It was like a church to me. I entered it on soft foot, Breath held like a cap in the hand. It was quiet. What God there was made himself felt, Not listened to, in clean colours That brought a moistening of the eye, In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness Of the heart’s passions – that was praise Enough; and the mind’s cession Of its kingdom. I walked on, Simple and poor, while the air crumbled And broke on me generously as bread. ~R.S. Thomas “The Moor” Collected Poems: R. S. Thomas
This is a Sabbath morning when I’m surrounded by His stilling presence~ when God is felt, neither seen or heard, overtaking me within each breath taken, following the path of each glistening tear, feeding me manna from sky and body, becoming the ground reaching to meet my foot with each step I take.
There comes a time in every fall before the leaves begin to turn when blackbirds group and flock and gather choosing a tree, a branch, together to click and call and chorus and clamor announcing the season has come for travel.
Then comes a time when all those birds without a sound or backward glance pour from every branch and limb into the air, as if on a whim but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance
and now the tree stands breathless, amazed at how it was chosen, how it was changed. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing
…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air
and when I turned my face upward I saw a flock of blackbirds rounding a curve I didn’t know was there and the sound was simply all those wings, all those feathers against air, against gravity and such a beautiful winning: the whole flock taking a long, wide turn as if of one body and one mind.
How do they do that?
If we lived only in human society what a puny existence that would be
but instead we live and move and have our being here, in this curving and soaring world that is not our own so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing
Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared, then another, and another. It was the starlings going to roost. They gathered deep in the distance, flock sifting into flock, and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour.
Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced. The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye. Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff. Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig, right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.
Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, birds winging through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet? ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me. I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.
Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions. It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t. It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t. They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound of air rushing past wings.
We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA. Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks. We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.
We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.
The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is actually muffled weeping.
Holy as a day is spent Holy is the dish and drain The soap and sink, and the cup and plate And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile Shower heads and good dry towels And frying eggs sound like psalms With bits of salt measured in my palm It’s all a part of a sacrament As holy as a day is spent Holy is the familiar room And quiet moments in the afternoon And folding sheets like folding hands To pray as only laundry can I’m letting go of all my fear Like autumn leaves made of earth and air For the summer came and the summer went As holy as a day is spent Holy is the place I stand To give whatever small good I can And the empty page, and the open book Redemption everywhere I look Unknowingly we slow our pace In the shade of unexpected grace And with grateful smiles and sad lament As holy as a day is spent And morning light sings ‘providence’ As holy as a day is spent ~Carrie Newcomer “Holy as a Day Is Spent “
If the New York Times says “Something Special is Happening in Rural America,” then of course, it must be true. But those of us out in the hinterlands have known the truth about the quieter life for decades. The pace is slower, the space is greater, the faces are friendlier.
It’s the small things that matter on a daily basis. Being in the center of things doesn’t matter.
Give me a home where the clouds and cows roam, where laundry is line-dried and there is no traffic noise.
I live a quiet life in a quiet place. There are many experiences not on my bucket list that I’m simply content to just imagine.
I’m not a rock climber or a zip liner or willing to jump out of an airplane. I won’t ride a horse over a four foot jump or race one around a track. Not for me waterskis or unicycles or motorcycles.
I’m grateful there are adventurers who seek out the extremes of life so the rest of us can admire their courage and applaud their explorations.
My imagination is powerful enough, thanks to the words and pictures of others – sometimes too vivid. I contentedly explore the corners of my quiet places, both inside and outside, to see what I can build from what’s here.
When the light is right, what I see in my mind is ready to spring right out of the frame.
Who loves the rain And loves his home, And looks on life with quiet eyes, Him will I follow through the storm; And at his hearth-fire keep me warm; Nor hell nor heaven shall that soul surprise, Who loves the rain, And loves his home, And looks on life with quiet eyes. ~Frances Shaw, “Who loves the rain” from Look To the Rainbow
No jump-starting the day, no bare feet slapping the floor to bath and breakfast.
Dozing instead in the nest like, I suppose, a pair of gophers
underground in fuzz and wood shavings. One jostles the other in closed-eye luxury.
You come and go. The doors swing closed ever more gently, almost without a shudder Of all who move through the quiet houses, you are the quietest.
We become so accustomed to you, we no longer look up when your shadow falls over the book we are reading and makes it glow. For all things sing you: at times we just hear them more clearly. ~Rainer Maria Rilke from The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
God can be so quiet around us we scarcely think of Him tiptoeing around our distractions.
But then a moment of flash, a rainbow glow, a subtle sacred song in our ears
and we remember: He’s here watching knowing holding on to us reeling us back in when we drift away.
…horses whose bellies are grain-filled, whose long-ribbed loneliness can be scratched into no-longer-lonely. ~Jane Hirshfield from The Love of Aged Horses
(originally written ~20 years ago)
Settling down into the straw, I am grateful for this quiet moment after a 12 hour workday followed by all the requisite personal conversations that help mop up the spills and splatters of every day life. My family has verbally unloaded their day like so much stored up laundry needing to be washed and rinsed with the spin cycle completed before tomorrow dawns. I moved from child to child to child to husband to grandmother, hoping to help each one clean, dry, fold and sort everything in their pile. Not to be outdone, I piled up a little dirty laundry of my own as I complain about my day.
By that time I’m on “spent” cycle myself and seeking a little “alone” time. I retreat to the barn where verbal communication isn’t necessary. Instead, I need to just sit quietly, watching what happens around me.
A new foal and his vigilant mama watch my every move.
This colt is intrigued by my intrusion into his 12′ x 24′ world. His mother is annoyed. He comes over to sniff my foot and his mother swiftly moves him away with a quick swing of her hips, daunting me with the closeness of her heels. Her first instinct insists she separate me from him and bar my access. My mandate is to woo her over. I could bribe her with food and sweet talk, but, no, that is too easy.
A curry comb is best. If nothing else will work, a good scratching always does. Standing up, I start peeling sheets of no longer needed winter hair off her neck, her sides, her flank and hindquarter. She relaxes in response to my efforts, giving her baby a body rub with her muzzle, wiggling her lips all up and down from his back to his tummy. He is delighted with this spontaneous mommy massage and leans into her, moving around so his hind end is under her mouth and his front end is facing me. Then he starts giving his own version of a massage too, wiggling his muzzle over my coat sleeve and wondrously closing this little therapeutic triangle, all of us “scratched into no-longer-lonely.”
Here we are, a tight little knot of givers/receivers with horse hair flying in a cloud about us. One weary human, one protective mama mare and one day-old foal, who is learning so young how to contribute to the well being of others. It is an incredible gift of trust they bestow on me like a blessing. I realize this horse family is helping me sort my own laundry in the same way I had helped with my human family’s load.
Too often in life we confine our lonely selves in painful triangles, passing our kicks and bites down the line to each other rather than providing nurture and respite. We find ourselves unable to wrench free from continuing to deliver the hurts we’ve just received. What strength it takes to respond with kindness when the kick has just landed on our backside. How chastened we feel when a kindness is directed at us, as undeserving as we are after having bitten someone hard.
Instead of biting, try a gentle scratching. Instead of kicking, try tickling. Instead of fear, try acceptance. Instead of annoyance, try patience. Instead of piling up so much laundry of your own, try washing, folding and sorting what is dumped on you by others, handing it back all ready for the next day.
Just settle into the straw to watch and wait – amazing things will happen.
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 green 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. ~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” fromThe Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
When our young grandchild visits
and I watch her discover
the joys and sorrows of this world,
I remember there is light beyond the darkness we feel,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.
The duties and cares of the day crowd about us when we awake each day
– if they have not already dispelled our night’s rest.
How can everything be accommodated in one day? When will I do this, when that? How will it all be accomplished?
Thus agitated, we are tempted to run and rush.
And so we must take the reins in hand and remind ourselves,
“Let go of your plans. The first hour of your morning belongs to God.
Tackle the day’s work that he charges you with,
and he will give you the power to accomplish it.” ~Edith Stein from Essays on Woman
Rushing headlong pell-mell tumble-bumble into the day is a specialty of mine. Once I step out the door there isn’t a single moment of quiet breathing space until I step back in the door 12 hours later. I realize this is a daily choice I make to live this way: no one forces me to see just one more patient (or four) or complete each chart before I leave or make sure I have responded to a hundred messages.
I would not rest well until the work is finished.
Therefore my hour of quiet starts very early in the day, usually before the sun rises or the birds start to twitter, when there is no every-fifteen-minute appointment schedule and the phone remains silent.
However the rising morning does not belong to me: God knows what I’ll need to get through the day. He reminds me to breathe deeply, find time to smell the tulips, and take a walk with a buddy, always remembering I’m not alone.
Silence and darkness grow apace, broken only by the crack of a hunter’s gun in the woods. Songbirds abandon us so gradually that, until the day when we hear no birdsong at all but the scolding of the jay, we haven’t fully realized that we are bereft — as after a death. Even the sun has gone off somewhere… Now we all come in, having put the garden to bed, and we wait for winter to pull a chilly sheet over its head. ~Jane Kenyon from “Good-by and Keep Cold”
Every day now we hear hunters firing in the woods and the wetlands around our farm, most likely aiming for the few ducks that have stayed in the marshes through the winter, or possibly a Canadian goose or a deer to bring home for the freezer. The usual day-long symphony of birdsong is replaced by shotguns popping, hawks and eagle screams and chittering, the occasional dog barking, with the bluejays and squirrels arguing over the last of the filbert nuts.
In the clear cold evenings, when coyotes aren’t howling in the moonlight, the owls hoot to each other across the fields from one patch of woods to another, their gentle resonant conversation echoing back and forth. The horses confined to their stalls in the barns snort and blow as they bury their noses in flakes of summer-bound hay.
But there are no birdsong arias now, leaving me bereft of their blending musical tapestry that wake me at 4 AM in the spring. No peeper orchestra from the swamps in the evenings, rising and falling on the breeze.
It is too too quiet.
The chilly silence of the darkened days is now interrupted by all percussion, no melody at all. I listen intently for early morning and evening serenades returning.
It won’t be long.