“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have been fortunate to do a lot of traveling lately, and in my travels I’ve encountered many breathtakingly beautiful locations–some of them intentional destinations but some of them also stumbled-upon delights. In several of those locations I have experienced what I would consider a “perfect moment,” a moment of tremendous joy and calming inner peace inspired by the serenity of the landscape before me.
And I have snapped thousands of pictures during my travels, hoping to capture that serenity and take it home with me as fuel to fight whatever challenges might lie ahead. But in one of my most recent adventures–taking sunset shots over the Grand Canyon–I had an epiphany. I had already taken hundreds of shots of the sun sinking into the Canyon, and I knew some of them were really good. I was happy. I was sitting on a ledge at Yaki Point, surrounded by dozens of other sight-seers, but their voices and silhouettes faded into the background. For just a moment, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply of the cool mountain air, letting the peacefulness of my surroundings wash over me.
And suddenly I knew. With perfect clarity I realized that the peace I had been searching so hard to find had been inside me all along. The ocean waves, the blooming flowers, the majestic mountains, the blazing sunsets and the bubbling springs . . . none of them were responsible for creating my peace. Rather, they were simply external stimuli that had unleashed what was already there. The beauty I carry in my heart every day is the only key I need for unlocking the peace in my soul–I just need to remember to turn the key more often.
Okay, that’s probably enough new-age, hippie-chick nonsense for some of you, so I’ll just remind you of what Francois de La Rochefoucauld (French writer/smart dude) said about 400 years ago: “When we are unable to find tranquility within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.”
In last week’s post, The Beauty that Still Remains, I wrote about the recent, discouraging increase in negativity and how that negativity steals our sunshine. I thought a lot about inner peace while writing that post and about how we sometimes have to draw heavily on our reserves to keep others from coloring our beautiful world in shades of black. The very next morning after that post, I encountered a stranger whose negativity (camouflaged as concern) sent angry storm clouds thundering across my horizon . . .
I was riding my bicycle around the local high school track. I like riding mid-morning after all the serious exercisers have headed off to work but before the temperatures have sky-rocketed into the extreme. Usually I have the track to myself the entire time–just me and the sunshine–and I did on this day, too, for the first ten miles of my ride. Then a young woman showed up with six small children in tow. Not good, I thought. Often, when there are that many little ones, they are expected to supervise each other while their mamas power walk in oblivion on the other side of the track–which means they dodge in front of my bike tires, throw rocks at my back or chase after me–typical little kid behaviors when parents aren’t looking.
But I was wrong. Mama left the five oldest caged on the tennis courts–where they alternated between playing, screaming and crying–while she walked laps around the track with a baby on her hip. It was 85° at the time, and she was dressed in a long-sleeved t-shirt and an ankle-length dress above her tennis shoes, while I was dressed in a sleeveless cycling jersey and cycling shorts. I was already hot, so my first thought was to admire her for her determination to exercise despite the heat and the added discomfort of her attire.
We continued in silence for several laps, she with her baby and I with my bike. And then, as she appeared ready to exit the track, she stopped in her lane, turned in my direction and waited. As I got closer, she put up her free hand as if to signal “Stop.” Now, when I ride my bike I am “clipped in” to my pedals, so I can’t stop immediately; one at a time, I have to turn my feet sideways and “lift” my shoes out of the pedals. I did this and then turned around and circled back to her. People often stop me to ask questions about bicycling, so I assumed that was what she wanted also. I was wrong again.
When I pulled up to her and smiled, she spoke immediately.
“God does not approve of the way you are dressed, Sister.”
I stopped smiling.
“Excuse me?” Surely, I had misunderstood her. But no.
“God does not approve of the way you are dressed,” she repeated.
Okay, let me clarify that while my jersey was sleeveless, it was NOT form-fitting, see-through or low-cut. It was just a simple cycling jersey. And even though I WAS wearing Spandex cycling shorts, they were almost knee-length, and I was wearing another pair of shorts over them because I don’t like putting my Spandex-clad derriere on display. (It’s not modesty so much as vanity–few people look good in Spandex, and I’m not one of those lucky few.)
Anyway, back to the story . . . I should have shrugged my shoulders and pedaled away. I should have told myself not to let her negativity bother me, but I was hot and sweaty (and dumbfounded), and my temper may have flared slightly as the adrenaline pumping through my veins blasted common sense right out of the realm of possibility.
“I’m sorry, but did God TELL you he does not approve of the way I’m dressed?”
“It’s in His Word, Sister. ‘In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety . . .’ ”
“There is nothing wrong with the way I’m dressed!”
“That thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear . . . ”
“Oh, my gosh!” I panted. “I’m pretty sure MY God is just glad that I’m honoring the temple of my body by doing what I can to keep it healthy and strong . . . and I don’t think he gives a RIP about how I’m dressed!” There might have been a touch of sarcasm mingled with anger seeping through my words . . . just a touch.
By then I think my nemesis had realized I would not be an easy convert, and she shook her head in dismay. “You are sorely mistaken, Sister. I will pray for your heathen soul.”
“And I will pray for yours!” And with that, I belatedly pedaled away, so angry that my heart was thumping in my ears, fire was shooting from my flaring nostrils and sparks were flying from my tires. How dare she! From my rear-view mirror I watched her watching me . . . and then she walked to the tennis courts to retrieve her brood.
Good, I thought, she’s leaving. But no. Wrong again. I saw her bend over to talk to her children, and as I circled back around in their direction, I saw those little ones stealing glances in my direction before she re-directed their attention. “Don’t look at the evil lady on the bicycle, children!” I was sure she was warning them. Okay, whatever.
I kept pedaling. But as I circled around again, I saw that the woman had led the children to the basketball court–which was closer to the track (so that I would be sure to see them?)–and that she and they were sitting in a circle on the hot asphalt, holding hands and bowing their heads. Praying for the evil lady.
“There is nothing wrong with the way I’m dressed!” Dark clouds blotted out the sun–my sun–and I wanted to scream. Instead, I choked back tears. I am not a bad person; I am not a heathen. I try to be respectful of all religions and most of their convictions, and I understand that some people feel driven to witness and to proselytize. But why did this woman–this stranger–feel the need to judge me?
If Lance Armstrong had been on his bike on that track, I would have blasted past him in a blur as I pedaled furiously around and around, trying to cast my anger and frustration into the wind.
Finally, the prayer circle broke, and the woman began loading her children into their car. As I circled past them for the last time, one of the youngest–a little girl who looked to be about three years old–turned in my direction and stuck her tongue out at me.
And then, I couldn’t help it . . . I started laughing. I laughed at the sheer absurdity of it all, and I kept laughing as I slowed my pace, slowed my breathing and allowed the sun once again to peek from behind the clouds. I had let a stranger’s negativity and criticism “get to me,” and I knew better . . . I knew better.
As I loaded my bike onto my bike rack a little later, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the woman’s children (and I realize that is probably judgmental on my part). In their little minds, I was the face of evil–me, a lady who was a pretty good mama to three children of her own; me, a lady who dedicated 30 years of her life to educating and nurturing other people’s children; me, a lady who, if given the chance, would have hugged those little ones to her chest, placed them on her knee, and read them stories about hungry caterpillars and a boy named Huck and his best friend Tom. And if I am the face of evil (me!), then their future world is going to be a very dark, dreary and scary place.
But I will not be a part of that world. I refuse to inhabit such a dark, dreary and scary place; MY world is full of beauty and mystery and sunshine. Peace be with you . . . and also with you, stranger woman, wherever you are.
I spent last Christmas Day with my family on the beaches of Santa Monica and Malibu. This photo of my three sons walking along the shoreline at Malibu made me happy.
On my trip to Washington, D.C., in April, I was never more at peace than when I was surrounded by flowers. This photo was taken by my friend Jamie Adams while I was snapping photos at Arlington National Cemetery. (To see more of Jamie’s work, please visit him at http://www.laughingbunnyphotography.com/.)
The rugged landscapes of the Grand Canyon seem especially suited for black and white. In this photo, storm clouds were rolling in right before sunset–and the white streak in the upper right corner is actually the remnants of a rainbow. Perfect peace.
A recent trip to nearby Big Spring State Park reminded me once again of the peace I carry within me.