I arrived at PLAYA on a frigid January afternoon after a 10-hour drive, turned through the welcoming gates, and brought the car to a sliding stop on the snow-covered road in front of the main house. A recent ice storm had covered the bare branches of every tree and every surface in ice crystals that twinkled in the slanted late-day sun. I remember laughing as I pulled my stiff and weary body from behind the steering wheel. Twinkling ice crystals? Had I planned to work on a children’s fantasy novel where whispering fairies cavort with a magical sorceress, I had come to the right place.
I knew it also to be the right place—that there could be no better place—for finishing a collection of personal essays I was then calling Searching for Stillness in a Noisy World. Stillness, magnificent winds notwithstanding, is PLAYA’s specialty.
I started work on this collection of essays at a time in my life that felt disrupted, but I couldn’t attach any definitive cause to it. I was holding tight to a belief that I needed a ritualistic sort of life—somewhere on the monkish end of the spectrum—and if I could fix that firmly into place, great things would happen. But I had never quite managed to get such a life established. Instead, life unfolds in a series of short sprints with a lot of road closures, detours, and log jams thrown in.
So when I arrived at PLAYA, gifted with four full weeks of unstructured time and space that I could mold into an unfettered daily practice, I pulled out my journal and got right to work on that. I created not a mere schedule but a sacred ritual that I would follow faithfully, a sacrament if you will. It was exciting and inspiring. It was exactly what I needed to finish the essays. From 8 to 10 each morning: writing time. A hour break for a walk or yoga. Then lunch. From 1 to 3 each afternoon: writing time. A time to read. A time to eat. A time to shower. A time to socialize. A time for everything. This, I knew, would be my path to stillness, and once on the path, profound epiphanies with which I could polish off each of my essays would surely follow.
The next morning, the sun rose over the frozen playa and peeked into my bedroom. As this was my second residency, I should have been prepared for the dazzling extravagance of a PLAYA sunrise. Closing the curtains before I went to bed would have been wise. Then I could have gone straight from bed to writing desk. But, alas, the sunrise beckoned, and I heeded its call. My morning block of writing time found me in a pair of boots skipping across a frozen lake. First ritual infringement though easily rationalized: the playa actually sparkled in the morning sun; that should be investigated. We could have a warming trend (we did) and the ice might melt (it did), and how often does a person get to walk across a frozen lake? The air was crisp; the lungs could benefit. It’s the first day. I’m getting acclimated. I’ll follow my scripted practice tomorrow.
That first breach of the sacred timetable was more than a slippery slope; it was a landslide. As it turns out, I love the idea of ritual much like I love the idea of gardening: in theory only. Religion aside, I would make a lousy monk. It’s not a ringing church bell or a chiming alarm clock that stirs me to action. And it most definitely is not my own determination or good intent. It’s the glint of sunlight on a frozen lake; it’s the tremor sent through the body upon hearing ice breaking underfoot. And, as I wrote in one of my essays shortly after my detour to the playa, it is “the subtle burrowing nature of the exterior into the interior.”
Here’s the thing that PLAYA (re)taught me: Stillness cannot be overlaid on a life like a dress pattern pinned to a swath of material, rough edges trimmed away. My body will automatically tune itself to whatever external landscape surrounds it. And if I honor that, if I let the sunshine pull me to the playa to wander half my day away, the creative work will follow. It will flow as naturally as the rivulets of water trickling under a frozen sheet of ice. And it did. I wrote furiously during my residence at PLAYA—late at night, in the silent wee hours of the morning, and every once in a while, during my slated writing time.
I had been telling myself that stillness had to come first, then the writing. If only I could get an extended dose of tranquility, I could tap into a creative flow. Sometimes that’s true, and I will always be grateful for that gift when it presents itself. But what is also true is that the process of writing—or any creative pursuit—will bring internal stillness to an agitated soul. Stillness spawns creativity; creativity seeds stillness. A perfect loop.
Dropped into the middle of that harmonious process is the physical place. Because even in the midst of a howling wind (and Playa knows howling wind) stillness can enter the body from the outside in. I’ve always known this at a visceral level, but I’m guilty of pushing it away in the name of discipline, in the stubborn pursuit of the perfect daily practice. And then the sun rises over the playa and gently nudges me away from the page . . . but closer to my own words.
Shortly before my book went to print, I made a small but critical change to the title. I replaced “searching for stillness” with “finding stillness,” a change that my time at PLAYA nurtured. That’s not to say that once found, stillness remains. It’s somewhat vaporous. The pathway to it can also be shadowy. But if traveled often enough, it will get trodden and begin to take shape. Time spent at a place like PLAYA can throw the path to stillness into full light.
Edge effects in ecological science are the “influences of border communities upon each other” (Brittanica.com). PLAYA alumni, friends, guests, and neighbors are invited to submit blog posts that explore the diverse influences experienced here or because of time spent with us—whether the effects are among disciplines, environments, relationships, or communities. Email PLAYA’s Executive Director to join this conversation.