Some travel these last few weeks, out of the New England winter. As this sabbatical closes, I find more and more moments of pondering this past year and seeing so much more of myself. It’s clear that I am a nicer person when I am working- something about the disciplines of work, setting the self aside, and not so me involved. It’s also true that I haven’t been this rested since I left working on the loading dock and had a long break before becoming a Montessori teacher in 74.
One of the more shocking revelations this year was to understand that I am old. Now, you may say that 56 is not old. But what I sense is that I was too busy to notice how hard I pushed over the years to get it all done. Each year I’ve had to push a little harder. This year of not pushing made obvious that my body is worn from the pace and the intensity. And I make myself laugh as I ponder simultaneously how can I make my life less intense and would it be possible to get to every yearly meeting in North America to teach about torture in the next year or two.
Other opposites present themselves to me. I have a growing sense of mercy in myself and my work over the years. I had so little of it early in life and have learned about mercy very slowly. Having mercy for rapists in my prison work when I was in the midst of my own incest work was a turning point decades ago. And that arc has increased. I can feel when I have no mercy on those impatient days when each moment seems fraught with the too-much of life. And I can feel the relief when I take a breath and become a wiser self that wants to be differently in the world.
Another opposite is feeling stronger and more alive in my body after these months of physical work, but saddened not to have lost weight. I remember a year ago thinking that 12 months was infinite and all manner of things would be possible. (I could even be tall and blond if I put my mind to it.)
To feel the relief of accomplishing some goals and the disappointment of feeling my limits gives me a more rounded view of myself. So often I’ve found myself blazing some necessary trail and insisting that something could be done, probably as a way to fend off my own fears of its impossibility. Stubbornness has its place as all progress comes from unreasonable people. And of course stubbornness is a personal obstacle to my own necessary changes. I want routine and avoid all structure. I crave peace and quiet, but am bored by stillness. I am intrigued by how trouble can be deconstructed.
Another change I've noticed: in Putney Meeting in Vermont and Claremont Meeting in California, I have noticed that I went deeply and quickly into the depths of the silence in meeting for worship. The hour flew by and left me hungry for more. The time was too short. Am I becoming a Buddhist? I am delighted to feel the depth and ease of spiritual entry. But I also notice I am dissatisfied with much of the spoken ministry. There's too much thinking, not enough sense of the spirit coming through. Am I becoming a grouchy old Quaker who wants to yell, "If you can’t improve upon the silence, then hush up! If you’ve only been here 15 years, keep listening! Quakerism is cumulative!" I am becoming exactly the person I would flee from as a young person.
Sabbatical has also given me time to go slowly enough to see that I need to be more careful with who I am. Often people ascribe power to me that is either news to me or I assume we all share equally. It’s not a pedestal so much as it is some sense that I do take up a lot of space and hopefully I will put this force to good use. It’s good that people in trouble are hopeful that someone else might be helpful. It’s a delicate balance to maybe be helpful without being seen as a solution. At the same time, there is a cultural reluctance to own the power that is given in the Light. In that moment of grace when healing comes, I know it’s a gift from above that only comes through me. I also know that to surrender my life to making this gift is to live a powerful life, a life in which my own innumerable imperfections are lessened in the midst of that Light.
One of the difficulties in a lifetime of healing work is that connection to the Light -- that moment when messages come and hands get warm and changes large or small are made and literal, linear thinking is overridden with new understanding for which words are insufficient. This moment can be such a bounty of peace and calm, an escape from one's deficits so as to make one a grace junkie. Yes, let’s go back to that place and stay longer. It also means that this on-going experience sets one apart from others who may have this sense only a few times in their life.
Because it is cumulative, going back to this well in any regular way makes life different. In some ways, this can make a life of healing work lonely. There is lots of connection to grace, not through any difference in me, but by calling, obedience, and duty. This makes a life separated from people who have less of it, not unlike having lots of money, being very attractive, or possessing artistic skills.
This is the hardest thing to describe without being misunderstood as arrogant. I know I’m not important. I also know my path is not shared by many. Is it arrogant to name this? Some will say, "Yes, who do you think you are?" Others will hear what I mean. And I know it’s easy enough to misunderstand, so I try not to get into it.
Here I am at the end of a time of rest and restoration. I’ve gotten done much of what I set out to do, but haven’t done all I’d hoped for. Now, I come back into the fray with some sense that I have a lifetime of experience which I can continue to make use of with people in the pain and confusion of trauma. As someone older in the work, I can’t do as much as I did when I was younger. It’s also true that as an elder in the work, I can do more with less effort. My overview and rest habits are better. While I have less patience with foolishness, especially my own, I love good, hard work, as when things are cooking hot and movement towards resolution of a long-held mystery is finally possible. Can the grief come out of this shoulder? Can we understand that torture is being done as a system and bring democracy to bear on ending it? Can I teach a large group how to reach their deepest quiet by relaxing their bodies and prepare for larger spiritual work?
That seems enough to me. Enough as a life work, enough as a faithful response to gifts given and calling heard, and enough to go on as I am able without stopping, finishing, or over-doing.
Meanwhile, I’ve begun editing transcripts of speeches for a book. Yesterday, I cleaned out a closet to find my winter coat. I found a dozen leather travel bags, all beautiful in their age and wear. I suppose as I look in the mirror I look the same: well-used, ridden hard, tough around the wrinkles, and buttery soft to the touch.
I am coming out of sabbatical incrementally. I am reluctant to return to listserves, but I am back to reading 6 newspapers a day. I have stacks and lists of things to do at my desk and have given most of the morning to the luxury of writing this. How do I get work done, keep balance and humor, and know that it’s enough? I swear off all guilt, rushing needlessly, and my tendency to feel a nap coming on before all large work.
Perhaps the most profound experience this past year is that enough people financially supported this rest. Enough people valued my work to grant me the luxury of time to rest. Imagine in these economic times that someone who lives mainly on gifts and works by invitation would ask for some time to lie down. Enough kindness and care came forward so this could happen. This is gigantic in my life. So, too, I must say is the love and care of my husband, Marshall Brewer, who helped me with QUIT work plus all my travel work these many years. And even now as he does his own job while finishing up a second masters degree, he still makes sure that I am on track for rest, nutrition, and being my best. 2009 is our 20th year married and I’m sure this accounts for my good work as much as any heaven-sent gift.
More than this, I’m not sure how to tell you what is new here in this snowy little corner of the world while awaiting the changing of the guard in Washington, and getting ready for my own busy year, and hoping this new man in DC remembers why he’s been chosen and all the good that needs doing.