Monday, October 8, 2012

Being Here

I had just finished grading an essay when my friend Dr. M. appeared at my door. "Dr. Bear, do you know what you're doing this afternoon?"

Depending on the day, the appropriate answer to this question might be, "studying Kant for Faculty Reading Club" or "figuring midterm grades" or "reading poetry outside with Thursday Club." This particular Friday, however, I knew Dr. M. expected a different answer.

"I'm going kayaking," I smiled. Dr. M. had promised (or warned) me some weeks earlier than one day he would bring his kayak to campus and set me adrift along one of the inlets of the Chickasabogue that runs through our 700+ acre campus. I wasn't sure if this was some sort of new faculty rite of passage, or simply one more example of the kind of hale whimsy that seems so common here. He showed me the path down to the creek and told me to have fun. I was to make my journey, then bring the kayak back to the trail for him to retrieve that evening.

I savored the first half hour of my trip, soaking up more silence than I've known in months. I tried to name and notice: water like melted amber, sunlight warm but not heavy.

As I floated steadily forward, I began to worry about the current that had brought me so gently into this silence. Sure enough, as soon as I turned around I realized that I was going to have to fight my way back. I felt like Odysseus -- either I would ricochet from bank to bank, or I would get caught in eddies that turned me in relentless circles. It seemed to take me ages to progress even a few yards. To move past a particularly swift section of water, I had to use the overhanging trees to pull the kayak forward, bit by bit.

It had been a very, very long time since I had done anything so purely physical. I exercise nearly every day, but I rarely push myself hard enough to roar in frustration, as I did several times during my voyage on the Chickasabogue. Soon the kayak and I were covered in pine needles, bark, and wet sand. I willed all my strength into my arms, concentrating only on the hope of forward motion.

After half an hour of agonizingly slow progress, the current slackened, and soon I heard Dr. A (another friend and colleague) shouting, "I found her!" A few more stern strokes and I was around the final bend. Dr. A, her daughter, and two of Dr. M's students were playing in the shallows.

Exhausted but strangely happy after my battle, I was no longer thinking about all the reading I needed to do that evening, nor the papers I still needed to grade. Instead of hurrying home, I lingered on the bank for a while. Dr. A's daughter jumped like a bird from sand to water, water to sand, while the students swam to the opposite bank and brought back black-eyed susans for us to put in our hair. Dr. A says that when the black-eyed susans bloom, you know the summer heat has finally broken.   As the sun was sinking below the trees, I finally took the trail back up toward my office. I went home, took a shower, and then fell asleep for twelve hours.

When I woke the next morning, my first instinct was to make a parable of the whole thing: an illustration for the virtues of persistence, or nonconformity, or eating oatmeal. The adventure had been both beautiful and maddening; I was determined to make it useful, as well.

Nothing I came up with seemed quite right, and consequently, I didn't write about my experience on Saturday, as I had originally planned. "What am I supposed to do with my adventure?" I kept asking myself.

Not until Sunday did I realize that I don't need to "do" anything with my odyssey up the Chickasabogue. While there was nothing very restful about paddling upstream, there was something deeply restful in the way that journey demanded my utter and complete presence. For the past decade, I have intentionally been trying to learn to be present in conversations, locations, work, moments, but I'm still terrible at it: I put away dishes during the 30-second breaks in my weight-training routine; I make grocery lists during sermons; I drift during phone conversations; I knit during dates. Without constant effort, my mind turns to plans, deadlines, and projects which, however good in themselves, remove me from what I am supposedly experiencing.

When I meditate on the Sabbath, it seems that an important aspect of resting is presence--being fully here, without regard for the future, with attention undivided on the good things of the day. As I continue to learn to keep the Sabbath holy, I  treasure experiences that teach me to be joyfully, impossibly, irreducibly present. The list of such experiences is short but rich: Christmas, face-to-face conversations, teaching. And, apparently, kayaking upstream.

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