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 great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with the 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.
– The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry
I lay on the ground at dusk. My spine draped along the soft earth, my hands folded in a pillow behind my head. Tall pine trees surrounded me, as though forming a shield for my heart. Their trunks stretched boldly towards the gray-blue sky with forms dark as though they were drawn in ink. All my fears, all the moving parts and busyness of life, felt poured out of me and onto the earth. I felt relief, like the ground could receive my anxiety and transmute it into something useful. Though it has been over six years since I spent that evening in the White Mountains, the clarity of the memory endures. It brings a cherished, immediate sense of peace. The gentleness of the earth in that moment remains restorative to me.
Nature is, of course, both harsh and beautiful. The natural world is not always restful; the earth does not always carry us or care for us, but there are magical moments when the woods feel like a shelter, when the ocean is so calm it looks entirely made of glass, when the alpenglow of a mountain range resembles an oil painting. In those moments, we notice the earth’s beauty with unparalleled closeness and uncover an unmatched stillness.
A few weeks ago, Jack and I went to the beach. We stood at the shore and watched as the sun dipped below the horizon. The sun’s pristine golden light slowly disappearing. I turned to look along the edge of the water. Everyone on the sand in that moment was completely still, just noticing, just witnessing, and I thought to myself, this is the closest we can come to reaching God—the stillness between thoughts and movements.
To rest in the grace of the world is a challenge when daily life is thickened by the forethought of grief. So much suffering happens in the anticipating. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I can feel as though I am bracing for the impact of life. I worry most often about loss, and all the anxieties and fearful thoughts, like creeping vines, weave a cage around my heart. The bracing, though, keeps us small. It keeps us from finding the freedom that precedes bravery. And in order to live more fully, we have to find ways of lessening the self-inflicted pain of worrying. I do not think my fear will ever dissolve, but I am working on accessing a more stable sense of, well, faith.
It is stillness that heals. In quiet moments, I feel the presence of God most strongly, and I believe with more confidence that though our human lives are restricted by uncertainty and instability, there is a love that pervades everything.
Beneath the surface of the ocean, no matter the size of the waves, there is still, cool water, always. This is a metaphor for the stillness that underlies struggle. Love, compassion, our connection to God, is the presence of still water of which Wendell Berry writes, and we need a practice that helps us cultivate the inner peace that begets clarity.
Love is stardust, and love is connective tissue. It is both spiritual and material, both cosmic and human. Love is always beneath the surface of our existence and waiting patiently for us to drop our drama, grudges, fears, projections… and say: Okay, show me what you’ve got. Show me the way.