I’ve been a Quaker for 20 years now, ever since my daughter was born and I realized that, sure enough, there is a Divine in the universe and I wanted to learn how to live in its light. I find transcendent meaning in the story of Jesus’ life and teachings, although I remain lingeringly skeptical of the institutions they spawned. My attendance at Meeting has been non-existent for the years since I started working on Sundays but I still consider myself a Quaker, and still attempt to live a life based on the classic Friends’ notions of simplicity, truthtelling and peace. I have felt the Divine move in a group of attentive Friends, and I have felt it move within myself; that community has a place in it for me when I am finally able to return.
Until then, though, I find my worship where it finds me, and those experiences have been very powerful, not least because they appear unbidden. I experienced one today, unexpectedly, and it has left me feeling changed. Here’s what happened: I did not go for a run this morning, and planned instead to go for a walk during a particularly long and historically tedious phone meeting; my plan was thrown into disarray by epic thunderstorms and a tornado watch at the appointed time. I felt disappointment and frustration creep into my mind and set up shop. With a tight work schedule and a tendency to run out of energy by dinnertime, I could see my one attempt at self-nurture for the day going to naught. I felt cranky and embittered and put-upon. The meeting was even more circular and tendentious than usual, all 120 minutes of it. The subsequent meeting was a steady drone of tedium punctuated only by searing pangs of futility. Working from home has its merits, but one incontrovertible downside is that the array of Better Things To Do is always immediately present when professional delights start to pall. It took everything I had to avoid silently slipping the headset from my ear and flinging the whole electronic kaboodle into the nearest toilet, only a few yards away.
When at last I was released from the phone, it was still half an hour (well, an hour) before closing time. I stared in belligerent apathy at the laptop, which stared blandly back at me. We had nothing to say to each other. I felt the slow roil of frustration in my belly, and instead of gritting my teeth again, I suddenly gave in. The rain had stopped, I knew from the radar forecast that a window of meteorological calm was opening, so I shut down the computer, grabbed the phone and some earbuds and headed for the door, pausing only to lace on a pair of sneakers.
“Jumping offline to run an errand, my phone is on.” Due diligence to my boss complete, I was good to go. Under grey but clearing skies, I set out along my usual 5-mile route, feeling the muscles ache and stretch with the motion, stiff and reluctant after yesterday’s long run. It took a mile for the tension to start to ease. I could feel my inner coils start to relax, the flood of staccato thoughts easing into a gentle ebb and flow. The frustration at other people’s deficiencies, the self-doubt about my own competence, the overarching sense of impeded progress, of being bottlenecked by constraints beyond my control began finally to let up as my breathing evened out. My lover, en route between meetings himself, called and we talked for a while, easy and intimate together in the near-sunshine. The rhythm of my footfalls began to match the cadence of my breath after about two miles, and the abrasions of the day began to fade. After the phone call I switched to music, a treat I only indulge in when I’m walking, not running. It was a record I grew up with, words so deeply familiar that every syllable is as much remembered as heard. The sky was clear and achingly blue, the air humid and warm, the clouds dispersing in ever-lightening clusters of buoyant, gleaming white.
I was out in the country now, as far from home as I could be. A soybean field stretched to my right, an empty 5 or 6-acre patch filled with scrub trees and underbrush to my left as I stepped out briskly, heading downhill with the sun on my face. The old songs rang in my ears, old folk songs in 3/4 time, and I suddenly felt transported with joy. The music, familiar as my own name, combined with the peaceful, silent radiance of being alone in the warm summer air, and I felt my feet start to dance. I felt joyously untethered, floating above the earth on an updraft of sunshine and music, and at the same time I felt suffused with discrete, sensory details that grounded me in the moment with no sense of time passing: my feet, sure and steady in their shoes, the salty sheen of sweat on my bare arms, the call-and-response of bird and insect from field to thicket and back again. I recognized no specific thoughts, no judgment I was aware of an enormous upwelling of joy, so strong and poignant that my mind created its own images of myself weeping and dancing rapturously in the middle of that sunny country road. I walked on as though in a blissed-out trance, conscious only of the intensity and boundlessness of my joy, for perhaps another mile. I was aware of it, celebrating it with every step and every breath, letting myself swim in it, drown in it, be subsumed by it. And then, of course, it faded, but gradually, with no sense of loss or sorrow. The world resumed its normalcy, my senses regained their boundaries, my heart and mind slipped easily, smoothly into their accustomed rhythms. I walked on home, wrapped in the peaceful afternoon, changed into someone just a little different than I had been.
These moments, these unexpected anointings of grace, are why we keep on trying. They know no creed or doctrine, these inexplicable openings of joy, they simply are. We are designed to feed from them as surely as we are designed to eat and drink and sleep. Joy teaches us that we are one with the world and with each other, gives us the courage to press onward or to let go, as is best for us. Joy is where worship aims to take the faithful, but it is equally available to believer and nonbeliever alike. Human beings are made for joy; the work ahead of us is simply to be awake and available to it when it calls our name.
©Mary Braden 2015