Be Still: Slowing Down to Savour Life
“When we lose our sense of wonder we become dissatisfied with who we are,” Madeleine L’Engle says in her book on creation and human identity (Madeleine 51). When I came back to her words this month, I connected just as strongly to them as I had the first time I read them. Madeleine L’Engle is right, on many levels. Losing our sense of wonder not only prevents us from seeing and appreciating the blessings in our lives, it also makes us disillusioned with reality, and with ourselves. Our world goes at such a fast pace that we sometimes find it difficult to catch our breath, much less give ourselves time to pause and reflect. Sometimes it may feel as if there is no rest from the ongoing push and pull of responsibilities. It is very easy to follow the rhythm of the things around us, and to get caught up in the buzz of our schedules and our thoughts. But life will soon pass us by if we rush through it. Even with our roles and responsibilities, it is still possible to give ourselves breathing space, and take a closer look at both our external and internal worlds. Literature is one form of beauty that can remind us to savour life. It reminds us through the author’s own observations that there are beautiful things in this world, and that they are still present today. When we hold onto a sense of wonder, we are choosing to look at the world with an eye that seeks beauty, and in learning to become aware of that beauty, we also learn to slow down and appreciate what we have.
Poetry is one of the more obvious literary outlets in reawakening our sense of wonder. One writer who is fantastic at bringing to life what many people would consider mundane or unimportant is the American poet Mary Oliver. In her article, Elizabeth Harwell says that Mary Oliver’s poems “[bump] up against the forward! onward! hum of my mind and [ask] me to sit when the rest of the world is imploring me to keep up the frantic pace. Oliver’s poems ask us to gawk at poppies, to think about the fields in which the rice on our plate grew, to wonder at what the bear dreams.” Mary Oliver takes the untamed beauty of the wilderness and explores its many facets. Her style of writing, however, flows naturally, and the conversational and intimate tone she uses is welcoming, rather than isolating, to all readers, regardless of what their background in literature may be. “I think of each life as a flower, as common/as a field daisy,” she says in her poem When Death Comes, “and as singular,/and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,/tending, as all music does, toward silence,/and each body a lion of courage, and something/precious to the earth”. She is not afraid of addressing deeper, more profound subjects, and when she does, she does so with gentle sobriety, and often the same underlying joy that can be found in her other poems.
“Don’t you imagine the leaves dream now
how comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of the air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees, especially those with
mossy hollows, are beginning to look for
the birds that will come-six, a dozen-to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first tuffets of snow?”Mary Oliver, from Song for Autumn
Luci Shaw, in comparison, often writes about her encounters with nature, but she also spends time describing the ordinary things that make up her everyday life: from the laundry drying in the wind to the raindrops on her windshield. She writes reflectively, in a patient and marveling voice. “An inrush of tide,/a pulling back,” she muses in Stone Seeker, “and rills of water freshen/the gem stones with the signature of the sea…”. She takes the commonplace and, rather than romanticizing or overdramatizing its role in her life, she brings it gently into a new yet familiar light that allows the reader to both appreciate it from her point of view, and to look at similar things in their own life more closely. This is the gift that writers like Luci Shaw and Mary Oliver give to their readers. The candid and earnest ways in which they use language to describe nature and ordinary life makes slowing down and looking around less intimidating for readers to attempt on their own. Readers themselves are then invited to do the same: to take something ordinary or simple in our everyday lives, to turn it over in our hands, and find to the beauty in it.
“But this winter, I think back to a small
house in the forest, with a stream running past,
and odd poems happening. Piles of
drying logs and a mess of wood chips and
kindling wait under a tarp by the kitchen
door. Intermittently the evening stirs
from silence as sap spits from a log in
the wood stove. The dark relieved by a glow of
embers, banked against the night freeze,
the air buoyant with incense of fir, pine.”Luci Shaw, from For the Love of Logs
The beauty of simplicity can also be found in children’s books. Children’s books often contain characters and narratives infused with hope and joy. L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series, for example, is well known for its protagonist’s dreamlike perspective. Anne Shirley is very much in love with the world, and the ways she describes and expresses her fascination with things like trees and ponds makes the reader see the world from her curious eyes. The Finnish writer Tove Jansson also brings the reader’s attention to the beauty in everyday life in the context of domestic life. She does not include as many poetic monologues or elaborate descriptions as L.M. Montgomery, however. Instead, she uses simpler language to express equally profound points. Often, the books in her Moominseries contain exciting adventures, but even the most chaotic moments lead back to safety and comfort. She emphasizes the warmth and acceptance that can be found in our own homes, and balances the time for the dangers and thrills of the outside world with the time for quiet, peaceful rest.
“He crept into his tent and into his sleeping bag and pulled it over his head. The
faint whisper of rain and running water was still there and it had the same tender
note of solitude and perfection. But what did the rain mean to him as long as he
couldn’t write a song about it?”Tove Jansson, from Moominvalley in November
While these writers use story to build bridges between their rich inner worlds and their reader’s hearts, the themes they use to express their introspective thoughts can also make a big difference in the effect their words have on their audience. In poetry, Mary Oliver and Luci Shaw use words to contemplate upon and delight in the natural world. In children’s fiction, L.M. Montgomery and Tove Jansson use words to unfold new and often beautifully simple revelations about people and the world. And in fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien uses words to reveal to his readers the beauty that can be found in the midst of darkness and suffering. Those unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s work often assume that Lord of the Rings and the rest of his legendarium take the same tone of more recent fantasy authors; that heroic moments, glory and honour, and the glorifying of bloodshed runs rife through the narrative. However, anyone who has read his books would argue the opposite. Though his works contain war, grief, and death, he does not centre the story on such themes. Rather, he uses them to further emphasize the beauty of holding onto hope, believing in a larger story, making great sacrifices for those we love, and treasuring peace and contentment. In fact, his books are built upon a belief in the power of enduring love, and it is the peace and comfort in home and good company that reminds his characters of where they come from, and where they hope to return to.
“Sam led him along several passages and down many steps and out into a high
garden above the steep bank of the rivers. He found his friends sitting in a porch
on the side of the house looking east. Shadows had fallen in the valley below, but
there was still a light on the faces of the mountains far above. The air was warm.
The sound of running and falling water was loud, and the evening was filled with a
faint scent of trees and flowers, as if summer still lingered in Elrond’s gardens.”J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring
It is easy enough for people to encourage our belief in things like hope and love, but when we return to reality, it is sometimes difficult to maintain that belief. Our days are bookended by deadlines, appointments, meetings, and obligations. Pressure from family, authority figures, and our peers put extra weight on our shoulders. The stimulation caused by the chatter of social media only adds to the overwhelming speed of daily life. Literature, however, teaches us that it is essential for us to give ourselves the space and time to marvel at and appreciate what we have been given. It casts a light on the dusty corners of our lives, bringing into the light things that often matter the most. In a world obsessed with accomplishment and progress, it is difficult to slow down and look both within us and around us. We cannot retain our sense of wonder if we keep hurtling along without stopping. Time for reflection, in such cases, can be easily put aside or deemed unimportant. However, the writers and poets who capture the wonder and the beauty of existing in their stories show us that we do not need to lose ourselves in following the accelerating rhythm of the world. To cherish the days we have and see the blessings placed in our lives, we need only be still.
Jansson, Tove, and Kingsley Hart. Moominvalley in November. Square Fish, 2010.
L’Engle, Madeleine, et al. And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings. Convergent, 2017.
“Mary Oliver’s Gift of Stumbling Stones.” The Rabbit Room, 13 Jan. 2019, https://rabbitroom.com/2019/01/mary-olivers-gift-of-stumbling-stones/.
Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. Puffin Books, 2019.
Oliver, Mary. “Song for Autumn by Mary Oliver.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=42420.
Shaw, Luci. Eye of the Beholder. Paraclete Press, 2018.
“‘When Death Comes’ by Mary Oliver Poetry.” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/102.html.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Blossom White Bird Spring Branch via Pixabay [https://pixabay.com/photos/blossom-white-bird-spring-branch-1324088/]. License: CC0 1.0 Universal.