Every once in a while, I get to a point where there is not much more that I can worry about. Call it saturation, call it overwhelm; but when life becomes almost too complex, almost too burdensome, I fine myself working on ways to bring things back into focus with simple acts of self care.
When I was in college and seminary, I would clean and do laundry. Somehow, getting organized and straightening up gave me a sense of being a bit more in control of where I was in the world over what I was doing. It also made the space I was living in seem a bit more habitable. The clothes in the closet and drawers, and no longer in heaps on the floor, made the room smell fresh and look put-together. The clean dishes on the shelves and the sense of possibilities unlimited by the constraints of heaps of things needing attention allowed me to dream up what I might do instead of what I must do.
So, today, I had a chance to "do some laundry" with a trip to the barber and then I made some cucumber salad for lunch.
Amazing, eh? After a tough week of pastoral, institutional and emotional stresses and crises, a simple haircut and some cucumber salad made me feel better.
Not because I am simple...Or complex. Don't expect Thomas Keating or Thich Nhat Han to jump out at you with some wise aphorism about treasuring the self as a manifestation of the Incarnate Imago or the Buddha-within. Simply put, when I get too far out of myself, I need to get back to basics.
A haircut? It was needed. I was getting shaggy. It also was getting heavy and hot, walking around under that mop. Getting shorn literally lifted some weight from my brow and allowed a little more air to my scalp. That feels good...And being in the barber's chair gave me some space and time to not be working/thinking/planning on what needed to be addressed at the church, at home or in my own interior life.
It was just a haircut.
The cucumber salad?
A simple recipe: sliced cucumbers, shallots, whole milk yoghurt, cumin and dill with salt and pepper to taste. The secret is in the more astringent tang of the cumin coupled with the sour of the yoghurt. It cuts the strong flavor of the dill and lets the whole thing marry into a clean and refreshing flavor. What makes it special is that I made it up on the spot. Just some ingredients that came together to make something tasty. Just for the moment. Just on the spot. I was not responding to crisis. I was making lunch.
That is the problem with times of personal, institutional or societal crisis. We get all caught up into our heads and hearts. The real and intense stress of the situation too quickly overwhelms us. We get paralyzed. We suffer. We get sick. Some die. It is not easy to live in that kind of extremity, in that kind of desert.
Some people commenting on the situation in New Orleans were appalled at the conditions. There were people suffering of hunger, privation and thirst. Some had died. Others are dying. The most vulnerable in our society, who normally remain invisible in the ghettos and hidden places where the poor and underclass usually dwell were on our television screens. People were crying and screaming and hoping for relief. So much so, under the threat of stress and violence, that even the care givers could not feel safe to enter into those dark places to bring the very consolation that so many are seeking.
It was too dangerous to offer help.
And this is America.
Scary stuff. It threatens all of us with a certain invasive sense of over-stimulation. This is not how our society is supposed to conduct its business of caring for one another. It is easier to see Somalia, or Bosnia or Indonesia after the Tsunami and go "tsk, tsk" than to behold what real disaster can do to good, or even somewhat good, people.
It is a certain bet that a bit of clean laundry and some good cucumber salad can't even begin to touch that horror or the disillusion that goes with it.
Still, this is important. If I am going to keep my center and be a help to those around me, I have to balance being open to all of this with a deep awareness of what I need to do to keep my strength and sanity. I know myself, and I could go all day and all night doing...And then just melt down after a time; but would that do any good?
What does it mean, that mouthful of cucumber salad?
This is where Keating and Thich Nhat Han come in to play: The salad, the laundry, going to bed early and simply taking a bit of time to simply be away from the tumult gives me a chance to be mindful. It means I can not only act responsively, but also responsibly. I can see the humanity in tired, scared, hungry and frightened faces. I can but through the b.s. of the political hemming and hawing about getting aid from one place to another quickly. I can set aside excuses and step forward into action from a place of consideration.
That is what it means to me to get a haircut and a bit of cooking done today. It means I can take a moment to breathe, regroup and prepare for the next labor, the next calling. And when that summons occurs, I can be ready, rested and open to where God intends me to go/be...Instead of being stuck in paralysis or hyperkinetic worry.