On getting to know the Sirens

“You are worried and distracted by many things.” The words have dogged me for decades. Jesus addressed them to Martha when she tried to triangulate him into settling her disagreement with Mary about some after-dinner chores (Luke 10:38-42), but they keep hitting their mark in me. So do the ones that followed, “there is need of only one thing.”

As I begin the final week of vacation before my retirement becomes official, an inner alarm is telling me it’s time to return to work. The inner Sirens – aren’t they always inner? – are trying to lure me back to commitments and obligations that have run their course and must now give way to something new, or to something very old in my life, something I started with but have misplaced along the way.

Sheryl and I spent yesterday at the Roycroft Renaissance festival in East Aurora, ending the day sitting in the shade with a couple of cold drinks from Taste and listening to a bluegrass band. During that time I knew an unusual sense of freedom, an opportunity to drift where life would carry me and discover what it would reveal to me. I also had the subtle, nagging sense that it would soon be time to return to work, to the expectations others had of me (echoes here of my father’s expectations of me). Stepping from the past to the future can be a long process, much longer than simply waking the next morning or taking the next step.

So I’m thinking today about the Siren call of the many things that worry and distract me. But I’m thinking more about the one thing necessary, the “better part” Mary chose in the story. Thomas Merton wrote, “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” There’s an intricate and interesting relationship between the many distractions and the one thing necessary in life.

Where my voyage is taking me is not the question. The question is how is it taking me, for surely it’s not a fixed destination that calls me but a way of voyaging. What’s the role of all these distractions? What are they trying to teach me about me, about my journey, about The Journey? Isaiah learned that it’s in returning and rest that we are made whole (Isa. 30:15), and I’m quite sure he was referring not to finally arriving at a place to which we return but to the process of returning, the journey, the stepping free in each moment of the worries and distractions that try to lure us away from the one thing necessary, whatever that one thing may be. “Isn’t it the going and not the getting there?”

Certainly I’ve got to know what the one thing necessary in my life is and keep my head and heart focused on it. I also need to pay attention to the particular worries and distractions that beset me, the apparently unnecessary things that tend to fill my days and seduce my attention. Before I step free of them or hope to watch them pass away, I’ve got to name them truly and know them better. I need to know where their roots run and why they keep springing up.

Perhaps in time I’ll learn more deeply, with Rilke, that “all the dragons in our lives [i.e., all the distractions] are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love,” and that the Sirens aren’t luring me to shipwreck at all but to my one true, whole self.

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