On Rest and Flaming Alaska
Writing by Raisa Tolchinsky, Poet and Herbal Crafter
I am not good at resting. An overactive imagination combined with a restless spirit plus a robust caffeine habit has meant it’s been a continuous journey for me to learn how to slow down.
In John O’Donohue’s poem,“For One Who Is Exhausted, A Blessing,” he writes, “You have traveled too fast over false ground… gradually, you will return to yourself.”
We’re so often taught that taking a break, even for a moment, means failure… that slowing down is an admittance of weakness. Yet when I started boxing this year, one of the things I was told (and am still told) most often is to slow down. Patience and timing matters just as much, if not more, as how strong you are or how hard you can punch.
Lately, I’ve been wondering how to reside within a place of rest even on the chaotic days, during the hardest workouts, amidst the most difficult conversations. How do we work hard at the things we love in a centered, sustainable, sane way? And how do passion and balance go hand in hand?
Often the work that needs to be done is nonnegotiable— the bills have to be paid, the deadline has to be met, the dishes have to be washed. Life is layers and layers of dealing with others’ needs as well as our own. But when the work is in our control, can we allow ourselves to sometimes give 70% instead of 100%, to resist an “all or nothing” mentality?
A few tangible things that help me relax on a daily basis: taking a hot bath (most times with Soak Your Wild Oats), turning my phone on airplane mode, drinking a glass of wine, listening to classical music. Being in nature helps a lot, because when I spend time outside, I am reminded of how frenetic, chaotic activity is mediated by periods of rest or stillness. Hence, “the calm before (or after) the storm.”
Yesterday morning, I was woken up by pink light streaming through my window. It was supposed to be a morning to sleep in, but I grabbed my coat and rushed to my rooftop to watch the sun rise. It never fails to surprise me, the way the sky opens up slowly as the city begins to wake. I’m so glad I got out of bed to see this unfolding— and was reminded of how rest doesn’t always mean repose. There are different kinds: mental, physical, spiritual. There’s certainly an active version of rest, one where we simply vow to pay attention, to focus on one thing at a time. Maybe cultivating this presence helps sustain even the most intense kind of activity (whether it’s running after a two-year-old or writing a book).
O’Donohue wrote that rest can help us “return to ourselves.” And the returning I would hope for is not just physical. Seeing a sunrise certainly feels like a visual time-out from the grey grind of the city, even if it means waking up early.
There’s a lot to learn about how to cultivate rest, but I’ve been reminding myself lately that slow burning embers are the hottest part of the fire. As my mother once said to me, you can’t live your entire life like it’s a flaming Alaska.