“What was the meaning of life? That was all - a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one….Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, ‘Life stand still here’; Mrs Ramsay making of the moment something permanent…—this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal flowing and passing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said.” ~(To the Lighthouse , Virginia Woolf, 161)
As some of my readers know, I have a particular affinity for Virginia Woolf. My Masters dissertation for my degree in Modernist Literature centered on Woolf and her concept of “moments of being.” I have read just about every book of Woolf’s, as well as most of her essays and some of her journals, and this passage above from To the Lighthouse has been the most influential in my life. I would go so far as to say it has been life changing. The power of these lines, in my personal application, owes to the two talents here attributed to the character of Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay is the mother figure in the novel and is predicated on Woolf’s own mother, who died when Woolf was only thirteen. It’s hard to find a more lovely tribute to a mother than Woolf’s rendering of Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay is skilled at bringing people together. One substantial fragment of Lily Briscoe’s meaning of life “revelation” is the recognition that “Mrs Ramsay [is] bringing them together.” She brings the family together. She draws friends into the family’s circle. To borrow a common metaphor today for describing the ability of a matriarch to keep a family close, Mrs. Ramsay is “the glue.” She ties the family in close bonds and welcomes others to bask in the family’s warmth and radiance.
The other singular quality attributed to Mrs. Ramsay is that of “making of the moment something permanent.” She tells life to “stand still.” “Life stand still here,” Mrs. Ramsay commands. And the implication of the passage is that life obeys. A moment pauses long enough for those around Mrs. Ramsay to register it, to be nourished by it, to make sense of it. When Mrs. Ramsay slows down a moment, those near her find that out of chaos, there is discernible shape.
Even though I was only in my early twenties when I first read this passage, I was breathless when I read it. I am sure I couldn’t place my finger on exactly why. I was not yet a mother, was several years from even considering becoming a mother. One would think I might have connected more closely with the character Lily Briscoe, who is young, unmarried, and an artist. As much I did enjoy Lily’s character, these two observations about Mrs. Ramsay’s special interpersonal and existential gifts stopped me short. These days I am convinced it is because these two attributes sum up my own calling. There must have been some part of me that sensed this, that recognized it.
When I begin to feel a little unmoored from my purpose and need to recenter and prioritize, it is this passage that I return to, having come to realize that two of my strengths lie in bringing people together and in helping people to enter into a moment fully and to receive nourishment by their environment and the full use of their senses and attention. Each time I write an essay or a poem, I plant a garden, I bake something comforting for someone, or I discuss something literary or philosophical or spiritual, I am angling towards a distilling down of life, an endeavor to pause life in its tracks, to ask it to wait, to stay still for a moment. Let us stop. Let us wait. Let us listen. Let us use our senses to glory in whatever gratitude can be gleaned from our circumstances in a given moment. Where is there beauty here? Solace? Peace? Where can we find order in the midst of the common chaos of modern life? How can we nurture and protect that which is higher, more real, more worthy, more pure in any given moment? Let me camp around it for a while, and please join me. It might sound dramatic, but that doesn’t make it any less true that this is the deep call of my soul. I orient my life around it.
Last week, on a day that was unusually sunny and warm, my eldest daughter and I went to a nearby historic home to enjoy its property and gardens. I sat for a while in a garden chair and started to record what I was observing around me. This simple note-taking was a way of capturing the moment. And it’s one I highly recommend. Summer is the perfect time to start practicing this kind of mindful note-taking. All you need is a little notebook and something to write with, and just start recording all that your senses are taking in around you. Don’t worry too much about your wording, about how it sounds, or about grammar or punctuation or whether you are repeating yourself. Just let your pen flow, and keep recording all that you are aware of. Here is my “moment of being” in the Hamilton House gardens.
A Captured Moment: Hamilton House, Late June 2023
The air smells of wild strawberries and grass, citrusy, Japanese lilacs carry rich wafts of honey, then, a soft rose essence. Humid, heavy, lush. Moths flit among tall grasses and weeds. Bees zoom and buzz, and flies seem to fight right in front of me. Catbirds mewl nearby. There are twitters, cheeps, plaintive cries, the strum of crickets. Thrum and hum. Pulse of life. Everything is movement, breath, push, force, assertion of life. Here a small ant crawls over my toe as though I am another of the many stone statues on this property. Gravel crunches, children shout. Distant middle-aged voices reference historic, local author Sarah Orne Jewitt. Dogs inspect granite posts and shrubs. Toddler girls in matching dresses run ahead of their mother. One refuses to respond when called: caught up in her own child world. Fields thrive with life: clover, reeds, something that looks like Baby’s Breath. There is a cheeping that is incessant like a flat, insistent metronome, and suddenly it turns staccato. I have no idea what it is. A pleasant breeze while the sun fades in and out, dappling the lawn in front of me. Baby birds are fed inside their cedar house nearby. An older couple carries a canoe to the water. A jaunty pale blonde dog on a leash looks happily my way, seems to smile. All is grace, gracious, space, peace, rhythm, harmony, symphony, natural, real, life, simplicity, complexity: both. Reverence, awe, order, authenticity, all is true to purpose, without angst, without striving; without pretense, stress, judgment, confusion, pettiness, comparison. All is acceptance. And action and stillness: both. Calm and activity. Whirl, twirl, swoop, gush, flit, fluff, ruffle, rumple, dive, hop, bounce, peck, pull, response, rest, blink. Being.
Who would like to join me in practicing this act of awareness-through-writing, say, once a week, this summer? The very act of recording all these sensory experiences has solidified that moment, has crystallized it so vibrantly in my mind, far better than if I had just sat, thought, and gone on with my day. Try it with me!