In search of the uplifting and the ephemeral
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
— T.S. Eliot, “The Four Quartets”
College professors can explain the meaning of the above passage in great detail and bring in all kinds of symbolism and parallels to religion and what-not. And many of those same educated folks will likely disagree with my interpretation, but I remember when I first read the poem as a college junior and — even though I seldom “get” great poetry on the first read — the words made perfect sense. “At the still point,” in the moment, when the world around one ceases to exist and it is just that singular thought, that feeling, that memory, that experience, that exalted state of mind or being.
I was driving through my neighborhood on the way home just a couple of nights ago when an owl swooped into my line of vision, in flight maybe 15 feet above the ground. I immediately slowed so I could safely take my eyes off the road and caught just a momentary glimpse of the raptor gliding up and into the forest. This was during one of the few breaks in the incessant rain that has been soaking the mountains.
An immediate adrenaline rush washed over me. Whenever I encounter raptors up close — the owls in my neck of the woods glide into my headlights a couple of times a year — a sense of awe and wonder take over. I remember the first time I saw the bald eagle at Lake Junaluska alight from a tree, and remember feeling the same, a heightened sense of awareness.
The next morning I was recalling the sight of the owl and thinking about those sights and sounds and smells and memories that in a momentary flash take us outside of the rational and orderly world where we spend most of our lives. Some of those moments are primordial, like the rushing glimpse of a raptor. Others are more emotional or spiritual, things that still — and hopefully always will — make my heart pound and remind me of life’s wonders, of all that is beautiful and amazing.
I live for those moments that make you catch your breath and marvel at the world, those fleeting instances when life seems right and full of endless possibility. Too often our day-to-day existence tends toward the mundane. And then one of these moments, and — at least for me — an affirmation that there is more to life than meets the eye.
What makes me marvel?
• The Milky Way on a clear night. Say what you want, but the stars have always fascinated me, and the realization that there are countless other planets and stars and solar systems and galaxies out there still mesmerizes me. When I look up and can clearly see the blanket of gauzy white backlighting the night sky, it gets me.
• A finely crafted sentence or paragraph. Like the stanza from T.S. Eliot above, a great sentence, a great metaphor, or a powerful poem can stop me in my tracks. No other way to say it.
• A beautiful woman who doesn’t know it. When single I was seldom attracted to the blatant beauties who spent too long primping. Instead I gravitated to those whose beauty was in their gusto for life and attitude toward those around them. I was lucky enough to marry one.
• Dropping anchor on the sailboat. My wife’s father has a sailboat he keeps at New Bern, and over the years Lori and I and our children have spent many days and nights moving around the Pamlico Sound on that boat and have chartered others in the Caribbean. After working the wind and sails and lines all day, finding the perfect spot to settle in, make dinner, talk about the day and have a cocktail epitomizes serenity and satisfaction.
• Déjà vu moments. It happens to everyone, doesn’t it, when the present somehow feels like it’s happened already, when for a moment an event or a scene that is happening right then seems a memory, but there’s no way that it could be? Unexplainable.
There are many, many others — anticipation of my daughters arriving home for a visit, listening to live music with my wife, the smell of collards cooking that instantly takes me back to my mom’s kitchen and a torrent of childhood memories, an exhausted body after a tough workout — and countless more that I have yet to experience. “At the still point of the turning world.”