In my family system, I am the oldest of three siblings and I am substantially older: seven years older than my brother and ten years older than my sister. [And (while I have the chance) I would like to note that being the oldest – for all of you who are in some other family position – is not the blissful existence you envision from your place in the middle or as the next oldest or as the youngest. It has as many cons as it has pros.] In any event, for decades after we had all moved out of our parents’ home into our own and scattered across the country, the birth order dynamic played out in family gatherings over and over and over. I suspect we all felt a sense of despair about it, but couldn’t quite unhook. In my husband’s family, where I have a slightly different perspective on it, I can watch it unfold with some amusement, although being married to the youngest in that family gives me a kind of bizarre double-whammy of experience!
Birth order came to the fore recently when I was on silent retreat for the first time in a decade, a strange hiatus for someone who did retreat twice a year when I lived on the east coast. Part of the problem in Colorado is not having a silent retreat house within reasonable driving distance, and part of the problem was finding the time. Which – during a meditation session in the middle of the retreat – suddenly struck me as an odd phrase. How could I not “find time”? Time is. Time is my unwavering companion as surely as air and gravity and water and earth are. It is impossible to lose time; our shared existence is inextricably interwoven.
As I sat there, eyes closed, aware of my breath and drifting with the question about finding time, I received an image of Time as that wonderful, elusive, irritating, generous, precious, compelling fellow creature that, in the creation myth, is our oldest sibling, having been called into being with the first divine impulse that separated light and darkness into their complementary cycles. So maybe it is no surprise that most of us relate to her in the same way we relate to our oldest human sibling: with some resistance to her perceived authority, ignoring her when she calls us to supper (or work or – in my case – retreat), trying to lose her in crowded places so that we can escape into our own plans, and perhaps more often than would be ideal, finding ourselves on the verge of fratricide.
But what I was reminded on retreat is that I have a choice about whether I welcome Time as a cherished companion with a life of her own quite separate from mine, or regard her as an enemy to be manipulated into some kind of submission. Am I willing to be reconciled with Time when I treat her badly or feel put-upon because I have attributed unkind motives to her? or am I ever and always going to be estranged from her? We all know of families in which some long-ago event has driven a wedge between siblings. Most of us are appalled and saddened by such lost love and, barring some rare exceptions, the only thing keeping the alienation alive is a stubborn refusal on the part of both parties to laugh and say they are sorry.
Such human alienation horrifies me. So I ask myself why I am so tempted to remain alienated from my lovable, whimsical, charming (and wise) sister Time. Or, if not permanently alienated, why I so frequently feel the need to control her or browbeat her or to prove that I am stronger. Why am I unable to appreciate her gifts and blessings (first among them mortality, of course), all of which she is willing to shower on me with a generous heart if I am only willing to receive them? When will I truly understand that she is not my creation, something that I can make dance to my tune, but a living entity with an integrity of her own? Because until I am willing to honor her integrity, it is impossible to experience anything but my own frustration and anger or (in the best moments) my wariness with her suddenly reasonable behavior – meaning she does what I want when I want it.
One of my small epiphanies during this retreat was recognizing how much emotional energy I expend on being irritated and exasperated with Time. Instead of welcoming her gift of priorities, I rail against it, trying (and failing!) to multitask my whole existence. Every day, she graciously offers me the opportunity to honor my own integrity and vocation by choosing to attend to that first (rather than last) and to be fulfilled rather than burned out. And I would observe that on those rare occasions when I receive that blessing, she celebrates with me, pouring herself out in prodigal abandon so that the hours seem endless and endlessly joyful.
Retreats, by their nature, allow for spacious reflection. The challenge is to carry that spaciousness into daily life. But since I make the lists that govern my day (I do. Yes, I really do. And you make your lists. Not anyone else even if you live with a whole houseful of other people), I can arrange those lists in any way I choose…and I can even cross off those things that – on deeper reflection – are not worth sharing with my sister Time. I decide with her how to apportion the space of my eternity. I decide. It is my choice to give that decision over to someone else when I do that; and it is my choice to own the responsibility for making my own decision when I do that. And I think I am going to try to do more of the latter and a whole lot less of the former.
Text © 2014, Andrea La Sonde Anastos
Photos © 2011, 2014 Immram Chara, LLC
Note: The photo of the cairn is available as a card or print from my Etsy shop during Samhain.