September has been an interesting month in my household, at least in the sense of the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." My husband, Richard, and I were due to spend to two weeks in a remote cabin in the San Juan Mountains, where we had been awarded a joint artist/writer retreat. Instead he landed in the hospital in Denver after he begin seeing birds–thousands of them–on our way to the cabin. There were birds everywhere: birds as tiny as house flies perched on every blade of grass and pebble, birds crowded every fence rail and utility wire, birds are large as condors appeared on distant ridge tops. He watches birds, and these were benign, so he wasn't troubled. I was: they weren't real.
Turned out he was experiencing what was probably a viral infection causing life-threatening swelling in the right frontal lobe of his brain, the area that processes visual stimuli. As I was trying to digest our swift transit from long-anticipated-retreat-in-a-remote-mountain-cabin to husband-in-the-hospital-with-swelling-of-the-brain, a friend, the novelist Jane Kirkpatrick, wrote something in an email triggered one of those "Aha!" moments, shifting my understanding in a subtle but profound way:
"This occurrence took you from your lovely cabin in the aspen grove, but sent you where you could receive what you need."
When I first read Jane's words, I was startled. Then I realized she was right. The events of late August, distressing as they were, did indeed send Richard and I to where we could receive what we need, both literally and metaphorically.
By that, I don't mean to say Richard "needed" the health issue that landed him in a Denver hospital for most of a week.
But he clearly did need to receive immediate and thoughtful medical attention, and he even needed the grueling battery of tests, the days in the hospital, and the subsequent course of treatment extending into the following weeks.
And I needed the chance to stop and reflect. Where the events that landed us in Denver instead of at the cabin in the aspen grove have sent me (at least in the metaphorical sense) is to pondering not how to get away on another residency, but how to make my every day life be more "residential" or "retreatful."
The busyness creeps in insidiously: just when I think I'm doing pretty well at staying balanced, I say "Yes" to one more deadline, one more speaking gig, one more teaching commitment, or one more kind of community involvement. Suddenly the days are cluttered with "shoulds" and I'm the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, running as fast as I can just to keep from losing ground.
The time tending to Richard's health crisis gave me enough distance to recognize that I want to make every day more like I'm on a writing residency, without leaving home.
As a start on that, I wrote up a short list of words to remind me of how I want to live and work and be:
I'm not planning on joining a religious order (I'm generally allergic to organizations and groups, especially when they involve meetings), but I do want my spirituality and my love for life to infuse my every day.
So the lesson I take from the writing residency that didn't happen is a strong message to consider how I'm organizing my life and find ways to make my days even more about doing what I love and believe in–being the change I want to see, in every moment.
That reminds me of one more word to add to my list of words to live by, perhaps the most important:
Here's my wish for your days: Live as if you've been given a precious gift, because you have–life. Use it thoughtfully, mindfully, reverently. With love.
And write your own list of words to live by.
P.S. Richard's recovering at home, and I'm grateful to have him with me. The birds, having delivered their message, are gone, and we're working on restoring the rhythms of our lives in mindful and retreatful ways.