Grace Note: Watching and listening
It’s hard to say when exactly I knew we had to leave Seattle. Part of that knowledge grew gradually, with the sound of airplanes on either takeoff or final descent, depending on the winds.
Part of it was instantaneous, when our babysitter was delayed because she’d been stopped by the police, who were holding up cars at the scene of a crime.
A man, who could have been my husband, had been driving a minivan with his children and parents when he was killed in crossfire at 4:30 p.m. two blocks from our house. It was the only place outside of a deployment to Bosnia while serving in the Army where I heard gunfire at night.
With a husband working in technology, moving out of the city seemed unlikely. I was writing and taking care of two very young boys.
We lived near friends and family, close to our neighborhood center, and were able to walk to church those Sundays we awoke in time.
But the noise increased and increased, and the sirens and backfires and revving engines and emailed notifications of shootings or break-ins grew into a cacophony. I found the city too much. I was sensitive. My ears were overwhelmed. I could not hear myself. I had a hard time hearing God. There is much written now about the loss of contemplative space in our lives, and looking back now, I see that this loss of contemplation had closed in and was suffocating me.
For years my husband and I, at first alone and then with our growing family, had traveled to a small community in north central Washington in a mountain valley known for recreation.
The Methow Valley is tucked away at the base of the North Cascades, gathering winter snows on the most extensive contiguous Nordic ski trail network in the country.
We’d first visited to back-country ski out of a yurt. Later, with our children, we took shorter hikes that were easier to access. Then my husband quit his job and I was invited to share my book, North of Hope, with the Mazama Book Festival, and we spent three weeks in this valley where we’d previously rushed in and out for sport.
With more time, we came to know not only the remarkable outdoors, but the remarkable people. We found not only the drama of craggy peaks, but the gentler beauty of shifting light. We watched the river change, shrinking from summer flows to a breathtaking autumn clarity.
Up high, leaves began to change, and the larch progressed to gold. The change was not only around us; we felt it within ourselves. I could watch myself watching, not caught up in the speed and stimulation of city life, but becoming a part of — recognizing that I was already a part of — this world around me.
We made the leap the next year, now three years ago, and bought an old hippie house backed up against Forest Service and state land. My husband started a business with a distributed team. We embraced the privilege of jobs that would let us work remotely and the challenge of travel when required. We began to make a home.
From our front porch now we watch bears descend from the hills in the spring, and reascend in the fall. Deer and coyote follow a similar path, that slight depression in the land where the aspens grow and where a spring stream runs. The meadow greens through the winter-kill after snow melts, drying to deep yellow and gold in the fall.
Our flowers are wild and the garden spreads across hillsides, and even my children know the arrowleaf balsamroot and yellowbells and bluebells and mariposa lilies and tens of others.
We started Methow Episcopal fellowship, where we worship Sunday evenings with a small community ranging from six to 30. All are welcome who consider themselves seekers, and I like that a lot: watching, listening, seeking.
The cacophony has subsided, residual to city memories and sloughed away with time so that I recall mostly what was dear from that life.
Outside the city, I find less to consider, and more to consider deeply. Here, I see the stars of the Milky Way at night, and in the morning have the sense that I am standing on an earth turning toward the sun. I have felt things fall into their proper places.
There are, I am sure, many ways to hear and know God, but I hear it best as the wind moves through the mountains, in that still, small voice that follows.
Shannon Huffman Polson is the author of North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey (Zondervan/ Harper Collins, 2013). Her essays and articles have appeared in a number of journals and other publications.