Insights: The Ambulance and the Swan by Rev. Meg Barnhouse

The Stretcher and the Swan by Rev. Meg Barnhouse

I drove by an accident the other day. Emergency services people were putting a woman on a stretcher. They were tender, attentive, capable. She was being taken care of. Traffic was directed competently around the wreck. It would be cleaned up, hauled away. Taken care of. A fire truck was parked beside the ambulance, its chunky lights flashing. Standing by, just in case a fire happened. So they could take care of it. That was one well-taken-care-of situation.

I wanted to be on that stretcher. I wanted calm and capable people to take care of everything. It looked restful.

I was tired. I was the kind of tired you get at the end of a month-long project. I had pushed through to the finish and I’d made seven mistakes along the way but the thing was done. I was the kind of tired you get when you have ten different people feeling in their heart that you should have done it differently. Their way. I was the kind of tired you get when your house is messy, your grass is too long, your car is cluttered and your gas tank is empty, along with your bank account. A tiny piece of me thought it would be restful to lie down on clean sheets, be fussed over in a clean hospital room, have people bring Jell-o and chicken broth and straws that bend.

Usually I think it’s a good day when I don’t have to take a ride in an ambulance, and I got back to that state of mind pretty fast. Anyway, I talked to a friend of mine who used to work in an emergency room and she said that what happens when you come in is that fast-moving people with big scissors cut off all your clothes. That didn’t sound restful at all. She suggested I pay for a day at a spa where helpful, calm people would fuss over me all day long. I’d rest, but no one would cut off my clothes with scissors. It would be cheaper than a hospital stay, and I could drive home afterward.

I know now that when I have a “stretcher day,” when being helpless looks good to me, I just need to rest. How did I get to be a grown-up and not know that I need to rest sometimes? Resting used to sound weak to me. I used to work sick. Well, I still do that.

I used to have two speeds, a hundred miles an hour and full stop. Crash. I thought I was supposed to go and go at full speed until I couldn’t go any longer, then I slept. Then I’d wake up and start again.

As I get older I’m adding more gears. I have “slow” now. Some days.

One of my holy books, the I Ching, talks about the wisdom of not doing. I get tired when I forget and act like I’m the source of my energy, my love, my creativity. I’m the one who sustains my friends, who gets things done, who works things out.

The poet Rilke wrote about a swan and how awkwardly he moves on the ground. His bearing changes once he lowers himself into the water, which “flows joyfully” beneath him, while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm, is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown, more like a king, further and further on.

I’m experimenting with letting go, allowing wave after wave to hold me up, move me along.

May I be granted the wisdom to know when to paddle my feet.

From Did I Say That Outloud?: Musings of a Questioning Soul by Rev. Meg Barnhouse. Published by Skinner House in 2006, available from the UUA bookstore