The things we forget: my grandmother’s stillness

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Being hit with a fly swatter doesn’t hurt very much, at least not the way my grandmother did it. In the moments when she was most annoyed with her grandchildren, the fly swatter would come out, and she would bat it in our direction without much conviction. I have no memory of it ever coming into contact with my skin, though I guess she must have grazed us from time to time. Mostly, I think we probably just went on doing what we were already doing until we grew too tired.

Most of the time, though, Grandma Ryle didn’t bother with the fly swatter. Instead, she would quietly command us to, “Be still.”

Does anyone say things like that anymore? “Be still.” An almost impossible task for a small child, and perhaps not any easier for us as adults. Grandma Ryle meant, of course, for us to stop moving. Stop screaming. Stop talking. Stop giggling. Stop jumping up and down on her couch. But this morning, I found the words coming back to me. “Be still.”

The hamster wheel of anxiety

I am a worrier. I have no idea if my grandmother was, too. She died when I was still in high school, and just beginning to be able to see the adults in my life as actual people. I wish I could have known her as something more than just Grandma Ryle, but I didn’t get that chance.

worry is a misuse of imaginationWorry, I read on Facebook recently, is a misuse of the imagination. This is certainly true. From a Buddhist perspective, worry is just one more manifestation of our predisposition to live anywhere but in the present moment. Worrying is projecting forward into what might happen. I cannot list for you all the things I have worried about that have never actually come to be, because the list would be far too long and far too sad. If my life were to end tomorrow, I know for certain that I would not say to myself, “Gee, I wish I would have spent more time worrying.” All this is true, and yet, I worry.

In this particular moment’s spinning hamster wheel of anxiety, I thought of my grandmother, and what she might say. I’m not a religious person, so it doesn’t occur to me to call on god. But I can imagine talking to my Grandma Ryle. I might be too old for sitting in her lap and being rocked in the chair that sat next to the front window of her house while she looked out and hummed. But she might very well say to me now, “Be still.”

For that matter, god would probably say the same thing. One of my favorite Bible verses says just that. “Be still and know that I am god.” I have always loved this verse for its simplicity. You can interpret it as saying, “Shut up and listen.” But I don’t think that’s what Grandma Ryle meant, and I doubt it’s what the Bible verse means, either. It is not, “Be quiet,” or “Stop that.” It is, “Be still.”

Things that are still

Still waters. Still air. A still day. The still of the night. A still body. To be still means not to move and not to talk. This, in and of itself, is difficult for many of us. My step-daughter has recently taken to making strange laughing noises when we’re sitting around together and no one is talking, despite our assurances that silence is okay. I can barely stand to sit down and watch tv without having something else to do (knit, check my phone, grade papers). How hard is it to sit down and do absolutely nothing at all? Not move. Not talk. Be still.

It is probably no coincidence that still also implies a sense of calm and peace. Can you be at peace while you are moving? Certainly. In the middle of a long run. During yoga class. Practicing walking meditation. But in our culture, where movement seems to be the default, there’s something to be said for really just being still, inside and out.

Learning to be still

My grandmother seemed still. When I imagine her in my head today, I most often see her in that chair, looking out the window. She would rock for a while, but then the sound of the chair moving would stop, and she would just be sitting. There are many memories from childhood that stick as sensory impressions more than a series of events. The silence of my grandmother’s house is one of them for me. It was silence not as an absence, but as a kind of presence. It was stillness.

My grandmother had as many potential sources of anxiety as the next person, if not more. She raised six children who would have given her plenty to worry about. Her husband, from what I know about him (he died long before I was born) was everything but still. She lived a long span of her life as a widow, looked after by her daughters and sisters-in-law. She never learned to drive, which might very well be an important component to cultivating stillness.

If my grandmother worried a lot, she hid it well. If I could really talk to her now, I would ask her, how? How did she learn to be still? What was contained in her stillness? Was it sadness, or a kind of peace? And if it was peace, is there the slightest chance that it’s inheritable?

How much easier would it be if stillness were something you could inherit rather than something you had to learn? I wish Grandma Ryle was here to teach me, but she’s not. Still, sometimes, the sound of cars on the street outside my house reminds me of my grandmother’s living room. Sometimes the quality of light is the same. I have a chair that rocks. Perhaps there is hope.

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Comments

  1. Randy Lakeman says:

    My late grandmother Lakeman often told us to “be still” and shook a fly swatter at us just as yours did. This posting brought back a flood of wonderful memories of the woman I still love and cherish. Thanks Robin.

    • How funny. I imagine a whole generation of grandmothers armed with fly swatters and their grandchildren remaining largely unaffected. Glad it brought back some nice memories for you, Randy. We miss you.

  2. wait – maybe this is one reason I love February so much – the stillness of it. Fresh snow on the ground, crisp air late at night and so quiet. As a child, I would go out on the front stoop and just take in big breaths and listen to the quiet.

    • I’m trying to imagine a front stoop in downtown Madison being quiet. 😉 I imagine it’s all relative, and there is something quiet about the gaps between cars and people going by on the street.

  3. There is hope, Robyn. This is such a lovely post.

  4. Millie Reule says:

    Brings back good memories. You’re good at remember details and putting them into words. I enjoyed reading this blob.

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