Bill Long 1/28/05
When I was in graduate school in the late 1970s, I remember the cliche of the day that I was taught to emulate. I would be a "hard-charging" person who had "lots of energy" to devote to a cause. In the 1980s the cliche had changed to "having a passion for" something, and by the 1990s, we were taught to put our energy to use in "win-win situations." All of these images, however, suggest that life is to be lived in energetic exertion--which I interpreted to mean ceaseless activity. Praise was heaped on those who had lots of civic activiites or whose every moment was taken up with the demands of people and the day. No one ever asked the person with a 20-page resume, "Well, when do you have a chance to think?" It would have been perceived as a small-minded or impertinant question.
Yet, what arrested me in opening the pages of Bill Moyers' book of a series of interviews of American poets, entitled The Language of Life, is how the first person interviewed (W.S. Merwin) describes the purpose of art in precisely opposite terms:
"Any work of art makes one very simple demand on anyone who genuinely wants to get in touch with it. And that is to stop. You've got to stop what you're doing, what you're thinking, and what you're expecting and just be there for the poem for however long it takes (p. 2)."
Merwin's comment drew me immediately back to one of Robert Frost's most beloved poems, one that seems to reflect a tension between stopping and acting. The poem is "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Note the claims of both stopping and moving on us.
"Whose wods these are are I think I know./ His house is in the village though;/ He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow./ My little horse must think it queer/ To stoop without a farmhouse near/ Between the woods and frozen lake/ The darkest evening of the year./ He gives his harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake./ The only other sound's the sweep/ Of easy wind and downy flake./ The woods are lovely, dark and deep./ But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep,/ And miles to go before I sleep."
Even Frost's horse must think it is queer that he would stop, with no "purpose," and simply watch the woods fill with snow. What goes through the mind as you stand and watch the snow fall, as you see a few flakes gently nestle on a rock and then realize that others are joining them, gradually piling on and seemingly erasing the hard form of the stone? Life freezes before you. You get the sense that time has stopped, and everything consequential in the world is wrapped up in that time of silence.
But then there is another claim on your life. You know that your destiny is not to stand in the woods, even if they are "lovely, dark and deep." You still must move on to the day's destination.
Stopping and Moving Today
Merwin says that art makes us stop. Art speaks to us while we are stopped and brings us into its world. It enriches and refines the world we bring to the work of art. But is art supposed to be a "break" in life, a kind of "time out" from the vigorous pace of living? Or, is it possible to integrate art into the central core of one's being, to be living as if always "stopped?" I suppose the Buddhist would say that to live in a "stopped" state would be to cultivate the characteristic of "mindfulness." And, perhaps that is what I am getting at.
But what would a life look like that truly "stops" and looks at the world so that you can "just be there for the poem for however long it takes"? And can we afford that? Can we trust ourselves enough to allow ourselves to stop? I have friends that seemingly want to develop a daily mindfulness or "stopped" attitude toward life, but they still fill up life with endless activities. I think that it takes courage to stop, to learn to notice the lines of the snow or the creases in another's face, to look at the rain as it falls or to contemplate the blueness of the sky. It takes courage for two reasons. First, after we have "stopped," we really have nothing to "show" for it. No essays, no books, no sales made, no clients contacted, to tasks crossed off the list. Second, we are afraid of the ridicule that will come our way from people who might see us in our "stopped" condition. What will they think? We get in the way if we stand on a city street and just contemplate the building in front of us. Worried homeowners call the police if they see us outside their home taking notes on the shape of the house. Task-oriented bosses think that we are working inefficiently if they catch us "daydreaming." And so we say we want to "stop and smell the roses," or "be more mindful" in life, but we don't live that way.
What would the world look like if we paid more heed to the gentle invitation of life to stop and examine? What would happen if we stayed with the arresting thing for "however long it takes?" I think we fear we might end up as failures and starve to death at the same time. That must be what holds us back. Perhaps we also fear that we might not notice anything and that this might really confirm our worst fears that we are completely uncreative people. Maybe, too, we don't stop because we then might have to face a different set of voices to the ones telling us to "press on" to the task. But stopping sounds very, very good to me these days. Even if I starve to death.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long