Thoughts: Of Swamps and Pathways

blackwater swamp.JPG

The picture was taken at the edge of the Blackwater Swamp in Surry County, Virginia. It’s the kind of place you’d drive by and think of as one of nature’s bywaters, dead logs fallen down, murky black water, dead leaves and moss. It looks like, in passing, a dead place. A place to pass by at sixty miles an hour and barely register.

I love the Blackwater Swamp. When I was a boy, I would spend some time each summer at my grandfather’s home, and at the end of a summer’s day, we would walk back to the mill pond a mile or so into the woods, or slip into the swamp to go fishing.

I hate fishing. But I loved going into the swamp. I love going into that dead, complicated mess of a place and in the stillness, watching it come alive.

Because there is life there. In fact, it is teeming with life. Fish. Insects. Birds. Muskrats and beavers. Sit in one place for an hour or few and you find this fascinating, beautiful, magical place. Go there again and again and you see the seasons. You see the moss grow and ebb with the patterns of rain and dryness. You see the trees in their cycle of green, color and death. You see how nothing is wasted. Even the dead things are part of the life. This dark, forbidden looking place begins to make sense as you absorb the patterns of life.

But only if you give it time.

Giving things time comes naturally to me. I am a waiter. Not the kind who brings you your coffee at the end of a night out at the local restaurant, but the kind who waits and watches.

Don’t get me wrong. When needed, I can leap into something, deal with a crisis or an unexpected event. My brain can, when needed, think and act as fast as the next guy. But that is not my nature. No, my nature is to sit on the fringes and listen and learn. To see the patterns or people and places and organizations.

People can put up fronts for a short while. It’s pretty easy. Once, as a teenager, I found myself riding my bike through the campus of the University of Richmond. I was fresh out of my high school French exam and somehow (I am terrible, terrible, terrible at languages) had passed the day before. French was still rattling around in my head. I stopped for a moment at the lake in the center of campus and a couple of students said hi.

Don’t ask me why. (Sometimes I do the dumbest things.), but without a blink, I pretended to be a French exchange student, mixing English with French and using my best, just out of French Class accent.

I am sure I was terrible, but they fell for it, and for about twenty minutes, I carried it off. And then I left and rode away, laughing at myself and the whole situation. Five more minutes and I am sure I would have been exposed as a complete fraud.

Yeah, people and organizations can keep up the act for a bit. But sit and watch long enough and you tend to get the truth of them.

I learn the same way. Throw stuff at me about a subject and I flounder a while. It’s all just random facts and thoughts and it takes some time for me to see the patterns of a thing. It all whirls around for a while and I let it. Eventually, things start to fall into place.

It may or may not be the best way to do things. But it has worked for me. I’ve built three businesses that way. I’ve stumbled through college, an MA and a D. Div that way. i am figuring out my marriage that way. (fortunately, the woman I love is patient with me.).

I have this odd idea that it’s generally better to let people be who and what they are, and work within that to move forward. Round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square holes. But often people and organizations present one way at first and it takes time to figure out what shape peg they are.

Last night over pizza and soup (white bean and spinach) the woman I love and I mapped out a potential project we have been talking loosely for months. She is an amazing source of information and has been tossing out facts and organizations and ideas and in conversation after conversation and it was all so much that I wasn’t doing a good job of seeing the big picture.

So last night we sat down as we ate and I drew it out as we talked. I began to see the linkages and how different pieces of the puzzle fit together. I began to see a path to getting things done. It was no longer this vague nebulous concept, but a project that made sense. It came alive.

It is easy to say that I should have done that at the beginning when we first began to talk about the project. But I don’t think I would have taken it in the same way. I’ve lived and listened and watched and let the project find it’s own life in my head. No pre-conceived notions, but instead I had time to see and understand the nature of the beast, the processes, the parts and pieces. It became a thing on its own terms, just as Blackwater Swamp does when you just sit and watch.

The problem of course, is that often when you sit and watch, you look like you are doing nothing.  Thinking is not action. Thinking doesn’t show it’s results for a time. But for me, if I let the process that is part and parcel of how I work, actually work, things come together and once I see the path, or the person, or the way, I can act and work efficiently, crazy efficiently.

It’s just not the way most people work. We’re too intent on action, movement, visible progress. Doing.

My favorite scripture is Psalm 46:10. “Be still and know I am God.”. I believe that verse can be revised for many things in life.

  • “Be still, and know thyself.”
  • “Be still and know deeply the ones you love”
  • “Be still and the path will show itself.”
  • “Be still and the creative spirit will find you.”
  • “First be still, and success will catch up with you.”.

Stillness does not come easy to us. We are a nation of doers. And I am not saying not to do. Not at all. Being still is only the first step. But without the first step, we stumble.

Or at least I do.

Thankful for the patience of the people who love me,