Going away for 40 days! As regular readers of this blog will remember, in late November, our family went away for 40 days, embarking on a six-week journey around the country. We turned off our computers, packed our bags, celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas and Penny’s 14th birthday, and now we are home. Home to ballet, basketball, dirty laundry and dirty dishes, homework and bills to pay. Home to friends, family, familiarity, and the stark beauty of a New England winter.
In the upcoming weeks, I’ll share thoughts about our 40 days away, including our Civil Rights tour through Louisiana and Alabama, our visits to six different churches on the Sundays of our trip, and our week as a family of five in a 24x12x10 foot recreational vehicle exploring national parks.
But for today, I’m looking back on our experience of going away for 40 days through the lens of four things I learned that might be helpful for all of us as we look ahead to 2020:
1. I am still me, wherever I go.
I am a goal setter, and heading off for this trip was no exception. I wrote down goals for the average amount of alcohol I would consume each week and how much I wanted to run and how often I wanted to pray. I wrote down rules like “no french fries.” I had similar structures for the kids—questions to reflect on in their journals, rules about how many Cupcake Diary books the girls could read before turning to something I deemed more substantial, expectations for Penny and William around the newfound ability to text friends and family during our 40 days away.
The truth is, even with the stated goal, and even with the time and space to implement it, I ate a lot of french fries. I consumed more wine than I said I would. I got fidgety while trying to experience contemplative prayer. I got anxious every day that we moved from one place to another. In other words, no matter where I am, I take me with me. The good news was, I had more time and space to see myself (and those around me), love myself (and those around me), and begin to learn what it might look like to change and grow.
2. Love happens in proximity.
During the time we were on the road, we lived in hotel rooms, an Airbnb with no walls (a loft in Los Angeles), and an RV. We ate almost every meal together. If I wanted “quiet time” to read or pray, I needed to put in headphones to signal that I was unavailable. We confronted the annoying things about one another day in and day out, with no place to retreat.
For example, William hates it when Penny cracks her knuckles. Penny hates it when William hums. They yelled at each other about these habits until Marilee finally came up with a solution: “Every time Penny cracks her knuckles, William gets to hum a song. And vice versa.”
Being so close together and spending so much time together meant either being irritated with Penny for taking longer than anyone else to get ready, or choosing to love her and feeling grateful for a little more time. It meant either doubting Peter’s ability to plan for the National Park portion of our trip or trusting him with it. It meant critiquing myself at every additional french fry or giving myself grace.
Uninterrupted time and space forced us to choose whether to be repulsed by each other or to love each other, and the lack of pressure meant that most of the time we could choose love.
3. Hearts and souls whisper.
I was able to spend every day with at least an hour, if not two or three, with some combination of prayer, reading, and contemplation. I practiced the Ignatian examen, scanning through each day and asking myself where I experienced the presence and goodness of God and where and when I felt far away from that goodness.
Over time, I began to notice things. I noticed how hard I can be on myself. I noticed how critical and judgmental I can be of other people. I noticed how worried I can become over simple things. I noticed how much I depend on food and drink to regulate my mood.
I also noticed that I love being outside, and that I love learning. I noticed my longing to connect with other thinkers who are pursuing God’s healing work in the world. I noticed the different ways our children laugh. I noticed the trees in their simple, diverse beauty.
And through it all, I heard whispers. Slow and simple. Be. Love. My heart and soul, and the voice of the Spirit, only emerge with time, and space, and quiet.
4. We get to be a part of something small and local and meaningful.
It was a gift to get away. I want to continue to practice slowing down with short periods of time every day, with intentional Sabbath time every week, and with regular times of retreat. I want to visit more national parks, more cities, more museums. But what I also learned from being away is how important it is to be home.
We learned about the injustices and abuses of slavery and Jim Crow and mass incarceration in Louisiana and Alabama. But how am I going to respond to ongoing injustice and economic and educational disparities in Connecticut?
We went to churches that represented five different denominations in five different cities. It was beautiful to see the ties that hold together progressive and conservative, praise songs and hymns, liturgy and spontaneous prayer. But the place where we can experience the transformative work of the Holy Spirit is in our local church.
We got a greater appreciation for the grandeur of the earth when we visited Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. We saw wind farms and solar arrays and recycling systems in Southern California, more advanced than anything where we live. But the way we can steward our resources well is by protecting and preserving the land nearby and advocating for environmentally conscious policies in our backyard.
A Glimpse of Our World
We only caught a glimpse of a big, wide, wonderful world in our 40 days away.
That glimpse was enough to fill me with gratitude for all we have been given, not just in the vastness of creation, but also in the small corner of that vastness that we call home. It was enough to give me a vision of who I want to keep becoming: a person who listens to the gentle, quiet voice of love and allows that love to lead me every step of the way.