Learning to Dwell in a World of Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

“Dwell.”

The word hit my ears in a wooden classroom nestled amongst a wooded college campus and mansions of the uber-rich. Then, it seemed, I had all the time in the world to dwell. The words from novels and poetry uncurled, sinking directly into my poet’s heart. Words were the quickest way to dwell in the presence of God. They stoked the flame of a deep artistic consciousness, where I walked around awake to the mystery of beauty. It was all of a piece. The stars shone. Philosophy sparked conversations. The light played off of buildings. I kissed my boyfriend. I procrastinated on my papers by writing poetry. I had hours to chew on words. I had years to steep myself in beauty.

***

The first doctor appointment we took my first-born son to, I left covered in baby spit up and a a poop blowout. Fumbling around like a football with an infant who wouldn’t stop crying, I tried it all. Pacifier. Breastfeeding. Is he still hungry? I fed him formula. He had to gain weight. I had to be okay as a mother. We pumped his little legs to get the gas out. Still he cried. And then it all let loose from all ends, and I was covered with every manner of substance right there in the pediatrician’s office. Then I was supposed to leave my screaming infant to be weighed and measured. My wool nursing pads smelled like rancid milk. Laughter didn’t curl like light. The reality of motherhood pushed my head under its weight of all that was required — of the way even my body was given over. There was no escaping the smells, the tiredness, the immersion into this otherness of being a conduit for another being to flourish.

Where had I gone?

Was this the good life? Was I supposed to dwell here too?

I figured “dwell” was a word for the unattached, not for mothers who found it hard to drag their tired bodies to feed their infant hour after hour. How was I supposed to learn how to dwell in this zombie state where I couldn’t think straight? If I didn’t have the energy for poetic reflection — where I was numb to the way a line of music or a note of poetry would connect the hinges of imagination, who even was I?

Where had I gone? I’d lost myself.

Perhaps it is in the losing where the finding begins.

***

Now, more than ten years in to this motherhood journey, with four kids instead of one, the caring for another has become second nature. But more times than not, dwelling is not. I long for wooded walks, silence, an artistic performance or a book that will make my life make sense. This, I believe, will bring me back to myself. There, I will get back to “dwell.”

But there must be a way to live this life (for me, here in the suburbs) learning to dwell while I make the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, while I walk my children to school, while writing, and while praying. Like all good things, dwelling cannot be contingent on our circumstances.

But instead, it’s easier to think about the to-do list, the soccer practices, what needs to be made for dinner, than to cup little faces in my hands. Laundry still needs doing, but so does this slow sifting of time alongside the people you love most.

It’s easier to let life speed by instead of learning to dwell in it. So to counter our tendency toward busyness, we plan for slow walks. Bedtimes start early enough to allow for stories and questions — the sorts of spaces where beauty bubbles up and we share it together. I turn over a word while I pack lunches. I stop to sit down to eat with my family. I dream of long days cooking and learning how to garden — just to get my hands into the stuff of earth, to feel connected across time and space. There may be spaces of life where dwelling looks different: more nuanced, more contemplative, more peaceful — slower.

But I cannot wait for that time. If so, I’ll have dried up and have lost my ability to see it.

For now, a word is enough. A moment of struggling through writing is enough. The beauty of packing a lunch and sipping a cup of coffee over another tired morning is enough. One step in front of the other as I walk my children to school is enough. It is not that dwelling is altogether changed. It is that dwelling can be small. And like all good practices of beauty-keeping, we discover that even now, dwelling is always bigger on the inside than how it looks from the outside.

 

 

Ashley Hales

Ashley Hales

Writer and Editor at aahales.com
Ashley Hales holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. But she spends most of her time chasing around her four children and helping her husband plant a church. She writes at AAHales.com and loves to make friends on Twitter.
Ashley Hales
  • Dwelling small, living large in the chaos of life without the overtly beautiful prompts… Just loved this post, Ashley. I think I most appreciated how you pointed out the changing of circumstances (and energy levels and body changes and sanity levels!) doesn’t change the beauty of dwelling. It just looks different. Thank you.

    • Thanks so much for reading and responding. Yep, I think you’re right dwelling might look different at different stages but it’s still important, holy work to notice and stay. So glad you’re here.

  • Jody Ohlsen Collins

    “Dwell” and “Abide” word my words for the year a couple of seasons ago…. and I, too, have struggled how to stay available to listen and be conscious of God’s presence in the middle of life. No children here but a busy writing life and church ministry and a retired husband at home 🙂 not a lot of alone time…Your words are a perfect mix of how to “tabernacle with God” as He tabernacles with us. Thank you, Ashley.