On rest

My year started with a book that came to me with providential timing.

Last year was a tough year. Really tough. I ended it thoroughly depleted; staggering into the Christmas break emotionally, spiritually and physically wrung out. More than ever, I needed a rest… a sabbath, if you will.

Enter: Sabbath, by Nicola Slee. Slee’s thoughtful and vulnerable book is based on a poem by Wendell Berry, which begins describing his journey into sabbath rest:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.

Wendell Berry, Sabbaths

Real rest requires an element of intentionality – a deliberate pause in order to find the stillness. As my exhausted brain worked through the mess of the year, it began to quiet as I allowed it to process, rejuvenate, recharge.

Reflecting on the book, and on my own relationship with rest, it occurred to me that sabbath actually has an element of work; it involves the work of resting.

To rest actively requires us to consider what has made us tired, and to sort through the chaff in our minds.

But fortunately, this quiet work of the sabbath comes with a reward.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

Wendell Berry, Sabbaths

Doing the hard work of rest is valuable. It is also, at times, painful. As I took stock and reflected, I could see truths and realities in a way that I could not in the noise and busy-ness of life.

As I approached the end of my break, I wrote in my journal:

This year – more than ever – I have limped over the finish line, frailer and sicker than I have ever been.

Slee says that this is normal – sometimes to enter sabbath is to have it all crash down on you as your body catches up. But this year has been particularly torrid and I think this has had an effect. The last few days have been tough. I begin work again tomorrow and my body knows it. I don’t want to do it.

I need more time.

Even just little more time.

Leaving sabbath is difficult, and not just because we connect with ourselves and with God in it.

Leaving sabbath is hard because we return to a world we do not control, and which has marched on in our absence. Even if I was in control of my world (which I am not), returning is hard as it has grown out of my control in my absence.

While I have been in sabbath, I have been discovering (or rather remembering) some of my passions that bring me joy.

And that, I suppose, is good. Anxiety may be the price of leaving my sabbath woods, but a renewed sense of self and (hopefully) better tools to find rest again are what I take from it.

There are certain parallels between leaving sabbath and leaving the strangeness of this season, whenever that may be.

2020 has forced many of us into a form of sabbath; a mandatory degree of rest and reflection that we have not had before. In many senses, the year has been traumatic… But it has also been an opportunity to reset and renew our inner worlds.

Leaving this form of sabbath will come with its own challenges.

Leaving any sabbath is hard. But eventually the sabbath must end.

The key is to take its lessons and its energies to meet the new day.

Certainty and familiarity

I don’t want to pontificate about the short- and long-term effects of the last few months, but I have been reflecting a little lately on two things in particular: certainty and familiarity.

The strangeness of this year has upended a number of things that we thought were certain – supermarket stock, health systems in the global north, the ubiquity of air travel and mobility, not to mention (controversially) the need for a physical office.

At the same time, the last few months has also left man of us with a deep sense of defamiliarisation. Not only are the ‘certainty’ building blocks changing, but the things that make life familiar also seem to be changing.

Our rituals – handshakes, physical meetings, crammed bars – are no longer possible.

Our spaces – offices, trains, planes – are altered. Some of these may change forever.

But as much as the unfamiliarity and the uncertainty affects our lives, there are some things that remain certain or familiar, and that I am grateful for.

Some of these are certain ‘certains’ that I had never really thought about before.

Our carers are a consistent and welcome form of certainty – often overlooked and underappreciated.

I’m grateful for the certainty of my faith community, even if its online mode of expression is deeply unfamiliar!

I have found comfort in the familiarity of baking bread. Finding flour was a bit touch-and-go there for a while(!), but the rhythm of bread-making has been a deeply familiar part of my life for a few years now.

The internet – gosh. Without the certainty of the internet, it is hard to know what we would have done. Never thought I would thank BT.

And then there are our relationships; (hopefully) a source of both familiarity and certainty in times of need.

So, in the unfamiliar and the uncertain – we can always find what is truly familiar, and hopefully some things that are certain.

On fear, sadness and COVID-19

In many ways, one of the saddest things about COVID-19 is the fear. The fear of each other, the fear of the future and the fear of being without.

I cried a little at Amman airport this morning when I saw two young children wearing face masks. Their parents carried on stoicly, but you don’t cover your children’s faces without being struck by some sort of fear (justified or not). It reminds me of the morning after the Finsbury Park mosque attacks. I was walking to the station and saw little boys and girls accompanied by their tired-looking parents. The children normally walked to school without adult supervision.

The parents were afraid. Literal survival was at stake.

There is something primal about the protection of a parent over a child. And in the case of COVID-19, it’s a risk that they cannot see nor fully comprehend. This event could still be anything and they don’t know how to protect their kin.

I also share in the fear. Today, I was nearly quarantined by flight restrictions. I would have been stuck outside of my home countries, without friends of family. In the hours when that seemed a real possibility, I was afraid. Even as I write this, waiting for the plane to take off, I am anxious.

But what of fear? Fear often comes from a sensible survival instinct, but there is also an element of sadness to it.

There is a sadness to it because a state of fear is your body telling you that something is not normal, is not safe.

Young children with their faces covered is not normal. It is not safe.

And in this case, the non-normal, non-safe state is such an unknown. If a lion is coming towards you, you know what you’re afraid of. In this very strange March 2020, we don’t really know what to be afraid of. Closed borders? Flu symptoms? Running out of bog roll? Each other?

Being afraid without fully knowing what to be afraid of is unusual.

Either way, this state is not normal. And it is not safe.

Yet we have Hope. “I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from?”

Quirky experiments: be curious

In 2018, on my request, my grandfather wrote a letter to my wife to celebrate a milestone birthday.

It was a one-page handwritten letter filled with a goldmine-like numbered list of observations about life that he had gleaned along the way. In his typical understated way, he said “it is not a worked-out system but rather some random things that I approve”. After I read the letter, I thought about it a lot in the coming weeks and days.

One thing in particular still stands out to me: “give way to quirky experiments”.

The one and the same avocado!

I thought more about it and realised that Grandad is one of the most intellectually curious people I have known. He has always had some sort of experiment on the go – whether it was building something, planting or growing something, or simply reading about a new area.

Notably, I turned up at their house one day (well into his retirement) to discover a giant telescope sitting in his study. It turned out that he had picked up a book about stars, taken an interest in astronomy, and started stargazing from suburban Brisbane.

I’ve tried – to varying degrees of success – to adopt this advice.

Since the time of his letter to my wife, I have grown an avocado tree from seed (pictured above). I tried painting (this was not a success). I’ve enjoyed baking bread. I grew a sourdough starter. I brewed beer with a friend. I’ve tried to grow various seeds or try new food combinations.

Many of these experiments failed; a number barely lasted a week. But I can recall many of these quirky experiments – especially the ones shared with friends – because they added welcome trivia my life in a way that the ‘eat / work / eat / sleep / repeat’ cycle cannot.

If all you are is the sum total of your work (and, dare I say, religious) life, then you are probably – frankly – a bit boring. If nothing else, your quirky experiments make for good pub conversation-fodder… “Did I tell you guys I’m growing an avocado tree?”

 

James Hills Writes?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: posting your ramblings online is a bit narcissistic.

I’m not quite narcissistic enough to think that the world has been dying to hear what I have to say on any or all of these topics… but here I am anyway.

As such, I will do two things here:

  1. I will try to moderate the inherent narcissism of self-publishing one’s thoughts with a healthy dose of self-deprecation; and
  2. I will only post when I have something sensible to say.

Rule 2 will invariably be broken. It may already have been. Welcome.