When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
(“The Peace of Wild Things,” By Wendell Berry, in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998)
The day after the Roseburg, Oregon shooting, my friend Alecia posted Wendell Berry’s poem on her Facebook page. I, as so many others, needed the comfort of his words to find some refuge from the constant assault of crises, war, and violence in the world. Another shooting. Another troubled human being whose actions seem inconceivable, and yet, as we were reminded how this country has become numb to these senseless acts of violence so prevalent in our society. I too felt “despair for the world” enlarge and grow within me. I needed respite from the woes of the world to regain my footing.
I live in a city, and escaping to a place of peace and quiet can sometimes be difficult. But for the past year and a half, I have been taking refuge in the quiet of early mornings, six a.m. walks with my dog and a ritual of sitting in silence outdoors afterward. It is there, and in that practice, that I regain a sense of peace and gratitude that comes with stillness. I rest in the grace of the world.
What is stillness? According to Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), it’s not so much about meditation, but “sanity and balance…a chance to put things in perspective.” “Going nowhere,” he states, “isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
(From: “Keep Quiet” by Pablo Neruda (In: Extravagaria, 1974)
Perhaps our societal numbness to what the President called “routine” violence in our country is, in part, the constant motion and noise that fill our daily lives. We race from meeting to meeting, social event to social event, respond to dozens of emails and texts each day, spend hours in front of screens when we’re alone, assaulted by the constant over-stimulation of news, trivia, games, retail offerings, advertisements, on and on. “A big luxury for so many people today,” Iyer says, “ is a little blank space in the calendar where you collect yourself.” It’s stillness, being quiet that allows us to care for our inner lives, to feed our malnourished spirits.
Writing for the New York Times in 2012, Iyer cited Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr noted that Americans spend eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen and that the average American teenager sends or receives 75 test messages daily. Ironically, it was many years ago that Canadian author Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Message, 1967), warned us, “When things come at you very fast, …you lose touch with yourself.”(From: “The Joy of Quiet”). Perhaps we weren’t listening.
Think about it. It’s not unlike the noise in the rush of information and appointments that anyone with a cancer diagnosis experiences. You’re overwhelmed, exhausted, and trying to navigate between opinions and deciding on treatment options. The physicians’ voice may temporarily become your own. But gradually, you regain the ability to listen to yourself, your heart. You find your voice, clarity of what matters, what is important to you here and now.
But little by little,
…as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world…
(From: “The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork, 1986)
How do you find your voice–what you truly believe is important to you? Stillness, being in the moment, can help. Cancer, or any chronic illness, as Dr. Paul Brenner, MD states, “is Life: You hope it can get better but fear it will get worse. There is no choice other than to live into what is happening now.” Those with cancer, he notes, live in the truth of the moment because that is all that exists. It is, ultimately, about being present to the now, not living with regret for the past or worrying what the future holds.
Stillness, time to be fully present in the moment, can help us clear away the static, clarify and discover what is truly important. Meditation, yoga, tai chi—all help ground us in the present, the here and now and in quiet. As Iyer reminds us, stillness–learning to be in the moment—isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.
I have come to believe that stillness, being fully present to the here and now, is part of what heals us, whether we live with loss, cancer, or other chronic illness. During a 2004 PBS interview former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, spoke about his recovery from oral cancer in 1968. During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing. But as I came up out of radiation and was trying to get myself back in some sort of physical shape, I would walk a couple of miles every morning and then find something along that route to write about…It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.
Kooser wrote over 100 poems about what he noticed on those solitary winter morning walks, pasting them on postcards and sending them to his friend, author Jim Harrison. Kooser describes how his morning walks helped him heal:
“During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing… One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…” The result of those poems on postcards was his 2001 volume of poetry, Winter Morning Walks : 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison (2001).
Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, offers a “recipe” for embracing stillness “At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world~ now I am ready,. “Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening.—
It is a practice I have embraced in my daily life, one that always helps me right myself and remember what is good and important in the world. I have come to cherish stillness as my life has become more complex. Perhaps you have discovered the power of it too. Why not write about it?
A suggestion for writing: For this week, consider how quiet and stillness have been part of your healing process. What practices have helped you learn to embrace quiet and turn your attention to what is, instead of what was or could be?