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Staying Whole in a Fractured World

You know that panicky feeling you get when you drop your briefcase or purse and everything spills out in public? That's how I used to feel every day: embarrassed, furious and anxious because I couldn't keep up with my life.
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You know that panicky feeling you get when you drop your briefcase or purse and everything spills out in public? That's how I used to feel every day: embarrassed, furious and anxious because I couldn't keep up with my life.

The last straw may have been my new gym membership. I wanted to feel virtuous about working out four times a week without breaking the bank, so I chose the Wal-Mart of fitness factories, a place where pop music blares and the cardio machines all face TV screens. Insert headphones, work up a sweat, and pick your letters: ABC, CBS, CNN, ESPN, Fox, whatever. Get your news and culture fix here.

I'm a radio junkie, so watching TV news was a novelty for me. At first I enjoyed channel surfing. Or rather, plunging. That's what it felt like, since TV shows give you about two seconds of substance punctuated by noisy, whirling ad tsunamis.

Before long, though, I was feeling rattled and nervous. Despite the fact that the news was being delivered by beautiful couples who joked and flirted like dates, I learned that we apparently live in a world where pedophiles, robbers, muggers, drunk drivers, crooked politicians and murderers frequent my local supermarket and shoe store.

But maybe the gym wasn't the last straw. Maybe it was my new phone. Selected by my husband, an engineer who gets free upgrades and knows how to use them, this device easily outsmarts me. It can access restaurant reviews and movie times, deliver my email, play music, take pictures, and remind me that it's my mother's birthday. If I try to control it, the tiny keys play hide-and-seek. I might as well be wearing mittens.

I dutifully started carrying this Mini-Me everywhere, sticking it in my bra like an extra heartbeat if I didn't have a pocket. Now I could read my email at Market Basket, among the common criminals, or phone clients while walking the dogs. My husband and children could call me any time, for any reason. I was always on tap, talking or tweeting instead of thinking.

Come to think of it, though, the final straw may have been my son's new laptop, which his high school required us to buy. He has textbooks on it -- no more lugging that Western Civ tome around! -- and homework assignments, too. He can make flashcards online, thanks to Quizlet, and Skype about video games with classmates. Between math problems, he can check Facebook or watch YouTube wonders. Sitting in the same room with my son and his laptop is like spending the evening with the Kardashians: too much, too soon, too often.

For whatever reason, anyway, a month ago the last straw landed, and I lost track of my life.

I was on my lunch break from work, trying to squeeze in errands -- post office, dry cleaner's, the 30-minute speed workout at the gym -- when my phone bleeped. I checked my email and got a call at the same time. The traffic light turned green; I sped ahead and pulled over to answer the call, but I was too late.

I started to call the client back, then stopped, my thumb hovering over the phone screen. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't want to know what was on my email. I didn't want anyone to know where I was or what I was doing. And I sure as hell didn't want to go to the gym.

I shut off the ignition and sat there, simply trying to breathe as cars sped past.

To my right, I spotted a tiny road I hadn't noticed before. I got out of the car -- so what if I didn't mail the Christmas packages until tomorrow? -- zipped up my jacket, and started walking. I accidentally left the phone in the cup holder.

I've walked that road every day since. At the end of this half-mile lane is open land, some of which is being used as community gardens by town residents. There is an abandoned house on the property -- a white Colonial surrounded by ancient perennial beds and a few majestic hydrangeas. The abandoned barn now houses only colonies of swallows, but when the wind is right, you catch whiffs of hay and horse.

It is past the growing season, but I can tell that the gardeners were busy this summer. There are still remnants of various small harvests: kale and broccoli, lettuce and eggplant, withered tomato plants and sunflower stalks. There are a few fruit trees on the property, their gnarled limbs almost human. Best of all, a trail leads from the gardens through a field hemmed by ancient stone walls. The trail ends at the salt marshes; beyond that is the river and a big swatch of sky.

I have visited this piece of land -- my own circle of quiet -- nearly every day. I don't stay long. I park my car at the end of the road and meander towards the field. Chickadees flit through the bushes, prehistoric-looking turkeys startle in the grass, and an occasional cardinal flashes bright. I spotted a great blue heron feeding in the marsh last week, and several times I've seen hawks circling the field.

I don't bring my cell phone. I don't always go at the same time of day, either, because I love being surprised by how different the sky can look over the marsh, depending on the hour and the elements. I have even, like I did today, walked up the road and through this field in freezing rain, blinking hard and shivering.

This walk, this forgotten field, and this quiet marsh give me a chance to take my life back once a day, and to feel whole again in a fractured world. It isn't praying or meditating, exactly. But it is peace on earth.