“The near stillness recalls what is forgotten, extinct angels.” – Georg Trakl
This week, the same message came to me from four places: on a table, while driving up Hillside Street, by a bonfire, and watching a tree swing trace its lazy arc.
On the table
She opened the door. “Hi,” she said, “it’s good to see you.” “You, too!” I said. We walked to two identical chairs near the window, black with straight backs, burgundy silk quilted pillows perched on their cushions. We sat down. She opened my file. “What’s been happening with you recently?” she asked. “Not much,” I answered. “Just traveling every week and doing volunteer work and writing a lot and getting ready for Emma’s birthday and getting Emma started in high school and planning a 37days retreat and doing some client work and sending out a book proposal and applying for some fellowships and collecting contributions for a charity auction and taking Tess to the park and creating baby kimonos and….”
She sat looking at me. “Is that all?” she asked with a smile.
“I guess it does seem like a lot when I list it all,” I said. “But I’ve been cutting back.”
“How have you been feeling?” came her reply. “Pretty well. Just a little tired. And a few headaches. And my lower back hurts a little. But I feel good,” I said. “Have you been taking your Chinese herbs twice a day?” she asked.
Now, as an aside, it occurs to me—perhaps irrationally, but there you have it—that this woman can actually tell if I’ve been taking my Chinese herbs twice a day. I know it’s irrational, but when she takes my pulses, it occurs to me that my body betrays the truth—I have forgotten to drink that warm tea made from herbs. “Not consistently,” I admit, figuring that she’ll know soon enough anyway. She made a few notes in her file, asked to see my tongue and drew a picture of it, with little spots all over it, like reading tea leaves on some bumpy landing strip. “Let’s get you up on the table; I’ll be back in a moment.”
When she returned, I was resting on the table, looking up at a mobile of swans. I would pay her every week just to rest on this table, looking at these swans, just for an hour of quiet in a room with no clutter. Perhaps I should raise the issue with her—would she rent naps? What would be an appropriate pay scale for naps?
When I left D.C., there were two people whose loss left me numbed: my dear hairdresser of 18 years, Rene, a man who kept me a redhead long after reality did, and Susan, my acupuncturist of nearly ten years whose hands always reminded me of a poem by e.e. cummings. It has taken me four years to find suitable substitutes and now, I knew from the moment I arrived in her office, this acupuncturist—like mine in D.C.—is a healer.
I closed my eyes, her hands at my wrist, feeling my telling pulses. What was she reading there, I always wondered. Was it possible—as I imagined—for her to tell? That I wasn’t drinking enough water, that I didn’t get to the gym every day, that my closets were messy, that I wasn’t taking my herbs, that I lost my library card, that I ate a Raspberry Frosted PopTart with 5 grams of fat and 210 calories for breakfast in a moment of weakness, or laziness, or a repudiation of adulthood or common sense? What could she tell during that long silence of reaching for my pulses, my internal dialogue, my blood screaming past that point she held?
“I’d like to do some points on your head and legs today,” she said. She worked quietly, the unwrapping of needles a familiar sound; otherwise, quiet. I lost track of where she was, my mind racing, trying to slow itself down, an internal monologue that embarrassed me, it was so pedestrian: get apple juice, don’t forget cat food, send Emma’s health form to school, need to finalize that handout for Portland, get the contract signed, send a card to Eliav, print photos for Nilanthi and Ajith, pick up the dry cleaning. I wished the list were more impressive: solve world hunger, end racism, build schools for underprivileged youth, but the fact was that my mind was full of minutia. (I’ve been reading about people using a get-things-done method of writing down everything that needs to be done in order to free up their minds, but after buying the book that explained the system, I promptly lost it until John, triumphant at the irony, found it under the bed yesterday. It was nearly as bad as the time that he found “Love it or Lose It: Living Clutter Free Forever” in a dangerously large pile of papers near my desk a few years back.)
Suddenly and without warning, I heard a disembodied voice behind my head: “What are the opportunities for stillness in your life?” she said.
It was a question so shocking and so without an answer that it made me laugh, that reflexive, awful, telling laugh that comes when you are shocked into some kind of cellular recognition, that laugh that isn’t really a laugh at all.
With no space to pass him, I stayed respectfully behind, knowing that I wasn’t up to the challenge of biking up this hill and so needed to pay my respects to someone who was.
He appeared to be on fire, as well, a slight plume of smoke rising from his right side. Perhaps it’s just steam, after all the humidity is high and he’s working hard, I’m sure that’s it, I thought to myself.
I got closer. His body seemed skewed in some way—what an interesting posture! I thought to myself. I wonder if he’s more aerodynamic that way? It’s amazing what they do with aerodynamics these days! And was that a piece of paper he just dropped? Should I let him know? What if it’s something important?
I was finally able to pass, and as I did, I realized that he was not only biking, but he was talking on a cell phone and smoking a cigarette at the same time. And, what? He was also eating a Snicker’s, the wrapping of which he had dropped a few yards before.
How utterly ridiculous! I thought to myself. How stupid, how dangerous, how unfocused and unproductive and…and…how like me, eating, emailing, watching TV, driving, talking, negotiating, cooking—simultaneously sometimes, never one thing at a time anymore, like the biker.
Like him, I am on fire, a slight plume of smoke rising from my right side. And not a good fire (see below), but a dangerous one. I’m in danger of dying of smoke inhalation from this fire.
By a fire
Aside from Enormous and Unrelenting House Envy, the tour of Said House during which—when we hit the downstairs “Mediterranean” bathroom with walls the color of the ocean’s depths shimmering with glitter in the glow of small colored bulbs—Emma turned to face me head on to say in very deliberate tones, “I hate our house,” I learned from sitting by the fire, the sound of crickets buzzing, the threat of bats above, the feel of warm in the front facing the fire and cool in the back, kids running in Rumi’s field, people sitting around the fire, their presence barely seen across the blaze, soft voices punctuating the quiet, then falling silent again, mesmerized by the white flames. Sweet-Sweet Tina had brought a basket of paper and markers for us to write our wishes on, then throw them into the fire and watch them glow. There wasn’t a need for much else in the world, not then. And ever? Why had it been so long since I had sat like that, roasting in a fire? It was an opportunity for stillness too little taken.
On a swing
We went to a neighborhood potluck picnic on Sunday, a gathering of people who live in proximity, but many of whom we hadn’t met. The highlight for Tess was a simple wooden swing. Hung on a sturdy black rope suspended from a branch over 20 feet in the air, it produced the most languid, big, slow swing imaginable.
Tess swung an arc of pure joy into a blue sky, thrilled by wind and nurtured by the knowledge that we stood at both ends of the arc to watch over her, see her laugh, and keep her in motion. As I watched, it occurred to me that, like the fire, there are great pleasures in the simplest of things—many of them outside, not by my computer, but in nature, that air, those clouds, that sky, that living, with someone named John at the end of my arc to catch me when I’m falling.
~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~
Be still. Stop moving. Extract yourself from your evil: that cell phone, your Blackberry, those piles of undone. Create opportunities for stillness. Or if you can’t be still, at the very most, swing slowly and in a big arc, high enough to get perspective on what’s below.