Rest - An experiment in Faith

What does it mean to rest?  Can I do it in the midst of activity or must I stop everything to practice it?  How do I let go of caring what other people will think of me?  Or what I think of me, (i.e. lazy, unproductive, procrastinating.)  How will it affect my work?  How does it change me as a person?

These are the questions that enter into my mind as I set off for a solo vacation, a playful experiment in solitude and "undoing".  When I start out I think to myself, "Five days alone by the sea, no problem.  Time to sit and write, dream, and just be.  It sounds divine."  I can do this.  The spot I have chosen is a tiny boathouse (20' X 20'), in the town of Brentwood Bay on Vancouver Island.  It is owned by Jean and Harvey Merritt, a charming retired couple who really know how to live well.  It is rented by those seeking a soulful and calming time away from their usually hectic existence, it is the perfect place to explore the subject of "rest".  The following are excerpts from my journal documenting my experience and inner exploration.

Monday June 4, 2001
My adventure here at the boathouse has officially commenced.  Jen (my sister), and I had a delicious lunch at a local restaurant.  We said our good-byes and I walked back to my new home, down a beautiful meandering staircase, surrounded by flowers and birds.  At the bottom is the most charming little house I have ever seen,  it has everything one would need to live fully, tea, books, bed (with flannel sheets), binoculars (for viewing the constantly changing animals) , playing cards, dart board, hot chocolate, and a tiny rowboat.

I am sitting in the little "library", a tiny 7' X 7' alcove with bookshelves, and a stunning view of Brentwood Bay an inlet with fishing boats, sea planes, canoes, and kayaks.  The seagulls are diving for their dinner and easily scoop up the purple starfish and other crustaceans living on the surface of the water.  Sea planes casually take off and land in the bay and I have a front row seat for viewing with my binoculars.  Under the house I can lazily watch the purple starfish, numerous crabs, and what I believe are jelly fish perusing the sea bed.  These strange creatures resemble  round bluish bubbles and propel themselves forward by opening and closing in little bursts.

I feel somehow confronted by my solitude.  It sits in front of me like a heaviness I don't quite know what to do with.  I have been here for approximately 2 hours and have spent the time pondering my surroundings, attempting to sit but needing to get up every few minutes to investigate something else.  I tried to call Arno (my partner) several times to talk but he must have gone out.  It is an experiment in resting.  Being not doing.  I'm not sure if I am up to the task at this moment.  Maybe I just need some time to let the city run off my body. 

One of my first shocks is that I am completely timeless, no clocks anywhere.  I feel myself go into slight feelings of panic.  How will I know when to eat, sleep, awake?  I will admit I am actually excited at the prospect of facing the day without time, a strange concept for me.  The second shock is that there is no stove to cook on, only a toaster oven.  I brought with me spaghetti and noodles which require boiling.  There is a restaurant within walking distance but I did want to make some of my own meals.  I will find a way to go to the store tomorrow.  I've been told I can access the town by foot or rowboat.   I am a little intimidated by the whole idea of manoevering this tiny boat amidst the ocean but I will try my best.

It's hard to adequately describe the beauty of this little bay, or the boathouse itself.  I will attempt to over the next few days.  It is not so much that I don't know what to do with myself, but more the shock of being truly alone.  I received a good omen when I looked at the bookshelf and found "Journal of Solitude" by my good friend May.  I feel closer to her having this experience.  It is a strange feeling to just sit and know that this is what you are here to do for the next few days.  Sit.  I am sure there will be a point when that feels more natural than the doing.  I keep saying to myself, "It's O.K.  you're supposed to be just sitting.  This is why I'm here."  I think it is time to prepare food, but I'm not exactly sure.  Jean brought me some shrimp to have with my dinner, caught this morning by Harvey.  It was the most delicious I've EVER had.  The colour was much brighter and the taste more like crab, it was dusted with dill and had a small dish of aioli.  Divine.

Tuesday June 5, 2001
For breakfast this morning I had onion & ham quiche with corn bread and maple syrup, freshly squeezed orange juice, and cantelope.  I ate it all.  After breakfast I decided to venture out in search of food.  I asked two young girls who were apparently coming from school where the closest store was.  They ventured that it was only a 20 min. walk so I relaxed into the journey.  Light rain fell around me.  I picked up some necessary items, shampoo, toothbrush ( I left all my cosmetics at Jen's), some vegetables, cheese and crackers, olives and humus, and my surprising find...sushi.  Once back I devoured the sushi with some miso soup and have now sat down with some green tea to digest.

I mentioned to Harvey that this place has a way of making you feel instantly at home, with almost no adjustment period.  He said, "maybe  you've been here before", which I laughed at.  Maybe it is true.  I saw the blue heron on my way to the bathroom this morning, it's huge wing span sailed majestically over my head.  And the resident seal pops his head up every once in a while, swims around on the surface and then dives and is nowhere to be seen.  He does not resurface for at least 10 minutes.

The sun is peeking through the clouds, I can really relate to the coastal saying, "if you don't like the weather, wait a minute."  You cannot predict what the day will be like in the morning.  Weather here becomes your constant companion.

I opened up Anne Morrow Lindbergh's "Gift from the Sea" to this quote:

"The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient.  To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith.  Patience, patience, patience is what the sea teaches.  Patience and faith.  One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach-waiting for a gift from the sea." 

There is a state of mind one eventually enters into when one is on a solo vacation, after a few days.  You start to feel as if you have taken on a new life, left the old one behind, the old you behind, and started anew.  Your new life is silent.  All the pressures, responsibilities, phone calls, fade away into your past and you sink into your new existence as you would a good novel.  Completely lost in the new language it is a departure from your regular life but you accept it as your own..  You almost cannot remember doing anything else.  Time becomes altered.  Engulfed in solitude you take on a new persona, one based on present needs and domestic routine.  Eating, tidying, washing dishes, writing, become cycles to be completed over and over.  You do them consciously and slowly.  If the fridge is empty you walk to the store, when you wake the bed is made, you walk without purpose taking in your surroundings matter of factly.  It is your new home.  Life is pared down to the simplest form imaginable.

You begin to realize how little one needs to actually live.  A few dishes, a bed, blankets, water, food, tea.  How is it that things became so complicated before this?  Life seems to escalate in intensity without me realizing it.  By the time I notice, it is too late.  I have entered into the land of "doing" and closed and locked the room of "being".  Many times I say to myself, "I will make sure in the future to put myself first, I'll start my day with a long walk."  Then I end up waking early to meet a deadline, and it becomes habit all over again.  When did work become the priority, how did we make the shift to working ALL the time?  I've decided to let go of my "work-ethic" and adopt instead a "rest-ethic"!  Everytime I start to enter into that intense, all encompassing work mode I will say, "this is not inline with my resting policy", in fact it's infringing on my rest time and there's quite a lot of stuff to be accomplished for my rest itinerary each day.  Now when I say rest I do not necessarily mean sleeping or napping (although they can definitely be part of the rest itinerary.)  I would also like to include walking slowly, reading, tea time, journaling, observing, meditating, listening, or just being.  It would be nice if eventually rest became the focus of all towns and cities.  We would install real restrooms filled with napping beds gardens created solely for contemplating, the old practice of afternoon high tea would be mandatory.  All people would be encouraged to move slowly, speed limits would be lowered, or driving limited so people would be forced to walk at certain times.

I am sitting in the library surrounded by all my necessary items, books, sketchpad, binoculars (the seal keeps popping up), a cup of wintermint tea, a lit candle, a blanket, and two shells and a stone I picked up on the beach today.  I think this place will exist in my psyche for a long time, maybe I will retreat to it in my mind when necessary.  The view from the window fulfills my love and need to be by the water.  I wonder if I will have culture shock when I leave. 

I become easily hypnotized by the lines and ripples in the water.  They sweep forward and dance happily in the last light of the sun.  I did not notice them when I first arrived.

I've started playing solitaire again.  I loved it as a child, but in recent years I've thought of it only as a time waster, unproductive.  I'm learning to embrace it as part of the experiment.  Maybe I will make it part of my rest-ethic, the epitome of just being.  A solitary act that has no real end, no purpose, accomplishes nothing.  That's the point.

Wednesday June 6, 2001
Spent a good chunk of the morning watching the seals.  There were two of them frolicking by the small island in front of the boathouse.  At times they would flip forward to their tails would come entirely out of the water, and roll sideways before diving.  The seemed to be having a great time in there.  Another lesson in playfulness.

The sky is overcast, and the clouds hang lazily around the tops of the mountains in the distance. 

later the same day
Sitting in the library once again watching the last glimpses of the sunset.  Tonight I sat on the porch sketching and enjoying a glass of wine.  The sun set gradually and bathed everything in a glowing light.  Four geese swam into the direction of the sun, my view was a perfect painting.

I am tired from the days activities, tired but content.  This morning on the rocky beach I investigated a bright orange starfish marooned on a rock.  Lying a couple of feet away I spotted a muddy cup-like shape.  I went closer to investigate.  What I pulled out of the sandy muck was a piece of hand-made pottery, a mug covered in shells and barnacles.  It had been underwater for some time, possibly a home for some small creature.  I dipped it into the sea to wash the mud off and hid it behind a tree.  I will go back for it tomorrow.  I can indulge in such childhood games in my new life.  Hide and seek with myself, this is how new ideas evolve.

Thursday June 7, 2001
What a day so far!  And it's only early afternoon.  I awoke to the most glorious sunny day.  I ate my breakfast, did the crossword and thought about taking a walk.  Deep inside I longed to take a boatride and I knew it was the perfect time to try it.  Once again my fears were holding me back.  I donned my straw hat and with shaky legs I grabbed a life jacket, the oars, a cushion, and set off down the boat ramp.  My biggest concern was getting the boat off the dock and into the deep water without sinking it.  There was about a foot and a half drop from the dock to the water.  The rowboat was heavier than expected but I managed to flip it over.  Using a roller on the side of the dock I navigated it safely into the bay.  Copying Harvey's expert knot I tied it to a wooden bar.  So far so good.  The rest was quite unexpectedly easy.  It took me a few minutes to get the feel for coordinating the oars but gradually I found myself inching forward.  Row boats are not the most efficient method of travel ever invented, you feel almost like you're not moving at all.  That's the point.

I navigated my way over to the seal's playground, beside the island just in front of the boathouse.  The seals were nowhere to be found, so I took a tour through some small inlets, around a wooded wilderness area.  A massive wall of trees confronted me to the north, I felt small and humbled in my little boat.  I smiled at my success as the captain of my own vessel.  Powerful energy flooded though my veins.  Why hadn't I done this two days ago?  I feel so very proud to have had the guts to "try".

The only problem was, my bladder was filling rapidly from the cups of tea I had with breakfast.  So I turned my little boat around and power rowed back to the boathouse. 

After another cup of tea I decided to go exploring.  I followed the road around the bay and found a small marina surrounded by several cafes and a small gift shop filled with "native" art and domestic items that would only be purchased by tourists.  Tinned food and film mostly.  I was drawn down a small, quiet lane full of cute little cottages.  There was a staircase to the beach so I wandered there for a while collecting stones and taking in the ocean views.  I headed back and stopped for lunch at a Creole type place.  It was crab cakes and crawdad's on a bed of greens with aioli.  I maneuvered the crawdad with ease, treating it like a small lobster, breaking the tail first.  It was not as tasty as lobster, but still interesting.

So now I'm back at the boathouse sitting on the dock in the sun.  What a little adventure I've had today.  The dock is floating so I feel like I'm on a boat.  Life is good!

8:30 - 9pm
I just had a long shower and got everything all packed to leave tomorrow.  I had to squish my bag down with all my weight to make it all fit.  I can't really grasp that I'm leaving, I 've just gotten accustomed to my little routine here.  But I am anxious to see everyone back home.  My shoulders are hot with sunburn, I have doused them in cream.  I donned my pyjama'a, made a cup of chamomile tea, and retired to the library after having a lovely dinner on the porch.  My body is tired.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have this vacation and that I picked such a perfect spot.  I am grateful to Jean and Harvey for sharing this place with the world.  I am grateful that I am watching a bright pink sunset.

Did I find the answers to my questions on rest?  The answer is yes.  As I have read many times in the past, the process of "doing" is really just an illusion we create to make us feel productive and valuable.  It is an external way of making us feel better about ourselves.  When we stop for a moment to take in the world, we become inherently more receptive to what we need and what we feel as human beings.  When we let go of the pressure to produce, we create work and life that is more meaningful and fulfilling.  I have not yet mastered the art of "letting go", but I will continue to study and practice it as an alternative to my current methods.  I really feel that my work is much better when I "lie open, choiceless".  It is up to me to create the "rest-ethic" for myself, and in the process cultivate that much needed patience and faith.  We can all learn to drop the anchor, so to speak.

Keri Smith is a free-lance illustrator and native of Toronto.  A graduate of  O.C.A. she has a wide following of clients in North America and Japan.  She currently resides in a “magic” cottage in Flesherton, painting, illustrating, creating, writing, and living out loud.  Her first children's books, entitled Story in a Box have just been published by Chronicle Books.