rising to the occasion

when our children were very young my husband and i began taking them to a monthly ecumenical prayer service at a local college that happened at 7:30 on the first friday of every month, year round. in the winter we’d drive, through storms, up the hill, past the law school, and navigate the dark, wet walk from the parking lot trying to shake the feeling that staying home would have been so much cozier. in the spring we’d notice the laughing students headed out for much rowdier evening fare and have to remind ourselves that making our way to the sanctuary would feel rewarding once we were in it. every time we made our way through the front door,  we’d see the hundreds of candles up front, smell the musty realness of the building, feel the slippery cold marble against soles of our shoes, and be greeted by the hosts with whispered welcomes and hearty hugs and know, in our guts, that we were in exactly the right place.

the first time we entered those doors the few assembled guests looked at us like we were crazy. this was a prayer service. a long one. with many songs sung in latin. over. and over. and over again. between the songs there was silence. a lot of it. in a room with not a single element to absorb extraneous sounds. this was not a place for children. what were we thinking? and yet, the four of us sat through that first service in complete awe. we each noticed different aspects of the hour. the flickering candles reflected in the gleaming marble. the scent of the incense. the sound of voices repeating phrases until they melted into a harmonic almost trance inducing soundtrack. silence. 

for much of our kids’ growing up lives that monthly together time was a significant part of our individual and corporate routines. while there were certainly times we weren’t in attendance as a foursome, more often than not, we all gravitated to this space which fed us in unique and deep ways. because connor and kaija knew what to expect this had become a part of their rhythm. they knew that they could get something out of the time if they simply gave themselves to it rather than waiting for it to end. sometimes they would bring colored pencils and sketch books, other times they’d lean against us or each other and close their eyes to day dream or nap. typically, on the way home, we’d feel closer, more connected, and they would mention feeling akin to grounded lightness. regularly, the songs we’d sung that night would come up throughout the month as sources of encouragement or comfort. 

a few weeks ago i found a bulletin from one of those evenings several years back. according to the date on the sheet, our kids were in 6th and 8th grade and we had brought friends whose kids were in 4th and 1st grades. while we had prepped our friends’ kids for the evening, it’s hard for people to understand just how silent and sacred a huge marble former abbey can feel when it’s lit with so many candles and filled with so many people. the bulletin belied the experience of our friends’ kids. every inch of the paper not printed with text was filled with penciled notes between these girls and kaija. “this is sooooooooooo boring” wrote the 4th grader. “when will we be out of here?” she penciled near by. “soon” wrote kaija. “draw a picture during this song.” in another corner she wrote, “it only seems long now. later you’ll feel like it wasn’t that long.” tic tac toe games peppered other free spaces and goofy drawings others still. at the bottom of the back page kaija wrote, “almost there. way to go!”

when i was growing up my parents presented me with options to do what i think of as “rising to the occasion.” i recall lectures that they took my brother and me to where we were the only people under 30 in the room. we sat through church with them. they took us to restaurants where kids didn’t normally dine. they expected us to be able to handle being bored, sitting still, and to learn to be comfortable in a variety of settings. they also respected us and our real selves. they brought things for us to do quietly when appropriate. they didn’t ask more of us than they knew we could handle (the lecture was 45 minutes long, church an hour once a week, and there were plenty of opportunities for us to be embodied and otherwise engaged elsewhere in our lives). they engaged us in smart conversation and also let us chose the subject matter. 

there was a certain sense of capability that i developed from these experiences. i felt as though i was able to get through times that were less than stimulating. i grew to love getting to be among interesting grown ups and given that i’d had experience with such i knew how to be in those settings. i developed an appreciation for silence and stillness and the commensurate skill to navigate times filled with both not because i was so great at it or naturally inclined in these ways. rather, i was offered opportunities to practice. to tolerate. to learn.

i am noticing more and more that we have fewer and fewer natural opportunities to learn  the skills of sitting still, being mindful/thoughtful, tolerating boredom, and, even, doing one thing at a time. why attend a continuing education workshop in person when you can do so online and mulit task through it? why have our children sit through a service with us when “children’s church” is so much more fun? why make a phone call when a text can get me an answer without all the need for “hellos” and “how are yous?” and other “extraneous-ness?” why sit still, be bored, on uni-task when we don’t have to?

for me, i find it important to ask myself to rise to the challenge of doing so. the more i ask myself to focus, to do one thing at a time, to sit in a restaurant not looking at my phone, waiting for my meal or to attend a continuing education workshop sans my computer i develop new abilities. i enter into the material (or the meal or the relationships with those around me) more deeply. my senses become more highly attuned. i settle down and synthesize more. my experiences take on a richness i might otherwise miss. most basically, i find out i am capable. i can think and taste and tolerate.  i can wrestle (with information or tastes or conversations or people that are new). i don’t need to be entertained or distracted by devices at all times. i am able to regulate my emotions and ask myself to tolerate discomfort and fidgety-ness and awkwardness. to get through these feelings in order to get to the profoundly rewarding place of feeling able to be present. no matter what.

and so i challenge those of you who would like to feel like more capable, competent humans to ask yourself to rise to the occasion. to learn to be quiet. bored. still. to practice these skills and master them. once you’ve developed some stillness/boredom/self soothing muscle, i beg you to look for the spaces in your life and routine where you might invite children, adolescents, or young adults to practice the ability to rise to the occasion. to handle silence. to tolerate boredom. to learn to sit (reasonably) still. and to learn to feel that you, and they, are enough.

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