Blowin’ In: Stillness
by Susan Mangan
Yesterday, at dusk, the air hovering above Crooked Lake turned to thick white soup. Ironic considering, I was inside my father’s small kitchen cooking a modest supper of pasta and greens. I could hear my husband and father talking, laughing, badgering one another in the other room.
Listening to soft music without words, I stood still for a moment, back turned away from the pot bubbling on the stove and gazed out of the glass door. Slyly, a brown bundle of fur emerged from the thick fog.
Straining to decipher the curious form of this creature, I watched the muskrat rest his chubby loins on the seawall preparing his own evening repast of lakeweed detritus and rotting November leaves.
I could not see but heard the muffled honk of geese and the flap of wing against water. In early spring, the lake is still except for the smooth trail of the neighboring swan lovers and the raucous landing of the ubiquitous Canadian geese. No longer hindered by sunset summer speed boats, the lake is free to share a peaceful dinner with hungry muskrats, hardy birds, silent humans, and curious spaniels who prefer a view of quietude.
After a long winter, we are brought back to a season of light. Oddly, I always enter spring and then summer with a sense of enthusiasm that is more dutiful than authentic. There is always so much to do in the long days of sunshine: gardens to tend, windows to clean, endless productivity. By the time the days shorten in autumn, I am ready to return to early darkness and a need for stillness.
Stillness. Oddly, one can be still when walking, tending spring gardens, hoovering the carpets, or toiling in the workplace. Stillness is more a state of mind. All it takes is a deep breath and an awareness of that which lies not in the future or the past, but in the present. So often we fail to see the treasures that lie before us – simple gifts, like a muskrat emerging from the chilly depths of a lake or the burgeoning violet bloom of grape hyacinth beneath the last melting snow in early April.
The Gift of Stillness
And so, I have always been part of this world of quietude; at times living in my head rather than in the daily bustle. Without the gift of stillness, I would not be able to live my life to the rich fullness that it deserves, caught on the never-ending treadmill of existence. This is why I make time for silence and peace, observation and thought.
Even as a young adult, when the city world moved fast before my eyes on the L train in Chicago, I found myself still, observing the tangle of clotheslines and fire escapes that punctuated the landscape. As I moved with the speed of the train, my vision would fixate on gang symbols, intricate portraits of urban art spray painted on brick buildings and old tenement apartments.
Strangely beautiful, these images spoke of poverty, struggle, dominance, and community. Scores of commuters and wanderers probably looked at these images blankly, without a thought to the plight of the artist behind the work.
How is it that such work has most likely been painted over in the name of gentrification and other pieces of like art hang in the MoMa? No matter, the brief moments I spent in communion with these urban paintings have left an indelible image in my mind.
My life’s journey has taken me over petrified cow pies scattered about Missouri farmland, through the dark tunnels of city streets, and blessedly along the shores of remote lakes and ocean tides. I have cross-country skied through snow covered birch woods and dug for carrots in our garden. I cannot say that one moment of stillness is more valued than the next, as the gifts offered to me over the years resurrect in my stories, both told and written, furthering my understanding of the arts.
On March 3, 2023, the visual artist Camille Souter died. Born in Northampton, United Kingdom in 1929, Souter was raised in Ireland and lived there for the greater part of her life. Since 1959, she lived and worked on Achill Island. I became fascinated with her work a few years back. The idea of the artist living in relative seclusion, looking out onto a world that cannot see her, piqued my imagination.
During Souter’s early years as an artist, she was known for her Abstract Expressionism, and then her Impressionistic works. She has painted fish and slaughterhouse scenes, landscapes and airplanes, rusted gates and clusters of daisies. Awarded the highest honor given to a select few of Irish artists, the Saoi (Wise One) of Aosdána, LLD, Souter saw the beauty and importance in that which is commonplace, images that most people will never truly see.
The titles of her works include simple narratives which speak of her deep regard for the beautiful mystery of the everyday world: When the Mist Comes Down (1964), Achill – Up the Brae (1962), Aunt Biddy’s Flower Pots (1968). In fact, the closing lines of her obituary read that Camille Souter “will be remembered for her painting, for her individual take on life, and her love of frogs, broad beans, and tulips.”
Frogs and tulips, swans and geese, muskrats and mist. Stillness and breath. Inspiration and truth.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at su*******@ya***.com.