Many days in western Nebraska are beautiful, and the sun shines more often than it doesn’t. The sky is blue and expansive, and the landscape is breathtaking. Don’t let anyone try to convince you Nebraska is flat and boring; anyone who says that hasn’t been off the interstate.
But for all Nebraska’s spectacular attributes, the weather can be extreme, unpredictable, and volatile. A gust of wind blowing ninety-four miles per hour once folded our backyard trampoline in half. Hailstones the size of golf balls (even baseballs on occasion) have leveled entire cornfields. The rain seems to be either scarce or torrential. A couple of years ago, the end of May saw a day with a high of eighty degrees followed by a snowstorm that snapped limbs and downed power lines just days later. It is not unusual for the temperature to fluctuate thirty to forty degrees over the course of twenty-four hours. Nebraskan people are tough and have a can-do spirit; not much slows them down or gets in their way. They have had to learn to roll with whatever punches the weather gives them.
Out here in Nebraska where you can experience all four seasons in one week’s time, we pride ourselves in very rarely taking a snow day. We know how to get creative and find ways to get the job done even when the weather seems bent on working against it. But even here, when the clouds roll in and the snow closes the roads, sometimes the only thing you can do is hunker down and stay home.
As a kid, I loved snow days. I welcomed them as a reprieve from the daily grind. They meant more time at home, more chances to do things we could only do on the weekends—like reading a book in one sitting or having a LEGO battle with my brother. As an adult, snow days have become more complicated. Even when the weather closes things down, there is still work to be done. Things got trickier as an internet connection became a staple in many households and as smartphones made their way into nearly every pocket. Even when travel is impossible, much work can still be done remotely. When circumstances prevent in-person meetings, technology makes meetings possible via email, phone conference, or video chat. My childhood memories of snow days as the cosmic eraser that wiped the calendar clean were quickly replaced by my adulthood experience that some expectations don’t go away when bad weather strikes. Those tasks simply shift to new platforms.
But what if it doesn’t have to be this way? What if snow days are not an obstacle to overcome but a gift to be received? How might we receive the blessing of a calendar wiped clean, a deep breath of unexpected time?
In a piece of music, sometimes you will find little marks that look like apostrophes scattered across the page. These marks are breath marks. Their purpose is to help instrumentalists and singers identify the places where they can breathe, or lift, or pause just for a moment. These marks help the musician play the musical lines as the seamless phrases the composer intended. Breath marks are designed to show you where to breathe. In a relentless piece of music with few rests written in, musicians need the reminder to take a breath. Breath marks give that permission. Once you have practiced a piece of music often enough, the breath marks become so ingrained that when you get to those places, you won’t be able to do anything other than fill your lungs and breathe. I am reminded of Lao Tzu’s thoughts on the empty spaces: “Clay is shaped to make a pot, and what’s useful is its emptiness.”
Snow days are like breath marks scattered throughout the otherwise hectic and frantic pace of life, letting us know it is OK (and necessary!) to breathe. In an ideal world, we would not need to fight against snow days or find a way to get our work done in the midst of them. We could receive snow days as gifts that help us reset, start anew, and clear off an evening or even a whole day to spend in ways that give us life.
Snow days are often inconvenient. Sometimes they derail plans that are important to us. At times, they cause us to miss out on opportunities. Sometimes snow days are a huge pain that require us to make up work down the road. And sometimes snow days come with a real cost—lost wages, canceled plans, lost opportunities. But even in the midst of these challenges, snow days provide us with a moment to breathe, an opportunity to create space. For a control freak like me, snow days offer a chance to experience the freedom of letting go.
What if, as we received the gift of an unexpected snow day, we allowed ourselves to be reoriented toward what matters most in our lives? Perhaps by receiving the gift of unexpected free time, we will allow ourselves to let go of hindrances we hadn’t even realized were holding us back.
The Joy of Space
Snow days are a breath mark in the midst of our busy and frantic lives. They give us permission to breathe, refocus, regroup, and spend our time in life-giving ways. If our circumstances allow us to stay home, why do we panic with the news that the roads are closed, the flight is canceled, or the buses aren’t running? Sometimes it’s our expectations clashing with reality or our tight grip on the idol of control. But sometimes our panic is because we choose to focus on what we have lost rather than on what we have. We dwell on the grief of expectations unmet and routines disrupted. Acknowledging our disappointments and our griefs is important, but when we linger there—especially in the case of momentary inconveniences—we lose out on joy.
In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo writes about making a shift in her life as she sought to simplify and tidy her home. When she began her decluttering journey, she focused on getting rid of things. She looked at everything around her as a potential source of clutter. She set about ridding herself of clutter wherever she found it. Yet her home still felt untidy, and she was miserable. It wasn’t until she stopped thinking about getting rid of things and started becoming intentional about which things she kept that she began to find joy in her life. She writes this: “I had been so focused on what to discard, on attacking the unwanted obstacles around me, that I had forgotten to cherish the things that I loved, the things I wanted to keep.” When we are presented with something that changes the course of our day, we can choose to focus on the loss. We can focus on that canceled coffee date, the postponed meeting, or the interrupted moment. We can choose to be consumed by regret, longing, and envy—even if all we are envying is our own made-up life, and not someone else’s.
Or we can choose something else. We can choose to breathe. As we breathe in our expectations, we can exhale and let them melt away. Instead of choosing to think about what we no longer have, we can look around and see what is there. What is right in front of us? What opportunities for beautiful moments exist right here and now, things we would have missed out on if life kept moving the way we had expected? We can pause and allow our lives to be filled with the space that brings us joy. Sometimes it takes the removal of all the excess for us to be able to treasure what we’ve always had. Our inclination is to forge ahead, to push through the pauses, to keep on going even when we desperately need to stop and catch our breath. When our calendars unexpectedly clear, the breath mark invites us to breathe deeply and receive the joy that is only possible when we make space for it.
Simone Weil, French mystic and activist, once reflected that “grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.” The trouble is, I am an expert at packing the empty spaces in my life so full that there’s hardly room for grace to get in. Anne Lamott describes grace “as a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks.” But I was used to filling those cracks, not realizing that I was keeping myself from receiving grace at the same time. Too often I approach my schedule like a game of Tetris, where all of the pieces must perfectly interlock with no empty spaces leftover. Sometimes it takes a snow day, or some unexpected holy interruption, to make space for us to receive the grace that will bring us joy. Sometimes it takes an unexpected snow day to Marie-Kondo all the busyness so we can breathe deeply the joy of unexpected time. When all the plans overflowing our schedules are removed, we are offered free time as an opportunity to breathe and to receive the joy of moments pregnant with possibility.
For a few years, I had wanted to get some backyard chickens. I researched my town’s zoning laws and learned all the ins and outs of raising chickens for fresh eggs. The one thing that kept me from taking the plunge was a lack of time. Everyone told me that baby chicks take a lot of effort, at least for the first couple of weeks. You have to make sure the brooder temperature is just so or the chicks will be either too hot or too cold. In the first few days of life, baby chicks can get themselves into trouble, and you have to be ready to intervene. Once the chicks have grown enough to be kept in a coop and run in the yard, they need fresh water and food every day. By then they do not require as much daily effort—at least as long as all of them stay healthy. Every spring I would think about getting baby chicks, and then I would talk myself out of it because I just didn’t think I had time.
When everything began shutting down at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent the first few weeks trying to regain my bearings as all our routines disappeared. Some meetings and activities moved onto online platforms, but other things simply went away. Evening meetings were cleared from the calendar. Kids’ extracurricular activities were on hold indefinitely. Suddenly the one thing I had a whole lot of was time. It felt like simultaneously too much free time and not enough time all at once.
Somewhat impulsively, I told my husband that I wanted chickens. We no longer had the excuse of not having enough time. We didn’t have a coop yet, and we had no idea how to make one. But we decided to go for it. So we went to the store and bought four Easter Egger chickens and supplies for a chicken brooder.
Now, many months later, even though many meetings have started to refill my schedule and my busier routines are taking shape, I have made an evening ritual of hanging out with my chickens in the backyard. I open up the chicken run and watch as they stretch their wings, race around looking for bugs and grass, and fluff up their neck feathers at each other as they play fight. I walk around the yard and talk to them. I laugh at them. Occasionally I pick them up and stroke their feathers. And then, as the sun starts to lower in the sky, the chickens go one by one back into their coop to roost for the evening.
I had held off doing something that would bring me joy because I had stuffed my life too full. And when all of those things fell away, I realized how much more full life was—full of peace, perspective, and joy—when I ended my nights watching the chickens play in my yard. Even before they had laid any eggs for us, they brought me more joy than I ever could have imagined. I only wish it hadn’t taken a global pandemic for me to make space for something that mattered to me.
In a society that prizes workaholism and round-the-clock availability, it is countercultural to breathe deeply and savor the breath marks life gives us. We might avoid pausing and breathing because we are concerned it will cost us something. And it might. We may not move up the ladder. We might not be able to participate in every opportunity that sounds interesting or important. Or perhaps we do not lean into joy because we feel guilty spending these moments on ourselves. We might feel wasteful or self-indulgent, especially if we can’t identify a higher value or an altruistic purpose in what we’re doing.
The sacred pulse of snow days, and other moments of unexpected free time, urges us to breathe deeply and find joy in life because joy is worth pursuing. When we do this, we will have gained the gifts that only space and free time can provide: the perspective and joy of a life rooted in the present moment. Because this is where life is—in this moment, in this day, in this hour. We are often just too busy to keep our eyes and our hearts in this moment where we find ourselves. As we practice breathing with life’s unexpected breath marks, perhaps we will develop the habit of breathing deeply even when we are not presented with an event that clears our calendars. We may even find ourselves clearing off an evening or an hour just so we can breathe in deeply and experience the joy of unfilled space.
From The Sacred Pulse: Holy Rhythms for Overwhelmed Souls by April Fiet copyright © 2021 Broadleaf Books. Reproduced by permission.