Mind & Spirit

Janine’s Journal: The Quest for Quiet

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Even in the swing of our hectic modern lifestyles, it’s occasionally important to simply relax and rejuvenate. This winter, executive editor Janine Pumilia ponders the joys of a little quiet time.

Photo by Tom Holoubek

The holidays are behind us, the weather is bleak and spring is nowhere on the horizon. As I write, the highlight of my morning is watching a cardinal pluck seed from the feeder.

Yes, I know. I could find more excitement, if I looked for it. There’s a world of activity within easy reach, indoors and out. But there’s also a lot to be said for just giving in to a season that demands so little from us; a season with precious time for doing nothing at all.

This is heresy to Type A’s prone to cabin fever in mid-winter. They say they have the “winter doldrums,” and they use the term none too kindly. But let’s not shake “doldrums” from our boots just yet, lest we toss out something priceless – like one of those precious paintings a too-hurried someone pitches into a dumpster.

Merriam-Webster defines “doldrums” as “a state or period in which there is no activity or improvement.” I ask you: Is that really so bad? Is it terrible to have a period of time without frenzied seasonal pressures like holiday planning or spring cleaning or summertime yardwork? No big meals to cook ahead, no gearing up the kids for another year of school, no decorating the house or raking leaves, no home improvement projects like replacing windows before cold weather sets in?

Mid-winter brings with it a sort of peace. The kind we wished for, when we were too busy, but then dissed once we got it.

A friend used to tell me, “We’re human beings, Janine, not human doings.”

“But I have to do,” I argued. “There’s so much that I need to get done.” There was. And there still is. We all have things to do – even the hibernating animals who are, right now, doing just what they should be doing: resting up for busy months ahead. They know when to slow down, when to speed up. They run by internal instinct, not external pressure. You can’t “guilt” a critter into changing its nature, which is more than we can say for ourselves.

We humans need periods of personal quiet time. In calm, we process the past, ponder the future and really feel the present. Quiet time cultivates quiet minds.

“Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson

It turns out the word “doldrums” has been used by maritime folk since the 1800s. They spoke of Pacific Doldrums, a low-pressure part of the ocean, near the equator, where prevailing winds are calm. I imagine the location is a relief to storm-weary sailors, but a frustration to those in a hurry to move forward.
Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge must have been in the latter camp, when he penned “The Rime of the Ancient Marinner,” describing Pacific Doldrums thus:

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
‘Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, no breath no motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

The root of “doldrums” is “dol,” which means “stupid.” (Think “dolt”). But is all inactivity stupid?
A frenzied pace doesn’t always equate to productivity or efficiency, as employers well know. Sometimes, it’s just an excuse for not really facing things in our lives, or for relinquishing our destinies to others – which tends to be easier than charting our own paths. I see too many highly scheduled children; too few workers taking their vacations; too many tired souls who believe that more activity makes them more important, more worthy, more immune to the fears they don’t want to face.

It seems to me that the wisest people, through the ages, and most world religions, have advocated for regularly taking time to step back … time to still the cacophony in our brains. “Be still and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46:10. Even busy CEOs encourage one another to make reflective downtime a priority.

In late winter, nature seems complicit in this quest for quiet. Does anything speak of stillness more eloquently than a snowfall? Is anything more restful to view than a winter landscape whose color lives below ground in a promise of spring, like noisy children put down for naps? And is color ever more appreciated than when a winter sunset drapes itself over sleeping landscapes?

I feel a little sorry for the folks in warm climates who don’t enjoy the full bloom of restful winter calm. May those of us lucky enough to have it be wise enough to enjoy it.

Here’s to starting 2014 with the winter doldrums – and loving it.

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