Tuesday, November 15, 2005


It's not unusual that a CFO (that's my day job) would think about margin. In financial terms that's the difference between income and expenses, often referred to when it comes to thinking about the unexpected--state budget cuts, staff turnover, increased fuel costs, for example. Margin is essentially the buffer.

This week in conversation with colleagues and friends though, I've become aware of a different kind of margin. "[Margin] is the space that once existed between our load and our limits. Margin is the space between vitality and exhaustion. It is our breathing room, our reserves, our leeway. It is the opposite of overload...." ~Richard Swenson, quoted in Kirk Jones--Rest in the Storm

What struck me this week is a narrowing margin in people I'm seeing (and being). "How are you?" I ask. "Tired," is most often the reply, although "frazzled" also has gotten votes. As we approach the harvest season, the change of seasons, the holiday seasons, the winter, it feels like our collective personal reserves are low. For some, margin has disappeared. Overload is happening. We've reached our limits. Once again I think that our recognition of people on the margin, and life on the margin, mirrors and contributes to the sapping of our own energy. It's just harder. If nothing else we have compassion fatigue because it's hard to look at people devastated by hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, or wars, and know what to do. It was people with no margin who didn't get out of New Orleans, or who are now stranded without resources. It is people with no margin who are still in the rubble in Pakistan. And now what do we/can we do ... what happens next?

As often happens, a piece of music presented itself and captures the essence of the busy-ness that often leads to this lack of margin for me. "The Windmills of Your Mind" (from the 1968 version of the movie, The Thomas Crown Affair, lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and music by Michel Legrand) is a very insistent piece. (Find the music if you can--it's almost all eighth notes and no rests, and if you can't find the music, read these lyrics aloud.)

Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel, like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon, like a carousel that's turning running rings around the moon, like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face, and the world is like an apple whirling silently in space, like the circles that you find in The Windmills of Your Mind! Keys that jingle in your pocket, words that jangle in your head, why did summer go so quickly? Was it something that you said? Lovers walk along a shore and leave their footprints in the sand, is the sound of distant drumming just the fingers of your hand? Pictures hanging in a hallway and the fragment of a song, half remembered names and faces, but to whom do they belong? When you knew that it was over you were suddenly aware that the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair! Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel, as the images unwind, like the circles that you find in The Windmills of Your Mind!

In Rest in the Storm, Kirk Jones invites us to challenge two delusions that leave us without margin, and to confront our denial in another area that blocks us.
The first delusion is our own indispensability. The world won't get along without us, so we can't stop and rest and replenish our reserves. Hm ... is this speaking to anyone I know? (Maybe I know her well.)
The second delusion is our invincibility--really, we do have limitless reserves of compassion and energy. (I hope I am over this one, trust me, the creaks in the joints are making me pay attention.)
But the biggest block that depletes our margin, and I think that also puts people on the margin, is what Kirk Jones calls "subjugating" personhood. I deplete my own margin when I get so caught up in being CFO, parent, minister in training, caregiver, listener, friend, etc., and forget that first and foremost, I am a person. That 'who I am,' just me, is what is important, not what I can do. "Before you are a minister, teacher, ..., and even before you are a parent, spouse, or friend, you are a child of God, a person whom God loves unconditionally." ~Kirk Jones.
It's a person that goes for a walk and scuffles in leaves; it's a person that takes time to listen to music; it's a person who sits and enjoys a cup of tea; it's the person who takes time to notice and share that the wrinkles in her own hands remind her of her mother's hands.
In the same way, too, we put others on the margin, by labeling them and not recognizing the person that is there: it's the welfare mom; it's the nursing home resident; it's the poor Pakistani peasant; it's the jerk who cut you off at the light. Where is the person? Who is the person? Paying attention to the person moves the person out of the margin, off the margin, makes the person central again, if only for a time. But that time of centrality is essential. Running out of margin, as we have witnessed, is really dangerous.

So, how do we restore margin?
Margin on a page of course gives us space, clear space, all around us. So restoring margin requires making space for clarity, for remembering what is central to us. Kirk Jones reminds that Jesus went to the back of the boat to sleep, before being awakened to calm the storm. So, find the back of the boat ... give up the delusions of being indispensable and invincible ... remember who you are.

Perhaps this song (also by Michel Legrand with Hal David) puts it in a way we can hear:
The first time I heard a bluebird,
I stopped and listened and it was beautiful, beautiful.
The next time I heard a bluebird,
I kept on walking.
Still, I remembered that it was beautiful, o beautiful.
Day by day the way I once felt grew harder to recall,
till one time a bluebird sang
and I didn't hear it at all.
You've got to learn to hear again ev'ry single day.
You've got to learn to make yourself feel the way you did
the day you first heard a bluebird, a bluebird.
I first heard a bluebird when I was playing in my garden,
looking at my father smiling at me.
Now ev'ry time I hear a bluebird
I still can see my father smiling at me.
The first time I heard a bluebird,
I stopped and listened and it was beautiful,
and it was beautiful.

I invite you to stop to find
something beautiful to hear or see: a bird, a leaf, a smile;
to stop and rest
and remember that you are a person.
Step away from the windmill of your mind.
Find clear space or clear a space.
If you can't do this by yourself, ask for encouragement or help.
And/or when you stop and think or want to do something about the person on the margin, who is not the label, think of her or him first as a person, yes, who may need clothes, shelter, heat, food, or comfort, but, as much, needs a smile and something of beauty, just like you do.

As for me, I found some time after an exam to come home and sit, read a nonassigned book (recommended: Rest in the Storm or Addicted to Hurry, both by Kirk Jones), play some music (Michel Legrand--can you guess), and write a bit. It was a nice bit of margin making.

"Peace, be still!"
In prayers for grace, clear space and peace,
and heading toward the back of the boat,