Dan Ornstein: Anxiously Remembering to Live

Aug 15, 2013

A half-hour north of Albany outside the town of Stillwater you will find the Still Point Interfaith Retreat Center, in my opinion, one of the Capitol District's most beautiful and serene rural settings.  Sheltered and almost completely hidden by a wooded thicket, Still Point is exactly what its name implies: a place of blessed silence and spiritual respite, whose chorus of rustling leaves, birds, and crickets sings a song that drives out the whining musak of daily life from my ears. 

Each Friday night and Saturday I observe the Sabbath, that time on the weekly Jewish calendar to retreat together with other people from the world's endless movement and thrum.  Therefore, I make Still Point my refuge of solitude during the weekdays, when few or no other retreatants are around and I am often quite alone.  Strangely, I find that the center's silence, solitude, and scenery conspire gently against my anxious wakefulness in a way that feels like the Sabbath as my tradition imagines it to be:  a rich taste in this life of the world to come when we will experience utter tranquility, for our souls will neither struggle nor suffer, they will simply be.   

Reflecting upon his retreats to the woods, the essayist Wendell Berry wrote that "Wilderness is the element in which we live encased in civilization, as a mollusk lives in his shell in the sea."  For a few days a year at Still Point, I am happy to be the mollusk tightly enclosed in his shell.  As much of a social being as I am, I do enjoy being alone in those woods, an experience that others find difficult. However, I find myself getting anxious about doing things there alone, as old, primitive worries rattle my otherwise still heart: What if I am hiking and a wild animal confronts me or I get injured?  What if I get a tick bite and wind up with Lyme disease?  What about bee stings?  These are all genuine possibilities when one is in nature, which is why I value reasonable cautiousness.  Yet I am increasingly exasperated by my excessive vigilance, as the trails call to me and all I seem to be able to say to them is, "Sorry but walking you is too dangerous and I am too afraid." 

This summer I washed away some of my fear in the center's freshwater pond, whose clean and swimmable waters actually do run deep, dark and lovely.  I knew that the pond was open for use, but with not a lifeguard or other person in sight, I had largely resolved to keep my distance due to the accidents that might claim me if I swam alone.  After one intimate but cramped morning of rain, reading and writing, I walked down to the pond under a clearing sky.  As I stood on the dock, small ripples of water pushed on by the wind seemed to call to me with waving hands:  "Jump in and have some fun."  "I want to," I whispered, "But what if...?"  "What if?  What if you spent your whole life wondering 'what if'?  Just jump in!", they seemed to urge me. 

In deference to caution I did not jump in, I merely kicked off from the dock ladder, then swam out to the middle of the pond in utter peace.  My eyes kept a wary vigil over my distance. However, the rest of my body floated with the freedom that comes with the slow release of anxiety and the sense that one is at home in the world, all of its potential dangers notwithstanding.  No one knew I was there, and even the dragonflies skittering on the surface were too busy to witness my presence. Pockets of water embraced my skin with  alternating warm and cold temperatures, the results of the rain mixed with the sun's absorbed energy.  Simply allowing myself to be, I forgot temporarily to worry about what might cause me to die, so that  could I wake up and remember to just live.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.

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