Stillness is not a technique, but rather a lifestyle which arises from a personal commitment to take up citizenship in the internal world and a willingness to pay attention to the age-old question, "Who am I?"The best tool we have to begin this inward journey is the breath.As we begin to reclaim our birthright of a deep, smooth, even, diaphragmatic breath, the physical feeling of stillness begins to touch both the body and mind.The more we embrace a lifestyle of stillness, the less time we spend being tossed by the wind.
~ From "Stillness and the Healing Process" by Ginger Cunes
February had days and days of balmy breezes; insects hummed; the tree frogs made the pooling creek water boil. Then in March a bitter storm cracked tree branches and froze the forsythia blossoms. The days lurched from sunny warmth to sullen cold, and the wilting daffodils nodded amid crumbling brown leaves: an erratic, unsettling season.
Things are turbulent on every level. We know this.
There is a chickadee outside the window. It has lighted on a slender branch of the nearly leafless bush and is turning its black-capped head this way and that while its little body dances briskly, feathers puffed against the chill. The day is harsh. A bitter wind tosses the tree tops. A dusting of snow, remnant of a fierce winter storm to our north, lies in patches over the curled brown leaves on the ground. Not lovely, nor inviting, still the rugged scene is worthy of contemplation: the nuthatch running up the tree trunk, the sudden red flash of the pileated woodpecker, the woodshed tarp rippling in the wind.
I expect that 60 miles away, the nation’s capital is vibrating: filling with celebrators and protesters: the triumphant and the grieving, the jubilant and the angry. I expect that it is loud and edgy and unsettled.
This was a reflection offered near midnight on December 31, in the candlelit Meditation Shelter at Rolling Ridge, part of an annual gathering of friends and journeyers to cross the threshold together. I began writing it while on the way to visit family in North Carolina on the day after Christmas.
Advent always was an interim time, spanning the threshold between the harvest festivals of autumn and the vulnerable, fierce hope of Christmas. That “betwixt and between” time and place, where things tend to happen, wove itself around us as we gathered for retreat in a time when the forest waited, bare-branched and leaf-carpeted, for that first snowfall, likely still weeks away.
In a season when it is traditional to think about the coming of the light, I was pondering darkness. It seems that this Advent falls at a moment of history when the world is in an up-ended, uncertain, and, yes, frightening between-time, when we struggle to know how to be and what to do and how to behave as things all around us in politics, in governance, in world affairs, and in our psyches, slide toward the dark.
The Annual Meeting of the “Study Retreat Associates of Rolling Ridge” (our official name) is a gathering of the residential community, the Board, our Partner Groups, and friends. It occurred on Saturday, five days after the election. I wrote a piece for the opening of the gathering. It was meant to be both a report about life and activities at Rolling Ridge and a reflection. What follows is an abbreviated version.
...Hope, for me, means a ….sense of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, and that there’s maybe room for us to intervene…. Rebecca Solnit (from an interview with Krista Tippett on “On Being”)
We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty. GK Chesterton
I have been thinking about this two-sentence quote. I saw it first in paraphrase form in an email from a friend. The paraphrase collapsed the “men and women” into the collective pronoun, “we”. It left out “and tragic”, and the preposition “to”, and made the whole quote one sentence, so that it became,
We are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.
By the time a small group of us gathers for our Advent and Winter Solstice retreat The Gift of Story in early December, it is probable that the U.S. presidential election will at last be over. Perhaps the ads, mailings, rallies, debates, harangues, solicitations, and polls will have ceased. What is certain, however, is that the rancor and bitterness, the isolation and anger, the pain and suffering here in this country, in the Middle East, and around the globe will have dissipated not at all. The forces that marred the summer and now the fall don’t care that the holy seasons of Advent and the Winter Solstice promise light in the darkness. Fear and anger rampage on through the world. We will gather in December with full and breaking hearts.
The first mist in many months appeared and lingered all morning, curling among the trees and around the garden and sheep shed. Everyone knows I have long loved this insubstantial Being: an interim element, neither air nor water. Around here, autumn is her homecoming. The arrival of mist signals that change is afoot, a shift in atmosphere and temperature, a turning of the seasons.
The afternoon and days following were clear, sun-soaked, and warm, the trees mostly as full as ever, the moss on the forest paths lush and bright emerald; the forest glowing green all around. Seasonal change is all in good time.
It rained early one morning, a brief respite in the dry spell; not a determined rain at first, it fell softly, a low patter in the canopy. Nevertheless it was a presence, a caress on my jacket and the stony path, gentle droplets condensed somewhere in the pale grayness far above misting on my face and hands. I was thinking about Jesus. In early December we will have a retreat that falls in Advent, and that season, for me, is rich with wonder and the poetry of Incarnation. The stories tell of a baby to be born, a Holy Child, embodied Love, a child fully human and Divine. It is amazing to me, how the unseen can become tangible in this world.
David Whyte’s poem “What To Remember When Waking” has these lines:
To be human is to become visible, while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
After days under a sultry blanket, the woods and the air all around this morning swirled with wafts of coolness, and Billy and I decided that the day called for a walk. As we walked up the path called Peachey Trace, trailed by our cat Olive, patches of light and shadow in the trees made a crisp, motley pattern in the clear, dry air. For the first time in weeks I wore a cotton sweater.
I was on the lookout for a red leaf. Three years ago Beth Norcross, founder of the Center for Spirituality in Nature, led a retreat here at the end of July. She noted that the black gum tree begins turning before all the others, throwing out small, crimson teasers of autumn’s possibility one by one, even in August. I found four.
I cannot cause light;
the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.
Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
It’s summer, the sun’s shining season at Rolling Ridge, and everything is a riot: wine berries, honey suckle, sunflowers, mint, Queen Anne’s lace, kale, garlic tumble over one another in the garden and across fences and railings. Grasses spring up behind the mower five minutes after it has passed. The grape arbor is leaning, barely able to stand under the weight of the ripening fruit. The forest floor is awash in green growth, barberry bushes, and paw paw
One beautiful morning at Rolling Ridge a few days ago, the sun-kissed air was serenely cool and fresh. The tall and slender trees in the luminous forest arched overhead like a cathedral ceiling. Even the call of the jay was music while the mist curled in graceful mystery through the branches and the sun gleamed just beyond, turning the edges of the green oaks and maples to gold. I couldn't help but know myself blessed and lucky, to be dwelling here, not just among the trees, but with a small and valiant community of people who are constructing a life together as much as we can in connection with the earth and this place, and in our best moments humbly willing to be taught and to learn together.
It rained every day since the weekend straddling April and May, when 16 women on retreat here had gathered around the two who were carrying little ones in their wombs and under their hearts. Humming softly to a gentle drumbeat in tune with the Earth's rhythms, we blessed the mothers and the children to be, while the rain whispered in misty droplets on the roof of the Meditation Shelter.
I am staring out the window at another day of clouded skies and fitful rain, the twelfth in a row. In the last days of April, we made a fire in the woodstove at the Meditation Shelter to warm us as we told stories, danced, and drummed together during a women’s retreat. It’s almost two weeks on from then, and I am still throwing on a jacket to walk in the gray mist.
Yet the forest glistens and glows; and when the sun shines, even for a fleeting afternoon, the trees are radiant. I had imagined that Mary Oliver’s poem, "When I Am Among the Trees" was written in autumn; but I see I was wrong:
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
Tomorrow begins the women's retreat, "Restorying the Heroine's Journey" here at Rolling Ridge. We who are participating are supposed to bring a story from our lives as women. In preparation, I've been pondering; mulling over what some have called "the Divine Feminine"...and trying to come up with a story, one which (as suggested) calls to me, that won't let go. But all I can think of is the azure blue indigo bunting at the feeder a couple days ago: iridescent, nearly glowing; and the red breasted grosbeak, striking and regal, who appeared at the very same place this afternoon. Mary Oliver's words come to mind: "Every day I see or I hear something that more or less kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light."
Recently, Scot brought to my attention a poem by May Sarton called April in Maine:
The days are cold and brown,
Brown fields, no sign of green,
Brown twigs, not even swelling,
And dirty snow in the woods.
But as the dark flows in
The tree frogs begin
Their shrill sweet singing,
And we lie on our beds
Through the ecstatic night,
Wide awake, cracked open.
There will be no going back.
Here it snowed on the tulips. The sky has been a kaleidoscope of purple, indigo, and cobalt clouds sliding in and out across the horizon. The pine trees just east of Niles Cabin hum and cough in a gusty wind. It's cold: a fierce April.
A few nights ago, as we walked east along the path between the garden and the sheep field, we looked into the indigo sky, where the nearly full moon was an immense and glowing disc just above the ridge. In the morning, after its night journey, the moon hovered, an orange ball, over the opposite horizon. Moments and sights like these herald a renewed recognition that we are in a thin time.
We are in an ephemeral time here at Rolling Ridge, an indefinable season between winter and spring. Our friend Cheryl is repairing her bluebird boxes while patches of crusty snow line the side of the gravel road. Days ago, a bitter wind chilled faces and bones. Yesterday the frogs sang their mating songs and danced in the pond by Deer Spring Creek. Leaves lie brown and crumpled on the forest floor while daffodils cluster greenly around the porch and by the compost bin. Josh and friends prune berry canes and bushes in the garden; a fresh batch of potting soil waits, while the utterly bare branches of the trees overhead remain tangled against the drifting clouds. At night, the stars are brilliant points of light in the still-sharp winter sky. The moon glistens behind high clouds.
Snow began falling Friday afternoon, lazily, drifting effortlessly from a soft gray sky. Within hours the mood had changed; it became swift and determined, tiny particles careening downward, as Mary Oliver says, "...irrepressibly" into a world "which is falling apart now, which is white and wild..." ("Walking Home from Oak-Head" in Thirst). After nightfall, outside, sweeping snow from the porch, steps, and path in a futile attempt to keep ahead of the storm, the flakes were shimmering, iridescent grains of light dancing in the beam of my headlamp.
It was a wind-whipped, changeable afternoon. Clouds and rain gave way to sun, then swept in to shower some more and left again on another breath. The swirling duet of rainfall and sunlight fit my mood as I looked over the winter-ready garden and the never-quite-occupied horse barn toward the forest. I was thinking about the perpetuity of change, the ever-receding horizons of the land of transition, and trying to make my peace with it. The lacework of cloud shifted, and gold light caressed the water droplets trembling on the paled leaves of the dogwood and the brown honeysuckle vines, making them shine like tiny crystals suspended in the current. There is beauty in that, I thought.
A week before Christmas, Scot and Linda hosted a festive community supper to celebrate this thin and holy time of year. We feasted, exchanged gifts, acted out a wacky rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and listened delightedly to Linda’s fanciful and entrancing telling of the tale of Louhi, the mischievous witch of North Farm who stole the sun and moon (and eventually returned them). Before telling the tale, Linda explained for the children, and the grown ups, the phenomenon of the solstice, drawing out the waves of light and darkness moving in their circle dance. This is a wide season, a long threshold, as the light and dark perform their incremental, stately, and endless exchange.
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