Sunday, September 23, 2012

Of Balance and Bonfires

We were laughing, last night, at the fire's edge.  The Equinox was our excuse, after weeks of hard endeavoring, to sit and bask a bit in the space between darkness and light.  So we touched off the blaze as the sun hung low in the sky and set the shepherd's pie to bake.  At the behest of our farmhands, a run was made to the gas-n-go for marshmallows, graham crackers and bars of chocolate.  Pointy sticks were searched out and trimmed before the gloaming deepened beyond stick-searching light.  And then, the sun slipped behind the edge of the world.  The fire sang, flames danced, and then the light lowered further as coals began to glow across the bonfire's splendid span.  We sat ourselves down, each with a steaming bowl of shepherd's pie, and fit our bodies to the slope of the ground.

There we were, arrayed amidst the splayed shadows of wild asters in the fire's flickering light. After a few minutes of contented, food-shoveling silence, the banter began.  There were snippets of song.  There were questions about tradition and experience of the season and its shifts.  One farmhand asked if I knew any "Mabon myths," Mabon being the pagan name for the observance of the autumnal equinox.  I laughed dismissively.  "Celts tend to focus on the cross-quarter days, (the mid-points between solstice and equinox), but we don't really do much for equinoxes.  The cross-quarter days represent big changes in seasonal work and human agricultural activity.  Nothing much changes at equinox.  Anyway, balance is too boring to celebrate."

My words stuck in my own craw.  I'd spent most of the day at a conference for members and leaders of small UCC churches in Maine.  This year's theme was, "full-time church, part-time pastor," a description that applies to the majority of the state's rural UCC congregations.  There had been all manner of workshops during the day: successful stewardship, improving worship and music, dealing gracefully with progressive/conservative tensions,  involving children more fully, developing local caregiving ministries, and so forth.  I was especially interested in a panel discussion of part-time pastors, as I myself hope to be serving a local church as a part-time pastor soon.  I sat and listened as every single pastor on the panel admitted that they worked more than their contracted hours each week, and none of them found it easy to manage the boundaries between work and the rest of their lives.  All of them felt some aspect of their lives had suffered as a result: their families, their physical health, their intellectual depth and breadth, their engagement in larger issues, and especially their own spiritual well-being.

So, I'm wrong.  Balance, it turns out, may be a rare enough treasure that we need to stop, consider it, even marvel at it when it is revealed.  Balance is a gift, a source of health and grace.  Balance isn't boring at all, but rather distinctive and uncommon.  Balance IS worthy of celebration, after all.  Maybe I need to start marking the equinoxes with more intention!

Now the coals have burned down, the smores have been consumed, and the sound of singing wood and chirping crickets has faded in the bright, clear light of another September day.  After a morning of rushing around, I took off my shoes and grabbed my newly-acquired issue of the journal TAPROOT, the one with a theme of "retreat."  I headed up the stairs to my bedroom, each riser a tentative step towards some sabbath-keeping in an effort to build better habits of balance.

It was hard work.

Much to my chagrin, even with a good soul-food journal in hand and my head cradled on my favourite pillow, I could not make myself relax through force of will.  When my eyelids began to lower, my internal protestant cattle-prod started jolting away with as much shouldness and oughtness as it could muster.  My farm-manager mind came up with a thousand tasks I might yet accomplish in this particular weather and span of time.  I pressed on.  Taproot offered me an essay by  Shannon Hayes  on "Radical Homemaking" wherein she explained that her investment of time and presence at home was not an attempt to flee from the day's pressing issues, but rather an effort to engage those issues more fully, an effort to defy consumer culture with deeper interactions, more sustainable livelihoods, and healthier ways of being.  This was followed by a gently reflective poem and a photo-essay of various sleepy people settling into their beds.

Something shifted, then.  Perhaps the twinging tension of my spine untangled itself a bit.  Perhaps the neglected depths of my lungs received long-awaited oxygen as I drew a deeper breath.  Somehow I realized, more viscerally than before, the grace that emerges in the tandem disciplines of recreation and rest. I followed the example of those sweet, sleepy people draped across the pages.  I let my eyes close.  I let my heart and breathing slow.  There, in the amber afternoon light, with a slight breeze from the open window and soft sounds of conversation drifting up from the room below, I slipped into the blessed torpor of a good old-fashioned afternoon nap.

Yes, I slept.  It wasn't long, but there were dreams and delicious, languid rest.  Meanwhile, the rest of the household happily read and breezed and puttered about.  Meanwhile, the plants grew and the livestock calmly meandered without my professional intervention. Creation continued to weave its cosmic patterns of mystery and grief and beauty, all without my help.

Huh.  Balance.  I need to try more of this sabbath/napping stuff.  Let's call it...professional development.                  

(Happy Equinox!)