THE BLOG

Learning to Connect: What Time Outs and Broken Glass Taught Me

09/10/2013 02:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013

I have this huge framed Japanese print that's followed me to three homes now. In our new place, it fills the vast white space over our couch, bridging the gap between miles of microfiber and our vaulted ceilings. I admire how it looks in its new spot as I sip my coffee and gaze at the morning fog draped over the gray Puget Sound bay.

The gray mornings tell me September is here. As busy as this month can be, some people insist it's also a fitting time for reflection and transition. And so today, my last day of a two-week vacation (Which I spent moving! And getting my kid in school! And studying for a professional certification! So relaxing!), I find myself thinking about how this piece has led me on an important journey, culminating as I return to the small island community I left seemingly a lifetime ago.

This print is imposing, probably 4 feet by 6 feet, cased in a silver leaf frame. It features three inky black characters on textured white art paper, beautifully rendered with modern, artistic strokes resembling Japanese characters. The frame's small placard explains they mean "renew yourself," and it's this call to action that sealed the sale for me.

The first character is a jumbled mess of black squiggles with a dot above it, like a person consumed with chaotic energy. The second character is a small freeform square(ish) shape -- someone curled in fetal position, maybe? -- nestled between parentheses. This is followed by a large and lyrical, arcing black stroke, reminiscent of one flinging themself into the great white expanse of the remaining canvas. Reminds me of a quote a friend recently shared on Facebook: "Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith." (Margaret Shepherd)

It's easy to interpret the three-part lesson: 1) Raw energy bordering on rage; 2) Retreat and regroup; then 3) Renewal, re-entry, re-connection. Got it.

I bought this piece when I needed some big-time number two. I was trying to figure out why my son's dad and I were shopping for a couch when we could barely stand living together. I'd briefly wandered away when I spotted the artwork on the back wall. We ended up buying a sectional couch that day and left the art behind. Unable to get the print off my mind, I went back a few days later and bought it, thinking that if it hung over my new couch it would serve as an unavoidable reminder that I needed to make some changes. Apparently it worked because within a few months my son's dad moved out. Five years later and a more than healthy dose of number two, the couch and art remain.

And so does the lesson: Life is about the frenetic, the push and pull, the seasonal changes. As ones who live this life, we're a big part of this machine-wash cycle of swirling energy. It's unavoidable, and life happens. The key is to recognize when life becomes too much, call a time out (and not apologize for it), get things figured out and then rejoin the world -- hopefully for the better. This could be as simple as having a weekend-long date with the couch, reality TV, and take-out, to more extreme measures like taking a leave of absence from work, or placing yourself in self-imposed retreat for years.

My best friend and I -- both grade-A type As and introverts -- are each going through an intensive self-study in the subject right now. She is opting for a much-needed time out, but that's her story to tell. I've been tucked away in a secluded farmhouse for the past few years, so after my own incubation and healing, I'm embarking on lesson number three: renewal and re-entry. True to form, the print serendipitously taught me a little something about that just a few days ago.

So, you know how when you move, something's bound to break? And how it's usually something really important? Yeah, so that happened to the print (and to a glass window hanging of my son's toddler-sized handprints that I can't even talk about yet). Art met bookcase and a single crack from one corner to the other ensued.

Before I tell what happened next, I should explain that some of my friends think I, a natural introvert who has long worked from home, am moving back to this small island to seek even more solitude than the farmhouse offered. That I'll take cocooning to new depths and live a hermit-like existence, traveling a confined route from home to my son's school to the little island store as needed, and never meet a significant other or have sex again. The daily logistics of that scenario are probably more or less true (including the probable no sex part -- gah!), but the greater truth is quite the opposite.

Moving back here after six years away is really a forced act of reconnecting. There's nothing quite like living on a small island. As a single parent with an only child, I know this community is one where we can plug in, feel a sense of place, build deep relationships. This is why I decided to move back. But with a population of around 900 full-time residents, stepping outside your door is immediate full-on exposure. Let's just say there are plenty of opportunities to practice reconnection. Some days are easier than others.

Back to the cracked glass: I knew I wanted to salvage the picture but didn't want to pay for new glass, so I decided to take my rubber mallet and break the glass and hang the picture with the canvas exposed. (The picture is sealed on the back, making removing it -- and the glass -- in any practical way impossible.)

As I was gently cracking the glass with the rubber mallet to remove it from the frame, I thought, "Well, isn't this fitting?" Isn't connection easier when you don't have a wall, glass or otherwise, up between you and the world? When you allow yourself to be vulnerable and exposed, just like this art is now? With each tap to break more glass, I imagined that each school drop-off, each store trip, each local event attended where I actually force myself to make eye contact and speak audible words that fall on other peoples' ears, will help me remove another piece of the wall, the emotional façade, that will enable me to connect in more meaningful ways.

Guess what else? Getting rid of the wall also makes you lighter. When I went to hang my print over my now old couch, I realized how much that glass weighed the print down. Now glass-less, the print was easy to hang. It's a little contrived but see where I'm going? (My dad was a pastor; I can make an object lesson out of anything.) As an introvert, I'll always need huge amounts of alone time to recharge. But on a larger scale I'd like to think that with a lighter step, with fewer walls to hide behind, when things get confusing and complicated again (because they will) I won't need to incubate for quite so long, making reconnection easier and more rewarding. Simple lesson in theory, but so hard to learn. In fact, this is really quite difficult for me on a daily basis.

Given the confusing, complicated world we live in today, I hear versions of this idea -- the feeling of overwhelm, the desire to run away without feeling guilty, and regrouping for the better -- echoed among friends. One just returned from a long weekend retreat at a convent in the country before launching back into nursing school. Another recently shared the idea that only after taking time out for deep healing can integration come.

So, I'm curious, readers: As we enter this new season sure to bring only more change, probably good and bad, how do you manage life? What roles do retreat and re-entry -- of renewing yourself when fixing our surroundings or circumstances or world events seems impossible -- play in your own little world? If the idea of full-on retreat is impossible, how can you incorporate small emotional and spiritual breaks? And when we start reconnecting, how can we do it so that's not so self-serving and can actually do some good? I'd love to hear your comments here so that we can share ideas.

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