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.