The Peace of Simple Things

At this time of year, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the holidays. In fact, almost counterintuitively, it actually takes real effort to step back from the all the hullabaloo, breathe in and out, and be in the moment—to find what the activist poet Wallace Berry called “the peace of simple things.”

I admit that I’m as susceptible to this dangerous phenomenon as anyone else. I find that I have to remind myself that as much as I take pleasure in all things Christmasy, I always find even more pleasure in simple things—the natural beauty that surrounds us here on the Eastern Shore, the wonder in a child’s face, the warmth of a fire, or even a good night’s sleep. 

Aging is a war of attrition. As the years roll by, we begin falling apart. What I took for granted yesterday becomes tomorrow’s new goal line—climbing that flight of stairs or putting on my socks. The march of time can become an ever-louder drumbeat, but one way to reduce some of that noise is to listen to the rhythm of the spheres, or, if you can’t quite hear that holy music, to your own heartbeat. Don’t try so hard; slow down; just be.

It sounds easy, but it’s not. The pace of life at this time of year conspires against us. The “to-do” list grows longer just when it should shrink. I was reminded (again) of this last week when, hurrying to an evening meeting, I was thunderstruck by a sunset unfolding over a quiet little creek near town. I was running a few minutes late and, confronted with the choice of being another minute or two behind schedule or stopping to photograph a spectacular evening sky, I chose the latter. And you know what? That brief delay didn’t matter: I got to my meeting when the choir was only on “the fourth day of Christmas” and, as we all know, the first three days keep coming back to remind us that that damn partridge in a pear tree never goes anywhere.

Birds fly south for the winter. Bears hibernate in their dens. Nature always seems to find a way to take the sting out these cold months, but we humans apparently have come to a different conclusion. Maybe we believe that by moving faster, we generate more heat, but there’s a limit to that kind of thinking. Eventually, the gears grind down and the motor overheats. Don’t get me wrong: I admire people with energy, but I respect those among us—people like Mr. Berry—who strive to find the peace in simple things.

But that striving often sounds more like a lament than a mantra for living. Mr. Berry certainly knew this because his poem “The Want of Peace” reveals the whole sorry truth:

All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

“The dumb life of roots.” Maybe Vincent Van Gogh believed in this, too, because his final painting, made in 1890, was an impression of gnarled tree roots. As for me, at this time of year, I’m satisfied enough if I can find a small measure of the fisherman’s silence or the gardener’s contemplative musing amid all the din of the season. I hope you can, too. 

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown, MD. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net

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