Look at your world. Anticipation hangs round the trunks and low branches of hillside trees. Behind the laboratory, up on the steep slope, which spends its day much in shade now, fall has come. Everyone always guesses at the reason–some say shorter days; others say cooler weather; still others say moisture. Whatever the cause, it begins gradually in mid-August with a shy, suggestive fading of the green, which few seem to notice; then it waits; time must pass–elusive, insomniac time, falling away at the moment we would seize it.
Then on a traffic-addled September morning, one on which time has willfully mobilized against you, bringing tardiness, despite your efforts, and its attendant threat of reprimand, a spray of red pierces the leaf curtain at your left, followed by scattered assertions of pale yellow. A drowsing, purpling vine sways affably from an oak. And for a moment already passed, time was almost a thing to be grasped.
Many moments of stillness occur just before dawn. When our son was born thirteen months ago, my wife and I became morning people. It was necessary to prepare for the day at a quiet, dark hour, so that we could get the jump on Arthur whenever he saw fit to wake up at an equally early hour. To be forthright, I had been falling out of bed before sunrise for months to paint or write before going to the lab. Yet this was different. Before, the early rising had been elective; now, it was a requirement. Lest anyone think this a source of contention, though, it was quite the opposite. In addition to the fulfillment concomitant with Arthur’s care, there often were–and still are–moments of rarefied and unanticipated stillness.
September provided several such occasions. The seasonable coolness of this year’s fall lured me out onto our deck, which faces a thick row of trees and tree-topped hills beyond. We live in Nashville, but the landscape as seen behind our townhouse is arranged and adorned so, that was it not for the whoosh of traffic on Edmondson Pike, one could be led to believe they were visiting an area well outside the city limits. On those mornings, with my coffee perched on the railing, I stood staring into the chill blackness, listening to the night noises. After a small while, the faintest shade of steely blue light would begin to color the eastern horizon. We sometimes recognize fine moments while we are in them.
Stillness, as understood here, is about being alone with the self. It is about shutting off the song that is dominating all passive thought, or the quotidian concerns that lend anxiety to routine, and rediscovering the simple joy of being. It is not about reading or praying (though I encourage both) but about finding time to do nothing other than wallow in your own quality of awareness, attuning the senses to the present environment and drinking in whatever it has to offer, whether it be a twilight chorus of tree frogs or the apocalyptic rage of a rush hour interstate.
Stillness is not limited to dark, quiet hours while the world sleeps. Nor is it the sole property of reverential settings like churches or libraries. It lies in wait at sporting events, at concerts, at wedding receptions–even at December shopping malls. As with any inward effort, it may be achieved with more or less difficulty amid the clamor of a churning crowd. Author Silas House, in an article addressed to aspiring writers, states that the object is to “learn how to become still in our heads”, later adding that we “must become multitaskers who can be still in our heads while also driving safely to work, while waiting to be called “next” at the D.M.V., while riding the subway or doing the grocery shopping or walking the dogs or cooking supper or mowing our lawns.” There appears to be an art to this internal stillness of which House writes and of which I am attempting to write, something to be worked toward with a goal of mastery. His article inspired me, but I do not believe the wisdom therein is limited to writers. There is benefit to us all in moments of stillness, whenever and however we may capture them.
House, Silas. “The Art of Being Still.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 1 Dec. 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Overused expressions from popular culture are to be avoided in general, often repeated as they are to the point of becoming trite. But I can think of no more appropriate phrase for this post than that of John Lennon in his song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” An unfortunate side effect of the holidays (which begins for me the moment Halloween decorations hit store shelves) is the occurrence of lulls in the in-betweens. The three month period for which the Halloween season and New Year’s Day serve as bookends may be viewed as an imaginary mountain range. The peaks in this range are the calendar holidays themselves, and they are connected by a lengthy trail which requires time and patience in the ascent of each peak but then plunges precipitously down the other side, dipping into the mundane. An irony of this festive time of year is that what is considered mundane–the ordinary chores, the routine tasks, the minutiae of the workday–begins to feel even more so. Jobs become drudgerous with much clock-watching. Occupations that allow for little time off during the holidays can even become sources of bitterness. We who appreciate this part of the year juggle conflicting feelings of eagerness for cherished traditions with the fear that they will end too quickly.
So here is a challenge to myself and to anyone else who struggles with finding a balance between these special days and all the tedium-laced, unremarkable ones that surround them. Let go. Halloween, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve will take care of themselves. The embedded psychological weight of each of these all but insists on their prominence on the calendar. Keep traditions, but understand that they will endure without excess of effort and anxiety. The preparation of food or the purchase of gifts may be necessary, but fretting over making the day memorable is not. Instead, direct that energy into embracing the in-betweens.
Nature is a worthwhile place to start. Fall colors peaked weeks ago, and a majority of hardwoods have lost their leaves, but throughout Middle Tennessee there are little pockets of color–solitary maples clinging stubbornly to their bright reds and yellows, which appear all the more dazzling amid the encroaching browns and grays of the surrounding trees. To a willing mind, even the browns and grays have their charms. A line of bare branches, when positioned opposite the sun, has a way of softening the waning rays of dusk into a mellow red-orange glow, which in turn is complemented by a paled and deepening turquoise sky, quilted with magenta-pink cirrocumulus clouds.
Cold nights are here, yet there is an alternative to bemoaning the onset of early darkness. When the premature sunset fools us into thinking the hour is late, shift focus to the comforts of home. Home can be a loaded concept, but hopefully it is a positive one. Perhaps it implies family, but it also can imply warmth and refuge. In the abstract, home may imply a place inside ourselves, where we are able to retreat regardless of our physical environment.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, the mountain peak at which we arrive this week, I suggest one last way to ease the anxiety of the mundane (and I do it with another potentially overused phrase): count your blessings. Loosen your grip on tomorrow’s ambitions and take stock of what you already have. Everyone has something, and most of us have much. Inevitably, the in-betweens will be sweetened, and an impulse toward generosity may just reveal itself.