“. . . [Willa’s clock dance] would feature a woman racing across the stage from left to right, all the while madly whirling so that the audience saw only a spinning blur of color before she vanished into the wings, pouf! Just like that. Gone.”
Who doesn’t relate to the main character, Willa Drake, in Anne Tyler’s new book, Clock Dance? I know I do.
My wish is to slow my Clock Dance down before I’m gone with a pouf! I want to observe and experience my life. But how? One of my teachers is always reminding me, “Liz, you have the time to pause.” Left to myself, I never think I do. Like Willa, I’m all awhirl, running, spinning. When I pause for meditation, at least my body is still. My mind is usually another matter.
Obviously, this is not just a modern problem. The Old Testament psalmist wrote, “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” And Quaker George Fox wrote in 1652, “Ye have no time but this present time, therefore prize your time, for your soul’s sake.”
But how do you do it? How do we approach the time we have, finding ways to slow down, pause or experience a different quality in our own Clock Dance? In the novel, two characters answer this question through their lived experience and teach Willa two Clock Dance variations.
The first variation comes from Willa’s father, Melvin, after Willa’s husband’s sudden death. Melvin tells Willa how he coped with the interminable stretch of the-rest-of-your-life-alone he first faced as a widower, a pattern he continues to use. He explains, “I broke my days into separate moments . . . there were these individual moments that I could still appreciate. Like drinking the first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.”
Pausing. Slowing down. Observing. Taking the time to notice, to experience life. To savor. All are gifts of the mindfulness Melvin practices.
Critics, however, dismiss meditation and mindfulness as navel-gazing. They question what role quiet meditation has in a needy world screaming for right action from all of us. If not grounded, there is a risk that meditation can become precious or devolve into narcissism.
A friend recently told me how, as part of a mindfulness retreat, her job was to make coffee for the community. One particular morning as she filled the coffee maker, she accidentally spilled a few grains of coffee onto the counter. The group leader pointed an accusing finger at the spilled grounds and whispered, “That is what inattention looks like.”
Wow! This tight, rigid perfectionism is the opposite of what I’m aiming for in meditation and mindfulness practice. I like Cynthia Bourgeault’s aim better, that the results of my efforts create not only rest in my inner being but an outflowing into the world as “harmony and compassion.”
In my own life, I often feel a tension between meditation and mindfulness and action. Long ago, in a session with Brother Curtis Almquist, SSJE, I learned about the mandorla. What’s a mandorla? Take a circle and intersect it with another circle. The almond-shaped space of intersection is the mandorla (mandorla means almond in Italian). This is liminal space, "both/and" space. The space of integration. In Eastern and Western art, Holy Ones, saints, bodhisattvas are often depicted surrounded by a glowing, almond-shaped mandorla.
My mandorla -- the intersection between the circle representing my meditation and mindfulness practices and the circle representing my action in the world -- is never the same size or shape. Some days, it's only a sliver. Some days, it disappears because the circles don’t even touch. But during some parts of some days, I sense a quality of presence as I go about my life, as I act, that I know originates from my practices. Then, I’m in mandorla space.
James Finley (a spiritual writer and teacher whose mentor was Thomas Merton) explains how, after time and practice, “these moments of sitting in meditation become less and less different from one’s moment of washing the dishes or running errands.” Meditation informs action and action informs meditation. As these moments become more frequent, the mandorla grows.
Turning back to Clock Dance, another character named Ben offers Willa a different variation to Melvin’s, also helpful to those seeking to experience life in a more mindful way. Ben explains, “I try the wider approach. I widen out my angle of vision till I’m only a speck on the globe. We are all just infinitesimal organisms floating through a vast universe.”
Willa objects, asks if thinking this way makes Ben feel “puny.” His reply? “I am puny. We all are.” Ben recognizes the immense scale of reality. His variation brings with it perspective, an attitude of humility, and a sense of humor. It also informs his awareness of our common humanity. The fact is: we’re all in this together. We’re all dancing our own Clock Dance.
When I slow down or pause or become more awake in my own dance, I realize this isn’t a solo! Others are on the floor dancing with me. And there’s an audience out there, beyond the footlights, supporting our efforts. Maybe they’re dancing in the aisles! Everybody’s dancing our own variation through the vast universe, joining in the dance.
Clock Dance ends with Willa realizing “there’s no limit to the possibilities” this dance has to offer. At the very end of the novel, “She sees herself as a tiny skirted figure like the silhouette on a ladies’ room door, skimming the curve of the earth as it sails through space.”
Liz Whitehurst, a former Chrysalis Board member, has spent her professional life writing and teaching. She tries her best to dance every day.