A few months ago a certain degree of unspectacular life adversity leaned over to me and whispered: “What if you stop for a while? You were obliged off the road anyhow by the plague. Why not go the rest of the way there, and choose stillness?”
Years ago I remember coming across some stout advice from Robert Bly, bless his bones. He wrote: “It takes a lot of courage to be idle.”
I found the momentum of retreating from the fray, it’s encouragement and sustenance, to be very short lived. The novelty wore off drastically fast, and then came the work – or the anti-work, maybe – of not doing much. It was climbing a set of Escher stairs, stillness was.
I remember Leonard Cohen, bless his bones too, gently chiding himself after withdrawing from a Zen monastery. He had gone the route, jumped the hoops of ordination and deliberate dismemberment of a public-enough life, but he discovered through his prostrations that he wasn’t very good at the religious life. Just wasn’t very good at it. He seemed relieved to be defeated by structural contemplation. He ended up back on Boogie Street.
Needless to say: clever.
In my straining after stillness I wrote a piece for a Swedish filmmaker that I called Still. The irony.
About a third of the way through, there’s a contemplation about the fierce discipline monastic types take upon themselves to replace the less orchestrated strain of ordinary, this-worldly life. It concludes thus:
So you pray for clarity. And you get it. And it’s too much.
So you pray for mercy instead. And you get it. And it’s not enough.
So you pray for clarity instead. And you get it. And it’s too much.
So you pray for mercy … (repeat to a slow fade)
And so on.
My striving after stillness was a noisy affair, I discovered. It seemed raucous and fitful and poorly planned. I could be wrong about stillness, though. If it isn’t fitfull after all, then the simpler conclusion might be that I’m just not very good at it. Trying to still your life is something between a pinky swear with whatever ordains you and an arm wrestle with your nature. That’s what I found.
T.S. Eliot didn’t like April much, and warned us about its predations. Where I live, spring is hitting its head on the transom, and can’t find its way in. It billows and blows down the river’s course, stirring up desire, issuing summons to anyone who’s grown unfond of his own uninterrupted thoughts. Lambs’ve been born, stumbling as if on stilts into life. Not all of them made it. Necessities of the season have begun again to grant us our stations of the evening, our own prostrations and petitions for mercy.
There’s a School to see to. There’s a Grief and Mystery project to groom into shape, and bandmates with whom to drink down the derelictions of the road. There’s a book that fluttered up unexpectedly, and a film document. April is a tangle of got to’s, now. May’s work is coming on.
The venture after stillness has grown still. I’m coming down from the hilltop, to see what’s left of what I left behind. I thank you for caring for the whole thing while I took a little walk, thinking upon the Rough Gods.
Founder of Orphan Wisdom