Still Lives

One day I do nothing but record things I see, a pair of foxes dead on a roadside, separated by a mere hundred feet. The yellow flowers dividing one side of the highway from the other, a pair of men, standing in a field, the soft brown of the cows grazing nearby. That last deer shape on the interstate, a crow eating the entrails until all that is left is the mere suggestion of a deer, more of an imagining than an actuality. Seen too are two very tall trees, one with a cluster of mid-green leaves up near the top that shake very rapidly in the wind, almost as if they are laughing.  The other, its branches further down and broader, its leaves slightly deeper in color, moves in a slow rippling motion, though both trees are standing in the same breeze. I watch too a wasp, slowly crawling backwards and forwards along the wood floor board of a screened in porch. I watch the wasp for a full thirty minutes, taking note of its eyes, thorax, abdomen, its wings half raised.

In all this time, it covers a space of mere inches, a slow back and forth glide along the board. In all this time, its wings never fold downward, though it never flies either. There is only that smooth back and forth, a kind of partner-less waltz really, with only the wind for accompaniment. What is it doing, this wasp? What is it looking for? For that matter, what is it that am I looking for when watching this wasp? At the end of thirty minutes I am still no surer of what the wasp is doing any more than I am sure of what I am doing, except that we are both practicing a kind of quiet, a near stillness in this space.

It is not a small thing, to learn to be still, to learn to be patient. Of all the things I am least likely to be patient with, myself is at the top of the list. According to Dictionary.com, to be patient means to have a “willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay…[to display] quiet, steady perseverance; even-tempered care; diligence.” While I am not a stranger to working hard for something I want, I will admit a certain restlessness plagues me, that when I have finally reached a decision about something, or when I have put in the work towards a goal, there is a point I reach where internally, I am done with it, when I want the results/change/thing to happen now, and only now, not later, not even one second later, but now.

Even animals can practice patience, learn to wait for some perceived future benefit or reward. Scientists call this the ability to delay gratification—to eschew short term, smaller benefits in favor of reaping larger rewards down the road. Those most capable of deferring gratification, of remaining patient, are those closest to us in terms of evolution—chimps, bonobos, Capuchin monkeys. But even ravens can manage it for short periods of time, crows too.

In fact, an article published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review argues that “the differences in how steeply humans and animals discount the future consequences of their choices are much smaller than people have previously thought,” meaning that the gap between our ability to delay gratification, to display patience, and that of the same ability possessed by animals isn’t as big as we might imagine. And indeed I am often crow-like, restless in my movements, especially when the reward or benefit is something less than tangible, something not calculable by a system of standard weights and measures.

I am still aspiring towards this, to being okay with stillness, am still learning to be patient, most of all with myself. In the end, that day where I glutted my eyes on all they could see in the natural world around me, it was me who moved first. I left the wasp there, where I imagined it remained, gliding infinitely in the bars of slanting yellow light, as if dancing with the small specks of dust, as if dancing with no one at all, but still, nevertheless, dancing, the wind, just steadily keeping time.

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