In our never ending age of anxiety, you hear so much about those who cannot put their restless minds to sleep. They awake from storm-filled dreams full of concerns over the loose threads in their lives. Will the irresponsible son ever settle down, how long can the battered daughter survive the abusive husband, will the youngster learn to focus better in school and not be so disruptive? Did I remember to put the milk back in the refrigerator, have I programmed the coffee maker, where did I put my to-do list and what is missing on it? In all the commotion, the questions range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
No matter if we are troubled by the truly worrisome or simply preoccupied with everyday trivialities, so many of us march on as though everything we do is on some grandiose level that affects the welfare of others or can alter the course of history. A friend’s father once laughed when someone asked at his retirement party whether he was worried whether the office would survive without him. Without a pause, he said his presence was ephemeral at best. Furthermore, he thought the question was about as meaningful as if he had been asked how much water he could grasp if he plunged his hand into a full bucket and tried to hold onto the drops.
Wondering about my own restless mind, I’m always hoping to find clues why so many of us putter away our time on the insignificant when we could be reading all of Proust or perfecting a skill that will produce something that will long outlive us and be admired for generations to come. My ambition this summer is to get better at joining various pieces of hardwood together in beautiful dovetails that are snug and seamless. My eye is on something that will have the grace of a boat’s lines and will be out there in plain sight for all to see. I am guided by the nineteenth century English art critic John Ruskin who wrote:
“When we build let us think that we build forever
Let it not be for the present delight nor for present use alone.
Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for;
and let us think, as we lay stone on stone,
that a time will come when those stones will be held sacred
because our hands have touched them,
and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought
substance of them, ‘See, this our fathers did for us.’”
In my endeavor, I hope to quiet the noisy and restless beast in my head that can lead me astray in busy work of no lasting importance. The busy work is the simple road to distraction that wants instant gratification before moving on to more trivia. Like so many of us, I need to find a different path, one that will bring me deep satisfaction. In so doing, I believe we are capable of finding calmness on this path, an acceptance of what is, and a realistic view of one’s own importance and role. Like so many others, I am looking for a way to calm the restlessness.
But I also recognize that calmness and realism, like the elusive grasped water in a bucket, is hard to come by and can be even harder to cradle. Fortunately for my wife Jody and myself, we live in a tranquil wooded setting far from the madding crowd. Our nearest traffic light is over thirty miles away, there is no road-rage traffic, and we have little problem finding parking. But the distracting life “out there” always beckons like an ancient Siren. And since every-day “necessities” are over an hour away, our groceries, entertainment, and a lot of our socializing require us to leave our sanctuary and venture forth into the wider world where the dragons of distraction lie in wait.
Here at home, we also have our share of distractions, although we don’t usually view them as such since they are for the most part satisfying and productive. We get our hands dirty and our clothes sweaty. Even though we would wish otherwise, our gardens are not without their weeds and there are plenty of spent flowers that are always in need of dead-heading. And despite a variety of decks, gazebos, pergolas, swings and hammocks to hide away in, we seem to be more adept at always finding a fence in need of repair, a gutter to be cleaned, a spark-arrestor on the weed whacker that only a wire brush can scrub hard enough to allow the engine to once again roar to life. If that’s not enough, one not need wander far before being reminded that we have decks that need power washing, underbrush to clear, tools to oil, paths to maintain and downed trees to chainsaw into pieces fit for the winter’s hungry stove. Lots for the restless mind to toss about.
In trying to learn to relax and quiet our minds, we recently sat on the porch of a country cafe where we had our lunch. Sitting there quietly, we were entertained by watching a mother Swallow fly in and out on short turnabouts to feed those wide-open little mouths popping out of a nest glued with mud high atop the edge of a support post. It was nice to sit a while and just watch someone else do all the work, especially since the effort was important and not just for its own sake. Here was maternal frenetic behavior that made up the difference between life and death. This little bird was no soccer mom running taxis for indulged children to get to their next game. She was on the run to fill up tummies that seemed to be forever empty. Her to-do list was limited but critical.
We also find ways to quiet our restless minds by walking the dogs early every day throughout our extensive woods. I delighted this morning in seeing so many Indian Pipes up and on display. A recent New Yorker poem called them “flowers for ghosts.” Whatever the name, they are white, waxy plants with flowers that appear to be nodding. We enjoy their form and color even though they are Saprophytes, a term used for organisms that obtain nutrients from dead organic matter. Perhaps they appear so at ease, calm and statuesque because they seem so other worldly. We have to wonder if our restless minds will only find such peace once we are also no longer of or in this world.
In another attempt to nail down what the restless mind feeds on, we visited an organic farm recently. While there, we sympathized with all the work the owner and his small troupe of volunteers have to contend with on a daily basis. Since there’s obviously only so many hours in any one day, they don’t have the luxury of keeping a conventionally neat and tidy place. Lots of weeds abounded on the outskirts of their carefully tended rows of vegetables ripening as we watched in anticipation of next Saturday’s farmer’s market. Everyone was busy, but no one seemed frenetic or harried. They knew what they had to do and were prepared to plow on. They said that the end of the day was welcome and that they went to bed happy to lay their heads on their pillows and without any doubt that life-renewing sleep would come quickly. The idea of a restless mind was foreign to them.
Jody and I left with great respect for what they were doing, but also grateful that our lives were no longer so demanding. In my mind’s eye, I used the farm visit to ponder more about a restless mind and to compare and contrast what I know about the irony of so much in our modern times. Our children work long hours, are often frustrated by the non-tangible nature of what they achieve, sometimes long for career changes that would give them a better feel for what they can do with their hands rather than what they can input into their hard drives. I’ve known a couple of lawyers who left their careers, forever filed away their briefs, and went forth to enroll in professional cooking schools. There are more than a few examples of office workers who have awoken one morning never to return to their cubicles. They had taken the big step and allowed themselves to follow their bliss wherever it might lead them, from going back to school, to opening up their own businesses, to restoring old cars. Young college grads who don’t want to be futures traders find love tending tomatoes and chard on non-mechanized organic farms. In the end, may they all feel more at one with their lives and what the good earth has to offer. May their restless minds be stilled.
In contrast, we read so often of many people who are unhappy in their career choices but seem stuck and are unable to make any changes. Understandably, they are often in mid life with mortgages and children to educate so must be cautious. I sympathize with them and offer no gratuitous advice. I just hope they have the opportunity sometime to be able to start anew in pursuit of whatever they define as a better and more fulfilling life.
In the end, we all have to find our own way in our search for meaning. To put my restless mind at ease, I try every day to open myself to the moment. I do this by adoring my wife, caring for my dogs and cats, watching the birds, and taking in the flowers standing motionless within themselves, unconcerned whether someone is observing them or not. Like so much I rub up against, I have learned to admire the flower for itself and to be deaf to the artifice of its name. We must learn that all things are simply what they are and no more. We must let go of our own grandiosity and the belief that we are indispensable. We must ultimately learn that everyone and everything has its own story and doesn’t need a name someone else has given it.
For me, I have found my satisfaction in birdwatching, gardening, woodworking, and writing. Although all are different disciplines, I can sense how they are ultimately related. I know for certain that they all stretch me in various ways and allow me the freedom to explore my ever transformative self. For certain, when I make a box by hand which is joined at the corners with beautiful hand-cut dovetails, I can feel my mind at ease.