We are rarely, if ever, a society at rest. During the Covid lockdowns, some of us were able to slow down, reappraise what mattered, bake bread and enjoy a beautiful garden. But for many, from health workers to delivery drivers, those trying to keep businesses afloat without ‘real life’ customers to parents trapped in tower blocks with children, or those working from home only to find that they were expected to be available at all hours, the lock downs belied the illusion of everything becoming slow and simple. Big businesses got richer than ever, while small business failure and domestic violence spiralled.
In a restless world
Our model of life, despite huge technological changes, hasn’t changed a great deal from the post War War II one of work till you drop and buy everything possible along the way. And technology, while it has enormous benefits, also functions to ensure we are always available. Sometimes it fosters moments of connection—my online yoga nidrā classes can leave me with days of journalling and inspiration and a sense of being with a small group who are walking a similar path. But often availability is the work chat group with unasked for feedback and demands that “will only take a few minutes”—until they pile up into hours or simply intrude into our private space. Availability can be answering work emails at one in the morning in order to keep up or scrolling a social media channel imagining the lives of others are so much more interesting than our own.
To write we need creative flow, access to the imaginal, a sense of awe and the freedom to witness. We need time. And, for all of this, we need rest. Rest that is not simply a quick fix so we can run faster on the hamster wheel, but that is genuinely rejuvenating.
Travelling last month so that I had time and space to write brought this home to me powerfully once again. Not only hadn’t we travelled in this way since before Covid, but the last year had been a heavy one. We’d learnt that the roof of our house is disintegrating and had several other major issues with the house, many ongoing. In the eight months before we went away I had Covid, a throat infection that lasted for 5 weeks, a major health scare and serious food poisoning. At the same time I was working full time and also doing herbal practitioner training, easily equivalent to taking on the workload of a full time degree course.
And my experience is neither uncommon nor extreme. Many people I know well are carrying considerably more stressful workloads or personal circumstances, often with financial struggles thrown in.
How do make space for rest?
Each of us has to answer that according to the lives we live and the stories we are shaping. But I know that so often when I return from a restful period, feeling alive and enthusiastic again, I quickly slip back into ‘work, work, work’ mode, telling myself I don’t have time to do yoga every day or go for long walks except at the weekend…
This time I came back with the resolve that I’m not going to be a good editor, an insightful mentor or an empathic herbalist if I’m fatigued and spiritually flat. So I’ve been taking at least an hour and half each day to walk in the forest. It’s right there out of my front door, but all too easy to only see it through the window when I’m driving myself with stories of lack of time.
Ambling through the woods this summer I’ve got to know the meadowsweet really well. So often I find a herb appears in abundance when I most need her for myself or family or someone I’m working with.
The meadowsweet and plantain are particularly lush and calling and at the moment. Crush some of her frothy flowers between your fingers and breathe her in. The top note of sweet almond soon gives way to a medicinal scent—a camphor, menthol-like note that we might associate with hospitals, though it’s an older, more earthy scent, softer. And deeper still there’s a clean, astringent note—slightly bitter and faint. The scent tells us what meadowsweet offers—pain relief (the salicylates that we derive aspirin from were first discovered in meadowsweet and white willow bark), astingency for the gut or clearing the skin, a sweetness that is full of joy and immune-boosting.
The walks aren’t a distraction from my herbal learning but deepen it. They are not robbing time from my editing and mentoring and writing, but inspiring it. Most importantly, they recentre me, as Thoreau puts it in his journal (some of which can be found in Thoreau and the Language of Trees):
alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home… It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion,
Where do we find restfulness?
There are many ways to rest. For me, reading and long baths and time with family and friends, especially around a table with a leisurely meal, are high on the list. But the rest that revitalises, inspires and makes my creativity flow comes from time immersed in nature.
When Walt Whitman was recovering from a stroke, it was the natural world that made all the difference. He wrote about how nature can:
bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons—the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.
Why? Because we feel ourselves deeply connected to all life when we are in nature, including to our own inner lives. In losing ourselves in the multitude of connections we come home to ourselves—not to ego, but to something more profound and still. As we walk in a beautiful place, our thoughts slow to the pace of our hearts and we begin to make new associations, have new insights, feel more expansive. We drop into memories and emotions that mingle and lead us in new directions.
And sometimes, however occasionally, we have experiences that are more profound—those moments when we find ourselves overcome by awe. We can’t manufacture these experiences. A hundred sunsets will look beautiful, give us a sense of tranquility, but that extra something doesn’t necessarily materialise.
Resting into awe
Then one day we find ourselves looking at a scrubby hedgerow as we walk and the meadowsweet seems so alive that we completely loose ourselves in the moment. When we are unselfed, the world seems different—more vital, more connected, more vibrant.
Awe can be so powerful that there is almost a thread of fear in their—fear in the sense of rubbing up against something so much bigger than ourselves, of touching mystery. Virginia Woolf communicated this aspect of awe with extraordinary clarity in her diary, writing about a total solar eclipse:
Before it got dark we kept looking at the sky; soft fleecy… Then we had another doze… It was getting grey — still a fleecy mottled sky… All the fields were auburn with June grasses and red tasselled plants none coloured as yet, all pale. […] But over Richmond, where the sun was rising, was a soft grey cloud. We could see by a gold spot where the sun was. … We had to wait, stamping to keep warm… […] We began to get anxious. We saw rays coming through the bottom of the clouds. Then, for a moment, we saw the sun, sweeping—[…] The moments were passing. We thought we were cheated; we looked at the sheep; they showed no fear… […] Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red and black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, and very beautiful, so delicately tinted. Nothing could be seen through the cloud. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue; and rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank and sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over — this is the shadow; when suddenly the light went out.
We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment; and the next when as if a ball had rebounded the cloud took colour on itself again, only a sparky ethereal colour and so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly and quickly and beautifully in the valley and over the hills—at first with a miraculous glittering and ethereality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.
Such moments of awe can’t be forced, but they won’t come at all if we don’t sometimes put ourselves in their way. And they are not just fleeting instances of heightened emotion, but open us up to new ways of seeing, and so new ways of thinking. Woolf’s experience of the eclipse was profound. She saw what it was like for life to be extinguished and, by extension, what it means to have the life-giving sun. We often remember these moments for years because they shifted something in us. In the midst of a restful walk, the experience of awe or epiphany changes something, however subtly. And the shift in perspective gives us the sense of wonder that we take into our writing.
Here’s to resting into our stories.