Do you feel there is a scent in your environs? A whiff of setting–however subtle, however breathed–that informs the eras of your life? And it may be no scent at all, but a texture of the air–a psychological scent, recognizable by the baseline “I” of your consciousness, the one that is privy even to your sleepdark dreams, nestled unfathomably inside the case of your body (that is dying daily). I speak of the smell of a life chapter, so to speak–the intangible thing that, when you achieve a later maturity, will temper entire decades.
Maybe it’s not a smell but a color, diaphanous, tinting the light which surrounds you. Like fall is orange, but even less definable–a thing understood but not defined. Like November’s shroud of misted gray and the brown of bare branches somehow made richer by that very same gray.
So what is the color and scent of adolescence? Of childhood? Of those first few years of marriage? when you can’t figure a thirty-year anniversary and adult children; it simply escapes your powers of projection. What is the color and scent of those two earlier years in which you struggled, failed, and survived–simultaneously the best and worst of times? Of those other two years, earlier still, when you were so certain, yet you failed anyway? What is the aura of each of these gilded and tarnished eras? And all along, your most consistent boon has been experience–bitter, ecstatic, human experience.
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.