How can it be the first of December? Leaves have fallen, chickens have gone through their bare-bottom phase and re-feathered themselves, geese have taken flight to warmer places. I got a little potted fir tree and located it on the ground in front of the house as a hint of Christmas, and reminded myself that it’s time to cut open the decorative pumpkin that has been sitting on the corner of the cottage deck and let the hens have a feast with it. As I stare out the north-facing windows at the range of foothills so striking through the empty branches, I think about the people who have come and gone from this very place, who have seen this view and wondered, as I do: Could it be more peaceful?
I have no monopoly on peaceful settings. Riding through vast expanses of prairie, walking along pristine, empty beaches you can surprisingly still find, teeing off on a well manicured golf course, gliding in and out of lush, tropical glades, whooshing through a moonlit forest on your cross-country skis — even rocking on your own front porch if you have one — these and many other settings evoke visions of peace and call our name softly. Come… here is where you want to be.
But for such a quiet, calm thing, peace is mighty hard to capture and hold onto. It is not so simple to get to that place, and I don’t mean plane fare. Our images of lovely settings might be the dangling carrot we reach for, but often it seems like that carrot is not just dangling, but doing crazy gymnastics in a wild storm and trying its darndest not to lose its connection to the string that holds it to something, anything, that’s not moving.
Why is it so hard?
As of two days ago, it had been so warm and dry lately here in this pocket of Virginia that we really needed rain. We were glad to hear the reports of it coming soon, and battened down the hatches, in this case finishing the half-finished roof and putting the tools away. Sure enough it came, softly, two mornings ago. There is nothing quite like waking to the sound of soft rain when you know it is needed. A gentle soaking rain blessed the land on and off for two days. Good! Just what we needed. Isn’t that nice?
Then last night, out of the dark, dark blue, the skies opened wide. I’m talking Whoa! Where did that come from?! It poured in sheets, it rained cats and dogs, it deluged! That dangling carrot would have been doing flip flops. The sound was so jolting I had to go see. The porch light showed those massive drops bouncing hard and high off the wood surface. I felt gladder than before that the roof was secure.
As I took my comfy seat again on the couch and listened to the wildness go through its motions for the next fifteen minutes or so, the thought came to me that we did not ask for that. We do not control such things. We do not turn other powers on and off. Our own power goes only so far. But c’mon, I thought, the gentle rain would have been enough. The earth got its drink in a lovely way for two days. Why did we need the torrent?
Whoever knows? Maybe there is a meteorological reason that makes perfect sense in a textbook, maybe some atmospheric story needed a few minutes of dramatic fury, maybe it’s random. Maybe, like so many things that happen that we do not ask for, we can’t and won’t know why. We simply find a way to deal. We observe, we react, we protect, we carry on.
You can look for peace all you want. You may well find the loveliest of settings, the one that beats all others in your estimation. You might be able go there on a regular basis, and bask. Isn’t it nice? But even there, at some point, in some way, wildness will come in some unasked-for form. It will challenge your heart, your resources, your body, your circumstances. It will include elements you did not anticipate and will get you out of your comfy spot and force some kind of realignment. Sounds like a bother, and again I ask Why does it have to be so hard? The fact is: peace is more than a setting. Peace is inside you, an inner intangible something that doesn’t come from sitting in a chair.
Chairs are good. We need them for rest. Rest is essential. But the groundwork for peace lies in getting up and facing the thing that comes our way, whatever it may be, one moment at a time, one decision at a time, one bend in the road at a time, one conversation at a time. It comes from assessing the situation, weighing the options, choosing a path, seeing it through, knowing we did our best despite what we didn’t ask for.
There is so much we don’t control, so much that wants to throw us off our feet. At the end of the day, the inner part of us that yearns for peace finds it (in part) in knowing we successfully navigated the Wild World — if even just a little corner of it, even just for this day. We did what we could — overcoming obstacles, tidying messes, finding and corralling stray ends, bringing order, controlling some of the bits that make up the whole and making whatever good we can.
When the wind is howling (and I don’t just mean the wind of weather), you hold fast and get through it the best you can. When it has spent itself, you rest a bit and then keep going. Last night’s storm is a thing of the past, but its mad splashes muddied up the container that holds my little potted fir. This is no great problem, I understand, certainly not tragic, and does not hold a candle to, let’s say, cleaning up the wreckage after a tornado. It’s miniscule, in fact, in overall importance, one could say microscopic.
Nevertheless, I said to myself, the whole is made of the sum of its parts, and you do what you can with what you have, one little bit at a time. So I took that old pumpkin to some very happy chickens, brought the fir to the corner of the cottage deck and cleaned the outside of its container. A new look for the upcoming season is delightful, and if such a little thing can lift the spirit, so be it.
I smile at the image. Yes, leaves are strewn on the deck where the wind left them, and the wood bin needs to be filled again, and maybe someday grass will grow where there is now dirt, but the foothills are still in the background, even though they are invisible much of the time, and the majestic oaks still stand. I smile and feel peace deep inside me. In my little world, in my little way, I made one little thing better. It’s what we all do every day, or should, in a great variety of ways. Of course it doesn’t matter whether we fix something that isn’t working right or take someone to an appointment they can’t get to on their own or create a lovely present or tell a funny joke that makes someone laugh. Jimmy Durante inimitably sings a song: Make someone happy. Make just one someone happy. And you will be happy too!
It’s the little things we do that make the world a better place, the little things that bring us to a place of peace — the kind that goes far beyond setting.