On a recent writing residency on the eastern edge of Wisconsin, I stayed in the middle of Door County, the state’s narrow peninsula jutting out like a long thin thumb into Lake Michigan. After unpacking my bags, I walked a short distance down the country road to where the lake was lapping at the pavement’s end and a stop sign, with ridiculous redundancy, told me to go no further. I obeyed both lake and sign and stood there for the longest time in gratitude and awe, not a word within reach of my thoughts.
You know how it is. You zoom around on high speed preparing to leave town (or maybe almost every day). And you drive away so set upon arrival, you go for hours down the highway until your new-fangled car decides it’s been too long and flashes a yellow warning – first a picture of a coffee cup and then the words in all caps: TAKE A BREAK. Finally, you get to wherever you are going to “get away from it all,” and you come to a halt on that first day without schedule or duties, and the expanse of time stretching out before you can take your breath away.
On most of the next 11 days, I walked down that road to the shore, thinking gratefully about the gift of being told to stop. How pausing makes way for attention and attention makes room for gratitude and gratitude…. well, gratitude makes an opening for almost anything the heart might truly desire. Creativity. Relationship. Beauty. Resilience. Love.
Every day, I wrote. Every evening, I shared dinner with my writing buddy on residency with me. Every night, I slept and dreamt.
Toward the end of the residency, I made my way over to the opposite shore of the peninsula to a small park where I have often enjoyed the short breakwater built out into the lake with a paved path going down to its point. Last week, though, the whole breakwater was barricaded off by an orange sign that said RAMP CLOSED. The path was strewn with detritus from high water that must have previously submerged it. The lake was still high but had receded some. Figuring I could still walk out to the end, I stepped over the yellow caution tape stretched on either side of the barricade and made my way down the path.
Not far along, I discovered why the walkway was closed. Although the large rocks on either side remained intact, the rising lake had washed out the base of the breakwater in between, creating sinkholes beneath the pavement and causing it to buckle and collapse across the full width of the path. Suddenly nothing beneath my feet felt solid. The waves crashed against the rocks on either side and, behind me, the yellow caution tape I’d stepped over flapped in the gusty wind. I quickly retreated, grateful to return to the other side of the barricade.
The next day, in my morning meditation, I read this passage in the Tao:
… when you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.
The writing residency was almost over. The next day, I would pack up and drive back home, not quite finished with my manuscript but encouraged that the end was in sight. Eager to return home. Again, in a different way, grateful for the command to stop. To know that even the search for the right words is provisional. That every path has its limits. That knowing when to stop is important on any day and every journey. As another passage of the Tao says, “To know enough’s enough is enough to know.”
Is it possible to know gratitude without knowing enough’s enough?
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness retreats, he often instructed retreatants to stop throughout the day, wherever they were, when they heard a bell that rang intermittently. They were instructed to then breathe deeply and mindfully before returning to whatever they had been doing. As I turn my own attention toward gratitude in this month of November, I wonder, what would I learn by setting an intermittent chime on my phone to interrupt my days of doing? What thankfulness might wash over me, if I let the chime serve as an auditory stop sign, bringing me to a halt to notice whatever is lapping at my toes, whatever is calling for my attention, whatever is warning me to avoid the danger of being so intent upon the distant path that I miss the holy ground beneath my feet. Wherever I am. Whatever I am doing, right here, right now.
If you want to write about this (with or without joining me for a day of setting a chiming reminder to periodically stop), consider what gratitude might rise in this moment, if you stopped right now and took time to pay attention. Taking a break, right now, what do you see, hear, feel, experience or know wherever you are, that might wash a wave of gratitude through your being? If you want a prompt, use these words and follow wherever they lead: Stopping here, stopping now, I am thankful ….
 Stephen Mitchell, trans., Tao Te Ching, NY: Harper Collins, 1992, 32.
 Ursula K. Le Guin translation, Lao Tzu: tao te ching, Boston: Shambala, 2009, 70.