Making a clearing

Now is an in-between season for me. I decided a couple months ago, thanks to this prompting, to slowly go through every closet. Every nook of my living space - both physical and spiritual - and to work on a gentler approach to my life. Less of the things I don't need and more of what is essential.

A couple days after I turned in my dissertation in mid-August, Matt and I were in San Francisco and we were exhausted. At breakfast, we met a man - a chatty British expat with black and green hair who flew in from western Australia where he lived to spend a week creating sculptures in a warehouse in Oakland before going to Burning Man. He told us the dust in the desert is corrosive so you have to wear goggles all week to keep your eyes from burning. He went every year.

Without a doubt, he was the kind of person who struck up conversations with anyone his path. I am the kind of person who listens to every person who strikes up a conversation with me. Luckily, he was a good conversationalist so over coffee and toast, we talked about art, travel, culture, and politics.

The second day at breakfast, our new friend was having a conversation with another couple who was headed home that afternoon. The five of us conversed, and we came to learn that the husband had a PhD in engineering. I told him I'd just turned in my paper before arriving in San Francisco for a vacation. He told me confidently that it would take me a full year to "spin down" from six years of graduate school. He'd taught PhD students for many years and he said he'd seen it again and again. It will take a full year.

He also mentioned that he and his wife had adopted children, and after some thought, I gently brought up our stretch of infertility. I guessed that they might have lived that stress too, and they had. I recognized immediately the grace of crossing paths with someone at exactly the right moment who got how tired I was and who told me: it will take time.

And to cross paths with a wild man who built giant works of art in a foreign country and then burned shit in the desert just for fun. There was a lesson in that chance meeting too.

After this past weekend of Thanksgiving, Matt and I took our dog on a walk in a small bit of woods over the border in Canada. After we got back, the word 'retreat' kept popping up for me throughout the week.
When I finished college and before I got married, I had the incredible fortune to spend time at a Quaker retreat center for four months. I was desperate for time away from home since I never studied abroad or interned in D.C. during college like I felt I should have. A professor was encouraging me to get a PhD then, yet after college, all I wanted was a break to learn how to not work for awhile. Though I had some chores at the retreat center, like mopping floors after dinner and preparing egg salad for weekenders, I spent many nights in the art studio at the potter's wheel. I made so many bowls and plates I couldn't pay the studio back for the clay at the end of my time there. Some of those pieces have broken. Others we still have.

On the cusp of adulthood, I somehow figured out that I needed to learn how to slay back the overachieving forces within me. They are strong. Having new letters behind my name now comes with new pressures, and after six years of too much work and a couple bitter doses of heartbreak, I find myself wrestling against ambition again.

I am fully rooted in adult life though. That's the difference between then and now. Hitting the pause button and retreating for months...well, it's not going to happen.

What I can do is make a clearing. With that open space, I can weave retreat back into my daily life. I can find more moments for leaves to crunch underfoot, for my hands to be full of clay or paint or clothe, and for time to just be. Time to take photos again and to find words to write in this space.

Thirteen years after that long retreat, I still have a sense memory, though distant, of what it feels like to slow down.

I am giving myself a year to relearn how to spin down.


Stephanie said...

Your posts always remind me why and how much I love you.... and how smart and amazing and awesome your are. Sending you all my laziest of lazy vibes to help you in your quest to slow down a little. :)

sdwaard said...

I can't believe it's been 13 years since that retreat! And I totally agree with Stephanie.