Last weekend, warm weather gave me a perfect excuse to rake leaves. Minnesota doesn’t always gather in the gorgeous in late October. Red, orange, and yellow leaves dappled the blue sky. I raked a little, walked the dog, and visited with neighbors. I took a friend in rehab out in his wheelchair for a change of scene from the drab hospital room where he wrestles with wintry thoughts.
Breathing in the best autumn offers while our minds wander to darker days is like living in two time zones. We experience the delight of perfect weather, but in the back of our minds the cold voice of January reminds us “this won’t last; prepare yourself for something much less pleasant.” We mentally leave the present and inhabit a future filled with worry.
I don’t fully buy the “live in the present” mantra that underlines the mindfulness movement. In only one situation do I fully live in the present without my mind toggling through time; since this is a PG community newspaper and I am a chaplain, I won’t elaborate. I will say that living more fully in the present challenges our spirits as we age and decline. The places our minds wander which evoke anxiety are almost always defined by uncertainty. My friend wonders aloud if he will always be confined to the wheelchair. It’s a fair question, one I can’t answer. “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain wisdom of heart,” says the Psalmist. We don’t know the number, only that our days will be limited, and we know worry will not add more to our allotted sum.
Which is why we must let go of “How long?” Because jetting ahead to the future or regretting the lost past robs us of the circadian joy of glorious autumn.
I’m not suggesting if the tables were turned, I would not also be wondering if I would ever walk again. In my friend’s situation, I would likely have fallen in a black hole. It’s ok with me if he asks every doctor and physical therapist their opinions of his prognosis and his options for recovery. He has every right to feel angry and frustrated.
I am suggesting that he has more power to experience happiness. When he obsesses about living in a precarious, uncertain future, he misses joy now. I know. Easier said than done.
Noticing our thoughts and when our mind ventures into another time zone takes practice. We spend so much time traveling the past or the future, these transitions seem normal. Noticing, and then consciously letting go of these thoughts are worthy goals. Imagine when an anxious thought about the future bubbles up; take that thought, place it on a boat in the mind’s river, and let the boat float away.
In A Cry for Mercy, Henri Nouwen wrestled with these questions. He lived part of 1979 with the Trappist Monks at the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. Instead of keeping a diary, he wrote a prayer each day. Here’s part of his contemporary psalm for May 10th:
“Dear Lord, in the midst of much inner turmoil and restlessness, there is a consoling thought: maybe you are working in me in a way I cannot yet feel, experience or understand. My mind is not able to concentrate on you, my heart is not able to remain centered, and it seems as if you are absent and have left me alone. But in faith I cling to you. I believe that your Spirit reaches deeper and further than my mind or heart, and that profound movements are not the first to be noticed.”
Letting go of future uncertainty frees us. It frees us to feel the breeze on our cheeks. It frees us to notice vibrant leaves, to hear their fading crackle under our feet, and to smell their organic decay as we rake.