At the time, I was living in Manhattan. I rode the subway from 79th St. downtown. I had to transfer at Penn Station. When I arrived, I got off to transfer to the downtown local. My train was just across the platform. I walked over, boarded it and sat down. From the window, I could see the train I’d just left. Neither train was moving. My car doors soon closed. Looking out, I saw the windows of the train on the opposite platform. They seemed to be slowly gliding ahead. I feIt as though I was going backwards, in the wrong direction, back uptown. I didn’t know if I was coming or going. I felt the train surge slightly. My body pulled to the right. We’d begun moving ahead. The other train had in fact moved ahead a minute or so before mine did, creating an illusion that I was going backwards. In fact, I had been standing still. It just didn’t seem that way.
Are we ever really standing still?
I know occasions when I think I’m getting ahead, and I may be going backwards. Then, when I think I’m going backwards I discover I’m actually pulling ahead. And, there are times when I feel I am only standing still, but I’m moving. I can’t always be sure whether I’m coming or going.
We are itinerant creatures, always on the go. We live in a universe constantly in motion. Planet earth is slipping effortlessly through space. She does a 583,000,000-mile orbit around the sun as I sit here writing this piece. Even when I’m sound asleep I’m doing 66,000 mph and at the end of any day I’ve clocked 1584,000 miles. Twenty-four seven, I’m being taken for the ride of my life and I haven’t a clue. So are we all.
If you sail, you know all about moving ahead, but edging backwards. Tacking against strong winds and contrary currents will do it every time. Tack as I might, I’ll wind up just about where I started, often behind. I know I have to give it up. Reluctantly, I scrap my planned destination. I head for the nearest port that the wind can take me. In trying to get ahead, I’ve stood still or gone backwards.
My wife and I had left early one morning on our way sailing north on the Chesapeake from Fairlee Creek. We were hoping to make the Bohemia River by mid-afternoon. I’d heard the river was a gorgeous. I was eager to see it. A strong northerly wind arose about five miles south of the Sassafras River. I tacked back and forth with fierce determination, but made little if any progress north. We fell back. It was clear that we’d never make the Bohemia.
Disappointed we headed for the Sassafras and found a cove. I’d never been in it before. I believe it was Turner Creek. It was then late in the day. We were exhausted. The entrance was unnervingly shallow. We bumped and scraped our way in. The narrow entrance quickly opened up revealing a spectacular panorama of farm land, an old house and a barn in the distance. It was the perfect portrait of refuge and solitude. The creek was protected from wind such that even though it blew a gale on the Bay, the creek remained as still as a millpond. We spent a lovely and serene night. We had been pushing ahead that day, but wound up getting behind. The day was far more satisfying for having gone backwards than if we had gone ahead the whole way.
People say that they’ve worked hard all their lives to get ahead. Even though they’ve succeeded, they’ll tell you they’ve wondered if they were ahead at all. As the shadows of life lengthened, questions often haunted many of us. Did we love well? Were we too busy getting ahead that we fell behind in the quest for what really counts?
Most of us would say that standing still is tedious. Being stalled is boring, irritating. We get restless. Far more invigorating to be on the move, going somewhere, doing something. Only idiots just stand there and do nothing.
I’ve read recently in books, op-eds and seen on TV clips stories about people who had learned the art of just being there. Doing nothing is, well, doing nothing, but not really. It’s the most skillful way of being with others in times of crisis. With our aging population, with our neighbors, being there, not in order to do something or fix anything, but just being there makes all the difference. If you can’t be there in person, try zooming instead. Zooming, unfortunately, takes a little doing.
The coronavirus highlights what feeling stalled is about. The pandemic has imposed limits; we cannot go back to how things were – there’s no turning back –– nor do we know just how things will look as we move ahead. Are we moving ahead at all? Now that we can’t physically be with others the feeling that we’re only standing still is exacerbated all the more.
“The present,” writer Phillip Lopate once wrote, “is not always an unwelcome guest, so long as it doesn’t stay too long,”
I suspect many feel as I do; this present is staying far too long. Truth be told, the present may seem stationary, but it’s actually on the move, speeding ahead. Where it’s going is the big concern. Covid-19 is upending our world. We may think we’re stalled, but our train’s left the station and it’s barreling ahead with dizzying speed. We are being taken to an unknown destination. We’re on the ride of our lives.
As I am writing this, I’d swear I’m sedentary, but in fact I’m traveling at 66,000 mph while on a 583,000,000-mile orbit around the sun.
For the life of me, it doesn’t seem that way.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.