Lessons on stillness–an essay about the pandemic

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When I was little, I was the kind of kid who bounced in place. Part of it was the early signs of anxiety that would plague my teenage years, but mostly I just couldn’t contain the rambunctious energy of childhood joy. I’d sway in my seat in class, or oscillate up and down at the dinner table. My parents found it… uncivilized. “If you can’t sit still, you’ll have to sit on your hands,” my mother would say. And so I learned early on that stillness was a punishment for poorly behaved children.

But in college, I discovered yoga. I learned that I could move purposefully and channel all of my anxious energy into my flow. The reward was savasana–corpse pose–at the end of a challenging session. 

“Be still,” my yoga teacher would say as my body began to sink into the floor. “Let yourself be heavy and experience the quiet calm of death.”  …

Ah, I thought to myself. Stillness is not a punishment–just a peaceful kind of dying….

So when the world shut down, I had it in my mind that I would be fine. “I know how to sit on my hands,” I thought. “And I know how to play dead.” 

For the first few days, I felt at ease in my home, alone except for my senior cat Nora. She’d curl up on my lab as I sipped a cup of tea with one of those paperbacks I’d saved for my next vacation. But after a couple of weeks, even Ms Nora was bored of my company. She’d watch me from her cat tower as I doomscrolled through Twitter or browsed exercise equipment on Amazon that I’d never use. Every available surface of my studio was piled with half finished crafts and abandoned novels. I was going stir crazy and gave up on the basic upkeep of my home. I couldn’t bring myself to focus on simple tasks, much less my work. Sprawled out on the couch, I felt frozen in place…desperate for a distraction from my boredom, yet completely unmotivated to do anything about it.

It was in these moments that my eyes would drift to the sliding glass door that led to my tiny patio, furnished with bird feeders of every type. I have always loved birds, ever since I was a kid. They were free to go wherever they wanted just their wings. When I was old enough to move away from home, my dad gave me a pair of binoculars so that I could see the birds wherever I lived next. Oh the freedom of birds, I’d think to myself. Even though I felt immobilized on the sofa, I’d gaze out at a flock of dark-eyed juncos flitting through the trees. I learned to recognize the calls of acorn woodpeckers as they relished the suet I’d laid out for them. I was even surprised by a few turkeys staring back at me one day, wondering if there was more seed inside the apartment. I began to consider what else lived outside my little studio, and that child-like curiosity suggested that maybe three weeks was too long to wear a pair of sweatpants without washing them.

[[Fade in light rain]]

One day, I grabbed my old binoculars and a field guide, and went looking for birds… somewhere else. Anywhere else. It did not matter that it was a rainy Saturday morning, or that I didn’t know what I was looking for. I drove to a nearby state park where the ocean meets the redwoods. 

[[Fade walking on gravel under tracks]]

I started walking along the trail, binoculars at the ready. I scanned the trees for any signs of movement, … eyes peeled for even the hint of a bird’s beak or wing. But it felt pointless. With the rain coming down like it was, it looked like everything was moving. The leaves seemed to twinkle every time a raindrop struck. So no way I was going to spot a bird taking flight… much less quietly waiting out the storm. 

And yet, I was sure I saw something out of the corner of my eye and I stopped dead in my tracks… and was still. At first, I saw nothing but the glistening leaves, but in a heartbeat I started to listen. 

[[Slowly fade in bird songs ]]

Really listen… and it felt like the world… opened up. I could hear birds all around me… a flock of chickadees chirping in the canopy, a song sparrow singing its heart out to another who answered back, crows surveying their territory… and so many more that I couldn’t name. I stood stock still, immersed in a universe of sounds that had always been there. And I have never felt more alive–or still–in my whole life.

This podcast was produced as part of an online SALT Workshop through the Maine College of Art.

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