Zebra-crossing Namaste.

I was driving along today – in a bit of a hurry to make it on time to a meeting – and I arrived at a zebra-crossing about a heartbeat before a pedestrian. I could have kept going, and it would have saved me a bit of time – I really was cutting it fine to get there at the appointed hour. But I stopped, because I like to think (most of the time) that I’m a courteous driver, and I let the lady walk through.

She was an interesting-looking lady – long grey hair hanging down either side of her face; baggy, once-stately clothes; a string shopping bag hanging off one elbow and a ratty beige plastic-y raincoat clutched under one arm against the possibility inherent in a cloudless sky. She could have been equally at home in a darkened hovel surrounded by tens of cats, or sleeping rough in a doorway, or behind a university lecture-hall podium. And she moved slowly, walking as though in pain, or contemplating the bitumen beneath her feet. Potentially late, and already flustered, I was mindful of the fact that I could have quite legally driven through before she reached the road’s edge.

Just as she got to the middle of the zebra-crossing, at what could most kindly be called a solemn pace, she stopped, and turned deliberately to face me. String bag hanging from one elbow, and raincoat clamped beneath the other, she placed her hands together and ceremoniously bowed to me in thanks.

It made my day. When I waved to acknowledge her, I was grinning. I was still smiling as I started driving again, and when I arrived at my meeting my heart was just a little lighter.

My spiritual director – an amazing Sister of St Joseph who I’m privileged to consider a friend – often farewells me with the word “Namaste” – in Hinduism it means bowing to the Divine in each other, celebrating and honouring the Sacred which dwells in each of us. I have no idea what motivated the zebra crossing lady to bow to me – other, of course, than in thanks – but in that gesture I was reminded of Namaste. In taking that moment – a bow rather than a quick thoughtless wave – she acknowledged me as a fellow human being. Whether she knew it or not, she acknowledged the Divine in me. And I was reminded of the Divine in her; I was reminded of the Divine in all creatures.

Not bad for a ten-second zebra-crossing encounter.

Namaste.

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Off the mat.

“People with PTSD don’t do well when things are really busy,” said a counsellor to me, perhaps a year ago. And, inconveniently, we’re coming up to the pointy end of the year (music to learn, anyone?), and if last week was too busy to write, it’s nothing compared to how busy the rest of November and December will be. For the moment, and before I go on holiday next week, I’m battening down the hatches in the calm before the storm.

People with PTSD don’t do well with over-stimulation – I am aware of that, and while I’m confident that this year’s pre-Christmas demands will be less heavy and traumatic than last year’s (healing is a great blessing), I’m also aware of the fact that I am feeling under the pump, and I am starting to have difficulties sleeping again, and I am finding that more nights than not at the moment I’m visited by nightmares, which linger into the feeling of the day. All early warning signs that I might not be coping as well as I could; all something to watch out for; all indicators that I need to make sure I’m taking care of myself.

The other thing I’m aware of, though, is how long it’s been since this time last year, and how far I’ve come. Singing is sometimes still fraught, and my last panic attack was only a month ago, and it was a doozy. But even in that, I no longer wake up wondering if I’ll get through the day, and it’s been a long time since I’ve regretted waking up at all.

I’ll always carry the damage that’s been done, and I’ll always live with the consequences of ten years of domestic violence. Possibly, I’ll have to manage PTSD for the rest of my life, to greater or lesser extents. There are some things on which I will never be able to retain a sense of equanimity and probably some scars will always hurt.

But there’s been healing, and I’m stronger than I was a year ago, and I can stand and look people in the face without cringing, and most of the time I manage my symptoms without really having to think about it, and I have a sense of future as strong as my sense of past, and I feel like I’ve got out from under this. I took the hit, and I fell heavily, but I’m up off the mat.

It’s an incredible feeling.

So much for back into routine.

So I had planned to get back into routine; I was enjoying the sense of being back in routine, with all that entails – and then I got sick. Spectacularly, painfully, too-miserable-even-to-rue-not-being-able-to-sing, messily sick. I don’t like being sick and I don’t do it well. Plus, it’s bad for my to-do list.

And here’s the thing about being sick: it can’t matter. It can’t matter that we were singing a piece of music I really love, and I was stuck at home in bed, watching a fever shimmering in the air around me. It can’t matter that I’d planned to spend my day off going through my poetry notebook, getting back into routine on that too. It can’t matter that I needed to clear my desk, and that the dust bunnies on the kitchen floor were getting close to developing their own consciousness, and that there’s a half-written letter to a friend sitting on my kitchen table, and that I want to get back into the routine of going to the gym, and that there’s no food in the fridge other than carrots and a venerable bok choi. It can’t matter that I see myself as an active person – sometimes physically, always mentally – who doesn’t naturally sit around doing, and thinking, nothing. Nothing at all can matter, except that I shut my eyes, let the cat snuggle me, and sleep.

I’m generally not good at listening to my body. I can be hungry, or chilly, or nursing tension or even pain, without really noticing. So I guess sometimes messages from my body have to be pretty blatant. Yes, I get it: time to slow down.

I said at the beginning of the year that this year would be my year of care. I would care for the world around me. I would care for myself, physically, mentally, emotionally, creatively and spiritually. And then life got in the way.

My resolution to do a better job at caring for myself will last precisely until the next busy period – I know myself well enough to know that. But I have three-ish months left of my year of care, and maybe next year can be Year of Care Mark II.

I might have better success second time round.

The still small voice in the earthquake.

I’m back from my retreat, back to the real world and – perhaps pertinently – here are two quotes I’ve brought back with me:

Teilhard de Chardin: “By virtue of the creation and still more of the incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see. On the contrary, everything is sacred.”

And Michael Mayne: “Prayer is a way of seeing my whole life as containing significance and beauty it would not otherwise have.”

It’s easy(ish) to find a space of quiet and stillness when you’re sitting on the edge of a lake, the sound of lorikeets in the trees above you and the closing evening welcomed by kookaburra calls; or when you’re sitting in a small, silent chapel in the retreat house; and when there’s no demands, no to-do-list, no conversation to have or problem to solve, nothing in that moment other than space, and God. It’s harder to find that quietude, that peace, in the day-to-day, in-your-face roar of a full-on job and the clamour of the office and the whirling mental map of all the places my day must take me.

But both Teilhard and Michael remind me: it’s not just the sacred space, created for prayer and quiet worship, that is in fact sacred. The pasta I inhaled while fighting with the computer rostering system – that’s sacred, and the body it nurtures and the biological processes it supports is sacred too. The people I deal with, both face-to-face and removed – they are sacred souls. My prayer is that my hands will be God’s hands, my words God’s words, and my heart God’s heart – and that is both so much more difficult, and so much more necessary, in the profane sacred of my day-to-day life.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire:
speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
o still small voice of calm. 

Sometimes it’s hard to hear that still, small voice of calm in the regular, mundane tumult of life. But it’s there – and sometimes I can hear it, and sometimes I can’t, but I’d really like to keep trying.

Still, if there’s an earthquake, then I quit.

The Sacred in the superficial.

I’ve been on my own little retreat – tomorrow, though, I go home. I will drive home, pick up the cat from boarding, zoom inside, feed her, get my music, and drive to choir. Saturday will be household-y type jobs, Sunday will be Cathedral and singing and friends, and then come Monday I’ll be plunged back into the day-to-day bustle and demands and chaos and stress of my regular work life. I can guarantee that my sugar and caffeine (and alcohol – ahem) intake will increase, and my hours of sleep will decrese, and it won’t take long at all for my post-holiday calm to fray.

And here’s what I need to remember: my spirituality is as inherent in my day-to-day life as it is in the deeper and quieter times. I dwell in the Sacred as much when I’m washing dishes or fighting with the computer rostering system at work as I do when I’m singing the Mass, or sitting on the edge of a lake bathed in the beauty of the sunset which inflames the sky and guilds the water in pink luminosity.

And the superficial layers of life are important, and the Sacred is present in them as well, because all that I do is underpinned by the Source and Ground of my being.

But – and this is a biggie – the superficial can very easily lose its connection with the Sacred unless “it springs from the depth of spirit where our whole being is centred, renewed, and daily refreshed”, writes John Main – Ahh, says Naomi. There’s my problem!

My problem is that, while I intellectualise that all I do is a sacrament, I often forget. I often let myself be drawn up in the demands, in the busyness, in the need (my own need, as much as others’) to constantly be moving, constantly be busy, constantly be stimulated. Because life’s busy, and there’s stuff to get done. Because I don’t want to be left alone with my thoughts, my emotions. Because intellectualising is easier than feeling. And so I forget the depth of spirit in which I’m refreshed – I’m the person who, parched, doesn’t reach for the glass of water on the table in front of me because my head’s in the job in front of me.

I can’t say things will magically improve when I get back to my daily life. But I’m taking learning away with me from this retreat, and I’m going to try to open myself to the idea of things changing.

That’s probably actually all I have to do. I have a sneaking hunch that God will do the rest.

 

 

A slight shock, and going on retreat.

I just logged back in to my blog to note that the last entry was dated fifth of June. Really? FIfth of June? Have I been that neglectful? But WordPress is telling the truth: yes, it’s been that long. I haven’t written since last Thursday.

My calendar doesn’t lie either, and my habit of putting star stickers on the squares for the days on which I do a certain amount of writing is quite telling: there aren’t all that many stickers so far in June. There are some, which is something – but not as many as I’d like. Life’s been busy: work, home, singing. There have been appointments, and there have been church committments and blessed, wonderful time with friends whom I adore. And there’s been bleakness, and the intellectual tranquilisers on which I admit I’ve been relying recently. That’s just the way things go sometimes, and it has to be ok because the alternative is that it’s not ok, and then I get grumpy at myself and things go downhill from there. So, whether I agree with myself on that or not, I’ve decided that it’s ok.

The thing I’ve realised is not ok, though, is that among the important things that have fallen off the radar (and why is it always the important things that fall off the radar? My ironing is done, but I haven’t put pen to paper…) is my spirituality. My quiet time, that time of slowness and stillness, that time of holding in my conscious mind my inherent connection with the Sacred, the Divine, the very Source of my being.  The soothing rhythms of the prayers, the wordless meaning of the recitations which only reveals itself with repitition and concentration.

So I’ve come away. I’ve taken a week off work, and booked myself into a spirituality centre right on the edge of the lake, and the calendar on my phone and my computer has been cleared. I’ve been for a walk today, and sat on a rock overlooking the lake, and I’ve done some writing, and I’ve spent time in quiet and in space, and I’ll learn once more to prioritise those things which make me who and what I am: a writer, a singer, a spiritual being, a creature of the Creator. I’ll focus on being rather than doing, and I’ll remind myself that I’m actually designed to spend time in quietude, and I’ll remember what peace feels like.

And I’m thinking that I’ll probably have an early night.

An oddly overwhelming message.

I wrote yesterday about the wonderful plan I have to eat lunch at my desk, and then spend my half-hour lunch break outside, under the beauty of a tree or allowing my mind to be lulled by the music of the river which wends through the park near my work. To spend that time in prayer, in reflection, in meditation. In solitude, and in peace.

It’s probably not a huge surprise that my plan didn’t work – the day got busy, a meeting got scheduled, and before I knew it, it was four o’clock. Then suddenly, five to five. Then five past five, at which point I was stupid enough to pick up the insistently ringing phone (I finish work at five o’clock). Then gone half-past five by the time I got out – with not one heartbeat spent in peace, or prayer, or reflection.

And I chafe against it, and I resent it a little bit (really, day? You can’t give me a break for half an hour?), but I’m also kind of ok with it. Because increasingly I’m aware of the fact that I rely on the busyness of my mind. I rely on the demands of my life, on my lack of leisure time, on my lack of mental stillness, on the constant movement of my mind. Because stillness is scary. Because stillness – I think I might have said this before – gives emotion a chance. Because stillness forces me to face the fact that I’m tired, fairly constantly. That sometimes I’m frustrated. That sometimes I’m angry. That often I’m sad. That sometimes I’m happy – which is actually, perhaps counter-intuitively, more frightening than simple sadness.

In my meditation group yesterday, I found myself swept towards the sense of overwhelmedness. The ticking of the clock was urgent and thunderous in the room’s silence; the quiet sweep of morning traffic outside was clamourous, chaotic. The silence itself became just as overwhelming as the din of a crowded room. It was tempting simply to stand up, gather my keys from the floor under my chair, and walk out.

I’m not sure why this happened. Maybe because I was tired – it’s a before-sunrise start to get to the morning meditation group. Maybe because it’s been a number of weeks since I’ve done any sort of meditation at all, and my mind is no longer used to being devoid of demands. Maybe because I was apprehensively facing my frist day back at work after a fortnight’s leave. Maybe because I have post-traumatic stress disorder and my limbic system is an over-reactive drama queen. Who knows.

My hunch though, was that it was all of the above. And that somehow, there’s probably a lesson in that: slow the hell down. Thank you. Love, God.