fetal position, trying not to disturb the tubes and wires, wrapped in a yellow plastic hospital isolation gown to keep whatever germs were making her so sick off my clothes. I counted every breath as it dripped from her perfect, still lips as if it were a pearl of great price, stringing them on a necklace of mother's memories to be tucked away forever in my treasure box of hope. One day, 39 doctors came in and out of that room, with their gowns, masks, protective eye shields, booties, hats, gloves. Their stethoscopes waved over her chest, they pried her eyelids open and pointed flashlights into the perfect hazel of her staring eyes. They hooked up electrical devices to her arms and legs and measured the seconds until her little feet and hands twitched when they sent current through the pads. But I was like the leaves at the bottom of the creek bottom, in the silence there with her. We were on our backs, facing the sunshine. In some other realm. They were just water, rushing over the top of us, and I couldn't remember their names or faces after they left.
Last week, a barrage of doctors lined up again on Thursday's calendar square, and I tried to swim with the current on top of the water, arms pumping, legs kicking, muscles aching. Every now and then, body crying for oxygen, I rolled onto my back and looked up at the sky, breathing beauty, sucking in strength for the next long stretch of swim. I forgot how to not breathe. Forgot how to not fight the current. Forgot how to find the bottom and lie still there facing the sun. Sometimes it feels so, like you have to fight for life, like it's something to be earned, and you put every ounce of strength into the battle. At the end of the day, you are wasted and spent, but have you a string of pearls to add to your hope chest to show for it?
Sometimes words are too much for me. I turn on Debussy and even the notes are like chatter. I open the screen door with it's creak, and I am in the sun again, the slow buzz of mid-summer's flies, the wind soft through the long grass of the field, the heat shimmering off the freshly cut hay. I can almost hear the world turning on her axis as the long summer day grinds slowly on. Stillness comes slowly back to me, a practice I've forgotten for too long. Even in the long days I've spent pushing the world out to the perimeter, holed up in bed or cocooned with the kids here in the country, my mind hasn't been practicing stillness, my heart has been fluttering far too fast. My thoughts have been swimming, pumping, trying to keep up with the current.
How do you practice stillness among little ones, the antithesis of stillness? Their chatter, their busy little bodies, their minds that crave information and experience every day? There is a good chunk of it in the center of every day here in our home..."Quiet Hour", we call it - what used to be naptime (and still is, for the littlest two), an hour of silence, no reading, no singing, no art, nothing. Just lying in bed, thinking, staring, praying, or sleeping. Now to find more little bits of stillness in the rest of our day...havens from the busy that plagues modern family life, moments to lie at the bottom of the stream facing the sun, times to remember we don't have to breathe, we don't have to swim with the current, we don't have to work so hard to live life to the fullest. The King James Bible says, "Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10a) In the NASB, it's translated, "Cease striving..."
Busy is what saves us from our own minds when we're trying to drown out pain. In the stillness, you have to sift through all the voices and wait for them to be quiet so you can lie there on the bottom in peace, just you and what is important, lying on your backs in the sunlight. My challenge for myself, today: no music, no movies, no crowding of thoughts. Just stillness, and some works for the hands. See what flows out of quietness and peace. What do I see and hear when I lay at the bottom and stare at the sun, without trying to work so hard to keep up, keep on, and keep breathing?
Because the key to not staying in the valley, where it is dark and dreary? It's that I am always looking up, and there, in the sky and on the mountain peaks high above, the sun is always shining. When I'm on my back at the bottom of the stream, no matter how dark it is there, I am looking at the sunshine, and picturing what it's going to be like when I get to soar again.