Finding stillness by the river – Michele Gierck

If I had to name one place that I’ve long loved, a place that settles my soul, it’s down by the river.

As children we loved prancing along the banks of the Yarra, splashing about in its refreshing waters on hot summer days.

Decades now separate me from that era, but adulthood has never diminished the joy I experience being close to that river: listening to the sound of the water gurgling over rocks and riffles; watching that dirty-looking waterway meandering around bends, heading downstream. There’s a peacefulness to be had absorbing the panorama where billowing eucalypts line riverbanks, creating a vista of verdant green that could well be the setting of a Streeton, a Roberts or a McCubbin classic painting.

It is possible to enjoy a river as one does a good friend: watching its current, its flow and its many moods. It is a paradox, stillness in an ever-changing, always-flowing river.

That’s where I was one Saturday morning in early February – down by the river. It had been a whim. ‘Let’s ditch the to-do list,’ I’d suggested to my husband over breakfast. His agreement was swift. It’s not difficult to understand why. My to-do list often turns into our to-do list. Regardless of how many hours are spent on chores, on visiting friends and family, on responding to an array of requests and duties, the number of things to be done only ever seems to grow, while the time in which to do them diminishes.

But there is much to be gained in taking a little time out — in this case, ditching the to-do list — and pausing. A pause, after all, is a time between activities to catch your breath, to relax your being, and just be.

And this is precisely what the medical specialists told me to do when, almost two decades ago, I went through months of physical rehabilitation.

While I, and many out-patients like me who were injured, focused on our programs full of repetitive stretching and strengthening exercises, we were frequently reminded that the pauses built into each session — there were several in a day — were as important as any activity we did. (We were warned: not pausing would have a debilitating effect!)

What I didn’t realise then, desperate as I was to regain so many aspects of my life which back injury had curtailed — working, driving, swimming and going to the football, just to name a few — was how important pausing is. And, rehabilitation aside, how important it is for life in general.

Besides, pausing does not necessarily mean sitting down. Although I must say the quiet little studio in my backyard — a small room with a northerly aspect overlooking a flowering gumnut, a tall arching eucalypt, and a patch of herbs which grow with abandon — is a wonderful place to sit and meditate or pray. As a writer based at home, it’s a place to take a break from work and from the demands of the day.

In January this year, when my mother-in-law, Elsie, was dying — just a couple of weeks after I last saw her — and my husband had flown to Queensland, along with his siblings, to spend the last days of their mother’s earthly existence with her, I found myself nicking down to that studio almost hourly. My prayers, like my meditations, were simple: that Elsie and her family be blessed with love and grace. One morning, as I headed towards the studio, I realised that however much effect my prayers and meditations had on Elsie and her family, they were having a profound effect on me. When another close family member — one of my own vintage, rather than one of the tribal elders — received news of a recurrence of cancer, my visits to the studio and the river became more frequent. And so they have remained.

Whether the pause I take is for a 10-minute meditation, or a river visit, it’s like stepping into a space in which stillness pervades. And what a break, not just from work and daily life, but from news reports of world affairs that are difficult to grapple with, and even harder to escape.

Not that every one of my river visits or my meditations is text-book terrific. Sometimes, when meditating, thoughts whizz around my mind with such velocity and ferocity, I suspect that if they were currents of electricity they could light up a city skyline. And even my riverbank sojourns hit the occasional snag. Recently, I scrambled over rocks, and in doing so strained some muscles, arriving home with a grumpy body in need of urgent attention.

Not easily deterred, I still believe there are significant benefits in pausing — taking time out, slowing down and just being, because doing so brings you back to your essence: to what you value and to what really matters.

Michele Gierck, author of Fraying: Mum, Memory Loss, the Medical Maze and Me.