Rock Bottom, or Experiencing God While Emptying the Bus’s Waste Tank

I suppose everyone has a particular way of dealing with rock bottom. Some folks eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s “Chocolate Therapy.” Others watch 6 seasons of Lost, 10 episodes at a shot for a week or two, just to escape.

For me? I always know when I’ve hit rock bottom because I go to and start looking for “real” jobs. This never helps, because I quickly realize how unemployable I am. When you put writing into a job search, mostly what comes up  are notices for insurance sales, or telemarketing. Or paid ads for MFA programs.

My breathing slows and I start to consider how embarrassing it will be to move back in with my parents. I consider all of the more nefarious ways I could generate income, such as selling my organs on the black market or off-loading bodily fluids for cash.

* * * * *

The Amarillo sky was low and gray today, the clouds providing welcome relief from a sun that torched us yesterday with high temperatures around 99 degrees. And the wind. There is always the wind. The trees bent towards the north, the pale undersides of their leaves glaring silver.

I sat outside the Starbucks today and considered the fact that my current projects end in a few months, and I have no guaranteed income beyond that. I considered the cost of diesel. The cost of four children going to college. And I opened up

* * * * *

On the Sunday morning that we left Tulsa, almost a week ago, it was cool and windy. I went outside to get the bus ready for departure. This involves, among other things, emptying the waste tank and filling the fresh water. I sat down on the ground beside the hose, turned it on, and then waited.

As I sat there, one week ago, I realized that it had been quite some time since I just sat quietly. Not writing. Not driving. Not messing around on my phone. Just sitting, available, listening to the muse or to God or to the wind.

Strange. Tangled up knots inside of me started to loosen. I sensed God there. Maybe it was the quiet, or the cold. or the sense of adventure that always fills me before we embark on the next leg of our journey. But it was a spiritual experience, sitting quietly, emptying the bus’s waste tank. Filling the fresh water.

* * * * *

Tonight, after leaving another great writers’ gathering, I drove west on I-40 towards the RV park where our bus is parked. Tomorrow we begin the 600-mile trek to the Grand Canyon.

Huge puddles remained after the hail storm that passed through earlier today. I came into the dark bus and sat down to write this post. I listened to The National’s song “About Today.” The wind pounded the bus, swaying it back and forth. Cade came out to ask if we would tip over. I assured him we would not. Inside, I wondered.

I feel scattered tonight (can you tell by the ridiculous jumps this post is taking?). I feel uncertain. Yet there’s a simple assurance in the quiet. A sense of peace in the wind. It’s the same peace I felt sitting outside the bus in Tulsa a week ago. The kind of peace that wraps around you, even when you’re emptying the waste tank.

I think of the poet Billy Collins’ words,

What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one

And I realize, there is no other scene I would rather be enveloped in.

24 Replies to “Rock Bottom, or Experiencing God While Emptying the Bus’s Waste Tank”

  1. Shawn,

    Contentment while feeling scattered often eludes me. Contemplating the future can be scary, especially after checking I enjoyed what you had to offer at the gathering last night. I pray your trip to the Grand Canyon provides rich material for many stories.

  2. Shawn, you’re willing to live what the rest of us dream and fear. I felt a similar moment last night…i’m starting a new support group for adoptive parents at our church, and it’s not going the way I’d like. As I sat alone on a rickety folding chair, my mind jackrabbited around for a few minutes, checking twitter, pricing a book on amazon, a constant murmur of disappointment and doubt running through my head. I thought about setting a time to give up and go home, but it finally clicked that God was giving me the space to rest. So I took Him up on it and am glad I did.

    You and Maile inspire and encourage me and so many others, and your words truly matter. Thanks for sharing them.

  3. Just sitting, stopping, letting our minds catch up, and letting God lead us–those are the things I need. When I look at my journal and I’ve gone a week without writing in it, I know I have a problem!

  4. I know this feeling of being scattered, and the nearness of approach to God that comes in the quiet, in the stillness that is so often hard to achieve in our world. I don’t presume to speak for you, but for me it takes intentionality–volitional energy–to be still. Again, for me, there are pangs of guilt when I’m not busy. But I’m learning to accept who I am as an introvert, and let go of my “extrovert envy.” I find Him in those times.

    Do you find that, like Eric Liddle with running, you feel God’s pleasure when you write?

    1. Chad,

      Your question about God’s pleasure is great! That must take a huge measure of confidence to be able to acknowledge that. How much do we judge what we do based on practicality? It is hard to imagine God’s pleasure for what we do if it is not deemed practical by our standards.

      I better quit. My mind is rolling now. ;-)

    2. I do, if by God’s pleasure you mean a sense of fulfillment and the accomplishment of some cosmic purpose. I certainly understand those pangs of guilt when not busy – that’s the Anabaptist heritage coming out.

  5. I’m so with you on the That’s really become my life these days, as I decide what I’m going to do with my future. I’m really warring inside myself, between following my heart and listening to the people who think it’s “cute” that I want to be a writer and should find a “real job” in the meantime. Like Christine said, you really are an inspiration. It helps me more than you can know that you did what I am trying to do and made it out alive. :)

  6. Shawn, you are doing brave and bold things. And this is not easy. Keep going.

    Also, I could not help but think of the power of poo as you emptied the waste, filled up the fresh water. This is your journey. Peeling off the rot from the bottom of the shoue and learning to fly.

    Keep flying.

  7. Press on, friend.

    (I paid for my college education out of pocket. Worked two jobs through college. Graduated with two majors, four minors, and a 4.0. Because I had to be mindful of time-management/finances/losing a scholarship, paying for my own education was the BEST thing for me. Really. Close the laptop and just be with those kiddos. You can’t buy back this time with them.)

  8. Paying for your kid’s college education won’t come any easier if you have a 9-5 job. Keep on keepin’ on.

    Oh, and you are in for quite a treat at the Grand Canyon. It’s hard to put into words so I’m curious to see how you describe it here on your blog. Simply an amazing place.

    Swing by Sedona, AZ if you have time – more southwestern beauty and amazing hiking.

    1. Good point, Clint.

      We’ve loved the southwest, even more than I expected. The huge, open spaces are like good medicine.

  9. I often feel that I make decisions that keep me living in fear and anxiety. Taking risks or challenges or just making choices that leave little room for a secure base. Although staying home and not going on this trip wouldn’t have secured you more writing jobs, you didn’t need to go on this trip which adds more stress to your “work”. So I wonder, why did you take this trip? Why do we tend to do things that bring us fear, that challenge us? Why do we go in the very direction of instability and then cry out for instability? I don’t know because I do it too.

    Ultimately, fear and anxiety, at their root, is about a fear of death, of no longer “being.” Some deal with this by over-insulating their lives, keeping lots of money in the bank and reducing the amount of change in their lives. Some deal with this by not really paying any attention to this, just doing what they think they should be doing and going alone with the rest of the society. Others go to the edge and have to look over the edge to see what it might look like to fall, to see how far the drop is, to attack things they are afraid of, to wiggle the loose tooth on end. All of these are ways of responding to the reality of ‘non-being’ in our lives.

    Being aware of our finitude can bring fear and anxiety and despair. But it can also illuminate what it really means to live. Many philosophers have taught that we must stare into the sun, we must confront death and non-being, to find true meaning in our lives now. Denying death and its inevitable non-being as human on earth, avoids the very essence of being.

    What I have learned in my anxiety and fear about things is the more I sit in that embodied experience, the more I am alive. It doesn’t necessarily bring immediate practical answers but it allows me to confront what I seem to be diving into. You are not making safe decisions and this is just going to bring fear and anxiety. They are givens. It is possible you will be back in your parents basement, but without confronting non-being (your parents basement) you will reap the benefits of what it means to live (what you are doing now and its possible success).

    I’m with you buddy. I don’t like to see you struggle but I know that struggle very well cause I’m there.

  10. 1. I need to journal more regularly. It helps ‘still’ me.
    2. I love it when God shows up in the everyday stuff.
    3. I like lists.
    4. I so enjoy your blog. Thank you for sharing your journeys with us. It’s a treat and a blessing to see your family’s story unfolding.

  11. Press on, friend. Press on. I know this scattered-ness well. I know what it is to lean into the quiet and seek out God’s small still voice. And while our precise circumstances are different, I know what it is to question and wonder what the next job will be. The truth is we’re not called to worry about tomorrow. As you pointed out so skillfully in Building a Life Out of Words, God has provided for your needs. Each project has come along in the right time. You were meant to write and so you shall. I know we’re prone to worrying about the future and everything we can’t control. But I hope that as time progresses, we’ll all get better at replacing those worries with truth and trust.

    And for the record, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for college. They managed to contribute half, pre-loan. Paying for the rest, plus grad school, was one of the best things that happened to me. I literally earned my education. It was hard work but it taught me so much, something I remember each month I’m closer to paying my loans off.

    1. You’re awesome, Leigh. It’s so exciting to see someone living a faith-filled life. Thanks for all those good reminders.

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