PASSAGE INTO THE QUIET

From my earliest days of practicing meditation, I’ve been aware of an invisible wall of resistance or restlessness before passing into the comforting depth on the other side. For whatever reasons, it reminds me of those early experiences of a sonic boom, when planes overhead would “break through the sound barrier” – not that we sense a loud crack of arrival, but there is a distinct change all the same. Maybe it’s an awareness that the air in the room feels different – heavier, like water, is one description. Maybe it’s not that far removed from the ancient Jewish priests who “passed through the veil” to offer sacrifice in the most holy space in the Temple.

My actual experience of meditative worship has also changed, from the initial goal of getting naturally high or stoned – of transcending out of the world – to the present centering down into the essence of life, but the wall remains. Some weeks it’s more pronounced than others; other weeks it’s quite faint. Even so, coming to that point Bill Taber referred to as “soft eyes” worship, where Friends begin removing their eyeglasses, is delicious. Even the clock stops ticking.

Frequency of practice can make a difference. Sitting in meditation twice a day, for instance, generally allows a deeper session than an every-other-week or once-a-month schedule does. Suitable physical exercise, charitable activity, or spiritual reading may also guide the experience. We speak of preparing for worship, but rarely of the unspoken flow within the hour itself. What I do know is how much easier it is to pass through that barrier when I’m sitting with others. That is, as early Friends sensed, even when two or three gathered in the Name.

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AN ANNUAL PRACTICE, A SPECIAL YEAR

I don’t know how far back it started, this custom of drafting an annual memo to myself reflecting on the previous year and outlining my ambitions for the next. The practice has somehow included a review of my journal entries covering the last 12 months, the writing of my Yule letter to family, friends, and colleagues, and the revision of my monthly to-do master lists for the coming year. (You know, the one that includes “renew driver’s license,” “call for firewood,” “schedule annual physical,” and other items that too easily fall through the cracks.) The memo’s continued, even after my wife and daughters fired me from the holiday letter itself, arguing they could make it more creative or at least more interesting. Alas, many of our correspondents have agreed. And, reluctantly, so do I, even while trying to hold it to a single page, if we can. Still, I think the annual review is spiritually healthy. We have a similar practice in Quaker circles called the State of Society Report or, as I prefer, the State of the Meeting Report, and it helps us record our strengths and weaknesses. Besides, I’ve never been convinced of the value of New Year’s resolutions, which usually seem to be recipes for failure. Much of my past decade has been an extended repetition of trying to balance home and family, the office, Quaker activities, literary efforts, some kind of physical exercise and personal care, and always coming up short.  With the to-do lists, that simply meant putting off some projects for another year or two. And then 2012 hit with a vengeance.

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As I noted to myself at this time last year, 2012 was to be a time of transition. Even so, what’s unfolded was nothing like I’d mapped out. Rather than laying the foundation for a traditional plunge into retirement, I instead accepted the company’s abrupt buyout offer and quit full-time employment. This wasn’t retirement, per se, but it did liberate me from much of the escalating tension at the office while opening up more time for all those other efforts. And, as the horoscope predicted, 2012 turned out to be a year of unanticipated surprises. And yes, just before that, at the end of 2011, I leapt into a project that had been on the backburner for months – several projects, actually – beginning with the launch of this blog and extending into Quaker writings and presentations. Jnana’s Red Barn has allowed the release of much of my backlogged writing, especially on the creative non-fiction front, and led to the addition of three related blogs – As Light Is Sown, for lengthier Quaker theological work; Chicken Farmer I Still Love You, for lengthy down-to-earth chapters from book-length projects, beginning with the holistic money workbook; and the Orphan George Chronicles, for my genealogical research narratives. In essence, by the end of 2014, these will contain the equivalent of at least a dozen original books. And yes, it’s become far more time-consuming than I had envisioned.

The year began with the climax of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary and the buyout, which came about abruptly. February and March turned into a period of retreat, decompression, and release as I hunkered down without the required daily commuting. My wife was quite supportive while I indulged in a reading orgy, adapted her old laptop for my online connection (my PC on the third floor has no Internet connection), and resumed poetry submissions after a five-year hiatus. I engaged in a more balanced lifestyle and diet, with regular exercise and early-morning rising. Wednesday afternoons we walked to the Barley Pub for live jazz guitar and a microbrew. How civilized it all seemed, however briefly!

Purchasing an entry-level Kodak digital camera (seriously on sale) in April has allowed me to finally indulge in a pent-up passion for photography. After all of these years of being dependent on other photographers, I’m recording the ways I view the world in so much of its quirkiness. But by May, my goal of working one or two shifts a week as an on-call editor began escalating to three or the maximum four. The money’s helped, of course, but I found myself frustrated in my desire to establish a daily and weekly rhythm of living. Summer’s swirl included a delightful overnight trip to Rutland, Vermont, on a Groupon deal, soon followed by the week I led a five-day workshop at Friends General Conference at the University of Rhode Island and another week at New England Yearly Meeting of Friends at Bryant University, also in Rhode Island. In addition, a Christmas present finally kicked in – a season pass to an oceanfront town park in Kittery, Maine, and swimming sans lifeguard, tidepooling, basking, and photographing from its pristine shoreline. And that’s before we get to the rest of the household. The season also brought emotional closure on some lingering deep-history as I learned of the deaths of a close friend from the Baltimore years, an event more than a decade ago, at age 51; my two mentors from Indiana University, the husband-wife team of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom; a high school colleague in February; and more. Somehow, these culminated in the appearance in August of my first independently published chapbook, Harbor of Grace. The newly freed time prompted me to accept positions on Dover Friends Meeting’s Ministry and Worship committee and New England Yearly Meeting’s Ministry and Counsel committee, which I now see are going to require more attention than I’d anticipated. Still, they dovetail nicely. Autumn included a four-hour bout of Greek dancing followed, 2½ months later, by surgery. In between, we had a delightful visit with my landlords from the Yakima years, a brush with Hurricane Sandy, which was largely only stiff gusts here, and (finally!) the replacement of the roof on the kitchen and the barn. So I end the year still hoping the establish that rhythm and direction, but no doubt much closer to actually accomplishing it.

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Full retirement comes in February, and the pension conditions demand the end of any newspaper work on my part. Since I see this change as an opportunity to focus more fully on the Real Work (in Gary Snyder’s marvelous phrase), the matter of establishing a realistic system of time management is essential — I have no desire of simply drifting. I want to the newly opened 45 hours a week as being released just for more writing-revising/submissions/schmoozing but rather for time with my wife, house and garden projects, exercise and day trips, socializing, reading, meditation/prayer, Quaker work, and similar lines.

I had wondered about establishing “regular office hours,” but that pushes me back toward the writing-revising/submissions/schmoozing trap  I hope to control. What might make more sense is to slot in blocs of “project time” to be rotated as necessary among house, garden, travel and hiking, writing, reading, and related projects. Thus, I could piggyback two or three blocs, as needed, say for a day trip. And, as the year ends, that approach seems to be making great sense.

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And that’s how it goes. Perhaps this puts some of my earlier postings in perspective. Perhaps it will also encourage you to a similar personal reflection. Maybe I’ll even get around to attempting an alternative version, looking at things I did wrong or badly or failed to address at all. Hmm. Even so, what has surprised me is seeing how much actually happened in a year where I often felt put on hold. And that’s been a special blessing.