Awake and Asleep: Joy and Discovery

car emerging from tunnel
Photo by Martin Fisch, flickr’s creative commons

You arrange to meet for coffee, to come over and watch a movie, to play games. You are invited to the party and you have a few threads for the person next to you, a few yarns for the whole group, a few revelations to give and receive. You go to the dinner party and you pinch the dumplings closed before shoveling them into your mouth, laughing with three friends across the table, three good friends from across the world.

You page through your journal and realize that these memories are underrepresented, that more painful ones take top billing, that you’ve written about the same hard things over and over again. It was something you needed to do, you admit, but your life this January, this February, holds more than that.

Don’t forget today, you tell yourself. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, but you are high on life and you don’t care. Somehow, you don’t think you’ll regret lying on your back, holding your brand-new memories lightly, because they are light. There is nothing rough mixed in, no desperation to clutch every word as if it were the last of its kind.

And it’s not just today.

You eat ice cream on what was then the coldest night of the year, wearing pajamas you borrowed from your friend. You prop up your head with your hand, flattening the pillow under your arm, and talk until the snowplows scrape down Genesee Street.

You are leaving campus when you see a friend of yours sitting at a table. You stop and say hello, and before you know it you are in a coffee shop sipping a chai latte, lingering until closing time, and not just to avoid the wind. You didn’t realize until now how much the two of you have in common.

You stop by the office for a moment and stay almost two hours, until you absolutely have to leave. You pick up the threads of a conversation that started months ago, your favorite sort of conversation, comparing notes and reminiscing about the children’s stories that no one else here knows, the questions that have answers and those that do not.

You drive on two-lane roads to what must surely be the center of the state, two hours there and two hours back, but even though it’s a cold, rainy night, you are in no rush to be home again. You can’t remember the last time you talked this freely for this long without knowing in your bones that it couldn’t last, that it was too good to be true. “I could talk to you about anything,” she says. You believe her, and you agree.

It’s 4 o’clock now. You plug in your headphones and play the old Mozart piece “Rondo Alla Turca” on your new digital piano before finally drifting off to sleep.

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Awake and Asleep: Depression and Loss

Bridge over a creek in winter
Photo by Mike Christoferson, Flickr’s creative commons

You wake up one morning feeling the weight of the world, or the weight of your world. Maybe it was a dream that made your eyes snap open, made your heart sink, but you can’t remember. It’s your first time being rested in days, but you don’t feel rested.

You haven’t been taking care of yourself the way you promised you would this semester, and not just with the whole sleeping thing. Your kickboxing gloves still lie, dusty and cold, in the back seat of your car. You only have microwave dinners and you aren’t reading the library books that promise escape or introspection or both.

You are writing, though, I’ll give you that. You’ve produced an impressive amount of pages in a short amount of time, pages in your journal, pages in the word processor, more files than you can count on two hands, but at this point, sometimes, you feel like you’re just going around and around in circles, as sad music plays and you’re forever swiping left past the faces of Central New York men who couldn’t interest you less.

You are also seeing your friends here more often. That’s big, you remind yourself, these late-night conversations and round-table dinners and coffee-shop confessionals. It’s more than last semester. Maybe you’ll be sad to leave Syracuse after all, 100 days from now.

You have been rising in the ranks. Your name is attached to more projects and known to more people. The future is still hazy, but there is a distinguishable hue to it now. You don’t say, “I don’t know” anymore when people ask you what the plan is after graduation.

But you wish you cared a little more about what is happening here than about what you’ve left behind. You spent so much of your winter break dreading the return, only to find yourself displaced in the places you’d once called home. A lot can happen in five weeks, and a lot did happen in five weeks.

Melancholy can be a comfort when you can see the arc of loss and tell the story and point to a specific person or event, to a before and after, and you can almost believe in the healing passage of time. But that nameless lethargy, with no beginning or end in sight, is less sexy. Depression has no juicy details. It is the difference between felt pain and the absence of feeling, between the past and the present, between being awake and asleep.

It is winter in America’s snowiest city, and you are awake and asleep.

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A Monastic Retreat, in Moments

The website for the Retreat House at St. Benedict’s Monastery isn’t perfect. Everything I need to know is there, but it is not the most beautiful design or the most efficient layout.

But I don’t need it to be beautiful or efficient.

Sometimes, the real thing is so full of glory that no matter who is telling you about it, or how, the glory will seep through. This is that sort of thing, where nothing earnest can be misrepresented, where even the blurriest picture will cause us all to gather around.

 

I fill my arms four times and carry food and suitcases and books to my room. I know there are mountains outside, here in Snowmass, Colorado, but it’s too dark to see them. I stack my books high, and there are too many for one pile.

This is the day after Easter, or rather the night, and the Retreat House is empty except for me. Everyone came for Holy Week, and the second of April isn’t Ordinary Time, but it seems it may as well be to everyone else.

 

I fill my journal with the past and the future, with remembrances and visions. I truly pray for the first time in a long time. And as I fill in the rocks and plants and other features of a labyrinth in my coloring book, At Play in God’s Creation, my eyes fill with tears, and the decision I had come here to make, and indeed thought had been made, turns into grief and I let myself grieve.

Mount Sopris as seen from the Retreat House
The view from my room (Mount Sopris)

It isn’t always the story about the story, but it sure seems that way to me. I awaken to dreams and hopes, and then I fall asleep and sleepwalk through the grid laid before me. And then one day, when the sleepwalking starts to take a nightmarish turn, I wake long enough to remember and cup my chin in my hands as I take in the beauty in the distance, the beauty I could be a part of.

I want to come awake long enough to do good in the world, a good I can sustain because it bubbles up from the truest, deepest parts of me.

 

I only leave the Retreat House for Vespers (I thought about going to Mass, but I don’t know whether or not I’m allowed to take the sacrament, so I skip it). I try to take in the details of what I see and hear, not just what I feel. One monk sits on a cushion. Blue jeans poke out at the bottom of their robes, ending in sandaled feet. Sometimes I turn to the right page in the book and can follow along, but sometimes I lose my place and can only listen.

The services end in darkness and quiet, but the silence is not absolute. The monks greet us on the way out, and I find myself shy.

The church, as seen from the guest chapel
The church, as seen from the guest chapel/meditation room

I meet Sarah and Pat at Vespers, and they invite me to drink tea with them in their hermitage, a separate guest accommodation. It is the best tea I’ve ever had, a tea that actually tastes as good as it smells. And we talk about wistful things and tangible things, wise men and meaningful stories and standing in unfrequented spiritual spaces. And I know I am talking about my life as I wish it to be, my time as I would like it to be spent, not as it is.

We only have so much time in a day, time to decide what we will fill ourselves with and what we will spend ourselves on.

 

I pad across the thick carpet and lay on the floor of the Prayer Hall. The low lights make wondrous shapes and so do the wooden beams far above me, and the silence is deep. I take pictures and I walk back and forth, alone and at peace.

Lights and shadows in the Prayer Hall
Lights and shadows in the Prayer Hall

I feel like I am on holy ground. On my way out, I stop at the bookstore and pull objects to myself, trying to bring this place with me:  a book about this monastery, a CD of Gregorian chants, beeswax candles, cards made of pressed flowers that aren’t perfect in form, but are perfect for having been made here.

 

I keep craning my neck to see Mount Sopris, and looking hungrily in the rear view mirror. The mountain was before me three days ago when I was arriving, but in the dark I hadn’t known, hadn’t seen. And now I am stealing glimpses as I come down off the mountain.

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