“Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?” — Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
I have a volcano to thank for teaching me early that life doesn’t wait for you to get off the couch. A volcano and, a couple of years beforehand, my father’s sudden death (he was 43, I was 13). I’ll stick with the volcano today, though.
Once upon a time, Spirit Lake was a popular destination for nature-loving campers and tourists. The sparkling lake, blue as a sapphire, was nestled into the side of a snow cone-shaped mountain in Washington State.
My mother and I lived only 60 miles away, but we had never been to Spirit Lake. “We’ve got to go there one of these days,” we had both said over the years.
In May of 1980, when I was a sophomore in high school, that mountain–Mt. St. Helens, to be precise–blew its top. The snow cone peak was obliterated by the volcanic explosion. Spirit Lake was demolished by the ensuing avalanche of mud, melting snow and ash.
As National Geographic described it, “…the lake became a stinky soup, devoid of oxygen and covered with a floating mat of tree trunks ripped from the landscape.”
It was a wake-up call. I couldn’t assume that the world–or life in general–would wait for me to get around to exploring it. I was 15 years old at the time.
A year later I jumped at the chance to take part in a summer exchange program with American Field Service (AFS). I was matched with a loving family in Istanbul, Turkey, who took me in with open arms, fattened me up on Baklava, bread and Turkish Delight, and introduced me to the wonders of their magical city.
I had never felt so alive (fat, but alive). And though there must have been days marked by homesickness, what I remember most is the helpless feeling of time slipping through my fingers. I tried to appreciate every moment–every sight, sound, smell, and taste.
Today I’ve come full circle. We have a 15-year-old Australian exchange student named Darcy living with us. He’ll be here just shy of three months; we’re a little beyond the halfway mark. Last week he exclaimed with dismay, “Oh no! It’s already December 9th!”
With so much to do and see in the Washington, D.C. area (not to mention upcoming road trips to Orlando and Manhattan), we are racing against the clock. It’s the same feeling I had as an exchange student. It’s the same feeling I had during our three-year posting in Germany, when we were never without a trip on the books.
The challenge is keeping us all on a wavelength of gratitude for everything we are able to do and see, staying grounded in the present moment, rather than panicking about what we won’t be able to fit in before his departure. I was guilty of the latter when we lived overseas–so sad about the places we couldn’t get to that I wasn’t able to fully savor the many adventures we did have.
I have jumped back onto the spinning carousel after spending the past three years intentionally slowing down the pace of my life. Breast cancer forced me to a screeching halt, and the unexpected process of spiritual awakening that followed led me to place a premium on stillness and spaciousness.
Mindfulness practice has taught me to focus my attention on spaciousness–that gap between each breath we take, each thought we think, each experience we encounter.
Spaciousness, I’ve come to realize, is the source of peace and contentment. Some would call it the source of happiness, others would call this non-judgmental state the source of love. Call it what you will, it’s where I want to hang my hat.
Stillness is key to accessing spaciousness. Without stillness, it’s impossible to hear the whispers of your heart that float up through the spaciousness. Without stillness, it’s impossible to differentiate between mind-made, ego-driven thoughts and the higher intelligence at the core of our being.
This is getting a little heavy, I know. What happened to the volcano theme? And where did the amiable exchange student wander off to?
The point is, I’m coming up a little short on stillness these days. But I’ve got just enough of it–thanks in large part to meditating each morning–to know that this is what I’m supposed to be doing right now, what all of us are supposed to be doing right now.
There are times to sit and reflect, and there are times to dive into life head first. We only have a few more weeks to squeeze all we can out of this brief crossing of our paths. Sometimes it’s good to have a deadline to get us off the couch.
What about you? What does it take to get you off the couch?
If you’d like to read about the miraculous recovery of Spirit Lake 30 years after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, click here.
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