Summer solstice. Miles above the Arctic Circle, on the calm Norwegian Sea, I leaned over the ship’s rail. Sunlight flared along the water like the bonfires we’d seen blazing on the shore all night. It stung my eyes and skin. How could light so gentle, like the sky after rain, be searing, too?
For one thing, it was cold. My wool sweater didn’t keep me safe from the bright wind. And worse than that, the light showed me myself. In the past few days aboard ship with my husband and our friends, I’d found that I was sometimes craving love, sometimes withholding it. I could be as furious as a small child; I could be bitterly alone. Who was this person? Not the competent adult most people thought I was. Now, surrounded by this Arctic light, I saw myself in all my heated need.
I was new to Quakerism at the time, and couldn’t help thinking about George Fox. Words I’d read before this trip passed through my mind: "The first step to peace is to stand still in the light (which discovers things contrary to it). . . . Here grace grows" (Works, 4:17). Yes, Fox was speaking of the Inward Light, something that could pierce as well as heal. Now I understood this in my body, on a level beyond words. The truth, as teenagers enjoy reminding each other, hurts. When I saw my childish need that day on the ship’s deck, I knew it came from a deep wound. I also knew it needed light and air.
Words from Fox’s Journal: "Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit." This was a favorite phrase of mine, from Fox’s record of a letter to a certain Lady Claypool. And yet, in that clean sunlight, I resisted. I was used to coiling heat inside me, old hurts opened and reopened; equanimity seemed chilly. Could I yield to it? Or would I turn to stone, like a Norwegian troll, at daybreak? Would I give up my capacity for tenderness? And what about my passion for my work, for those I loved, for social justice? I could not see myself, raw nerve that I was, in a state of Buddha-like tranquility.
I leaned into the light. I allowed its gentleness to touch me. Even as I saw the painful truth about myself, I also saw that my wound was a tender place. I could learn to love from there, with more compassion than desperation. No, I wasn’t ready yet, and three years later, I’m still learning. But that northern light has stayed inside me.
I’m not the only one to come under its influence. Gretel Ehrlich’s memoir This Cold Heaven traces her repeated journeys to the north, above the treeline, out of danger of lightning—of which she’s been the victim twice. Does she expect to find a refuge, easy equanimity? Here are her words, describing midsummer above the Arctic Circle: "Not burnished light, but a searing turned up to incandescence. . . .
No escape from overexposure. Only this pale lambency called air . . . I shiver. The sun’s cool passion."
Ehrlich goes to Greenland and becomes as tied to people and to places as she’s ever been before. She bonds with a young girl, although they do not speak a common language, and almost adopts her. Still, she leaves the icy land. She knows that she can’t stay, but she doesn’t love it any less. "Cool passion": is it possible?
George Fox was, from what I can tell, a fiery spirit. Unlike John Woolman, whose gift of gentle persuasion still influences Friends’ approach to social activism, Fox is noted for marching into churches and making his convictions known. Maybe he spoke to himself as much as to his correspondent when he wrote his "still and cool" advice. I can relate. My husband tells me I am "driven" and "intense." Could it be that I was drawn to Quakerism as a cooling influence? Even if this is the case, I don’t want to give up my nature. It took me years to learn to honor it. Like my voice student whose sound wakes up when she attacks the first phrase of a passionate Italian aria, it will take some practice for me to sing lullabies.
I’m willing to learn. I love the stillness of meeting for worship and its bracing challenge: Stay. Listen. Yield. I’m learning to notice what’s unspoken in the room, from unresolved conflict to the softening effect of someone’s vocal ministry as it ripples around our intimate circle. I love those First Days where nobody stands up to speak at all. I love our meeting’s Light Group meditation sessions based on Rex Ambler’s application of George Fox’s writings to the practice of Focusing. As we sit in guided meditation, we learn how to pay attention to the underlying sense of our relationships, our work, and our communities without getting caught in our sticky, habitual storylines.
Maybe we are drawn to spiritual traditions as we are to lovers: opposites attract. Catholicism’s blood-red pageantry would make me claustrophobic. Still, even this tradition, like so many others, offers a form of "air conditioning" for the soul. One of my favorite places as a child was the cool, white, egg-shaped chapel at a rural Trappist monastery. I loved to watch the monks file in for Vespers, seemingly unburdened by the world. How little I knew of the vicissitudes of living in community, let alone celibacy. And yet I still admire that willingness to enter the same chapel before dawn morning after morning, an act of radical surrender to the bigger picture.
Of course, asceticism is not the only road to inward calm. Today, I practice yoga with a teacher who comes to my home and knows me all too well. "Hummingbird," she calls me, as we work on quieting my nerves. When life’s stresses start closing in on me, I sometimes practice tonglen breathing—the Tibetan Buddhist practice that Pema Chodron describes in her book, The Places That Scare You, as breathing in the "thick, heavy, and hot," and breathing out the "fresh, light, and cool." Even in the Mormon Church I come from, full of busy-bee activity, I’ve noticed certain "cooling" functions: drinking sacramental water in the place of wine, and baptism by immersion. In India’s Ayurvedic tradition, "pitta," or hot-blooded people, are advised to eat a lot of cucumbers.
I don’t know of a tradition that embraces swimming, though both the Hindu and Jewish traditions involve bathing rituals. I would welcome such a spiritual approach to water. The rhythm of the ocean on the shore, the memory of constant lapping in the womb, the trust it takes to learn to float: all of this connects with what is deepest and most universal in us all.
I used to fear the water, but now I love to swim. I thrive on the fresh chill and—yes, I’ll admit it—chlorinated blue. When I go swimming with a friend, the pool has strange effects on us. We may be chafing at a relative, chattering about a new creative project, grumbling about aches and pains, but when we step into the water we relax, talk freely, and just marvel at how good we feel. Something in the mix of light and water changes us. We may not keep our inner equilibrium all day, but we can enter that blue element and yield to it. Later, when we’ve surfaced into workaday reality, we can remember how that felt.
Here’s a scientific and poetic take on the effect of swimming-pool blue, from Ellen Meloy’s The Anthropology of Turquoise:
Clear water made blue-green in a pool is a fairly simple optical event. The white surface absorbs yellow, red, and other low-energy waves; the more energetic blue waves scatter and remain visible. Blue has enough energy to escape complete absorption by water, snow, and glacial ice. Its short wavelengths undergo the most scattering by atmospheric motes. It fills the sky with itself.
Maybe there is such a thing as the "cool passion" Gretel Ehrlich found in Greenland. Who knew that blue, the crispest color on the artist’s palette, held such energy? It is the core of heat in every campfire. No wonder I couldn’t get enough of the clean light on the Norwegian Sea, even as it showed me the dark corners of my heart. I longed to drink it down; to know the whole, cold truth and learn to bear it. We must have an instinct for this clarity, even if we can’t agree on what "truth" means. We get depressed without it, as we do in seasons of low light. If that isn’t passion, I don’t know what is.
"Quakers tend to be cool," a Friend said at a recent meeting of our Ministry and Counsel committee. We were discussing how to welcome new attenders. As we talked, I remembered my first few months of welcome into meeting. This community had given me the space to find my way in, and yet I had felt cared for, too. I could be as shy or as outgoing as I chose. I felt no sense of obligation to return each week; I came because I wanted to. If this was "coolness" that had drawn me in, I relished it.
Now, after several years as a member of our meeting, I’ve found some fellow hotheads who have turned to this tradition. One Friend, whose life work is nonviolent direct action, struggles as I do with her passionate nature; this makes her work mean even more. We have frequent conversations about what heats and cools our hearts, and how that rhythm is as much a part of our spiritual lives as meeting for worship itself. Sometimes, when one of us speaks, the other finds herself in tears: a form of saltwater relief.
Quaker plain speech also feels like a relief to me. I’m still adjusting to a culture very different from the one that raised me, with its many layers of politeness. Plain speech—sometimes like a dash of cold water on the face, startling and refreshing at the same time—is still new to me. I can absorb it without taking someone’s comment personally, but learning to speak plainly myself is not easy. I want to stop swaddling my intent in phrases like "I just wondered if . . . " and "I’m just calling because I thought you might . . . " Better to say, "Can you help me?" than to fill the phone wires with my insecurity or to hide my pain in niceness.
Not that I’m always nice. I’m a hothead, after all, however skilled I am at covering it up. But there is cool, clear truth behind most of our human suffering. I want to learn to speak it on the spot. Our meeting has been holding workshops on nonviolent communication based on work by Marshall Rosenberg, and I’ve found this approach helpful—if the words are spoken honestly and without manipulation. Instead of holding in my anger until I’m simmering all over, I can learn to say, "I’m anxious," or "I miss the openness between us." For those who like high drama in relationships, this kind of conversation may fall flat. For me, it’s a nonblaming way to voice those feelings that seem too hot to handle. Often, when I speak this way, love washes in.
In his Teachings on Love, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that when we hug each other, we think to ourselves, "Breathing in, I know my dear one is in my arms, alive. Breathing out, she is so precious to me." This practice is much harder than it sounds. We humans throb with longing—not just for sex, but also for the primal cherishing we may have missed in childhood. I saw this in myself the other day, when I embraced a friend because I wanted touch and reassurance. In fact, the child in me demanded it. My hug was more an ambush than an act of love. I pounced. I had forgotten that this friend is startled easily. She needs room to breathe.
That afternoon, I found my cat on the front porch, a baby sparrow in his mouth. He had pounced and broken the bird’s neck. Now he simply stood there, not sure what to do. He wasn’t hungry enough to eat the bird; he had acted on instinct—just as I had earlier. I realized in that moment that my old craving for tenderness would always be a part of me. But unlike my cat, I could learn to give as well as take. I could respond to others’ distinct personalities and needs. The next time I saw my close friend, I didn’t launch a sneak attack. We came toward each other face to face, with loving equanimity, and we both felt cherished.
I can’t forget the sticky substance running through my veins. Blood, instinct, passion, heat. There are times when fever heals. But I am made of water, too. The body requires both. In his book The Secret Knowledge of Water, desert wanderer and writer Craig Childs celebrates the body’s inner coolness:
Sit in a car on a cold night and you will fog the windows with the water you carry. Touch your tongue or the surface of your eye and you will find water. Stop drinking liquids and see how difficult it is to maintain a coherent thought, and then, days later, how difficult it is to remain among the living. Specialized equipment has been designed to find a person behind a cement wall by bouncing 900-megahertz waves through the wall and off the liquid in the human body, as if we were all water-filled balloons unable to hide our cargo.
Maybe each of us is like an aquifer, a sandy bed that fills with water that we can’t see. When we drink enough water we feel energetic, we digest our food with ease, we fend off illness, and we find that we can actually enjoy a summer day outside.
I like to see the Inner Light as water. It’s a calm, blue pool within each person, lit by a mysterious source. The bloody heart pounds out its meter all day long, iambic stanzas fast or slow depending on our mood, but there is stillness in us, too. It takes quiet, practice, and attention to discover. Some days I forget it’s there. I rush around the house, I holler downstairs to my boys, I ambush my husband with a pressing question when he’s just walked in the door, I lash out when I don’t intend to hurt. Other days I take time to breathe. When I’m lucky, there’s a gap in all the chattering—the "ladies in the attic," as a Friend calls those not-always-friendly voices in our heads—and I feel cool and clear, as though the pool has lapped at my toes.