When I was a kid, late at night I’d lie awake in my bed and stare out the window of my room, counting the stars, listening to the wind, thinking. I had words and songs and fears running through my head. I remember, lying there, saying to myself, “stop thinking! You have to sleep!” as if there was another person upstairs in my brain operating some controls, and they just needed me to talk some sense into them.
The drive for peace and quiet is strong in me. There are times I think I should have chosen a monastic life. I think I would rock that monastic life. If I slow down long enough, I can almost feel the deep waters of that life gathering up around me. I wade into the calm, warm waters and just sit down, letting the water fill in the gaps. Within minutes, though, without fail, I’m distracted, or interrupted, or uncomfortable, and so I move– and the cold air hits me, I’m awake again. Time to do something productive, I think.
It used to be the noise was in my head, the words, and songs and fears were keeping me from resting. Maybe that’s a natural gift of childhood. But now, it’s seemingly external too, the city, the children, the mounting stack of bills to pay. I am surrounded by the noise and distraction, and I am filled with it.
Liturgy is a remedy. Calm, predictable (mostly) and peaceful, Liturgy sorts me and for that I’m grateful, but I need to take it home with me too. I try to re-create the feeling that comes over me when I’m filled with that peace rather than noise and distraction, but my reactive nature takes over more often than not. I want to fight that reactive nature; I want to take it as it comes, but no matter how I whisper, or even shout to the controls in my head that want me to keep moving, I am absent that peace. I just cannot seem to make the jump to finding it in the every day.
I sometimes feel that I have to suck it up and just do this time of forced quiet anyway, a kind of grown-up time out, so I try. And it’s crazy because I really do yearn for that quiet, that peace. But I have convinced myself that after all these years, what is external has to be quiet first, and then, perhaps, the inner stillness will come. I believe at some deep level that I have to go to the wilderness to calm the restlessness in me.
But what if the wilderness is already around me? I am already there. What if I could choose to see all these things around me as wilderness. Instead of buying into some strange perception that I have to go far from home, into the wild, away from the noise of the El train outside my window, away from the bickering of my boys, away from the unfolded laundry on my bed, maybe I have to gather up my spiritual knapsack and hike this wood, this urban landscape, here, around me.
I just got a dog; maybe I’ve mentioned this, you know, once in a while on social media (read: repeatedly.) So in the training of this pup, I’m going outside more than I used to, walking around the neighborhood, trying to teach this guy to stop barking at every person, every dog, every leaf that falls and breeze that blows. He’s reactive, a byproduct of his time in the animal shelter. He’s poorly socialized and is afraid of everything around him, so he barks, it’s his only defense. He’s on high alert all the time, which means that I’m on high alert all the time. But I think I’ve been on high alert, myself, for quite a while now.
I’ve begun to notice other people walking with their dogs. I find that I envy their calm dogs just trotting happily alongside. I’m in a push and pull with Mr. Frodo the whole time. It’s exhausting, for him and me. It’s no fun, but I’m working on it. Stopping and starting, popping the leash, calling his name, making him sit at random times, distracting, circling back, praising him when he gets it right. This first string of commands is all action oriented– “let’s go!” “wait,” “heel,” “sit.” But we’re learning “quiet” too. When he gets tense, I say it to him. If he moves from tension to barking, I say it again, most strongly. If he complies, I say, “Good boy, good quiet.” He doesn’t comply much yet, but then again, neither do I.
I think it’s going to take a long time for us to learn how to do this well. The city is always going to have distractions, strangers, scary situations, falling leaves, and breezes that blow. I imagine to my neighbors I look like a total weirdo, but that’s okay. If it gets us to the point where we can stroll along together and just notice things, taking them in and not becoming stressed out by them, then I think that’s worthwhile.
So, we’re out here in the wilderness, desperately seeking some calm to remedy our reactive natures, his and mine. I pine for the moments when we’ll be able to sit in quiet finally, no matter what sort of noise or distraction swirls around us, and I think we’ll get there. It’ll take some time, patience, and consistency, but I think we’ll get there.