Escaping the Swamp

Good morning.  I have wasted mornings, days, weeks, years, decades—perhaps my life?  I look back and see that some things did happen, that I even helped a few good things to happen, but I have much to regret.  As I type now, Pachelbel’s Canon in D is playing on my computer.  Almost exactly half of my lifetime ago, I skated for a minute-long solo to Pachelbel’s Canon, as played by James Galway on his gold flute.  I was taking part in a skating competition held in a small rink in College Park, Maryland.  I was in the second category: silver.  The best skaters were in the gold group.  But because of that afternoon, I know what it is like to be alone moving on the ice to the melody and rhythm of the music playing, the music I’d chosen, the routine I’d developed.  I was terrified, and my closing spin spun very little and threatened to tip over.  I won first place in my small category, in which at 35 I was the eldest by far.  Winning the ribbon wasn’t much of an accomplishment, but my minute on the ice is a moment I call to the surface from time to time, happy to have known it, to have had the chance to move to the music across the smooth ice, all on my own.

Another small skating milestone

But when I look back at my remembered moments from the past year, relentlessly massing games of Scrabble loom above all else, and I feel sad for what I have done and not done.  Somehow much good happened, too: evenings with a soulmate friend, a new spiritual home, our choir, the Follies and My Fair Lady, the interfaith service where I shared with my friends and neighbors a little about my dear sweet mother, acceptable classes taught and taken, even somehow a billiards trophy in the fall for my pool partner and me.  But the past year has ridden on a swamp of words on my Kindle’s Scrabble board, along with words repeated over and over again on the news channel that is my choice.

Where are the words I want so vehemently to send in good order to pages in my journal or my blog?  I’ve lost the train of thought undergirding my life, submerged it in the words of distraction from my desperation, wishing and fishing for something of worth to think, note, and share.  My thoughts have drowned in random words found within seven letters and the relentless repetition of distressing news—because this past year, as in all the years of my life since age six, I couldn’t figure out who and what I was supposed to be.  I wouldn’t choose among the limited possibilities that came to mind, all failing to announce, “Here is what you have to offer, to say, to share.  Here is how you are meant to write in order to serve.”

And so here I am, about to move into another decade, one that those still young or middle aged consider several steps into decrepitude.  Living where I do, I know that friends and neighbors twenty years older than I are moving not into decay but into ongoing vibrancy and meaning.  So it is not too late for me—and not too late for anyone who has a future of even a little time.  But how much longer am I going to wait before I live every day, before my life is no longer a series of green islands poking up out of vast swampy waters?  These waters are not within God’s ocean but are murky places in which the sustaining, renewing minerals, vegetation, and living beings are choked out and the air is filled with ensnaring expectations and Siren songs.  The luring voices tell me to find more, be more, discover my calling, change lives through my words (when I’m struggling to keep my own afloat), and expect Epiphany to leap from the wasteland words to rescue me, finally, from the frustration and years now drowning me.

I own both a Kindle and a Nook.  Last night, in the middle of my hours of bombarding myself with random words and others’ words while hoping, of course, for my own to appear and arrange themselves into meaning and purpose, I scrolled through the titles on my Nook and was aghast at their number.  Dozens and dozens of other worthwhile books fill my five bookcases and my Kindle.  I pick up a book, read several pages, leave the book for a few days as I sample another, lose the train of meaning in the first book, and go on to a third, all the while praying that my life’s meaning will rise from the pages.  I lose courage again, of course, failing to find salvation in my library any more than I’ve found salvation in accumulating games of Scrabble or the pronouncements of pundits on MSNBC.

During my summers in a girls’ camp in Maine, one of my favorite special activities was canoeing or paddling a small sailboat in the swamp at the far side of the lake.  I loved the mysterious entangling fronds, the inlets leading nowhere, and the dragonflies hovering over the murky water beyond the tiny one-tree island we called Japanese Island.  But after a half-hour of exploring the shallow water filled with weeds and the stumps of long-submerged trees, we always traveled back into the broad open expanse of the lake, paddling or sailing on toward our destination: a point on which to unroll our sleeping bags for the night or the lodges and cabins that were our home for the summer.

As another decade in my life turns over, will I, finally, paddle or sail out of the maze-like swamp that I have allowed to hold me captive all these years and find my way to open waters—waters where the landing places and destinations, if less exotic than the swamp, are nevertheless places of shelter and possibilities?

I have, in fact, attempted countless times to exit my swamp.  Often I’ve tried constructing a detailed map: a schedule of what I will do and accomplish every day.  My record for following a schedule is one month, and that schedule was only a calendar giving the two or three tasks I absolutely must complete each day in order to have any hope of meeting a mass of responsibilities looming like an iceberg.  Most often my schedules are ambitious outlines specifying the times—10 a.m. to 11, 6:30 p.m. to 7:15, and so on—during which, I decree, I will write poetry and prose, practice the flute and piano, pay bills, compose letters, clean my apartment, learn the dulcimer and ukulele, study Italian and French, read worthy books—every day.  Success in following such schedules has rarely lasted even a single day.

As I approach and enter my new life decade, I have chosen a simpler, more direct route for exiting my swamp.  Each morning I will meditate and write something—just something, without requirements for length, style, meaning, or merit.  Many writing gurus opine that writing by hand, with a pen in a physical journal, leads to the most satisfactory alignment of thoughts turned into sentences.  But I’m allowing myself to write on the computer if I choose.  I type rapidly and easily, and so when I open a new document in Word, I can find it filling with words before I’ve had a chance to frighten myself with the weight and magnificence I think each phrase should carry.  As I write, I will listen to music.  Right now, I’m typing as my hero Andrea Bocelli sings “Au fond du temple Saint” with Bryn Terfel.  I love music, am lifted by music, but in my swamp, I’ve usually failed even to decorate my days with the voices and melodies I love—perhaps partly because music can wallop us with memories, loss, and regret.  Yet the gifts of music are greater even than the sadness it can evoke.

Throughout every day, I will carry a small notebook to record impressions from any reading I may do and from the day’s meaningful moments.  I will make no demands about the pithiness or purposefulness of my notebook entries, which will be designed to prevent impressions and experiences from slipping below the murky surface of memory.  Some of the entries in my notebook may—or might not—inspire my morning writing or other writing I choose to do.

The rest of every day will be made of conscious choices, instead of reactive floundering in the grip of swampy weed words—Scrabble, television, and the discouraging messages filling my mind.  I may play the flute one morning and spend another at Mass with my friend.  I may make a bead necklace, play show tunes on the piano, walk by the pond, practice my lines for an upcoming play, read an entertaining book or great literature, review Italian grammar, pull together a blog entry, or briefly see what my friends have to say on Facebook.  And yes, I may watch a television program while I play games of Scrabble on my Kindle.  But I will undertake each activity purposefully, whether it is a short visit to the swamp or a trip across the open waters of creativity, friendship, and learning.  Of course some things should be or have to be done; life’s demands balance life’s delights and opportunities.  And helping when the possibility appears gives joy as well as service.  Balance is hard to find when I am living in—not just visiting—the swamp.

So get ready to come about: I’m sailing out of Swamp Winnie and heading for open waters.

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