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)
There are poets and poems whose wisdom and eloquence I return to often when the world is too much with me. William Stafford is one favorite; Wendell Berry is another. I find comfort in their words, a refuge from the constant assault of political wrangling, war, suffering and violence in the world. In the past many weeks we’ve been inundated with the news of more refugee crises, hurricanes and their aftermath, wild fires and senseless acts of violence. I’ve felt “despair for the world” taking hold of my mood, enlarging each day as I hear of another report of hardship, violence or people’s suffering. I feel helpless in those moments, and as if I, too, need a respite from the world’s woes to regain an even footing.
I live in a city, and escaping to a place of peace and quiet can sometimes be difficult. But I take my refuge in the quiet of dawn, a ritual of writing, clearing my mind in the stillness of early morning as my pen races across the page. My dog awakens with me, patiently sleeping at my side until I signal it’s time for a walk among the trees in the park nearby. It’s a habit, a practice that helps me regain a sense of peace, even hope and gratitude that seems to arrive quietly, unannounced, in these moments of stillness. I rest in the grace of the world.
What is stillness? According to Pico Iyer, travel writer and author of the wonderful little book, 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 what sometimes seems to be increasing societal numbness to something akin to “routine” violence and hardship in the world is a result of the constant motion and noise that fill our daily lives. My life is less hectic now that y husband and I are entering a state of so-called “retirement.” While I enjoy the quieter pace my husband and I share, the old habit of “busy-ness” is an addiction that can be difficult to break. It’s a habit I used to know well but now witness now in our younger family members and friends — their days filled with running from meeting to meeting, social event to social event, responding to dozens of emails and texts in a day, spending hours staring at screens and sites like Facebook, and all the while, experiencing the constant stream of news, trivia, games, retail offerings, advertisements–“noise” of the modern world. I was asked by a woman a few days ago what I did all day now that I’d “retired.” She was unaware of the quiet I need in my life to continue to write and teach, yet for a moment, I struggled to answer–so far removed have I become from the whirlwind life I once lived in the corporate world. I wish, all those years ago, I’d had Iyer’s book to read– he speaks so succinctly to what I then experienced daily: “A big luxury for so many people today, is a little blank space in the calendar where you collect yourself,” he wrote. A big luxury... Think about it. It’s so easy to lose touch with ourselves in our demanding, rush-rush world. Yet we need this thing called stillness, the space and time for quiet that allows us to care for our inner lives and 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. Yet it was fifty years ago that Canadian author Marshall McLuhan warned “When things come at you very fast, …you lose touch with yourself” (The Medium is the Message, 1967).
“When things come at you very fast…” This past week, my husband’s sister , who was treated for inflammatory breast cancer five years ago, was hospitalized after a niggling difficulty swallowing which had worsened to the point she could not ingest food. Tests revealed a growth on her esophagus, and a small surgical procedure performed. Once she was able to eat again, she was sent home, only to be re-admitted days later with bleeding and unbearable pain. She is undergoing tests, but early indications are revealing what is most likely evidence of metastatic cancer, and frequent doses of morphine have done little to lessen her pain. She and her family are navigating between preliminary test results, treatment implications, and clinging to any threads of hope they can find in the doctors’ words.
It’s an experience so many cancer patients and their families know well. Emotions run high; test results can be confusing, diagnoses conflicted, and the fear of death a constant companion. The medical team’s voices may temporarily overshadow the patients’ and their families’. The reality of a terminal diagnosis, clarity about what matters most, and, and what the families and patients truly want for themselves in this final chapter of life are fraught with contradictory emotions and difficult discussions. Where can you find the stillness amid the prodding, tests, diagnoses, medications, pain, prognoses–all of it–to listen to yourself, to know what’s in your heart, and the clarity of what matters most to you here and now?
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. It’s tougher to find the quiet when one is also surrounding by the sometimes conflicting opinions of your doctors and family members. Meditation, yoga, tai chi—all help ground you 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.”
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)
I have come to believe that stillness, being fully present to the here and now, is one of the important factors in what heals us, whether we live with loss, cancer, or other chronic illness. It is deeply important to clear away the “noise” that comes from the external world, from well-meaning others, and listen to one’s self. During a 2004 PBS interview former poet laureate, Ted Kooser, spoke about his recovery from oral cancer in 1968. … 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.
Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), 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.—
I have come to cherish stillness in my life –and I now realize how very much I need to “rest in the grace of the world” to live a life that is meaningful and full, but more, to know my truth by being truly be able listen to what is in my heart and mind. Perhaps you have discovered the power of stillness in your life, a way of being fully present in the world, a way to discover what truth lies in your heart. Why not write about it?
- For this week, consider how quiet and stillness have been part of your healing process.
- What was the situation that triggered your need to “embrace stillness?”
- What practices helped you learn to embrace quiet and turn your attention to “what is” instead of “what was” or “what could be?”
- How has creating or embracing stillness and quiet as part of your life helped you heal?