Yesterday I took my laptop to the library and sat up on the third floor for three hours, with a beautiful view of the treetops and virtual silence around me. It was time to get back to serious writing, and the distractions at home were just too great for me to overcome. Not to mention the fact that the power in our house went out for about two hours, leaving me with no air conditioning or computer power.
So I settled in and got out the essay I wrote this spring that will become part of the next volume of the anthology, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. I’m going to expand the essay to a full length memoir: Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancer and Nuns: A spiritual expat from the “Christ-haunted South” finds healing through art and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Comfortable enough at my library table, I began the work around 12:30 p.m. But soon I found myself checking my Facebook Page. And then my email. Even Twitter. It reminded me of the story about the monk who wanted to leave one monastery for another, thinking he could escape his sins. Turned out they hopped into his backpack and followed him. By 2 p.m. I had actually done a little research, outlined 14 chapters for the book, and was ready to begin the actually writing. An hour later I had drafted a whopping 2 pages of the first chapter. Now, from a writer’s point of view, this isn’t a bad day’s work. But from a personal, psychological, and spiritual point of view, it was a non-stop battle with “Soul Chatter,” and failed efforts to “Shut Up and Pray,” and finally, to find peace through remembering lessons learned from Anne Lamott’s wonderful book, Grace Eventually.
I think a lot of my struggle has to do with learning anew, every day, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom says, to live in the present:
“What you have got to do is to be so completely in the present that all your energies and all your being are summed up in the word now.”
In his book, Beginning to Pray, Met Bloom gives an exercise to practice being still and learning not to “fidget inwardly” and not to be a slave to the clock. (He was a psychologist as well as an Orthodox Bishop.) He continues:
“Once you have learned not to fidget, then you can do anything, at any speed, with any amount of attention and briskness, without having the sense of time escaping you or catching up with you.”
His words remind me of my friend, Caitlyn, who came to our house Monday to prepare our meals for the week. (Caitlyn, “The Ruffled Apron,” has just started a personal chef business.) She spent about 4 ½ hours in my kitchen, while I worked at my computer, worked out on my elliptical machine, and then showered and dressed for a party. Several times I would go into the kitchen to check on her (and taste the meals in progress!) and once I asked, “Would you like me to turn on the TV or some music?” She answered, “No,” that she was happy in her “cooking zone.” I can’t even imagine that place being a happy zone, since I don’t enjoy cooking. But later it hit me that Caitlyn was content doing one thing at a time. She was in the present, paying attention to her work. Who knows whether or not she hums music silently in her mind while working, thinks about other things she needs to do, or even says the Jesus Prayer silently while chopping vegetables. I didn’t ask. I just observed a quiet joy and attention to the now.
That’s where I want to be—in the writing zone. Or the exercise zone. Or the time with a friend zone. Just one place at a time. Other noises off.
I think it’s going to take lots of practice to get there. Just like prayer. This
morning when I went in the dining room (where our icon corner is) to say my Morning Prayers, I first read a brief summary of the life of Saint Nonna, who is commemorated today. She was the mother of Saint Gregory the Theologian. But that wasn’t what impressed me most about her life. It was this simple line:
“The first thing she did each morning was pray, believing that her prayers would be answered.”
And so I was encouraged, again, to stand still in font of my icons and pray. And try to listen for the still voice of God. I asked him to bless all that I do today—my writing, my interactions with my husband and friends, the myriad of details and paperwork involved in everyday life, my time tonight at Vespers and fellowship with my brothers and sisters at St. John. And then I walked into my office and sat down at my computer to write this blog post. Now I’m ready for the rest of my day. To try to be present with each activity, with each person I encounter. To try and cut the soul chatter and be in the zone, one activity at a time. Here goes….