Stillness as an Art of Messy Unravelling

A few weeks ago I stepped off an exhausting repatriation flight that carried me from the Mississippi Delta back to home turf in Manchester. A friend texted me immediately and said – ‘Maybe this time will teach you a lesson in stillness’, his words stung. Irked I wanted to yell, I know how to be still. But it wasn’t so much this that bothered me. It was the romanticized notion of stillness that suddenly we seem so keen to gobble up. Stay home, be still, be present, enjoy the little things, take time for your family. These messages are flooding in thick and fast. From your next-door neighbor to the prime minister, this is the advice of now. And of course, we need to stay home, that’s not up for debate. But how we perceive stillness is still catching like a bone in my throat.

Stillness as a Sentimental Notion

There has been a long-forced hand history of busyness. Busyness is power, its social status, it’s a million phone calls, an entrepreneurial spirit, a jam-packed calendar, a quick text, and a promise of a longer catch up next time. For centuries we have learned to be ‘good cogs in the machine’, productive members of society, and experiential existence has become the new currency. Suddenly when all this is stripped away, we find ourselves clinging to a ledge and at a loss as to what to do with all this newfound time.

We find ourselves caught between two narratives; one that whispers words of self-care and romantic notions as to how we should stay in PJ’s all day and fall in love with long stirring mornings and take hours for meditation.

Then there’s the other angle intersecting, this desperate desire for normal, and a clinging to the promise of productivity. Lockdown has inspired many people to turn to all those grandiose ideas of learning new languages, taking up baking, watercolor painting, rebranding their business, and getting a hot yoga bod – which is awesome but also makes me worry we are heading for mass burnout.

I’ve lost count of the number of well-intentioned friends and family members who have suggested that ‘now is the time for me to write that novel’. I don’t have the heart to tell them that right now I can barely focus on writing my own name. We can’t loosen our grip on productivity, and this shows that we are still confounded about the idea of what it means to be still.

Stillness as Stripping Down to the Skin

As someone who has spent the last decade marking her life in airmiles and collecting countries and experiences, I find myself thrashing against the idea of stillness. It seemed so much easier to be still at a Balinese retreat, or with morning coffee watching hummingbirds in Nicaragua. Now, in my shared house in Manchester where the sky is lead and there’s nowhere to go but from the kitchen to the bed, stillness takes a different meaning. It’s not a neatly packaged picture book of deep breaths, birdsong, and practiced gratitude. It’s messy, it’s hard, and it makes me feel like a spoilt brat when I spit out the fact that ‘I don’t want it’.

Stillness, I am learning, is not as passive as it sounds. It is active unraveling. It is putting down the baggage of busyness as a boast. It is stripping away the layers I built around my heart, unpeeling labels I slapped on my own back. Right now, I cannot be a solo female traveler, a vanlifer, a surfer, a friend to share wine with, a dutiful daughter, a successful self-employed writer. All these things have been stripped away and I have been left facing what sits beneath the surface – the question of – who am I really?

Stillness as Time and Memory

For many of us travelers who have been fortunate and privileged enough to make it home, we are faced with another notion – our relationship to home. Previously I had always used Manchester as ‘a base’, it was never home for me, more a dumping ground spot for the stuff I couldn’t fit in a suitcase. A place to return to and then flee again as soon as I got a chance. As I sit here I realize that I measured success in the distance between myself and my parents’ front door, and that to be far from the place I had known as home, was to have made it.

As Thomas Wolfe says; “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

This resonates so powerfully with me; the combined nature of returning home and staying still, it’s not peaceful but I recognize that it is on the pathway to peace. It’s letting the idea seep in, that there’s no such thing as a return. We talk about ‘when things return to normal’, but as a world, we have collectively had the rug snatched from beneath our feet and even in measuring our future comfort levels, for many generations, there is no coming back from that. That’s OK, its not as heavy a blow as it sounds. It means that rather than lamenting our loss, we can get to a place where we navigate our future. This year I had huge far-flung plans, now my only prayer is that I can get to the beach in Wales just once before the end of summer. My horizon has narrowed significantly, and it’s not that I mourn that – but that I mourn not recognizing how wide it was before all this.

Gratitude and grief are close companions and to sit at the table with one, sometimes means to dine alongside the other. I can be grateful for my ability to breathe but I can also grieve for a simpler time when I took that for granted. Time and travel have always enjoyed and endured an interesting relationship. Whenever I was lost on the road, stressed at a situation, or lonely as hell watching sunsets on tropical beaches, I would remind myself that ‘travel is retrospective fun’. When you are in the midst of it, it can be hard to drink it all in, to sear it in your memory. This comes later. I wonder now if it’s the same for the art of stillness. Whether all the lessons I have to learn from this forced standstill will seep in later and for now, I just have to go through the motion.

Stillness as a Language I Understand

To help me perceive what stillness means to me right now I have to think back to surfing. In surfing, you have to get over the whitewater surge first. You battle with messy peaks and endless chop, the threat of being battered by saltwater and dragged under. You gasp, you are terrified, and every second is a fight for both the body and mind. But when you make it out back, out past the breakers, there is where some form of stillness sits.  Some surfers will sit out there for hours, you wait for your heart to steady and the longer you sit the more you are able to tune in to the cry of the gulls. You get bored and you shiver, your lips can turn blue, and you almost always paddle to try and catch a false promise.

You watch others catching waves and a voice inside says paddle for that one, paddle for that one, you aren’t doing enough, you are just sitting there, why did you let that wave pass. Self-doubt creeps in and then flows away. The messy unraveling is happening with every passing second. You sit and you sit and finally, you catch a wave and you ride it and the joy that rises is wild and unbridled and earnt. This feeling didn’t just come from a place of pure stillness, it came from all those messy layers of fighting and frustration and exhaustion and healing and waiting and wondering and then finally finding a second of stillness in all the commotion, and with that stillness learning to tap into your gut and to let the body and intuition lead the way.

Now is not the time to wonder if we are doing a good job of stillness in our own hearts. It’s also not the time to be smug about how great we are doing under the weight of stillness. For me, it’s a time to let the simple existence of being heal my relationship with home, to unravel all those layers and labels, and see that the face that sits beneath is still the same. To trust that the body knows how to ride this, and to let myself grieve and show gratitude for the times that are behind us and for the wave that comes next.