It is 6:14 in the morning. Here in Philadelphia, the sky hangs heavy and low. The air is cool and wet. A thick soup of white fog blankets everything around me, buffets my house from the rest of the world, cocoons the sleepy awareness of the morning into this little room with my little desk, where I am surrounded by the remnants of a life in art.
I am looking at my shelves and thinking of you at your desk, looking out your own window, imaging all the art books that are echoes, not yet in your space with you.
Last night thinking back on the interview we had, I had a strong instinct to give you a piece of music to listen to, then a letter to read. I kept thinking about what you said about the feeling of seeing an amazing work of art, of experiencing something beautiful and wanting to say to someone, “This amazing thing happened. I experienced this and it moved me and I want you to experience this too.”
To start, click play on the track below and turn the volume down so it feels like this is coming from far away.
It’s funny to meet someone new.
It’s been a long time since I have talked to a new person, really talked, in the way we did yesterday. You described yourself as the kind of talker who wants to get right to the serious things, the things that matter. I don’t do small talk well, either. Too often, I find myself in social settings trying to have a conversation the space can’t quite sustain. Either the things I want to say feel too big, or the container of space too small. I find myself asking questions I genuinely want the answers to, hoping to find connection and communion, preferring a single moment of this to an evening’s worth of chatter, but not often finding that same desire mirrored on the other side.
Last night, I was thinking of you as I drifted to sleep, thinking about the fact that I was lucky to have been paired with another think-y person, someone who also claims an enjoyment in slowness, meditation and contemplation. I thought about how we are often surrounded with the things we need if we are willing to stop and notice them.
The music that is playing right now comes from the game about dying, the one I told you about in our interview. The candles that I pointed to in the video were part of the experience that this music played under. The purpose of the prompt was to give people a moment of quiet in which to think about the finiteness of life and then feel however they feel about that fact.
If you want, you could light a candle now.
In a moment, I’d like you walk over to your window and stand in front of it. Feel your feet on the ground and look at the cemetery. Find one thing to focus your vision on. Breathe in and out. Continue this slow inhale and exhale until you are ready to look at something else. Focus on that new thing for as long as you like, with awareness still on your breathing. Repeat for a total of five things.
Read that above paragraph as many times as you need to feel prepared. Then go ahead and leave this screen. If you forget the exact directions, don’t worry. Just do what feels right. Then come back here and continue scrolling down.
If you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re back now.
Slowly fade the previous music, if it’s still playing. Then play this one.
Listen through a minute or so to get a feel for it.
Then set the volume at whatever level you like. If you prefer silence, and want to turn the music off before continuing, that’s fine too.
Last night, just before falling asleep, I wrote myself a note to tell you two stories about finding stillness.
I think I wanted to share these stories because they are about why I like the things we talked about during our interview: sitting in a dark room until one’s eyes adjust to the light, singing simple melodies for hours in loops that echo over and ever, meditating until the body hurts but noticing afterwards that one has been unconsciously smiling, shaking ones limbs over and over and over again until the brain begins to fall away.
Because they are stories that are about simple – some might say boring – things, but are also stories that mean a lot to me, I don’t tell them often. In this case, though, there is something about why they matter to me that I sense you might understand, and perhaps this is why my brain wanted to remind me to tell you these stories as I was falling asleep.
I don’t know if the desire is a selfish instinct, which a tiny part of me is nervous about, but it’s still with me as I sit down in this early morning light to write something to you. So, selfish or no, I suppose this impulse is the one I’m going with.
So here goes:
The first time I fell in love with stillness was in Turkey.
I was fresh out of college and hungry to be an artist. At the time I thought that meant making artwork, and making lots of it, to prove I was a professional. I felt like I needed to be a master maker. I felt like I needed to get “good” enough at making things so I could justify having quit the job at a chemistry lab I’d been working. I felt like I needed to have something tangible to justify my internal pull towards creativity. It felt maniacal, this energy. It felt like something outside myself was breathing down my neck and the only way to keep out of its grip was to do DO and DO and DO.
At 24, I had just started teaching “Voice for the Stage” to college students. As I mentioned in our chat, I felt nervous about being a “serious” teacher. The summer after that first semester of teaching, I decided I would beef up my resume and teaching toolkit by traveling abroad and taking two different voice theater training programs.
The first took place in the south of France at the Roy Hart Voice Centre. One of the core exercises for the program was a simple game of leading and following. In it, one person moves or makes sounds that the other person repeats. To follow correctly, an outsider should ideally see no difference between the leader and the follower.
As I slowly began to understand in doing this exercise over and over (and over and over and over), the hard work is not the physical movements or the sonic mimicry but the trust that one’s voice and body can imitate without first thinking and understanding. To master this work is to give in to one’s capacity to stop trying and simply receive. If you turn your head to look at the leader’s movement or pause to listen and copy their sound, you have broken your promise to follow. If you try too hard to know what the leader is doing, you cannot be present in it yourself. In other words if you try too hard to do the task, you destroy it.
The second program I took part in that summer was in Cappadocia near Göreme, Turkey. The workshop took place in a cave, covered in rugs woven at a factory nearby. The thing I remember most about our daily practice was the cold shock of entering the stone space from the heated outside air. The core exercise of this program focused on singing onto the physical body, using vibration to feel sound rather than hear it. We began each day by humming, noticing the resonance of our physical forms. We progressed to singing onto ourselves, sending streams of “oooh” vowels into the bones of our wrists and fingers, over and over and over. At the end of each day, a person would lay on the ground and let the rest of the group sing onto their limbs before we carried them into the air. The feeling when I did it was one of weightlessness, of a body that has no beginning or end.
Every morning before classes began, I woke up between 5 or 6, usually with the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. I loved hearing that lone voice ringing out through the desert. It felt old and familiar. It felt big and small at the same time. For the three weeks I was at that program, I probably spent more time quietly listening than I had in the entire year before.
In a moment, walk to the window again. Feel your feet on the ground, again, and look at the moving world. Breathe in and out. For as long as you like, find something outside to “follow” with your voice, body or both. Do this in whatever way you choose. When you notice something shift, come back and continue reading.
If you’re back, and ready to move on, you can begin to play this:
Listen for a moment or two, then adjust as you like. As before, if you ever want stillness instead of sound, feel free to turn this down.
The second time I fell in love with stillness was also in Turkey. When I close my eyes and try to remember the experience it goes like this:
I am three hours in Istanbul.
Perhaps it is that I am in the crush of the city – 14 million thick – and I can sense every one of those millions as they pulse around me as I rush from the stop at Taksim square to the Galata Mevlevihanesi sacred hall.
Perhaps it is that my nerves are still jangly from the visa snafu earlier this morning.
Perhaps it is that on the flight this morning I realized that this afternoon, a Sunday, would be my only chance to see this ceremony I am racing to.
Perhaps it is because beyond the short description that describes the costumed symbols of death and rebirth listed in my guidebook, I am aware that I know nearly nothing about Rumi, Sufism and the practices of the ritual I am about to see.
I sit in dim light and listen to a women explain first in Turkish and then again in English what it is we are about to see. At this moment, as she is speaking, I do not capture much of what she says. In fact, all I will remember years later about her speech is that the tall brown hats I will see are symbolic of tombstones, that I should not use the flash function on my camera and that because this is a ritual and not a performance at the end it is kindly requested that the audience does not clap.
I will remember the sound of my heart beating in my chest and how into the untidiness of my mind a voice makes itself known.
Can I describe the sound? Technically, as a trained voice teacher, I can tell it resonates through the nasal palate and deep back in the throat of the singer. It bounces between these places with rhythms that are unfamiliar and unpredictable to me. At moments it feels so thin and pure that it seems to be ringing everywhere in the room simultaneously. At others it seems to shake something in my stomach, a force more than a sound. In this way, even as I know these technical aspects about how the sound might be made, it also contains something more than I can explain.
I know that I do not know this voice, I have never heard anything like it before, but it also feels as if I do. I do not know why it sounds so familiar. It sits down in my chest and it feels as if it gently shakes off all the moments before this one that I have been carrying. It is a voice that dares me to slow down, a voice that allows me to fidget and fuss and then finally relax. A voice that is patient, takes all the time it needs, almost is if it knows that it will take me some time to still myself and allow it in.
It is a sound that feels like crying. And without really knowing where and when it began I find myself filling with a wide and deep space that is like sadness, but barer, more empty. It is a space in me that is the shape of hunger, but without the pain of need, a void of something that I do not know how to fill up except to create more space.
Suddenly, I notice that I am crying, with fullness, with stillness, with everything-ness, with nothing-ness as well.
Later when the Dervishes have removed their black cloaks, representing the grave, to show the whites robes we all came here expecting to see, that voice still ringing in my ears.
The whirling is so very beautiful.
It is trite to say, but it is true.
Even in the moment of watching, I am aware that I will always remember this image. Some part of me thinks about how one could know exactly what one will see, read everything about the ceremony beforehand, know the mechanics of the spin around the room’s circle and around the Dervish’s own center on the left foot with left palm facing the earth and the right up to the sky, how one could know all these things but still not be prepared for what it actually is.
For me it is the same presence as the voice, it is a widening of the space around me. It is vastness, willed to grow bigger, again and again and again, around and around and around.
If the music is still playing, you can fade it down now.
In a moment walk to one corner of your room and place your right hand on the solid wall. Close your eyes and walking slowly make your way around the entire circle of your space, one complete turn, exploring as you go. Leave your left one by your side unless you need it to navigate or balance. Adjust as needed, explore, follow the room and find the space that contains you. Pause for a bit when you are near the window.
When you think you are back where you began, open your eyes and return.
Thank you Ece, for reading this.
To end, to integrate, to complete the circle and before you head out back into “real” life, I’d like to offer one last thing to witness. It’s not exactly the image in my mind, but it’s the best I could find online.
First, begin to play this music.
Then, click this link. Once the video loads in the new tab, mute the sound on the video. Make the video full screen.
Watch until you feel finished.
Take a breath in and out.