Have you ever read The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats? It’s a beautiful picture book that I loved reading to my children when they were younger. In all of Keats’ books, both the art and the story reflect the joy and wonder of childhood in their simplicity, while also showing the struggle that a child must navigate as he begins to encounter his own need to adjust emotionally to the world’s imperfections.
In The Snowy Day, a little boy named Peter is overjoyed to wake up to find a deep covering of snow blanketing his urban neighborhood. As you might suspect, he is immediately drawn to the magic of the snow, running out into its depths in his little red snowsuit. He plays alone, performing the little scientific experiments that young children use so openly as they explore their world. He whacks a snow-covered tree with a stick until a pile of snow falls onto his head. He makes footprints in patterns. And, of course, he rolls snowballs.
Yet, after some time, Peter grows tired of his games and uncomfortable in the cold, and wants to go back to his warm home. Yet the snow is precious and new and fun, and he doesn’t want to leave it either. In his dilemma, he decides to roll a small snowball, just big enough to fit in his coat pocket, and then he goes inside. After a warm bath, however, Peter is dismayed to find that his snowball has disappeared, leaving only a wet coat pocket behind.
This weekend, by the grace of God and my husband, Eric, I am spending time alone at a retreat center located near the beach in San Diego. (I’m not going to tell you where exactly. This place is my secret piece of heaven, and I don’t want to share.) I’m here to rest, read, pray, and recharge my batteries, and I get to be here all the way until Monday. This, to me, is the ultimate measure of selfcare, not quite a vacation, but an indulgence in my own inner world, with time to fill only with the things that feed my soul. But the hard part, the damper on my private party, is that, on Monday, I will, in fact, go home.
I came here once before not quite two years ago, and it was one of the best things I’d ever done for myself. Solo retreats are an amazing way to get in touch with God and listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the idea is that, after my God-and-me honeymoon, I can return home with a fresh outlook and a cleansed spirit. And, after my last visit here, that did happen. But my launch back into reality didn’t feel too good after my return home. I pulled in the driveway with an indescribable peace in my heart, and I was anxious to embrace my kids and my husband, to give them the new, best self that I’d uncovered. Then I opened the front door.
All three kids and my husband were home, and all 3 were in full, energetic swing. My elder son had an appointment that day to tour a meterological station in partial fulfillment of a Boy Scout merit badge. When I walked in, he needed to be there in ten minutes, and the station was twenty minutes away. Eric was trying to help him focus on what he needed to wear and bring along, as well as the types of questions he should ask, and in the midst of this my younger son was playing, chattering, and requesting attention. My daughter, who attended an online middle school at the time, was using her school-issued computer, struggling to complete her work in all the commotion. I was dismayed to say the least. All of this was (is) just a typical day in our crazy family life, but after my three days in solitude, the impact of this uproar on my sensory systems was overwhelming. I was able to greet everyone with hugs and kisses and listen to their reports of events that happened while I was gone, but within a few hours, my mind and body shut down. I ended up in bed with a multi-day migraine.
As I sit here again now, the discomfort of that reunion and the frustration I felt toward myself and toward my normal life sits in my mind, and I know I want to avoid that shock on Monday. But I don’t know how to translate the peace and tranquility I experience in this environment into the everyday life I lead. My precious snowball of solitude and quiet can only survive under the right conditions. When I take it out of its natural environment, it will melt. Like Peter, all I’ll have left is a wet pocket.
Learning to balance caring for others, caring for myself, growing my relationship with God and allowing Him to determine the values I will live out, and trying to enjoy the whole process is a never-ending balancing act. I am constantly questioning where and when one of these priorities should stop and another should begin. Ultimately I should be living them all out simultaneously, and certainly I am, but the time factor eludes me. When I need to practice my care for others, should I be sitting down, playing a game or having a talk with my kids? Going on a date with my husband? Keeping my house clean? Cooking a favorite meal? Planning and executing a family outing? Am I really caring for them if I’m cooking a meal and they’re in the other room? Since I’m pretty much the only one in the house who likes things clean and organized, is sweeping the floor an act of caring for my family, or caring for myself? When I’m feeling tired, sick, or resentful, should I continue sweeping the floor because I love them, or should I take a break? Is it too self-indulgent to take a 3 hour nap on Sunday afternoon? Is Eric out there in the living room thinking I’m lazy and growing resentful because I’m napping and he’s not? I definitely see the wisdom in putting on my own self care oxygen mask first before helping others, but I never seem to get enough air. Perhaps if I stopped overthinking it all I could breathe more deeply.
Like Peter, I want to keep my snowball. Having just the snowball isn’t quite as great as having all the snow, but keeping it means that I have a piece of that joy to hold onto any time I want. But, just as Peter wasn’t able to keep the snowball from melting in the warmth of his house, I can’t seem to carry the warmth and peace that I receive in solitude into my active life and my relationships. It disintegrates.
I want to know the secret to keeping the snowball. I want my self care practices to enhance and give depth and meaning to my work and my relationships. Instead I feel like the busyness of life too quickly drains my supply of inner peace.
For now, though, I will stop worrying about how to hang onto the snowball. For the next three days, I’ll just enjoy the snow.
Photo by Aaron Burden. Pictures by Ezra Jack Keats.