I don’t think life is meant to be a continuous charging forward—one with no pit stops, no breakdowns, and no change in direction. And yet we act like it is. We act like unless we are walking a certain path, with a certain style, we are failing at life. And then if we have a catastrophe or if we aren’t sure where we are for a little while, we’re doing it all wrong.
But that’s not really how life works.
Like many other humans, I can say that almost nothing has gone according to plan in my own life. I might have a destination in mind and maybe I get there eventually, but the directions often rewrite themselves along the way. Or the road isn’t as smooth as I thought it would be, or it doesn’t wind in the direction I expected. And then sometimes I find myself at a dead end entirely, sitting in a pile of loose dirt that marks a fallow period and therefore breaks up my journey with seeming non-movement.
And that’s what I want to talk about now. Fallow periods. The times when we feel like we’re at a standstill but perhaps really aren’t.
I often think about how fields cannot produce abundance without time for the soil to lay fallow: to replenish its nutrients, to regain its energy, to recover its ability to push out incredible life forms. And so it goes with humans, too. Sometimes we’re simply in a fallow period and, although we don’t see it that way, it’s actually a necessary period we need to pass through in order to recalibrate our journey to whatever comes next.
A fallow period can appear in a lot of ways, I think. It can appear most prominently via unemployment when you’ve literally got nothing to do. All the downtime then forces you to sit in the present moment and to confront your own emotions around what that present moment means. Then maybe you move into thinking about what your past looked like and how your future may look a bit different, and sometimes you even change direction—either by necessity or by force.
It can also appear when someone dies. A death often makes us hit pause on our own lives as we fall into grief. Then we find ourselves in a sort of suspended animation, watching the rest of the world as through a window, with everyone moving along as if nothing has happened. And yet we now have to stop everything before we can start anew, because our life is so different without that person in it.
It can also appear in times like these—pandemic times. Times when we’re forced to be more still, to wait, to suffer, to reevaluate. Times when we’re unsure of when it all will end and what it all means anyway, and times when we’re forced to look at our lives in a fresh way. What’s really important? Who is really important? Am I using my time in the best way I can?
This year, 2020, was a significant fallow period for me—and not just because of the pandemic. And for a while I was really distressed by it. By this pause, as I wrote about in The Big Pause. By this not doing of anything, really. And then I realized what it actually was (a fallow period) and I told myself it was okay. I gave myself permission to have a fallow period and to experience it in whatever way that might be.
If you’re in a fallow period right now, regardless of how that period arrived in your life, could you give yourself permission to just be in it? To experience it fully as a period of preparation rather than as lack of progress? And, yes, to recognize that it's a period of uncertainty and discomfort, but to also know that it's a necessary one to propel you on your way?
I started emerging from my fallow period only a few weeks ago, and when I realized the fallow period had ended of its own accord (without much effort by me, to tell the truth), I was glad I’d chosen to sit in it while it was here. To not fight it, but to instead use it as a space to ready myself for whatever came next.
Do not fear the fallow periods. Use them instead for self-discovery, and to tune in to your internal frequencies. And also, try not to stress about them even though they can be very stressful (especially if your unemployment benefits, for example, are about to end like mine were).
Remember that something greater than you could ever imagine is moving the pieces on the game board and closing or opening doors for you. Trust in that presence—whatever you believe it to be—and just sit in the moment that has been given to you. Every moment, including a seemingly inactive one, is always given to you for a reason.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, was released on August 18, 2020. To read an excerpt, check out reviews, see the author Q&A, or find links to buy, click the Learn More button.
Starting in November 2020, most of my new blog posts are ALSO going to live on Indigo Sunrise (https://www.indigosunrise.com/blog/).
Indigo Sunrise is a new website I built with Wordpress to support my work in editing and consulting. That blog will also offer writing/publishing tips in addition to my normal posts, although you will need to sign up for a separate mailing list if you want to get those (you can sign up on that website's homepage or on the Contact page).
My elizabethchaynes.com website was built rather quickly with a different website builder. I did not expect it to grow like it has, and unfortunately it offers super-limited blog functionality. It's hard to use, hard to comment, hard to organize, hard to share with others, etc. The developer has no intention of improving these offerings (I have waited several years and have asked them directly).
Wordpress' blog functionality is exponentially better and, rather than trying to redo this entire site, I've elected to just move the blog over there for easier viewing.
I will continue to share posts here as well, but invite you to read them and leave comments on my new site. You can still sign up to follow this blog and any similar posts on Indigo Sunrise by going here.
About a month ago, I came across a tomato hornworm on my cherry tomato plant. If you haven’t seen a tomato hornworm (and I don't intend for this to be a long, boring diatribe about a worm, but you need to read the story to get my point), it’s a really large, green worm that is about as big and thick as my thumb.
As is often the case with Mother Nature, these worms are cleverly made to blend in with their target plants and are therefore extremely hard to spot. For the previous 36 hours, I’d scratched my head and stared at the plant, wondering what could possibly have decimated it so quickly. A third of the leaves were gone, half of the fruit was gone, and the stems were eaten down to nubs. I looked and looked but couldn’t find any anything out of the ordinary.
I’d learned a few months back that sometimes cutting off all the injured or diseased parts was step one to a plant’s healing, much like how we humans start to heal when we treat our underlying disease or remove things that are broken (like my poor gallbladder, may it RIP). And it was when I went around to prune off the jagged stems and half-eaten fruit that I suddenly spotted him gnawing contentedly on one of my green tomatoes.
I dropped my pruner and ran inside the house. Yelling up the stairs to my husband, who was working in his office, I requested that he come down immediately to provide moral support while I attempted to remove a huge worm from my plant. He was unsure of why I needed such support, but as good husbands do, he came outside.
“I don’t see anything,” he said.
“Right there. Look. There.” I pointed.
“Right here, see? He’s on the stem,” still pointing.
“I don’t see it…”
And then, “Ohhhhh. Wow, they sure do blend in.”
As someone who likes to be thoroughly prepared so as to assure my own success, I’d already researched every possible tomato plant (and pest) issue – including the tomato hornworm. And the internets had told me I should remove said worm and throw him into a bucket of soapy water to snuff him out – much like stink bugs and caterpillars and the like.
So I went and got a clear plastic cup, added some water and dish soap, put on my glove like a surgeon, and went back outside to attempt to pull him off while proclaiming, “Yuck yuck yuck!” audibly enough for the neighbors to overhear.
Except he wouldn’t come off.
I tried, he clung tight. I tried harder, he didn’t budge. Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to squish him if I gripped and pulled him off like Velcro, so I finally won the battle and quickly heaved him into the cup.
“Phew,” I said to my husband, relief washing over me that I’d done this necessary gardening thing and therefore was probably legit initiated into it now.
But then I looked over and saw this poor worm struggling, drowning, suffocating in a soapy swimming pool with insurmountable walls. And I felt my heart start to crumble.
“Gawd. I just can’t do that to him, Jason,” I said, and quickly dumped him out onto the grass. “It makes me really sad.”
“Yeah,” he said, understanding what I meant.
I thought for a moment about what I ought to do next, with said worm now squiggling around on the grass helplessly near my back gate. So I scooped him up in the empty cup - which had small soap bubbles still clinging to the rim - and then I marched out of my backyard, around my house, and down the street to a little clump of native brush that somehow hadn’t been destroyed by the construction of our neighborhood about 12 years ago (Texas has a nasty habit of bulldozing everything to the ground). I then heaved him into said brush even though I’d come to realize he’d likely die anyway from the soap residue, and I sent a silent well wish and an apology to his little soul.
Maybe my behavior sounds a bit nonsensical because, after all, it's just a worm. But I tell you this story because the worm changed how I see the life around me. It made me realize that we often fear the things we do not understand - and this fear response is an important behavior for us humans (myself included) to learn to manage properly.
I feared him because he looked different than any bug I’d ever encountered. He was large, he was green, he had a little horn on his back, and there were multiple sets of feet clinging tightly to a branch that was half the diameter of his massive body.
I also feared him because I did not truly see him. What I mean is, I didn’t see him as part of the same life that exists in me, nor did I see him as an important part of the well-oiled mechanics of our planet. He was just hanging around, doing what he’s supposed to do - which is, yes, eat my tomatoes - but I didn’t acknowledge that he has as much right to the plant as I have. We all share this planet and its resources, and I really had enough tomato plants left over that I could have given that one to him and been just fine.
I think we do this fear response thing a lot, fellow humans. I think this is why we have so much prejudice, and intolerance, and lack of understanding, and weird behavior. It’s because we don’t understand the “other” and therefore we are afraid of that thing or person or animal or way of life.
And what do we do when we’re afraid? We self-protect. We mount our defenses. We turn our heads in disgust, we kill, or sometimes we just run away. In other words, we lose ourselves in some weird egoic protective instinct instead of clearing our heads and seeing the world for what it really is: a place where we are all kind of the same.
Back in grade school, I was fascinated to learn that everything is made up of atoms which are then comprised of sub-atomic particles. A recent Google search says the smallest currently known particle is a quark (these are sub-atomic particles that combine to create protons and neutrons), and that we don’t yet have the ability to break these particles down further.
So we are ALL comprised of this stuff at our core – and it’s true as much for you as it is for a rock, a bird, a tree, or a worm.
I feel like once we get in touch with what this really means, we can start to rethink some of our behaviors. This is why I felt sad for hurting the worm and had to abort the mission: killing him was killing a part of myself, a part of my essence, because we are formed from the same stuff. And not everyone is going to be able to follow me when I say that (it's okay if you don't). But I try very hard not to kill anything and this little guy was new to my world. So I got afraid and lost my center until I looked, understood what he was, and immediately changed course.
Have you lost your center with people who aren’t like you? Or maybe with that little rat who lives outside your house, doing nothing but trying to live life just like you are, but you simply don’t want to share the space with him because you’re afraid he’ll <fill in the blank>?
What this time in our history has taught me is that so many people live their lives in a fear state. It’s MINE. They’ll TAKE what’s MINE. There’s not ENOUGH to go around. I’ve got to have my SHARE. They’re coming to take my LIFE, my PROPERTY, my LIBERTY.
Me, me, me. But what about others?
What about this planet of ours that is smoldering? What about the humans who are starving? What about the ecosystems that are collapsing?
What about the trees that are eaten by big machines to make way for MORE buildings? And what about the animals that are killed with poison, with shovels, with guns simply because they want to exist just like you do but landed in your space by chance?
It’s not all about us, fellow humans.
So I can tell you exactly how I'll react the next time I see a tomato hornworm: I’ll look at him with kindness and I’ll tell him hello. And then I’ll tell him I appreciate that he’s visited and has found some food, but that this is my food, and I hope he has had a good helping and can find more food elsewhere.
And then I’ll glove myself again like a surgeon to pry him off the stem, but this time I’ll place him gently into an EMPTY cup. I’ll walk down the street to that patch of brush, drop him there carefully to give him his best shot at survival, and wish him well as he goes on his way.
This is how life should be, guys. This is how we should be to each other – to other people, to animals, to birds, to bugs, to plants, to the planet. Let’s not forget that we all need each other in order to exist. Too many people don’t seem to understand this anymore, and if we don’t get it together…well, I don’t want to think about that. We’re already seeing it on the west coast, and with storms, and with temperatures rising, and with…so many things.
Let’s all just try to do better.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife (Warren Publishing), was released on August 18, 2020. To read an excerpt, check out reviews, see the author Q&A, or find links to buy, click the Learn More button.
The Big Pause