Intense Clarity

“There’s nothing quite as intense as the moment of clarity,

when you suddenly see what’s really possible for you.  — Christine Kane

Once, many years ago, I was driving down  Highway 30 at a good clip (about 75 mph). The road had just changed from two lanes to four lanes, divided by an emerald green grass median. I was in the right-hand lane, passing another vehicle on a curve, boxed in by cars both in front of and behind mine. And that’s when it happened: I saw a wooden palette fly off a truck taking the same curve from the opposite direction. As the palette cartwheeled across the median, I could see the line of it’s trajectory as if it was a lighted runway leading directly to me. Because of the cars on every side, I couldn’t speed up, slow down or move out of the way. Time slowed and stretched exactly like a film on slow-mo, the palette’s roll appearing gracefully choreographed. I followed my mind through each step of reasoning leading to the realization that there was nothing I could do to stop the impending collision, and I still had time enough to wonder, “So, this is it? This is how I die?”

News flash – it wasn’t. Curiously, there was no fear in that split second after the possibility that “this is it” occurred to me. But there was a certain clarity of mind that suggested I relax into the moment. What else was there for me to do? To my utter amazement, the palette smashed into my Saturn, then slid under it. There was no crash, though I slowed down, not really understanding how I was still on the road. The other cars surrounding mine didn’t hesitate though they couldn’t have failed to see the impact as wood splintered and flew in every direction. They disappeared down the highway as I finally found a hole and pulled onto the shoulder. There was significant damage to the car – both driver’s side tires were bent out at crazy angles. I had ample time, during my two hour wait for a tow truck, to wonder about that odd moment of clarity.

Since that experience, I have had other, similar, moments – in the midst of sudden unexpected events, that still moment of pause. These haven’t all been events when I thought I might be facing death. But each was a moment when I suspected that what was happening right that second might be the catalyst for a complete sea change in my life. The event that turned my life, or the community or even the world to a new course. A new path. And in the middle of each event, that still moment of clarity in which my conscious self stepped out of the slipstream of time to ask, “Is this it?” When that happens, any tension, anxiety or fear I feel dissipates. I am aware that I am aware.

Looking back, I can see that sometimes the moment was a significant or historic one and sometimes not. On the morning of September 11, 2001 when I watched in real time as the second plane crashed into the twin towers was definitely significant (and a moment I shared with millions). But whether each event changed my life’s trajectory, causing my own cartwheel through existence to appear graceful – or not – seems almost anticlimactic to the experience of that brief clarity and cessation of fear. Whether I remember what preceded or led to that moment, I remember those moments. Standing on the path through the national monument at Pecos, New Mexico staring into a raven’s eyes. Pausing on the hill above Cedar Rapids and seeing the downtown in complete darkness during the flood of 2008. On my bike in the woods, hugging a tree I had nearly careened into headfirst. In each mental picture is the memory of that curious calm, suffused with a clear mental light.

The past couple of weeks have been a time of frenzied activity and a certain amount of anxiety. My sleep patterns have been disrupted by worry-induced insomnia. My ability to stay centered emotionally and mentally through long, demanding days has been tested. And in the midst of that, another of those moments of awareness: late on a hot and humid afternoon, standing on a path leading through restored tall-grass prairie. Later, as I thought about it, I realized that I am notoriously bad at predicting, while in the experience itself, whether a moment is a pivotal one or not. I have generally assumed that having that moment of clarity is a sign of the importance of the moment as a turning point; but I have been proved wrong way more often than right. What if I’ve been thinking about this backwards? What if instead of predictive those moments are redirective?

What if the point of that clarity is to remind me that attempting to see the future is, well, futile? Or to remind me that I am more effective when I am centered – not when I’m trying to control circumstances outside my scope of influence? What if that still, uncluttered moment is my reminder that relaxing in this very present here and now, waiting patiently for the unfolding of whatever is to come, is the actual way forward. It isn’t that this moment is important and pivotal, it is that each moment is. I am aware that I’m aware. And that is enough for right now.

 

 

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Silence in the City

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“I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.”  — Chaim Potok, The Chosen

Friends who have visited my new place have all commented something to the effect of, “Wow, you’re right in the city here!” It’s true, I live at a busy city intersection, minutes from the heart of downtown, surrounded by high density housing and next door to what must be the busiest gas station in town. At certain times of the day, traffic makes it a real adventure to pull into or out of the parking lot of my building. There is a fire station a few blocks away that roars into action down our street multiple times a day. Sirens, flashing lights, honking horns, shouting people and barking dogs…there is always some kind of street noise entering my ground-floor windows.

It is an interesting contrast, therefore, that within my apartment, silence reigns supreme.

Silence, it appears, is relative. As I sit here, I hear the quiet click of the ceiling fan, water running down the pipes as my upstairs neighbor showers, the 18-year-old in Apartment 3 high-tailing it down the stairs. I have become accustomed to the laboring motor on my refrigerator, the white noise of the box fan in the window, the occasional clack of window blinds stirring in a breeze. In the mornings, my coffeemaker gurgles and pops like a symphony until the coffee is brewed, then lets out a long, slow, humid sigh as it finishes. Until I moved here, I didn’t realize that my computer, my Kindle, and my phone all ding at me constantly, day and night.

“Silence is so freaking loud” — Sarah Dessen, Just Listen 

When I say silence reigns supreme, what I mean is that my apartment is mostly devoid of intentional noise. I left my television behind when I moved here. My stereo is an anachronism that remains packed (does anyone listen to CDs anymore?). I am not computer savvy enough to have Netflix or Hulu, though I do stream music occasionally or, if I remember, “This American Life” on Public Radio. I discovered that the local news streams its 10:00 broadcast and I catch that when I can. All of which is to say that there are huge blocks and swaths of time when I am home and it is quiet.

I vividly recall a friendly argument I had with my mother when I was in college. (I recall the content, but it probably stuck in my mind because our arguments were rarely what you’d call ‘friendly’.) We were housecleaning, and I had turned the stereo up as I dusted in order to hear it above the vacuum cleaner Mom was using in the next room. After yelling to get my attention and to “turn that racket off”, Mom said, “Right now, you think you need noise all the time, I was like that at your age. But when you get older, you’ll learn to appreciate silence. Besides, that music just sounds like noise to me.” My response was typical of a snot-nosed late-adolescent know-it-all. It went something like, “I’ll never let myself be that old.”

In this, as in so many things, my mother was right. Its been true often enough that saying those words no longer even sticks in my craw. It turns out, Shirley has known a thing or two all along. For example, that silence allows you to hear your own thoughts. At 18 or 19, my thoughts may not have been worth much active listening, but these days they’re full of interesting things, some of which are worth hearing. That silence allows for attention to the task at hand, rather than distraction from it. That silence is a void into which, given enough time to gestate, creative ideas are born.

Right now, being new to the city and having few established relationships here, silence is my default mode. I usually take it with me when I leave the house, as well. No companions and no ear buds mean I notice more. The aromas of the city: car exhaust, international cuisines, flowers, hot asphalt. The hidden art (mosaics on the alley-facing sides of two buildings, for example). The faces of my diverse neighbors, their rude stares or shy smiles, often a quick nod as if to say, “Yep, we’re both here, in this city, and that’s all good.” The feel of a lake breeze stirring the hair on my arms. Both the sunshine and the rain are an explosion of sensations, sounds, scents, sensations on my exposed skin.

I won’t say that silence and I are always easy comrades. One night I cried like a baby when I couldn’t get the news to load and play on my computer. I just really needed to hear someone else’s voice in real-time. Just needed to know what was going on someplace besides in my own head.  But for the most part, silence and I have become pretty good roommates. We hang out, we read, we think, we communicate through both thought and words (written words-I haven’t yet begun speaking aloud to myself). And we are busy discovering new frontiers together: a new city, a new living space, a new head space. Which leads me to something I never understood when Shirley (Mom) talked about silence: it can be an adventure.

In this city, where silence is mostly found on the internal plane, I have good and bad days. Mostly, though, I am having the adventure of a lifetime – an opportunity to discover new places both out and about the town, and within myself. I am learning that my capacities for inner happiness and for calm are both much greater than I would have believed six or eight weeks ago. That my tolerance for change and “newness” is higher as well. I am learning that constant chattering – whether in the form of radio, television, my own voice – serves to drown out the vital gifts of silence: awareness, presence, and deep listening.

“The world’s continual breathing is what we hear and call silence.” –Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.
 
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