I have had a few emotional breakdowns (aka crash and burn) breakthroughs over the years, including a significant one six years ago. I will probably write about that one at another time, but a valuable lesson I learned in that season was maintaining the discipline of creating margins. Years before my husband introduced me to a convent near his childhood home in Houston. Only accepting small donations, the place offers respite in the midst of the fast-paced city. It has several acres of gardens, surrounded by tall stone walls. There are single dorms on the third floor, and the second floor is occupied by the nuns who reside there. You can stay for one night up to a few weeks, but the one condition is that you cannot talk. It is a silent retreat. You aren’t supposed to bring much, either; they want you to practice the lost art of being quiet, not filling yourself with the media and noise.
My husband and I went together once. It was a bad idea, as we acted like two hormonal teenagers at summer camp. We kept slipping notes to each other and having secret meetings in the garden. It was difficult to get quiet with the relational distraction, and the nuns gave us dirty glances. We decided it was much more effective to do personal getaways alone.
When you are alone, however, it feels very lonely. In each room of the convent was a coloured piece of paper with a written exhortation. It described a full water basin, and when you dropped a stone into it, you watch the waves ripple, and then slowly the turbulence subsides. Through time, the surface becomes still, acting as a mirror. It’s when it finally settles that you can see more clearly into the reflection.
It is lonesome to let all the distractions fade, to let the pebbles of busyness, cares, and relationships float to the bottom, but once I pass through that place, I am usually much more at peace and clear-headed. This is usually when I refocus on direction for my life, make big decisions and create margins.
I once heard someone talk on making certain you had personal margins. When I write on a computer word processing document, there is usually an allotted blank space. Things don’t feel or look cramped when there’s white space. Personal margins allow for the unexpected ‘extras’ and stressors. When you don’t have margins, the ‘extras’ fall off the page. When you don’t have emotional margins, life gets too full and you crash.
As a family, we go to Wales for a low-key, short holiday. We learned, after a few times, that the weather is highly unpredictable, and why half of Britain goes to Spain or Southern France in August. We have too many photos of our children in their swimming costumes with blue lips. Wales, or any beach in the UK, is not exactly tropical, but in short spurts it's refreshing.
When my husband had a few months left to finish his PhD, we went to the Northern Welsh coast. It had been highly stressful around our home, and we all needed the holiday.
After a four-hour drive, we stopped at a McDonald’s for lunch. Every other family with children must have had the same idea. My husband could tell I was about to lose it the moment we walked in. The queue was to the door, and there were no seats, so I waited in line while my husband went to the toilet.
As he walked out of the toilet area, I was fuming, my daughter was crying and my son grabbed his hand. Some 12-year-old had jumped the queue, mocked me, and rudely made my daughter sob. My husband managed to order for us, though the mother came up and started yelling, as I had gone over earlier to give the kid a needed scolding for upsetting our daughter. It took everything in my husband not to punch the woman for yelling at me. I know he wouldn’t have, but we were both mad. We had no margins.
Everyone ate their greasy food in stunned silence, and then we started laughing and apologised to our kids. He needed to refuel, which he does by climbing things, and walking on the beach. I needed to refuel, which I do by being alone in a warm, cosy place drinking tea. We made sure we got a lot of that the first few days. We can’t go from crisis to crisis without margins, or we crash.
That same trip, we drove out to a tip of the Welsh coast. My husband says adventurous people have a deep need to get to the tip and the top of places. We drove up a winding, one-lane road to an area with a long name only Welsh people can pronounce. It was on the peak of a long peninsula full of cliffs and narrow hikes. My husband and the kids ran off to explore, while I took the picnic blankets and found a spot sheltered from the wind. It was stunningly beautiful. It was also lonely, but in a good way. I sat, looking at nothing but stretches of merging sea and sky, and breathed in fresh margins. I needed more space, and even in that hour, I refuelled again.
Now I plan ahead with diligence. Once a day, I take time to be alone, to have quiet, and to meditate. Once a week, I take a longer time, say an entire morning when the kids are at school. Twice a year, I go to a retreat centre outside the city with no access to internet. I cut off my media intake and stay for at least two nights. It gives a chance to push through the loneliness, to create space, to let the swirling settle, and for peace to descend. I have to be lavish with my margins; crashing is full of too many costs.
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