Learning to Shut Up

We ran to the walk-in closet, hiding from her little sister. The giggles were absorbed in part by the leather shoes and fancy dresses, but they reverberated on the mirrored doors.

Still laughing I said, “Ssshhhh! We need to shut up!”

Her eyes froze at me, blinking wide. The clothes around us hung heavy, concealing us in. As a first grader, what I had just said counted as a bad word, at least in her family. She proceeded to tell me not to say the “s-word” again, especially not in front of her mom. I deflated, feeling awful, and spent the rest of the play date wondering if my friend still thought I was a nice person.

My family wasn’t the type to swear either, and shut up wasn’t necessarily something I picked up from them. But I had never been told it was a bad word, and it didn’t carry any negative connotation in my innocent brain.

I know now that we tell kids not to say this phrase because it is often used with a tone of animosity, and it isn’t a healthy expression of frustration at a young age.

But as an adult, saying “shut up” is a nonchalant occurrence. It means little harm, but it has also transformed in its meaning.

“Shut up” is a firm direction. It could be used harshly, but it can also be the strength of a loving command, made out of good intentions. As much as I try to be forgiving and kind to myself (see this post), there are also days when I need to be firm and tell myself to shut up.

I first noticed my tendency to talk too much when I began giving tours for the admissions office in college. To be fair, it was my job to talk a lot. But there is a delicate balance between blabbering out of pride and offering knowledge while still listening to the other.

Gradually, I learned how to focus on asking the prospective students questions and also allow enough silence for them to bring up the questions they really wanted to hear about. I cultivated a posture of listening first and speaking second.

This was lost when I moved to Seattle and didn’t have as many friends around to talk to. I joined a women’s young adult bible study, and quickly found myself blabbering every week, gushing with the excitement of a child who learned something new and wants to tell everyone with in earshot about it.

It was exciting to feel like I knew something they didn’t, simply because they hadn’t heard the campus pastor preach about this already like all of my college friends. I had unique knowledge, and I wanted to share it.

The voice inside me began to nudge, pointing out my habit of talking too much and listening too little. I noticed that I was thinking of my response instead of actually listening, interrupting others, and dominating the conversation. It was humbling to step back and realize I needed to shut up.

Thankfully this group of young women are all patient and kind, still accepting of me and my pompous mouth. As I began to shut up and listen more, I was able to recognize the wisdom that they each had to share. We were all recently graduated, newly employed, and altogether trying to figure out adult life. But even with these similarities, we all have unique backgrounds and histories that add valuable input to the conversation.

Once I had opened myself up to really hearing someone else, I was humbled to find I still had a lot to learn.

This is equally important in our relationship with God. Oswald Chambers wrote that “We have to get rid of the idea that we understand ourselves,” because “Jesus cannot teach us anything until we quiet all our intellectual questions and get alone with him.”

By over-talking and over-thinking, I create the false illusion that I know everything and I can figure everything out on my own. By shutting up, I am reminded of my foolishness in comparison to the great wisdom of God.

The truth is, I can’t ever fully know or solve my problems on my own. I need the wisdom of patient friends with different experiences. I need the wisdom of a God who understands the bigger picture. I need to shut up and be still.

The firmness of the words themselves usher me back to a hushed closet, a place of reverence and awareness. Shutting up doesn’t have to be negative, it can be about firmly redirecting one’s attention to what matters. The posture of listening is never permanent, we must fall on our knees again and again to relearn how to hear with our whole hearts.

Blogging every day for the last month is the opposite of shutting up, and that is ok because there is also a time when we need to speak out. However, I am grateful as this month comes to an end that I can return to a place of listening.

Writing requires me to have one ear to the world, one ear to God, and a heart that is willing to pour itself out on the page. Each one is important, but they need to work in conjunction, not in competition.

 Do you ever tell yourself to shut up?
How do you practice talking less and listening more?

Something of Mindlessness

The bench was divided into two sections, I occupied the left side closest to the sun. I took out my book, Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, and surrendered my to-do list to the blue sky and rippled water of Green Lake.

An older couple came and sat in the other half of the bench next to me. They never say a word. For twenty minutes they held hands, resting their heads together as they gaze at the water, or perhaps something beyond it. The man had a knit green cap, thick brown corduroy pants, and a brown flannel tucked into his shirt. He must run cold, because I was already flushed from the heat and everyone else in sight was wearing shorts. The woman wore faded jeans and a dusty purple sweater. They looked ready for a fall breeze, not the beginning of summer.

Eventually they stood up, without speaking, and began walking away with careful steps. They continued to hold hands as they walked, supporting each other with each slow movement.

I returned to my book.
 

I would like to learn, or remember how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. (pg 14)
 

A woman rushed up to me, her curly short hair fluffed by the wind, and asked if her daughter can sit next to me while she ran to the restroom. I looked behind her to see a timid girl with bright blonde hair. I smiled and said yes, that would be fine.

The girl was wearing black capris and a white shirt with rainbow gems along the collar. Her hair was pulled back in a long, buoyant ponytail. I asked her name—India. I asked her age—8. I asked if she was in school—second grade. She said she likes it, but she thinks spelling and math are kind of boring. Her mom returned and they too walked away hand in hand.

A bird pecked by, and every few steps it slowly puffed out, wings extending, making a noise that sounded like a text message alert. It flits away and I gaze back at the yellowed pages.
 

I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular…but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. (pg 15)
 

A man parked his bike near mine and sat on the other side of the back-to-back benches. He rested one arm over the top of the bench and huffed in controlled spurts.

Behind us on the walking path a man strummed sporadic cords on an off-tune guitar. He spoke at random:

“I was born in an espresso stand but raised by wolves.”
“Keep it down doggies, I’m trying to talk to the community.”
“Like most people I hate TV, except when I’m on it.”
“I would love to make a dollar today.”

My biker bench companion smirked at me, eyebrows raised—“So much for peace and quiet.” He hoisted his spandex clad body onto his bike. “Good luck with your novel or whatever.” And he rode away.

I had five more minutes before I had to go home and have dinner. The sun was slowly sinking to dance with the water in a mirage of metallic ripples. The bustle behind me continued, the bird resumed it’s notifications, and I finished the chapter.

We can live any way we want…The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity. (pg 16)

Green Lake sunset

When You Don’t Leave the House All Day

The car, the front door, and even shoes, are being neglected by me.
 
This summer has provided me with many days where I don’t need to leave the confines of my brother’s house (where he and my sister-in-law have been kind enough to let me crash for the summer) and instead cocoon myself into its barriers. The house itself is not overly large, so a day spent inside is mostly spent between one or two rooms. I wake up at the early, but not too early, hour of 7:00 am. A shower is sometimes in order, or maybe not, and a bowl of frosted shredded wheat gives me enough fiber to support an activity level I will barely reach. I also maintain some social contact when my boyfriend, my brother, and my sister-in-law return from working hard all day. It helps to not live alone in these situations.
 
Though there may be downsides to not leaving the house as often, I have gained many glimpses into the interior world, this place where full-time writers, stay-at-home parents, and my fellow unemployed spend so much time.
 
It is both a chasm and a bridge, a trap and a doorway. Loneliness does lurk in this place, and more exercise would probably be beneficial. But the lure of time alone gives my introverted self space to simply be, something many of us neglect. We live in a culture of doing, not being, where we could all probably benefit from days where we don’t leave the house. In the wise words of April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation):
 
Staying home all day also allows me to find gems like this.

Staying home all day also allows me to find gems like this. (courtesy of Buzzfeed)

 
In the past I would never embrace such a seemingly lazy perspective. I have always been a worker bee, more comfortable with overloaded schedules, long to-do lists, and a scurrying demeanor.
 
Ironically enough, over the course of the last year I have again and again felt God pressing me and drawing me back to this message:
“BE STILL, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
 
To fill my time indoors I’ve been reading a lot, and although I love reading, I must admit that in the past few years I rarely allowed myself the indulgence. Why? For the same reasons I didn’t watch a lot of TV, kept my busy bee schedule, and never crafted as much as my Pinterest boards suggest: because relaxation is a treat.
 
If there is one thing I’m bad at, it’s relaxing. Part of my goal for this summer was to learn how to do simply that: relax. It might seem like a funny concept, the need to learn how to relax, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone and our culture doesn’t teach it well. The word itself makes my back tense instinctively, it makes me grab for my phone to check my emails and the news and the weather and other things I’ve sanctioned as “productive.”
 
Relaxing is connected to being in the way that it requires us to release the parts of our lives that so often define who we are. What we do is what we are, or so it seems. But the truth is that I still exist, I can still be, without doing anything. What is even more amazing, is that God loves me that way. Once I remember that, I discover that by learning how to simply be, how to exist confidently in my identity as someone who is loved no matter what, my doing will gain greater strength from my being.
 
Learning to be still and relax reminds me to trust that God’s love is unconditional, it doesn’t depend on how much I do or don’t do. I think that’s the significance of the verse from Psalm 46, because being still requires us to know, not just hope or guess or question, the fact that God is truly a loving God.
 
Plus, what we often relegate to “down time” (as if it is beneath other more productive time) is more valuable than we give it credit for. One of the books I just finished, a set of essays by Jonathan Franzen, said that “the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.” How to be alone is related to how to just be, because when we are alone we must face our very being. The second thing reading does is illuminate what being looks like in relation to the world around us, because reading gives us compassion and empathy to understand others.
 
Spending a day entirely inside, exploring the corners of the house and the mind, I learn to appreciate the way the sun shines through the front window in the morning, the stubborn growth of a parched kitchen plant, and the elasticity of time itself. I might not have a long list of things I “accomplished” in concrete terms, but I can say that I pondered the world around me and considered my place of being within that world.
 
If it helps any of you out there still doubting the value of my staying inside all day, I also did the dishes. So there.
 
How do you feel when you don’t leave the house all day?
 
Is it hard for you to let yourself relax sometimes?

Be Still and Believe

You might have noticed that it’s been a good long while since I last posted. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I’m going to halt my incessant need to apologize and be honest: I needed this break, and I’m not going to be sorry about taking it. Truthfully I’m probably speaking to myself right now more than you, because you are probably much more forgiving of my not blogging than I am of myself.

 

Either way it has been a good month for me – one filled with lots of reflection and purposefully less doing.

I read this article today on Relevant Magazine’s website titled “The Question We Should Never Let Make or Break Us,” and it spurred me back to a courage I had temporarily lost, or maybe never even had. The article centers on the issue of how we let our jobs or what we do define who we are. This is incredibly common in our culture, and it is contrary to the radical idea of letting who we are simply be a definition in itself.

The writer, Rachel Dymski, said this:
         “I find myself fighting the battle, with others and within myself, to be something. We all do. But I’m learning that the way to this being is not by constant, distracted doing. And so, one by one, I let go of these trophies of doing, and find my heart is lighter than it was when I gripped to them so tightly.  My worth, it seems, was completely independent of these trophies all along.”
 

 
My whole life has been filled with this kind of identity, where my trophies of doing defined who I was. First, I was a dancer, because for thirteen years that’s what I did day in and day out. Next, I was a leader in our student government, doing all I could to be someone who made a difference. Then, I was a college student, who was thus defined by what I did in terms of study: English and Communications major. Now, I have faced all of these things, and have still found my identity incomplete. Why?