Perseverance, Anxiety, and the Greatness of Small Things
This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, the opinion journal of CARDUS, in November 2010.
This past May, on Memorial Day weekend, Chuck and I took an emergency vacation. We hadn't planned on it, but suddenly it was imperative that we go. We'd been unable to push "pause" for a very long time and felt ourselves slipping into a bad place. As one circumstance added to another, demanding more and more of our time and energy, we knew we couldn't continue to press forward without a break. Compassion was in short supply for the newest set of people's needs — a sure sign of burnout.
On the day we realized we were on the brink, our house was full of family. We'd gathered to say goodbye to our matriarch, who was preparing to return home to California. Convinced of our need to go, my gallant husband disappeared behind a closed door with his laptop and pulled a rabbit out of a hat. He secured a plane ticket and a place for us to stay. Three days later, we left home and settled in at our favorite Florida beach.
The first day was like medicine. We swam in the ocean, read on our beach chairs, napped, and ate tapas for dinner. As the days added up, the privacy, rest, beautiful weather, bike rides around the little beach town, and ocean therapy patched us up. We went home and entered back into our life and work, but with a new awareness that we couldn't continue on in the same way. It would only be a matter of time before we were emotionally and physically exhausted again, running away to get some sanity. There had to be a better way to live.
For years, Chuck and I have had an ongoing conversation about this "better way." We've thought deeply about creating sustainability in our vocations. We've wrestled with making a life that trusts God for a Sabbath rest each week. We've reassessed our work and commitments every few years, seeking God's wisdom in saying "yes" and "no" in light of our callings. But there are times — and we all have them — when we have to put our head down, our hands to the plow, and press on for the duration.
We've been slowly emerging from a four-year period of sheer perseverance. With constant work to do in many areas, God sustained us through my seminary degree, major changes in the music business, and the theft of our life savings by a trusted financial advisor. We were also living through terribly painful situations in our family and with some of our closest friends. Now that some of those stories have come to a close, new concerns have taken their place.
I'm slow, but I'm finally coming to terms with the fact that life will always have some amount of stress. There will be seasons when things are more peaceful. But in a fallen world, anxieties meet us at every turn. The Bible presumes that anxiety is a reality and reminds us that God is near, that He cares, and that He is the only one who can truly help (see 1 Peter 5:5-7, Philippians 4:6-7, 2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
As I seek after God and His ways, my understanding of the peace that comes inside anxious circumstances is deepening. I'm also looking for the wisdom and courage to change what I can. And I'm creating space in my life to enjoy the nurturing gifts of God that are all around me. I'm paying attention to the greatness of small things.
In mid-June a longing began to surface within me, the words glowing in my mind like a neon sign. I wanted a sabbatical. Not from everything, but from one thing. I wanted a sabbatical from houseguests. Our work is multi-faceted and hard to describe in a simple sentence. We love it all, including the hospitality that's part of everything. But I wanted a rest from one aspect — overnight guests. As it turned out, my husband did, too. We were both craving privacy and time to ourselves in the evenings and weekends. So, after twenty plus years of an open door, we declared a sabbatical.
It was the start of something good. In the press of always taking care of others, we hadn't been taking care of ourselves. Without extra people to feed, we could eat smaller and healthier meals. We also returned to something we love — ending many of our days with a vigorous walk in the trails of a nearby wooded park. We started seeing a counselor, an old friend who helped us in the past. We needed help with some of the newest confusions in our lives and also with the very old ones that still inform us negatively in the deepest places of our being.
After a few trips to the counselor's office, I was more convinced than ever of the necessity of paying attention to the small things that nurture. My vocation calls me to a life of nurturing others, so it makes sense that I would need some myself. It's the small things that are doable and within my reach in an ordinary day. Very few of us can go on emergency vacations, but we can keep our eyes open to what brings pleasure and care in daily life, and attend to those graces with a thankful heart.
Since childhood, I have loved the bookish life. I've always made time to read and write. When seasons of life made it harder, I got creative. I had coffee parties with myself on Friday nights when my children were teenagers. If Chuck was working late in the studio and the kids were out with friends, I drank coffee for pleasure and the caffeine boost, and read to my heart's delight. One night I read Like Water for Chocolate in one large gulp. Another night it was Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. I also wrote letters or in my journal, making room for the writer inside me to surface.
These days my writing life is fully engaged and active, but I continue to write in my journal. I'm an archivist who needs to keep track of the days and a processor who thinks through writing. Reflection is important, so I'm intentional about making room for it. I read all kinds of books, but I make sure to feed my soul with literary novels, fascinating memoirs, and poetry. When I'm especially in need of a nurturing writer with great depth of insight, I turn to Elizabeth Goudge. And like Lauren Winner, I'm always a sucker for a Jan Karon novel.
My grandmother's diaries are a newfound source of comfort. I've had them for years and read them before, but I'm in a new place of wanting to hear from her. When I read her words and the stories that include my childhood, I'm better able to understand what shaped me then and still affects me now. Her home and her life were a refuge when I was young, and the words she left behind comfort me still.
One of the lovely things I get to do in my work is meet with younger people in mentoring friendships. I love the long conversations that range across the whole of life, and I count it a privilege to be invited into their worlds. A few weeks ago I was scheduled to meet with a young college student. I'd been looking forward to it, but the previous days had been difficult. I needed to talk to a peer more than someone thirty-five years younger! So with my newfound awareness of changing what I can and looking for nurture, we met at our city's botanical garden. Being outdoors on a perfect fall day, walking and talking amid the beauty of the gardens, turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for both of us. We shared important conversation, and I was shown in one more way how a small tweak towards nurture can make a big difference.
Photo: Allister Ann | www.allisterann.blogspot.com
As I attempt to build a more nourishing life, I'm keeping my eyes and ears open to the greatness of small things. I listen to Nat King Cole when I'm cooking, take bubble baths often, place vintage ceramic birds on my kitchen window sill, and enjoy the treat of a pedicure. I hold hands with my husband as we watch Parenthood on television, call my sister in California to hear her voice, eat dinner by the fire at the first hint of a cold snap, and rest secure in Chuck's closing prayer as we drift off to sleep at night.
The historical spiritual practices of the Christian faith are bedrock to the formation and ongoing health of our life in Christ. Prayer, immersion in the Scriptures, and gathering regularly with the community of faith are some of the crucial disciplines. But we also honor God by paying attention to the gifts that surround us in daily life, embracing the details of His care.
Andi thanks Gideon Strauss for the phrase "the greatness of small things," borrowed from Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Andi Ashworth and her husband, Charlie, are Co-Founders/Executive Directors of Art House America. She's currently spending lots of time preparing the way for Art House America's Twentieth Anniversary celebration in Nashville. Want to come? Look here and sign up!