Turning Off Autopilot: More Than Just Getting Through It

This pandemic is definitely an era I am tempted to just keep my head down and “get through” by running on autopilot. This fall I felt like I was in near-constant motion to get through the pattern of every week: church communications, distance learning for the kids, editing, e-mailing, staff meeting, sermon prep and recording, Zoom meetings, reports to the synod, outdoor playdates for the kids, Zooming with relatives, domestic tasks that run on in perpetuity … I kept going because it seemed like the only way to make it through was to stay on the treadmill of checking off the tasks. Zoning out with a book or Netflix was a kind of break, but it doesn’t release the imagination.

Yet there were always these little opportunities to be present in the moment instead of surviving it, and I’ve come to realize they were often triggered by sensory experiences. So now I’m searching for more, noticing more.


For example, I use a cup of “wake-up tea” to get my day started, but I know I don’t really savor it. I hardly taste the flavor. For awhile I had a box of little gingerbread cookies to dip in my tea for a hint of flavor. I’d describe all of my cooking – and thus our household’s eating – as utilitarian. It is to keep us alive, and to present the picky eater with foods that she’ll actually eat. So when we had a gift certificate for our favorite local restaurant and ordered a fancy heat-at-home meal for New Year’s Day, I could confidently declare: “This is the most flavorful meal to come out of my kitchen in a long time!” It was an event, to remember the joy of taste. There’s a kind of fresh garlic cheddar bread delivered to our co-op from a bakery that whenever I see it, I buy it, because it makes me feel alive. I want more than just a “taste” of that lovely embodied experience.


Taste and smell are intertwined, but I know the aroma of a chai tea latte from Starbucks, which immediately conjures a visit to my friend in Hawaii, transports me before I even taste it. I had one the other day when I was driving a long distance and could find a Starbucks with a drive-through window. I remembered our time together on Oahu, and breathed differently. It was a moment I was thoroughly glad to be alive, instead of just breathing. As a part of a subscription box for women religious professionals, ConseCrate, I have received several items I probably never would have bought for myself, but that have the same calming effect from their aroma. An aromatherapy dough infused with a calming essential oil has surprised me by how much delight smelling it – and taking those deep breaths – gives to my life. The smell permeating our small house is the reason I buy clementines, although we never seem to eat them fast enough to get to the bottom of the bag before some harden, their juiciness given out to the air.


We are deep in winter in Minnesota, so I am mostly wrapped up in layers, even inside. Yet I love the feel of warming my hands on the side of a mug of tea. I occasionally remember to scrub the edges of my heels with a foot scrub to soften them to touch. My two daughters read their stack of library books lying feet to feet on the couch, folding up their legs for me to fit in the space between them when I read aloud from Grandma’s Zoom book club picks. Our bodies warm each others’. I am not as overwhelmed by touch as I was sometimes when the children were smaller and more clingy. The six-year-old is a hugger, and her spontaneous embraces are so life-giving. The set of scrubs that fit my husband best, he washes every evening when he returns from the clinic, then hangs them on the drying rack in our bedroom, to bring a little humidity into the dry air. Then we wake without the soreness of forced air heat scratching our throats.


I have largely stopped seeing the pandemic clutter in our house. I suppose my eyes still see it, but I don’t process the sight as something that must be changed. The tangles in my younger daughter’s long hair – nests, really – from reading while rubbing her head against a pillow, have the same non-effect on me. I realized yesterday that I still hadn’t taken down the evergreen branches which we used to decorate the built-in woodwork for Advent/Christmas and since some of the pine needles started to brown, it was time. I removed the Christmas cards from our built-in cupboards too, and replaced them with the valentine cards my children received instead. For the first time in awhile I notice them. I have hung a new birdseed “bell” in the back yard and catch glimpses of some colorful and beautiful birds when I remember to look. My eyes hunger for views of nature, especially during the streak of 8 days below zero which kept us mostly inside.


There are several irritating sounds I strive to relegate to the background and no longer notice. The furnace has a high-pitched screechy sound when it kicks in. The clothes dryer, which is surely decades-old and lived in this basement long before we moved in, has developed a horrible piercing noise when filled too much or too little, so it cannot be run once the children are trying to sleep, which is another reason for my husband air-drying his scrubs. I have never been into popular music or listened to much radio other than NPR, so I suppose I am not leaning into my sense of hearing as much as others for moments of liveliness and intentional presence. But my body remembered how moving I find the sung Lord’s Prayer (to a Cambodian tune) our home congregation uses, when we joined them online for Ash Wednesday worship. I keep humming it, finding moments of holy presence in my absent-minded action.

What are you tasting/smelling/touching/seeing/hearing that turns off the autopilot and brings you into the present moment to appreciate being alive?

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