Heartland: Not Waiting to Exhale

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Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
--Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell

I am lucky to have the luxury of a precious window of time for waiting and dreaming and letting life unfold. I listen to the birds, feel the wind on my cheek and watch it ruffle the leaves. These days it seems that everywhere I go I see hummingbirds, emblems of joy and transformation.

My journey into timelessness began with two weeks on the Colorado River, traveling through the Grand Canyon at the water's pace with a group of old and new friends. Dropping down into the eons of rock that stand witness to the transience of human life, we saw metaphors in the flow, the rapids, and the back eddies of the river. Days and nights of astonishing beauty blurred into each other, strung together by transcendent moments of contentment and delight.

We became a community of mystics, artists, and naturalists, each day further dissolving the boundaries dividing us from each other and from the natural world.

The area's oldest layer of rock, the Vishnu Schist, dates back some 1.7 billion years. It is called metamorphic rock because it was forced from the center of the earth to the surface by tectonic plate shifts and made solid by heat and pressure.

I'd like to think that I'm undergoing a similar metamorphosis. For the first time since my oldest son was born 25 years ago, I am remarkably free of external concerns. I'm no longer running a company; I have no agendas to advance; I am separated from my husband; and I have only one remarkably independent son, with whom I share an easy compatibility, still at home full time.

In place of the coordinates I've navigated my life around is a freedom that is sometimes breathtaking, after all these years of feeling responsible for so many other people's daily well-being. I feel like a newborn with a startle reflex--disoriented out in the big world without the familiar constraints of a womb.

I'm understanding why swaddling an infant in a blanket is reassuring, as I find myself bewildered by the most basic questions: What are my natural rhythms? Do I get up at 7:00 as I did this morning, or 5:30 as I did yesterday, or 9:30 like the day before? And then how do I organize my day? Now that I don't have an office to go to, where do I sit to read or write? What, as the poet Mary Oliver asks, will I do now with my 'one wild and precious life'?

I'm learning about letting things happen rather than trying to make them happen, learning to listen for what is true for me and what makes me happy rather than trying to divine how to affect others so that they can make me happy. I'm discovering that what is the right action for me may be misunderstood and won't necessarily please others. I'm learning that it's not my job to live other people's lives for them--it's enough to live my own fully.

This breathing space is a quiet oasis in what has been a rather driven, overflowing life. Taking time to breathe is both literal and figurative. In the space of a few days, three sources pointed me toward the importance of a full exhalation. The idea is that when we focus on completing the out-breath, the in-breath takes care of itself. And as we learn to trust the next breath, we learn to extend that trust to the next step, the next hour, the next right action arising. In this process I have observed that I have a habit of holding my breath two-thirds of the way through exhaling, pausing in the stale certainty of the old, holding back the future.

So that is my practice these days: emptying out what no longer helps me grow and placing my faith in the unknown. That and keeping my eyes open for hummingbirds.


Nina Rothschild Utne is Utne Reader's editor at large.