On Stillness

In early December, the fella and I decided to take a “for real” vacation. We hadn’t done this in, well, we couldn’t remember. To us, that was a good indication of how badly we needed to take some time off. Because my job gives me a month of furlough (sort of), and he had use-or-lose vacation days, we took the plunge.

We planned a week at Tybee Island, a tiny barrier island down on the Georgia coast that I’m sure is booming in summer. In December, it’s quiet as a tomb. And that’s exactly what we were looking for.

The last couple of years have been a real whirlwind. I’ve done some things I’m really proud of (like starting a publishing company called Blue Crow with one of my dearest friends). But it’s also been a really stressful time that often felt like a life-size game of Jenga. (“Let’s keep pulling out pieces and see when Lauren crumbles!”) I took on too many projects, didn’t say “no” often enough, and ended up feeling overwhelmed 99% of the time.

One day I told my fella I was afraid I was becoming a workaholic. He said in his calm, non-confrontational, kind Midwestern way: “Well, you do stare at your screen until the moment you go to bed.”

So that cinched it. I planned a week away for us. Loosely planned, mind you. We’re two people who don’t need a vacation agenda. We don’t leave with a bullet list. We just go someplace that sounds interesting that has some things we haven’t seen before–and we seek out some stillness.

Stillness is something I’ve needed for a long time. I used to find it when I worked for the National Park Service. Most days I could go about my ranger duties and find some quiet in my tasks: trails that needed upkeep, elk that needed monitoring, remote campgrounds that needed surveying. It was a long drive sometimes, from one outpost to another, but that meant a drive along the Parkway when it was bursting with fall color, or a hike on a remote trail that needed a little TLC. Sometimes on my walks I’d stand still and watch leaves fall all around me like snow. Or listen to elk bugle in the meadow, or listen to the rippling stream under the footbridge where I stood. I felt closer to the earth, grounded, like I belonged there, too.

Now I have to go out of my way to get that feeling. I leave my office to take short walks. I sit out on the deck and listen to the twittering cardinals and nuthatches. I keep my bird feeders full so there’s always a crowd. I plant flowers and try to keep them alive, because it feels good to have my hands in the dirt.

While on Tybee, we took walks every day. We wandered along the beach at low tide, watching the sandpipers. We ambled through town by the lighthouse and the battery. And then we found a little park with a trail that wound through the shrubs and the live oaks, a curtain of Spanish moss overhead.

And in that park, we came across a Great Blue Heron wading in a pond. We followed the path towards him, quiet as cats, and stopped when we were about ten yards away. I’d never seen one so close before. I could see the different shades of blue in his feathers, the tiny crest on his head that flapped like a cowlick in the breeze. The heron stood still as a statue, and we did, too, inching as close as we could without disturbing him.

It felt good to find that stillness again. To savor that moment and think only of that long-legged bird and its patience, escaping from the cacophony that lives inside my head most days. Most days, my head feels like a pinball machine, a dozen different thoughts banging around in my skull, pinging and colliding and competing for my attention. My to-do list feels like it stretches through two time zones. The high-priority tasks are daunting. The hours seem short and the days seem few. During my commute, I try to piece together my free hours, trying to find the most efficient way to use them, plan how to squeeze as many tasks as I can into my remaining hours before bedtime. And the next day, I do it all over again.

My month-long “vacation” has emerged as a time where I can play catch-up. I’m writing a book. Editing two more. (That all sounds like work, you’re thinking. And you’re right. It is.) But I’m also carving out time to read books for fun, and try painting again, and do some things that let me quiet my mind so I can tell myself I do not have to be a workaholic. It’s always been hard for me to find balance—I fling myself into a new project and get completely consumed by it, and feel like I don’t have time to do leisurely things like read books and do yoga. But I have to do those things, because they are the balance, and they quiet my brain. They are the stillness.

I was lucky the heron allowed me to get so close to him, to watch for a few minutes, and remember what solitude and stillness feel like. I’m even luckier to have a fella who was happy to take a moment to escape with me to the quiet place—because I know not everyone would stand there for a full ten minutes and watch a bird with me. But sometimes I think the world might be a kinder place if we all took a few minutes each day to seek that healing stillness.