Fallow Time

“In out-of-the-way places of the heart,

Where your thoughts never think to wander,

This beginning has been quietly forming,

Waiting until you were ready to emerge.”

      -John O’Donohue, “For a New Beginning,” from To Bless the Space Between Us

 

Deep into winter in this northern part of the world, the land is covered in white as I look over the fields on my way to work through the countryside on Sunday mornings. There is a quiet beauty to the undisturbed swath of flatland and curves and risings here and there. Evidence of the wild winds has collected on the edges, drifted snow building its unique architectures which change from storm to storm.

 

Grey, white and brown are the colors of the country these days. Shades that just waft in and out without lifting the mind. It’s all quiet and unobtrusive. Unless the sun happens to pop out to set the whole show into a sparkling wondrous kaleidoscope of brilliance. Then the heart skips a beat and can’t help but utter its thanks.

 

It’s fallow time, and nothing is growing under the moist earth for now, under the deep white snows. The soil is resting, renewing, lying quietly until the urge approaches it to come to life again. Nutrients from last year’s crop will have given it a rich beginning when that urge awakens life once more. The pulse of its life will quicken, a guarantee that life goes on in its seasons as it always has. Of this we can be sure. Things will grow again.

 

It’s not much of a stretch to say that all living things have fallow times. Including us. We have a profound and demanding need for them. No one is excluded. And many of us need more fallow times than others. We need that time of rest – of cutting back – of regeneration – of letting go – of dreaming – of waiting – of longing – of preparing.

 

I’m not just talking about the day-to-day, week-to-week demands of balancing busyness with quiet time. I mean that we find ourselves in the midst of long, unbalanced periods that just do not seem to lend themselves to easy discovery or resolution. Something is missing.

 

I have grudgingly learned to expect and to respect these in-between times. Times when it looked as though nothing of note was happening. Weeks or months – or even years – when I appeared to just be drifting. To nowhere.

 

And I was restless in the drifting – endlessly restless. I had no place to settle. And my soul needed a place to settle. To stay. At least for a while. More than a day or two…for a good long while. 

 

Along the way, it finally became clear: these aimless, restless times were the times when the Spirit  life dwelt silently – and richly – until I could learn to trust it. And give myself over to it. To hand over the restlessness so I could find the rest that my spirit was longing for.

 

And interestingly,

restlessness has been its fuel

 

Fallow time is spirit time. It is both beginning and ending time. And Spirit lives in the space between the two, gently waiting to transform us into the new and wondrous thing that we’re meant to become. It is the spiritual part of us that longs for the very connection that only Spirit can knit together.

 

Fallow time lacks clarity. The way is unclear here. There are few familiar landmarks. All is confusion, and we tend to hate confusion. We nervously pace the floor, knowing something is not right but not knowing what. We just know that we are disconnected from something that gives our souls rest. And we don’t know how to go about reconnecting because we’ve never been here before, at least not in the same way. What worked in the past doesn’t work now. We may have a brilliant mind, ready to tackle anything, but even our mind can’t take us where we need to go.

 

The way is unclear, and yet there are flashes of light that rend the darkness; hints of what Spirit might show us. They are incomplete in themselves, but they suggest a direction – if we have the courage to follow it.

 

Fallow time is a time for courage. A different kind of courage perhaps. John O’Donohue suggests just that – a disturbing kind of courage:

“May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire

That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.”

(From “For a New Beginning,” To Bless the Space Between Us)

 

Fallow time requires us to take a chance. The chance of moving beyond the familiar connections that have nurtured us and led us to this one point, this soil of restlessness that is waiting for the season to change, as it must.

 

There is no way that we can hasten the time that it will take. The time may seem endless, but it is always a time of great activity, beneath the heavy snows. We are being prepared for new birth. New life. Gestation will take as long as it needs, until the time is exactly right.

 

Even in the coldest days of the heart, the whisper of Spirit has been at work. Unheard yet unbowed, anticipated but not yet seen, it has been planting just the seeds that our soul needed to awaken it.

 

Once we hear that first whisper, a new beginning becomes inevitable as long as we have the courage to keep coming back to it.

 

Within the apparent silence, it has been planting just the right seeds,

the seeds of our own beautiful and incomplete design.

 

Fallow time eventually comes to an end. The time comes when our restlessness and our resting come together and a new place, a new time break the surface and look into the light. Just the right person, just the right timing, just the right opportunity, just the right day arrives, and we discover that all the waiting was for a reason: we’ve been transformed, our spirit has been made new and life is magic again. And the future that has just been waiting for us has arrived!

 

As I was researching the agricultural roots of fallow time, I came upon this remark by a farmer who was putting in his two cents worth on a site discussing the pros and cons of leaving a field fully fallow, with no additives, no new crop, just letting it be.

 

J. L. said, “I love planting into fields that have been fallow for some time. Seems like the best growing I ever do is the first and second years that I use a field after it has been fallow for a while.”

 

Life goes on in its seasons as it always has. Of this we can be sure. Things will grow again – including us.

 

Do not allow your confusion to squander

This call which is loosening

Your roots in false ground,

That you might come free

From all you have outgrown.”

-John O’Donohue, “For the Interim,” from To Bless the Space Between Us

 

 

 

 

 

Overcoming, Overrated

Southeastern Minnesotans – and those in nearby environs – are grumbling. And murmuring. I am a tad bit out of sorts myself, truth be told. That picture above is not frosting on a cake. It’s the snow beside the walkway leading to the front door of my apartment building. Just the snows of February which have dropped inconvenient totals of 3-6 inches every 2-3 days. Another 5-7 is on the way late tonight, and Sunday already is predicted to drop about that much again.

 

This is one of those times when intergenerational intersectionality (did I get that right??) makes sense to me. We elders are supposed to benefit by spending time with youngers (and they, with us…), and this is a guaranteed, built-in opportunity to do just that. Commiserate. And overcome. Together.

 

A prediction came floating up on Facebook yesterday: we might be looking at another 35″ in 5 more “snow events” between now and March 16th, the way things are stacking up over in the weather room. I checked and rechecked the visuals. Yup.

 

My husband used to love to say that “Weather people are the only ones who can be wrong 50% of the time and still keep their jobs!” Well, they’ve been right this month. Maybe they’ve used up their 50% and we can be spared that other 35″? I’m not holding my breath.

 

I give you all this detail because it is taunting me now as a blogger who has sung the praises not only of Minnesota winters, but also of us Minnesotans who pride ourselves in overcoming all the odds against us in the winters that face us every year. (See my blog from December 5, “The First Real Snow.”) And that includes those of us who have seen many decades of the stuff of winter in the north.

 

With some exceptions, most of us made it through the dreaded Polar Vortex, which was just as threatening as it had been promised. There have been just as many spin-outs and in-the-ditch slides as usual since then, which means another kind of overcoming.

 

But most of us genuinely try to turn a brave face to the outdoors and make the best of it as we dress and drive and play and sport our way through these months as best we can, satisfied that we’re on top of it all in the end.

 

Even those who stick around for most of it still get out of town a bit in the middle of winter to warmer playgrounds, but then bravely return to wait out the slog until spring shows up. And keep our spirits up because that’s what we do.

 

You overcome, and you do your best, and you face winter for the challenge that it is because, in part, it feels good to be heroic; kin to the tough Viking spirit of the North. Undefeated in the end.

 

But I’m here to say that there comes a point when no matter how brave or tough we are, how young or how old, this much overcoming gets to be exhausting! And that’s when the grumbling and murmuring begins.

 

Overcoming is supposed to be a virtue, is it not? So failing at it is tantamount to being a loser, a wimp, a wuss, a weakling, an object of ridicule and shame. I only slightly exaggerate here. To our credit, most of us seem to reach the wimpy, whiny point around the same time, so together, we hold each other up and avoid being critical of ourselves and others because we’re all just walking each other home…and that includes in the long, very tiring practice of one more day of overcoming after another.

 

My wonderful, funny, hugely talented mentor lives in mostly-sunny Southern California. He is also immensely kind. I have unabashedly bragged to him for months about the sturdy Minnesotan winter virtues and he has never called me crazy. But I think I need to humble myself just a bit and say that all this brave talk turns out to be less sturdy than it appears. Quite a bit less sturdy, in fact. So: my apologies to you, Bill! I know you won’t hold it against me.

 

We’re all overcoming something, much of the time, aren’t we? Right now for us Northerners up to our waists and higher in snow and snow drifts, it’s quickly wearing thin. No more bragging. This overcoming does end, though, and for that, there is a gratitude that was made just for the weary. Winter is but a season. This overcoming is not forever.

 

For so many, overcoming is a way of life, every day, without end. For them, overcoming is truly heroic because it lasts a lifetime. Here I sit, wimpy and complaining and trying to justify myself so that I can remain the hero of my life. This relatively brief season of inconvenience and challenge is nothing. I stand in awe of all those for whom overcoming is their every day. I see how exhausting it can be. 

 

Winter weariness is but for a time. “It isn’t what happens to you in life that matters, it’s the attitude you take toward it that counts.” (I paraphrase) Time for an attitude check. And a reckoning with my snowflake self. I think I’ll go bake some cookies to take to my meeting tonight. The snow isn’t supposed to start until after I get home.

 

 

Insights of an Elder, Part 3

QUILT DREAMSTIME (3)

When you’re an accomplished introvert like me, and you live in the north country, winter becomes a generous friend that gives you multiple opportunities to be more of yourself than at any other season of the year.

 

After a December that was almost too kind here in Minnesota, January woke up and reminded us that winter is winter, after all, and we can’t complain because we did choose to live here. Polar Vortex and all.

 

It is all a gift for the introvert.

 

In the past month, this introvert has known those deep satisfactions and blessings of the heart and soul of one who is never more content that when hunkered down at home. With piles of books, computer, iPad, reams of paper and empty notebooks ready to be written in. Dressed in wool and fleece and warm slippers, I have had the power of silence to keep me company, day after day.

 

Silence, when it’s welcomed, can be a siphon. All the ideas that have been floating around out there somewhere in space have a chance to come pouring in and to find a place in that precious part of my brain that has been so keen on discovering and capturing and putting them down, making them concrete.

 

It’s a good day for writing again about insights, it turns out. The snow is thick and still falling outside. A day to hunker down. Parts 1 and 2 got me started, but I’m not done yet. The siphon is still serving its purpose, and my fingers are itching to get the latest inklings down. So, Part 3.

 

Falling in love seems to be a good place to start, being February now when the hearts and flowers have been hanging around for the past month, waiting for their Big Moment on Stage for the lucky. So, what about love?

 

7. When you fall in love, you have to do it twice for it to last.

By the time we’re in our elder years, most of us have discovered this. Or else we haven’t, and real love has remained elusive.

 

Remember those rose-colored glasses you had on when you fell in love? How endearing every little thing was about this delightful person before your eyes? The “where have you been all my life” face that might be that soulmate you’d been looking for? Yeh, that one.  And oh, how lovely when it grew into commitment.

 

Then at some point, the imperfections appeared. The small ones were irritants, but the big ones grew. They were there in both of you, though you didn’t notice your own yet.  And that’s when the second falling in love had to happen. To stay? Or to walk away? That became the question.

 

There was one way to stay: when the good that was there outweighed the problems, then a second falling in love could happen: when you learned to love the other both because of who they were and in spite of what they were not. And when you saw the truth that you were imperfect, too. [Note: the rules all change in abusive relationships. No “good” overcomes the “bad.”]

 

Anything less is very much like a fairytale. Because we are all very much imperfect, and life is imperfect, but real love can embrace it all if we’re willing to do just that.

 

8. Happiness is a by-product, not a goal.

We all want to be happy, right? Gazillions of dollars have been spent over decades in the highly vaunted goal of happiness. Long before that, it was enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as “the pursuit of happiness.” Some of us have spent a lifetime pursuing this elusive “happiness” in vain, always finding that we’ve fallen short of finally attaining it. Yet, we keep trying the next “how to.” In vain.

 

Perhaps that’s because the pursuit of happiness is mostly focused on ourselves. On how to make myself happy.

 

What things, what people, what actions would make me happy?

How can I get them?

Everything and everyone becomes a commodity to be acquired for my own happiness.

 

It turned out that what I thought was happiness lay so much deeper and took so much more attention than merely accumulating a basket full of “happy things.”

 

It was not until I began to pursue meaning and purpose that I began to discover the richness and deep satisfaction that I was meant to live into. The pursuit of meaning and purpose is both a goal and a never-ending journey. It focuses more on others than on ourselves. And that’s when happiness shows up as the by-product of the real pursuit.

 

The question has not been, “How can I be happy?”

The question has always been, “What kind of person can I become

so that happiness shows up all around me?”

 

9. Old age is not the condition of waiting to die. It is the time of finding out how to live more radically in elderhood.

Here’s why – and I love this! The word, “radical,” comes from the Latin, radicalis, which meant, “of or relating to a root;” “of, relating to, or proceeding from a root.”

 

To be a radical of any kind means to “be rooted.” Simple. Might I suggest that some  roots run deeper than others? And that it is not just about politics? It’s about living as full and deep a life as possible, and that can last a lifetime! This is the time to let our roots grow even deeper!

 

To be “rooted” in old age means that we come to embrace new discoveries that couldn’t arrive until now. Their roots keep growing, down and down into the rich soil of experience and wisdom, seeking the nourishment that mostly comes in  these last years.

 

We learn now to radically focus on what matters most and to let go of everything else. We can find ourselves with a clearer insight into just what is most essential and what just needs to fade away. Being rooted means waking up to the wonder of deeply savoring life, relishing it for the new gifts and opportunities that we never dreamed of before when goals and achievements and full calendars took up all our time and attention.

 

The gifts are things like a deeper insight and serenity and the peace of forgiven mistakes and the deepening joy of simple pleasures. Treasures like embracing the newly given freedom of finding the meaning of our whole life as we have remembered and pieced it together into a beautiful patchwork quilt. 

 

Falling in love. Happiness. Living more radically. They’re all a part of how I got here. And I’m so very okay with that.

 

 

Peeking beneath the surface

                                                                                                                        -Ram Dass

I have a new job! Retirement #3 just came out of retirement. The job will involve discernment and when this one is over on June 9th, I’ll have retired 4 times! I used to snicker about people who couldn’t get retirement done. Especially ministers, which has been my calling for some time.

 

Just let it go, for heaven’s sake! Get a life now! One where you can sleep in and travel at will and read different books and climb mountains or swim seas or start a new calling that’s been put off. Ministry can be a brutal kind of life were it not for its deep satisfactions and sense of ultimate purpose. Retiring from that sounds like a smart thing to do. Get out of the rat race and dip your feet in the water and spend time with the grandchildren or drive elders to doctor appointments. Things like that are all over the place. Do one! Relax!

 

Well, it turns out that although lots of people do just that – and happily – some of us still have some untapped energy left to burn right where we’ve been for years. And our callings just have to be all used up before we can settle in to the alternatives that show up. I’m evidently one of them. Not complaining. It is what it is. It’s just that it’s still surprising when the next thing appears and I’m happily ready to jump in!

 

My new job – part time though it is – is to help a small congregation discern its future.  I’ve been preaching there since late September while they’ve been searching for a permanent pastor. But they are struggling, as many small churches do now. So how do they move ahead? How do they figure out what that even means for them? That’s my job. To help them find out between now and June 9th. I’m not done yet, it appears. It feels right. And it’s taken a process of discernment for me to say that.

 

DISCERNMENT is not just a religious word. It is a spirit word. It’s something that we all need as we make our way through our lives. It’s kind of an obscure word, one that most of us don’t use much, much less think about. If we’ve lived on the surface for a long time, it probably isn’t part of our day-to-day living anyway. But it needs to be, whether we can name it or not.

 

Of all the dictionary meanings, the one that I’m talking about involves “the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.” Perception and insight and acumen are similar. They are all part of “a power to see what is not evident to the average mind.” It turns out that even “the average mind” is quite able to employ discernment when it finds it necessary. Thank goodness.

 

That’s because discernment means digging deep. We don’t need a Ph.D. to do that. It’s simply opening up to a part of ourselves that lies silent most days, just waiting for us to pay attention. It’s spirit work more than mind work. It overrides our need for control and unfurls possibilities that we’d otherwise never think of on our own. Some days, its vocabulary is a simple, “Aha!”

 

Discernment’s gift is that it leads us to the unexpected, the unanticipated place where we’re meant to stay for a while. Or forever. It lays aside our fears and inadequacies. It shows us that today may not be forever, and tomorrow is still a promise. It holds out a new vision of where we are meant to dwell now – and how we are to be there. It guides our heart to fashion new hope and unclaimed possibilities. It bares our uncertain soul and clothes it with a beauty and an assurance that we were just waiting for. It’s not just for elderhood, but hopefully we’ve become more proficient at using it by now.

 

Its natural home lies in silence.

Our silence.

Which can be oh, so difficult.

 

It lies in the silence of meditation of all kinds. I’ve practiced transcendental meditation; guided and unguided imagery; contemplative music of many kinds. It can lie in our dreams, awake and asleep.

 

It lies in the silence of mindfulness practices. I love to immerse myself in the wisdom of my friend and blogger, Martha Brettschneider, at http://www.damselwings.com. She knows how to involve us in beautiful and powerful mindfulness practices, online. Discernment at its best.  I hope you’ll check her (and her amazing photography) out.

 

It lies in the silence of contemplative prayer. We shall be steeped in this in my new place of serving.

 

It lies in the silence of the mind when we just sit quietly in our favorite soul-filling places without needing to “think” something profound. Just being soul-fed.

 

It lies in the silence of quietly letting go of the clacking of our too-busy minds. (Not an easy thing – but with some practice, we learn how and it is amazing!)

 

It lies in the silence that follows my arguments with God about some move that I just will not be happy about making. I make many, many brilliant arguments with bold words. When they inevitably run out, there is an empty space that needs filling. And discernment – and its wisdom – appears.

 

This discernment comes with a clear sense that, yes, this is what needs to be. This is where I will go. Calm comes alongside and contentment arrives. And I am always surprised and amazed! And that unexpended energy comes alive.

 

Looking back on my 77 years of life, I can see the moments of discernment. And the wonders that came out of them. I can also see the times when I avoided the silence that was needed and plunged in on my own. And how often I took the wrong turns then.

 

It has taken some time for me to forgive and forget those when they have come to mind. That’s an important task in elderhood. And each mistake taught me something so essential for me to learn. Discernment was my teacher when I listened. When I befriended silence.

 

And each silence led me to the deep well that is discernment’s intended gift: arriving home.

 

So, I’m not done yet. And I’m very okay with that!