Terry Tempest Williams Teaches the Pause

In the “Savory Moment” segment of my last blog, I wrote about Terry Tempest Williams’s speech at Bioneers last month, in which she talked about the frequencies that geologists had recorded by placing seismometers on Castleton Tower, a rock formation near Moab, Utah. Williams stood quietly at the podium before three thousand people as she played a three-minute segment of the pulse of the rock. (You can hear the recording  on Outside Magazine’s website.)

That “savory moment” has turned into a savory month for me, partly because I was moved to such tears by the voice of the Earth that I had to leave the auditorium afterwards and miss the next couple of speakers. But it also stays with me because of the way Terry Tempest Williams handles the pause.

I first saw her make this bold on-stage magic in 2014, when I was with Judy Todd at the annual Bioneers satellite conference on Whidbey Island, Washington. Besides offering their own programs and workshops, the organizers streamed many of the speakers at the big national San Rafael conference.

At that event, Williams was talking about the importance of rethinking what we know and allowing fresh creativity to rearrange previous patterns. To illustrate, she explained that the German composer Max Richter had become weary of how the beautiful violin concerto that he loved, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” had been trivialized and sentimentalized. And so, he had recomposed it. With that announcement, Williams played the first short movements of Richter’s piece. (And it is stunning; I ordered it myself that same day.) While it was playing, she just stood there, listening, responding gently with her head and then her whole body, glancing over the audience with penetrating but nonjudgmental curiosity. At an event where most of the speakers are so polished, so well-rehearsed, so in command of every sigh, pause, and tear of their performance, Terry Tempest Williams gave over her time on stage to something beautiful that someone else had made. She took that pause and showed no impatience to reclaim her voice, reclaim the microphone, reclaim attention. She was absolutely comfortable to wait in silence. It was a powerful moment I have never forgotten.

I long to stand with such ease and generosity in a great silence.


What I’m reading

When I was living in a little stone cottage in England in 1973-74, I used to check out books from a tiny library in the market town of Farringdon, Berkshire, where I bought my meager supply of groceries. One day I discovered a novel by the Australian writer, Patrick White, who had received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973. I fell in love with his work and have read all his eleven novels at least once over the years. Currently I’m rereading an early one, The Living and the Dead. What I love about White is that his writing captures, in a way I’ve never encountered in any other author, the emotional, perceptual field between what’s happening on the outside and what’s experienced on the inside. For example (these are from just two pages I was reading this morning):

A 15-year-old girl feeling misunderstood by her family: “Sometimes she went to her room and cried, the luxurious tears of self-pity, pausing for a moment for a footstep that might prolong the reason for dissatisfaction. Time, she felt, would relieve the tyranny. She looked forward, out of the wilderness of fifteen, to a state of emotional independence.”

Her older brother, visiting Germany before beginning university at Cambridge: “It made Elyot choose his words carefully, a wadding to what he wanted to express, out of pure respect for Frau Fiesel’s sensibility. Both physically and mentally she was soft. You felt if you touched her she would sink in, the outer, unresisting flesh, it would sink and never come out again, remain like the dip in an eiderdown. So it made you go warily.”

Savory Moment

For about a month a crew has been working in our little village to install new waterlines under the street. During the past few days, when the temperatures have been below freezing, they’ve been grinding, digging, and patching in front of our house. Yesterday afternoon, Andy and I spontaneously decided to make cookies for them. Half an hour later we had baked a couple dozen oatmeal cookies, which we put in a paper bag and took out to them. They were really happy!

Upcoming Schedule

I’m so excited that my Bali from Within trip next year (March 2-14, 2020) will include three stops to find and make beauty at wounded places, which is the focus of my newest book and the organization, Radical Joy for Hard Times. Ever since our first annual Global Earth Exchange in 2010, our friends in Bali have participated in this day of giving gifts of beauty back to ecologically challenged places. Even in Bali, where art, spirituality, and nature are interwoven, the land is hurting. Next year, we’ll make a pilgrimage of mindfulness to three of those wounded places, for example:

  • a river that’s drying up because of tourist development for hotels and spas
  • a clove forest that has been damaged by the excessive rains of climate change
  • Tanah Lot, one of Bali’s most sacred and scenic temples, slated to be in view of a multi-million dollar hotel and golf course proposed by Donald Trump

Click the link to read more about Bali from Within and download an itinerary.

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