After love, it may be the most overused word in the English language. There was a time when peace meant the absence of conflict. Now it's invoked to describe every imaginable condition from manageable hair to financial security.
It's a word we hear a lot at this time of new beginnings: a new year, fresh with new hopes for enlightened leadership and intelligent discourse and reasonable behavior all around. It's the wish we wrote on our holiday cards just a few weeks ago, peace in 2012, stars and doves and silent nights when the only sounds are the winter wind or the distant echo of angel anthems.
And then we turn on the TV or click on the computer and the world rushes in, full of sound and fury and signifying—what? Progress? Incredible new technologies designed to make our lives run smoothly, new apps to achieve weight loss, career advancement, blissful relationships? The thrill of the new is counterbalanced by the persistent presence of last year's stories: wars and rumors of wars, foreclosures, unemployment. Through it all runs the rough thread of human longing, ageless, timeless. Is this all there is? Where is the More? Where is the Better?
My own peace comes piecemeal, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. He called peace a wild wood dove whose flying visits were too brief, their effect too fleeting. As for me, I want the bird to light on my windowsill and settle in for a long stay, maybe even build a nest.
It doesn't happen. I get a flutter of wings, a fly-by. A moment in December in the tree lot, surrounded by evergreens, breathing in the fragrance and feeling smoothed-down and present. Christmas Eve in church, my 5-year-old granddaughter a last-minute angel in the pageant, white-robed, silver-haloed, beaming at us from the altar. Yes, I think. Now. Stay.
Nope. I return to chaos, cheerful and otherwise. Meals. Bills. Things that break and need fixing. Things that are past mending. Getting and spending. The incessant chorus of cell phone ringtones. The clamor from within: Do more. Be more. Catch up.
Not, perhaps, the ideal nesting conditions for a wild wood dove.
But do we lure peace on our own terms? I think of a friend who survived cancer and told me that the most profound peace she has ever known came in the midst of the greatest suffering. I think of another friend who found herself facing death, alone, after an accident in the mountains. When I realized I might not come out alive, she said, a vast peace enfolded me.
Both stories seem to be about surrender, about a searingly honest acknowledgment of human limitations. For both women, acceptance of the present moment was the key.
It's a stark truth I struggle to embrace. I'd rather putter around my windowsill, put out some tempting seeds and straw, feather a nest with soft words and good deeds. It might work. The dove might linger this time.
Or it might just hover nearby, waiting, inviting patience. Hopkins' poem says that is the first step: "Patience exquisite/That plumes to Peace thereafter."
I think of a Buddhist nun I once saw on a train platform in Japan. Crowds surged around her, pressing to enter the train cars. I looked up from my pile of baggage to catch a glimpse of her face, serene, untroubled, stripped of every pretense. In that moment, my own sense of urgency fell away like molting feathers. I took a breath, regrouped, considered the bigger picture.
Patience. Peace. How slow they sound, how exacting, how 19th century. No apps available. Only time. Only consent.