When I started to write this column last week, I was on fire about the underreported near bombing of a North Carolina airport. My Queen Anne book club had just read The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan centered on two families affected by a bomb detonated in a Delhi shopping area, so the topic was freshly on my mind. After the North Carolina incident, I wanted to write about our attitude toward terrorism and the lack of acknowledgement that it happens in our country as well. And that the perpetrators of incidents on U.S. soil are more often white men than Islamic extremists.
That led me to think about the racism that pervades our country from the top down. About the NFL players’ protest and the debate around it. Where to begin? Where to end?
The topics swirled around in my head and made me angry and frustrated. I could not get a foothold on any of it.
Maybe I should write about the mayoral race, I thought. I am stunned that so many are unaware of the two candidates and their positions on issues affecting our city. This is an important election for Seattle with the number of people moving here, traffic congestion, homelessness and the lack of affordable housing for so many. Local elections are vital given what is going on in “the other Washington.” Every time I open a website or a newspaper I am reminded of that sorry situation.
I stood up and stretched, annoyed in general, but mostly with myself, with my inability to focus. I went up to the cockpit with my coffee and looked around. It was a magnificent fall day. The rain had cleaned the air the night before and the golden slant of the sun flattered everything it lit upon. I breathed in the fresh air, and watched the water birds darting about. So beautiful, so rich, so lovely.
And then I remembered the words of Thomas Merton that I once had tacked on the wall of my office.
“…The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. …”
So true! I grabbed my thick, Irish sweater and went for a walk. The sun was still warm, but the wind brought with it an invigorating crispness. Puget Sound was alive with whitecaps and wind surfers. Yellow and red leaves covered the dark, damp ground. I watched busy little squirrels getting ready for what was coming. I was aware of the coolness on the outer rim of my nostrils as I inhaled and focused on my gratitude for this beautiful fall day.
There is so much work to be done. So much that needs changing. And we have our personal challenges: financial missteps, struggling children, marital stress, health problems, work pressures. It can be overwhelming. And it can take over our lives and cause us to miss out on what is happening around us.
It can’t be helped. We must deal with things that come our way. But it does not have to be to the exclusion of an occasional break to look, to see, to appreciate, to find the calm in the center of our hearts. As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem, When Death Comes,
“When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
There is time for all of it, but let’s not forget, especially during this beautiful season, this “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” so beautifully described by John Keats in his Ode to Autumn, that we have been given a beautiful world to live in. From time to time, we need to step away and give ourselves permission to just be in this life, in this world, to interact with a stranger, to stare at a vista, to know that the season has begun.
IRENE PANKE HOPKINS (irenehopkins.com) is a freelance essayist and writer. Recent work has appeared in Real Simple, 48° North and on the website, Better After 50.