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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

One Year in Toronto: On Being Still

jenmichel@me.com

"In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me - naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken - nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

Last year, we finished our year of homeschool the first week of May and moved less than two weeks later. When we arrived in Toronto, three and a half months of blank calendar pages were there to greet us. That summer, the phone kept its silence, and if we were to do anything more than the tired staring at our four walls, it would be up to me.

Thank God, we moved to a fantastic city where there is no want of things to do and see. And whenever it may have seemed last summer like I’d exhausted our list of fun, we had only to hop on the subway or a Toronto streetcar to let an ordinary day absorb the smell of excitement.

If there’s something we’ve appreciated most about moving to Canada, it’s the way we’ve let it serve up its invitation to adventure. We’ve crisscrossed the city, developing new skills for city driving and navigating public transportation. I’ve learned how to feed parking meters – and pay my fair share into Toronto’s city coffers. In a year’s time, I’ve mastered the rules of where and when not to drive in a city which bears no allegiance to the left-hand turn lane. And when Ryan told his colleagues last summer the places I’d been toting the kids, his colleagues grew convinced we’d seen more of the city than some of its native-born.

But I’d be lying to say moving is all adventure and fun. When the quiet fog of anonymity settled over this new life of ours, it wasn’t long before I took to needle and thread and started piecing together the skin of my identity. It was as if every conversation with strangers was a stump speech, and I was campaigning for the ways I was like-able, depend-able. (I could be made to believe I was neither.)

Stillness is movement and quiet, amplification: give yourself a little time, hush your busyness, and you may hear the whispered intimation of fear. This is a good and necessary place to which you travel, and it is here God plans His projects of renovation.

Last September, having been in Toronto four months, I wrote this year's January issue for Today in the Word. My assigned topic was fear. I know. How completely serendipitous of God.

That study, coupled with the whole experience of the move, left me with the greater realization that fear works undercover. Rarely do we understand when we’re motivated by fear, rarely do we recognize fear at first glance. Fear wears its many masks of plainclothes: pursuit of accomplishment, habits of people-pleasing, reluctance towards responsibility, issues of control, inability to slow down. And so long as your scaffolding holds steady, fear will remain your stranger.

Because fear likes to fly under the radar, it can require a bit more effort to plot its course. Here are questions I’ve been finding myself asking and answering this past year as a means to get at how fear held its grip over my life. They are questions mean to excavate fear, to be sure, but by answering them, we’re also meant to find how exactly we’ve been resisting the gospel, that good news declaration that we cannot deserve and dare not try to earn the perfect love of God meant to drive out all fear.

* * * * *

1. Whose approval must I secure and keep? And why am I so afraid to disappoint?

2. What am I unwilling to try? And why am I so afraid of failing?

3. Is my reluctance to assume certain responsibilities justified by the limits of my time or capacities or lack of calling? Or, am I afraid of risk?

4. Have I made obedience conditional on certain guarantees I’ve demanded of God? And what are the outcomes over which I try to assert the most control and of which I must be most afraid?

5. How have I put myself in charge of my own spiritual transformation, making it another self-management project? And why am I so afraid of myself?

* * * * *

Stillness is movement and quiet, amplification: give yourself a little time, hush your busyness, and you may hear the whispered intimation of fear. This is a good and necessary place to which you travel, and it is here God plans His projects of renovation.