Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds: Empowering our Children with Ways to Protect the Environment while Cultivating the Earth

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Art of Engagement

When I read the following lines in Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge, I nearly dropped the book:

“‘We choose to be occupied, which is quite different from being engaged. In America, time is money. In Kenya, time is relationship. We look at investments differently.’”

These words, spoken by Williams’s Kenyan friend, Wangari Waigwa-Stone, resound with the same contemplative, spiritual perspective that runs throughout Terry Tempest’s book. So why did these words, in particular, so powerfully affect me? I think the answer is, simply, because I am stressed out and longing for the sort of calm, quiet self-awareness that Waigwa-Stone and Williams share, for the state of being “engaged” that Waigwa-Stone describes.
In general, I feel so busy that everything, even the things I love, become chores. I am so over committed that I spend about twice as much time fulfilling my extracurricular duties, facilitating meetings and emailing administrators and practicing my cello and running; as I do completing my homework—which means that, even as I am playing a beautiful Bach cello suite, I am pondering in the back of my head how much work I have to do before I can go to sleep that night (and so you can imagine the quality of my musical interpretation.) I have to block out thirty-minute phone dates in order to hear my boyfriend’s voice streaming at me from Rhode Island; actually seeing him is rare. I struggle to find time to spend with my friends; and when I do allow myself to go out on the weekends I find myself suffering the consequences during the week as I scramble to write papers the nights before they are due.
And so when I read Refuge, I envied Terry Tempest Williams’s peaceful wisdom and seemingly simple life. As Williams describes, the suffering of her mother and the environmental destruction of the rising Great Salt Lake are difficult to bear; I do not envy her these experiences, of course. But I am jealous of her ability to process these terrible life events in a wise and measured way, spending days gazing at birds and thinking, and writing, and having long conversations with her loved ones. Williams has the time to ponder the meaning of the pain around her, and so she is able to emerge from it, ultimately, as a better and more “engaged” person.
Clearly, and thankfully, my life is not in such a state of crisis as Williams’s was when she wrote this book. But nonetheless, I want, and, really, need the kind of passionate engaged-ness that exemplifies Williams. When I am so busy, as I am now, my activities lose their worth.
For example: I have recently began to play the cello again after quitting for two years because I felt like I’d lost a part of my birthright and my self in quitting. My father is a professional musician and I grew up with my mother singing me to sleep every night, so for me it seems like music is in my blood. For me, to not play is a crime against myself. But when I’m in the midst of a stressful week, finding the time to practice is nearly impossible, and rather than enjoying the time I spend with a bow in hand, I find myself cursing my bad intonation (which is only bad because I have not had enough time to practice) and worrying that I should be doing my homework, instead.
And when I am doing work for my club, BarnardEarth, I find myself in an uncomfortable mode of self-consciousness. I think partly because I am not well-connected to the root reasons driving my involvement, I become preoccupied with an anxious over-awareness of how I seem to people when I am in a leadership position. Surely this impairs my relationship with the other club members and the administrators we work with.
In general, I feel “occupied” rather than “engaged.” I know the solution to this problem. It is simple: do less. But I want to do everything I am doing so badly. It all means so much to me, so so much; I don’t want to give up BarnardEarth, the cello, my tutoring, my writing work, or any of the things I spend my time on.
Yet something tells me that Terry Tempest Williams would tell me this is an unsustainable attitude. And if I envy her relative serenity so much, perhaps I would do well to imitate her. Perhaps I should spend a long time talking to my mother this weekend, and take a long walk, and look at the birds.

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