An Essay by Michelle Terry
Writers collect words, phrases, journals, and photos. When I hear or read a word that strikes a chord, I scribble it on whatever medium is available at the time. Sometimes it’s a scrap of paper or a napkin or a grocery store receipt. When I’m pretending to be a poet, it’s a leather-bound journal. I treasure words that trickle melodiously off the tongue or that resonate like a whisper as you’re falling asleep.
After years of cultivating this habit, I’ve built a bountiful bed of bewitching words.
Unspoken. Dalliance. Essence. Contrail. Talisman.
Most of these dulcet delicacies won’t appear in the lines of my stories. Using them would feel pretentious and inauthentic, and portray me as a more sophisticated writer than I am. Instead, I stash them away like precious metals and only unlock the glass case when I want to indulge in decadence.
Like right now.
My day job requires eighty percent travel. I spend winters in the not-so-tropical Dakotas and Rocky Mountains, fighting deadlines, healthcare reform issues, and below-zero wind chills. Summer doesn’t offer a reprieve, as the snow morphs to sweltering heat, dog-day humidity, and ill-tempered personalities. At the risk of sounding like an unappreciative employed professional, the travel wears on me. Reading a private anthology of lovely words is a creature comfort, like baked potato soup. I often fall asleep with journals scattered and tangled in the tousled hotel sheets. Sometimes I even wake up with bad poetry imprinted on my cheek.
During a late January trip to Idaho, I found a word. The word. It sat, unassuming, scribbled at the bottom of different pages in two of the three writing journals I’d tucked into my travel bag.
The word acted as an anchor for memories that gasped for air in their quest to stay at the surface. A story wove through my thoughts like gold and crimson strands of silk in a tapestry. That night, the threads continued to tangle and break and rejoin as I ate supper at a deserted diner nearby. I was crafting prose in my head, sipping on lousy wine and eating pot pie, when the old-fashioned grandfather clock behind my booth began to chime. Westminster chimes, just like Big Ben. Goosebumps invaded my arms as I was whisked back in time to my Grandma and Grandpa’s home.
As children, it was a treat for us to spend the night there—camped out in front of the living room fire by their towering, beautiful clock. From her bedroom, Grandma could hear us (siblings, cousins, friends) giggling long after everyone was supposed to be asleep. She’d come out in her robe, no dentures, and shush us.
When it was just us, she’d say, “Be still and count the chimes. Make sure the clock is right. Listen to the hands ticking off the time. You’ll never get those seconds back. Lie still and listen to them.”
And I would.
In addition to hoarding words, I also photograph still-life subjects. To get the perfect shot, one has to move quickly, and sometimes manipulate the subject to capture something ethereal in ordinary items.
My husband calls me a hummingbird—never stopping to perch, rest, or eat. So many times in my life, it would have paid to be still. To let problems work themselves out, permit kids to make mistakes, allow relationships to happen. Or not happen.
Still is the ultimate opposite of my nature. I am the antithesis of still.
Instead, I’m a fixer and a flutterer and a smasher of unfinished sentences. I can’t stand unsaid words, unaddressed conflicts, or uncomfortable conundrums. I am swift to swoop, soothe, and say anything to steady a situation. For all the times I got it right, there were more instances when it would have been wiser to remain quiet. To stop and let the storm blow over.
Let the sentence stay unfinished.
Such a simple, one-syllable word with so many quiet, subtle meanings:
Shhh… be still.
Don’t you love how still the night is?
Let’s lie still.
Would you please just sit still!
Finally, the wind is still.
You are still my dearest and best friend.
I love you… still.
This rediscovery of the word still opened up a promise from my heart that night. A commitment to let others do their work while I refrained from rushing in to fix every hurt. To curb the urge to pinch-hit and take every curveball thrown in the dirt. An oath not to smooth over, whitewash, and manage things with smothers or fidgets. To let situations evolve before I address them, and help with problem solving only after others have tried first. A pact to pick the smallest word in my journal and make it mean more than calligraphy on a page or a capture in a photographer’s frame. A solemn vow to be still.
Even if it’s not in a hummingbird’s nature to do so.
Michelle Terry is a registered, clinical dietitian whose day job involves keeping people healthy through wellness, prevention, and disease management. Her work has been published in NASCAR Illustrated and four online journals: Running on Sober, Holistic Journey, Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts, and Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing. Additional work is forthcoming in Storyteller Magazine. Michelle writes as MamaMick for Lipstick and Laundry (main blog), Ps and Qs (photography), and The Hidden Hummingbird Diaries (poetry and fiction). When she is not working, writing, or wrangling two children, she maintains a prodigious garden on a six–acre property.