Winter lends itself, more than any other time of year I think, to the welcome sort of solitude and melancholy that fills me up with meditative calm. It can feel bleak and beautiful at the same time, as long as I’m not in a particularly dark place emotionally. The kind of cold and emptiness that sear the lungs and sting the eyes can sometimes set the soul on fire with inspiration and, concomitantly, a sort of scraped-clean elation.
I have been scanning and digitally restoring a number of photos out of our family’s trove, a heap that resembles the disorganized and neglected stores of many other families. I make a small dent in the stack from time to time, then get distracted by everyday life and often don’t revisit the project for quite a while again. While many of us obsess over parting with beloved memorabilia of any kind, the truth is that the majority of us don’t do much with it when we have it.
All good things are that way, I suppose: love, joy, peace and happiness of both the material and the intangible sorts are seldom given their full respect when we have them, only mourned when we think they’re out of reach. And from what I’ve seen and heard from friends around the globe, this is a foolishness that transcends all sorts of differences and makes us more alike than not–no matter what our location or culture, our beliefs, hopes, and dreams, we all seem to wrestle with this forgetfulness about appreciating what we truly value that we have right in hand, and the minute that we suspect we’re about to lose our grip on those gifts, whether by our own decisions or perforce, we get panicked and become certain that it’s a sign of apocalypse. Surely the end of our own self and sanity, and very possibly, that of the universe as we know it.
I come across that box of yet-to-be-scanned photos from time to time and get a pang: what if I don’t get back to this project before I forget who’s in the photos, where the shots were taken, before the images are too faded or decayed to be rescued at all?
Well, what if?
Honestly, I know full well that it will not be the end of the world. Not even the end of my pleasurable revisiting of those memories–what’s more significant than retaining this flimsy physical repository of memories is whether I use the versions of them in my head and heart while they last (head, heart and memories, all three). Once gone from there, the data held in a picture is only cold, meaningless data after all, and it never contained the warmth and soul of anyone or anything depicted in it. It’s merely a shadow-play version of the husk that is my human form and will no longer be me when I die.
So I’ll keep leafing through these paper and binary mementos of mine as long as it pleases me to do so, remembering mostly that what is seen therein is always more beautifully carried inside me. Change is indeed the only constant, yet in the photograph my great-uncle took, probably in Johannesburg, around sixty years ago there is the ephemeral prototype of the photograph I took in New York less than a decade ago. Fifty years or fifty centuries, it matters little if we learn to respect and rejoice in what remains true and crosses the boundaries of place and time as long as we keep it alive inwardly.
Breathe. Breathe, and think nothing–deliberately think nothing: not thoughts about nothingness, but no thinking. Just feel. Feel my breathing. Let it slow and deepen. Sense how my lungs are filling and how cool and soothing the air can be. Feel the inside of my eyelids becoming less dry and harsh, softening with the renewing almost-tears that mark the relief of closing my eyes after too little sleep and too long a day to follow it. Breathe.
I can smell the familiar scent of my freshly washed shirt collar that’s pulled up close to my chin, not because I’m cold but because it’s a favorite and a comfortable, so-soft shirt. All I hear is the gentle whirring of the air through the house, the light flickering of leaves outside the window in the slightest breeze, and a bird not far away, practicing its sweet and simple arias without tiring. The sun’s warmth, coming in the window, is blushing its way through my eyelids but still I keep my eyes lightly closed. I am content to maintain my steady breaths, my slowness, my calm, my emptiness, and simply to feel. My pulse ticks softly, steadily, unhurried.
There is no need to think of anything just now. Nothing I could think would change what is real in my world or better my place in it, at the moment, so it is good to turn off the thinking and just let go of my usual tense grip on it all for a little while. The world will wait for me.
I can visit other worlds if I like. Sometimes, with my eyes closed, I will. I can make such wonderful worlds inside, when I wish.
But for now, what I want most is this silence that I have sorted out from what’s outside of me; these slow and steady and uncomplicated open spaces I am cultivating and embracing on the inside. The warmth of the sun, through glass, caressing my face. The depth of soothing air moving through my lungs in a grateful, peaceful sigh.
Everything that must Happen and Change and Do will have to wait for me while I am so very un-busy just being. That is enough for now; sitting, eyes closed, breathing, silent, open. For now, that is everything.