Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts,
your belief in anything beautiful.
—Ranier Marie Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”
Nothing so becomes a Church as silence and good order. Noise belongs to theatres, and baths, and public processions, and market-places: but where doctrines, and such doctrines, are the subject of teaching, there should be stillness, and quiet, and calm reflection, and a haven of much repose.
—St. John Chrysostom
There is a wind farm on either side of I-65 near Lafayette, Indiana. I drive this way from Chicago to Cincinnati to visit my family there a few times a year, and each time I drive through that patch of interstate I pine for those giant turbines. One summer day, I vow, I will stop at a little place I’ve seen from the road, a picnic shelter overlooking a manmade lake standing in the shadow of the wind farm. Surrounded by cars streaming by and wind turbines turning, their great arms swinging slowly, harvesting air and singing some tune I think I ought to know, some rhythm I ought to recall but can’t because I have someplace to be. I’m in a hurry. Life streams by like the scenery out the window on the highway and then as quickly as it appeared that quiet shelter is gone from my view.
I often hope as I pass them that those wind turbines are as valuable to the scientific and environmental world as they are to me in those brief few moments while I drive by. I hope they serve some strong utilitarian purpose because it’s my judgment that in general the world needs to see the material value in a thing, a practice, a person, in order to want to keep it around for any length of time, and I’d be gutted if the wind farms came down before I have the chance to sit at that picnic shelter on a warm summer day, sitting on the sidelines of the highway to escape the noise of life, to sit and pray.
The world is loud. My house is loud. My family is loud. When everyone is home I look for the quiet places — for any place where silence hides, any shelter where I can sit and watch the cars stream by — but my children are still young and the silence doesn’t last long. When they bellow my name, though I’m not inclined to leave the quiet place, experience tells me it’s a good idea. I’m needed, like those wind turbines are needed, serving some purpose, the great and glorious purpose of building people. I’m harvesting air too, moving energy from one system to another, one kid to school, loads of laundry to the dryer, dishes to the sink and the table, words to the page. My children are in constant motion, their great arms swinging, harvesting life, youth, chaos and noise. The three younger are all boys, stair-stepped two years apart. They are pure energy, pure emotion, reaching into life with both hands, up to their elbows, up to their ears.
But there are quiet places.
Near the spot where I sit to write at home there is a skylight. I have watched it each morning as it streams in sunlight, shows clouds rolling, wears a splattering of rain or falling leaves. When the kids are in school, the house is quiet, so I sit and write in that spot ,and most days that goes well enough. Some days it goes less well and I stare out that window at the waving trees, at the scuttling cloud cover, at the winking sunlight as the clock ticks and this reminds me of all the things I have left undone. I question my time, my energy, my purpose in that chair as I work to harvest something — thoughts, words, insights, tweets, and Facebook status updates. I tell myself that I leave the Internet on and the browser open in the background in case I need to check a word or do a fast bit of research. I tell myself that sometimes that e-mail alert signal is a sign from God that it’s time for a stretch, a break, a moment of inspiration from some “outside” source. I tell myself that I get just as much done even with the distractions, but mostly it’s not true. Even without new information alerts signaling me I’m already looking for a distraction, some noise to take away from the uncomfortable silence of the blinking cursor on the blank page. Distractions are inevitable and sometimes sought after. The rain on the skylight reminds me to wash the car or clean the bathroom, the leaves falling reminds me to call the man about the gutters, the wind blowing reminds me to pay the electric bill and then of the turbines along the Interstate near Lafayette, Indiana.
This is why I make my children go to church.
For 90 minutes every week they suffer through the Orthodox liturgy. They stand, they slouch, they sigh, inattentive and unappreciative. They carry invisible clocks in their bellies and pull at my leg, my arm, my neck, asking when it’s over. I shake my head, point to the front where Father John stands, and I give arbitrary reports of time remaining. I get lost in the Divine Liturgy. I admit that I never know how much time is left. Though I’ll follow along with the prayers in my small blue prayer book with pages ragged and dog-eared, though I’ll watch as the light changes through the high windows of the sanctuary, though I’ll recognize the censor, the singing of the Troparia and the Trisagion, I’m outside of time in the quiet and the calm of Liturgy. This is where the silence lives when it’s not hiding under the bed or in the closet in my loud house with my loud family. This is where it lives when it’s not hiding in the trunk of my car as I pass that picnic shelter in the shadow of the wind farm. I need the advice of St. John Chrysostom about the silence and the good order, the stillness and quiet, the calm reflection. This is why I make my children go to church.
They tell me they’re bored. Maybe it’s good for them to be bored, to stand still for just a short time, absent electronics and distractions. Liturgy lends itself to the unseen benefits of time and immersion and being in touch with a legacy and history of hundreds of years. They lie sprawled on the ground in the back of church, out of the eye line of Father John and the old widowed Matushkas who sit along the sides of the congregation usually seeing things everyone else misses. The boys lie on the floor and complain about boredom until the floor is too cold and hard and then they complain about that. After two years of attending Liturgy they may still lie on the floor and complain, only now they also make the sign of the cross along with the rest of us, by default, without even thinking as they complain. They are immersed in it, up to their elbows, up to their ears.
It’s like swimming.
When I’m in the water these days, I can float or swim free form along the lines of the lane. It’s different now that the kids are old enough to swim on their own. I used to do the math in my head sitting on the sidelines of the baby pool within arms reach: three more years until Henry is old enough, two more years until the baby is swimming on his own, one more year until I can leave the pool altogether and take that kickboxing class across the hall while they swim. Parents measure time like this. Each milestone on the long road is a move toward independence, theirs and mine. Yet each milestone creates a panic in me too, and in the face of that independence, I find myself lurching and lunging toward them, chasing their childhood to wrap it up in my arms again, one more time, arms around the chaos and the argument and the loud interactions. And I know I’ll miss the noise when they are gone off to be the full-grown versions of the humans I’ve been building all this time.
When in the water, my arms circle like the turbines on Interstate 65, my head turning for air, legs giving little kicks just below the surface of the water for propulsion, always moving forward. I am in motion, channeling energy, building muscles, increasing oxygen storage and function and gliding along in the water while the sound of children echo around the room. I float or swim or else sit on the sidelines within reach and watch the four of them slide along in the water on their own. They love to swim because they know how to swim. They know how to swim because they have been in the water and learned some things — by watching, by engaging, by asking, by listening. They could not learn to swim absent the water.
The world is coming closer for them. They’re going to need to know how to be in the water. They’re going to need the silence in the echoing din of the rat race, the pressure cooker, the ticking time bomb of modern life where everything is distraction, everything is motion, everything is competing to entertain, to alleviate their persistent boredom.
So I make them go to Liturgy. We stand together in the back of the church and I breathe in the silence and the incense for as long as I am able, until the complaints begin or the service ends. The silence and the breathing becomes fuel for the commute, the homework, the bill paying, the late nights of illness or panic. I take in the chant and the prayer punctuated by my fingertips making the sign of the cross at my forehead, my belly, my right shoulder and left and uttering words softly, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, have mercy on me.” When my boys ask me on the way to church why I like the Liturgy I tell them, “Because it’s beautiful.” I ask them to look for that beauty, not just now, but always, even one moment of that beauty in the middle of the noise, in the middle of the boredom. I tell them about the wind turbines on either side of I-65 near Lafayette, how on a long journey it’s important that we observe those small moments of beauty, though we might be tired or bored or hungry or distracted.
Sometimes in the middle of the noise and the chaos I plan that trip to the wind turbines on I-65 near Lafayette, Indiana, with the hope that there will be simply one moment in which I will hear the wind being collected by those long arms harvesting the air, that I will know myself as that which is being gathered in and also that which is gathering. It feels a little crazy to think that all I really need at that picnic shelter is that one sweeping moment, a moment that feels like the sudden intake of oxygen that comes just before crying in earnest and then the complimentary exhale that arrives when the grief is ready to recede again, for a little while, for a long time but never forever. I wonder if our cells become permanently altered by grief and tears, like the lines that have taken up residence around my eyes after years of living — worry lines, a side effect of smiling and squinting into the sun.
I imagine when my time is up at the picnic shelter in the shadow of those giants, I’ll leave, reluctantly, nodding some quietly spoken “Thank you” to the wind turbines for their time and conversation, for the silence, for the space, for harvesting the air and the silence I needed to breathe again just then, now and always.
Angela Doll Carlson is a poet and essayist best known for her work as Mrs Metaphor found on her blog at www.mrsmetaphor.com. Mrs Metaphor connects the dots of daily life in an attempt to humbly reach the deep “aha” we all seek. Her first book, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition, is due out from Conciliar Press in mid-2014. Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL, with her husband, David, and her four outrageously spirited yet remarkably likable children.