Front Porches, Classical Vases, and Question Marks

I have been sitting still today, thinking about whether sitting still is a good idea.

For a long time now, the easy answer to that would have been “Yes – good idea.” But I can hear the idea of forward movement singing to me like a siren.

An image comes to me from an art history class in my undergraduate days at UC-Berkeley: A vase, painted by someone called “The Siren Painter,” from about 500 B.C. On the vase is an image of Odysseus tied to a mast, the winged sirens tempting him and his crew toward shpwreck on the jagged rocks….


Of course, I’m not exactly taking the terms “sittling still” and “moving forward” literally. Both conditions are a state of mind, and both are also writing strategies – the language we use in our writing either lingers or moves ahead.

Sitting still involves slowing down all the nervous energy (or whatever part of my brain ushers in the constant noise-noise-noise, ba-boom-ba-boom ba-boom do-this-do-this-do-this) and allowing in more of the nuanced sensory input. When my body is still I hear birds whistling, I hear a neighbor sawing wood, I taste the cold red cherry on my tongue, I hear wind in the crabapple leaves, I notice two crows flying by, I smell the lavendar, I feel sunshine on my skin. I even feel, as Sarah Ellis felt in an earlier post, the pleasure of a pencil in my hand. No sensory detail goes in automatically, nothing is unnoticed when I sit still – instead, all my senses function with deliberation. My body recalibrates the volume and the speed at which the world confronts me.

Movement forward, on the other hand, gets me someplace. I don’t just notice what’s around me. I accept the adventure of ending up in new territory. Alain De Botton, in his book The Art of Travel, asks us to consider the appeal of going somewhere new. Sometimes, he says, we are drawn toward the exotic. Disappointingly, he reminds us, we sometimes take our old selves along for the ride. Wonderful book. I try to put it into the hands of all my friends, along with his other thought-provokingl book, Status Anxiety, which – now that I think of it –  questions our push to achieve, achieve, achieve. The drive to achieve also involves momentum – the desire to climb, yes? De Botton and I, it seems, have a shared curiosity about this thing called movement.

So I’m thinking about these mysteries  – my body, my writing, the seasons, the future –  as I sit still on my porch today. Deep Thoughts, which are fine for now, since it’s summer, and Northrop Frye tells us summer is the season of full belief, the season we can allow ourselves to be less guarded. I know later I’ll have shallow thoughts about what kind of sandwich to fix for lunch or wintery, murderous thoughts about weeds in my garden. But for now, some deep thoughts will do no harm. I tell myself I have room for the love of both sitting still and moving. But I’ve been playing it safe for a long time. Adventure appeals less. Why? 

Maybe it’s because I believe God is in the details. My stillness then would be about staying in a space that is sacred. Details blur when you move, but maybe it’s time for something a little less heavenly, a little messing about, a little suspense, a little action? Is itime to get my hands dirty? I can feel my heart rate going up. Why does movement forward feel almost transgressive?

Sitting still – is it the strategy of lyric poetry? Movement forward – is it the stategy of fiction?  I keep promising myself I’ll write some fiction, but “Oh, my god,” says that little voice in my head again,”fiction requires a plot, and plots move forward.” Now my heart is really pounding. Here come the sirens, here come the jagged rocks…!! 

Odd thought: If this were a race, sitting still would be winning. That’s counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Sitting still runs faster than running ahead? Another odd thought: Do other writers out there wonder why the word “maybe” ends up in so much of their work? Do they wonder why their writing is filled with question marks?

Karl Kraus, the Austrian satirist and poet, once said, “A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.” Maybe I’ll sit on my porch a bit longer, riddling away. Yes, I’ll do that. Mark Twain knew how to sit on a porch. I’ll practice being Mark Twain. But no piloting a steamboat down the Mississippi River. Not today.





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9 responses to “Front Porches, Classical Vases, and Question Marks

  1. Anonymous

    Julie, continue sitting still and thinking your deep thoughts–no worries about what kind of sandwich you’ll have later.

    Has to be cheese. 🙂


  2. Anonymous

    If sitting still makes a post like this, well then. It must be the secret to brilliance.

  3. Anonymous

    Julie, thank you for this; you’ve given words to a dilemma I’ve been struggling with for the past week and helped to stave off the guilty panic–now, instead of feeling unmotivated, feeling lazy, feeling bad, I can tell myself I’m just sitting still for a while. Ah! What a relief!

  4. Anonymous

    Julie, I knew within the first two sentences that this was your post! Love it.

  5. Anonymous

    So nice to have someone reminding us of the benefits of slowing down when the rest of the world shouts, hurry! hurry!

    Thanks, Julie.

  6. shardarr

    Since residency I’ve done a lot of sitting and watching the Vermont sky, clouds sliding overhead, and watching the rocky brook at the edge of the property just keep rushing by, flowing on to…wherever. This blue-blue sky, this green, make me believe, make me more real somehow. I have let the fiction I’m reading pour over me, too, like the sky and clouds, raising my hearbeat and making me laugh and cry–but the writing that comes from this state of mind for me is poetry. When evening comes I want poems and music. Isn’t summer–and sitting on the porch–grand?

  7. vzlasdonwriter

    Stealing a few moments to eat lunch and 100% enjoy your post. Thank you, Julie.

  8. Uma Krishnaswami

    Julie, great timing. I’m hitting the middle of a draft, the time when I usually become overwhelmed by the task at hand and by my own incompetence. It strikes me that the best way to get past that is to turn stalling into a more mindful kind of sitting still.

  9. abwestrick

    I usually plow through emails and scan websites in a rush as if I’m checking them off some sort of virtual list: read that one, read that one, read that one. But this post got me to slow down… to pause… to breathe deeply.

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