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Always Frazzled and Stressed? Try 'Living With Margin'

Ruth Ann Larson reflects on the importance of quiet and stillness.

“I opened the door and heard a sound like rain drops…” Rather bland words, but I had, in an effort to preserve the memory, hastily recorded my experience. On the morning described, I probably held a cup of coffee as I took in the October colors, neon against gray sky. I had not heard rain but rather, dry leaves hitting cold ground. The back yard cottonwood was shedding its yellow dress, an occurrence I had observed probably hundreds of times, but never fully listened to before. To listen to falling leaves one has to stand still. And be quiet. For what can seem like a very long time.

Only an hour after that observation, our youngest daughter noticed that the same tree had dropped almost half its leaves and later, before heading for school, she joined me at the deck door to find the tree a mere skeleton.

My writing reflected on the everyday, flowing-stream moments in our days that slip swiftly over rocks and around shore crags before they disappear into the invisible, irretrievable past. I was a stay-at-home mom with only a small home-based side business. In my writing that day I expressed gratefulness that I wasn’t fighting rush hour traffic or inhaling my breakfast while shooing us all out the door. That morning we had time. Nature waits for no one and its Performance Extraordinaire goes on with or without an audience.

Four giant oak trees canopied our yard and attracted a menagerie of living things. My husband and I began to spend occasional Saturday mornings in front of our dining room windows watching birds, squirrels and kids. Our world enlarged as we slowed down and actually observed our familiar surroundings. We discovered the upside-down climb of the nuthatch, the skittish approach of the hummingbird and the gregarious chatter of the chickadee. But the birds each came on their own time, and one could go half an hour without seeing much action at all. We sat for long periods of nothing on those mornings.

Margin, a book by physician Richard A. Swenson, is a personal favorite. In the book the author warns of living without margin. He writes, “Something’s wrong. People are tired and frazzled. People are anxious and depressed. People don’t have the time to heal anymore. There is a psychic instability in our day that prevents peace from implanting itself very firmly in the human spirit.” 

He defines margin as a simple equation (simple, not easy!), Power - Load = Margin. When our load is greater than our power to handle it we have no margin. When we have less load than our power, we have margin. We are not drained to empty. That day’s musings from years ago affirmed the great value of margin. Making space to watch leaves fall from one tree, beginning to end, to take in the measured pace of a yard’s creatures, to pause. And breathe.

I didn’t have a name for it at the time, but I knew I had come upon something of value, something I felt awkward around, but attracted to; something I had tasted, but  wanted to be my modus operandi. Margin, discovered at the foot of a molting tree.

Pamela Hand November 26, 2012 at 01:30 PM
To avoid being drained I say no eight out of ten times. We volunteer occasionally We had about a years worth of musical lessons for each child. No sports except backyard or in the park with dad. Field trips when they were younger when we could fit in in. We often read together. I take baths instead of showers. I train our young men to handle dishes, laundry, cooking and indoor and outdoor work as well as their finances. I pick a few female friends and decide on what level of involvement I can have with each. I try to remember how easy it is to sign up for an activity. We bike/walk as a family instead, when it suits us on area trails. When we picked voice lessons for oldest son, we set up for two summers only. Said no as a family to over zealous, rude persons. Set limits. Cook together is the newest item we want to work on doing together. Prayer and simplicity and having margin in our lives go hand in hand. God's perspective in Psalms is also valuable. My husband appreciates the balance I try to maintain in our family. Pamela

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