Splash Rock: August 15, 2018
Uncle Mike chose his Montreat property by two main criteria: the gentle slope of the land and the proximity of the creek. He often talked about wanting a water wheel, and though we never managed that acquisition, we did have the other water feature he admired. He called it a splash rock.
Our splash rock is a good sized, flat rock placed under a waterfall that bounces the water and helps the creek to sing. It’s also a convenient place to cool a watermelon. Uncle Mike made sure our stretch of creek always had at least one little waterfall with a splash rock in the pool below. It’s generally an unnoticed piece of the design, but it makes all the difference.
A couple of weeks ago, our friends Pat and Mary braved an abrupt thunderstorm to decamp from their car to our porch, and we all began happily shouting over the rainy watervoice of the creek. In the midst of our spirited conversation the sun suddenly blazed out and bathed Pat in late afternoon gold. The sight of it will be for me an enduring memory and will serve as an image tribute to the magic that happens on this porch. A lot of the magic is the conversation.
I’ve been pondering what makes some conversations, what makes some people, so much more interesting than others. For me it begins with a quality of openness and curiosity. And it’s tangled up with the joy of being fully immersed in a moment.
Lee agreed. She replied to the blog preview with this. “What makes conversations interesting is the ability to appreciate nuance, and to ask open-ended questions. Finding answers is always satisfying, of course, but speculation can lead to its own forms of insight. Mulling over interesting ideas can almost always keep me immersed in the moment. And a sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either.”
And ponder Taryn’s lovely observations: “Over the last 20 years, each summer among Olivier’s family, I’ve mused that being fully immersed in the moment is an acquired practice that the French culture excels at cultivating. Our American culture, in contrast, tends to cultivate an ever-present anticipation of what’s next?”
She sympathizes with her sons’ and her young niece’s restlessness, but has “come to appreciate, even treasure, moments of waiting, moments of being fully immersed and engaged in whatever is in front of me: a walk from the home of ma belle-mère to the local boulangerie to buy our bread for the day; a few private moments in the tiny cathedral where Olivier and I were married; a conversation with a relative I only see once a year; a niece sleeping in my arms who might be too old to snuggle next year; watching my boys play a game with their younger cousins; a glass of wine paired with local cheese; even watching mon bon père carve an apple with his pocket knife is an exercise in daily meditation.”
Mark and I first started ruminating on conversations after a dinner party with some acquaintances. Among the diners was an excruciatingly boring couple. The woman was more vocal, which made her the primary subject of our scrutiny. She was painfully, animatedly, long-windedly boring. After a time, it became mesmerizing. I chanced a glance at Mark, and he, too, was clearly fascinated. Not with the exhaustive story of her sick dog, but with the fact of her continuing to tell it. How, we each later confirmed the other was thinking, how can she possibly be this boring? We leap-frogged over irritation straight into Anthropology. It was a triumph of curiosity over lethargy.
Curiosity is a big turn on for me, because it combines wonder with humility. Here is something interesting I’ve just learned about curiosity.
Here’s my working theory for what makes satisfying conversation partners: curiosity, openness, generosity, the willingness to talk and to listen, general knowledge about many things, specific knowledge about a few things, the ability to connect seemingly disparate things, attentiveness. A good conversation requires partners with at least four of those eight elements. One of the most important is attention. Simone Weil observed that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
A good conversation feels a lot like love.
Some people have the rare gift of being a conversational splash rock. Amplifying the beauty, skillfully drowning out the mundane, balancing the voices. Generally unnoticed, but often making all the difference to the conversation.
I have come to believe that the qualities that make for good conversation are the same qualities that make for healthy self-talk, and also for prayer.
My friend, Alex, once said, “Prayer is an extension of faith which is more like a constantly flowing river than like an intermittent faucet.” Exactly.
As I wrote more fully in We Are Also Like That, the creek is my metaphor for the Holy Spirit. It is always there, always flowing, regardless of my attentiveness. If, as poet J.D. McClatchy wrote, “Love is the quality of attention we pay to things,” I believe it is also the quality of attention paid to us. The generosity of my attention to the Spirit is always repaid in torrents.
Wonderful friends from Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, spent last weekend with us and were cause and witness to three Montreat firsts for me. One was a hike over Lookout to Rattlesnake Mountain to view an ocean of Blue Ridge Mountains rippling to the horizon. One was leaping off rocks into the swimming hole that hasn’t had enough water in recent years for anything other than wading. One was sitting at the porch table, picking crab they’d caught a few days earlier, laughing and shouting over the creek.
Last Friday night brought a series of showers, bands of rain that varied in strength and duration but added up to about an extra foot of water surging down the creek. Most people were watching a movie inside, but I felt beckoned outside. Slowly, in the dark, I made my barefoot way down to the creek, stepping carefully onto a big, mossy, flat rock and then into a pool.
I stood in the current and felt the swift water a benediction around my calves, and I remembered my baptism, the fact of my baptism, and I crossed myself with the holy water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The holy rain anointed my head; rain being the same water, of the same holy water cycle. And I praised the holy ocean that nurtured the crabs and shrimp we shelled and ate that night—it’s the same water. It’s the same Spirit flowing, sustaining, attending to and loving us.
Once, before children, Mark and I spent a wonderful night alone in Charleston, South Carolina. We walked around downtown and, anticipating our fancy dinner reservations, went back to the room to rest and change clothes. Mark gleefully filled the jacuzzi tub with hot water. Like, only hot water. I hadn’t had even a sip of wine, but, perched on a corner of the tub, I was feeling woozy just from the steam boiling off the top. “I can’t get in,” I said.
“Why not?” he asked, taking off his shirt.
“I think it’s going to be way too hot. I’m not sure I can get in at all.”
“Baby,” he said, all worldly in his beautiful nakedness, “A hot tub is supposed to be hot.”
With a slight roll of the eyes, he stepped into the tub. Left foot. Right foot. Then, like running tires in football practice, he hopped out leftfootrightfoot. “Damn!” he said. It looked like he had on red tube socks. By that time I had had a sip of wine, which I accidentally spit into the tub.
We let some hot water out. Ran some cold. I eased myself in gingerly while Mark refilled the wine glasses. I had to sit on the edge again. Looking to redeem the situation, Mark decided to turn on the water jets. “Shit!” he screamed as the water hit him between the shoulder blades. “That water’s hot, too!”
“Baby,” I said all deadpan, “It’s the same water.”
I love the blessings written by John O’Donohue. Here are the final two lines of For Longing:
“May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.”
Here is my blessing for you. May you come to accept your longing and God’s longing—and to know that it's the same longing. It’s the same Spirit immersed in an on-going conversation with your soul. It’s all the same water.