Be Still

I’m standing in the driveway of the house where we used to live in Norfolk

It’s morning and there’s been a sharp frost. The gravel beneath my boots is bonded together by ice. The sky is pale grey. The air is cold in my throat. I see my breath rise up in visible wisps. 

And then the barn owl floats in on my left side.

Not just silently, but broadcasting silence – like another thing might scatter sound.

I tell myself to be still, then, as it flutters past, it turns its face  and looks straight at me; palely beautiful and inscrutable. 

It’s only interest in me is in assessing any potential threat I pose and it quickly decides I am of no interest at all. 

I watch it floating away across the lawn, past our arthritic old apple trees, and on towards the dirt track leading up to the little cluster of houses on our hill; spectral now, already becoming the ghost of itself.

Laying in hospital last year, racked by anxiety following my stroke,this memory comes to my aid, over and over. I recite it to myself like a prayer. 

It dawns on me that the barn owl’s disinterest is the very thing that brings me comfort. It reminds me that I am not important at all – and nor are the noisy thoughts that vie for my attention most of the time. This revelation quietens my hyperactive brain for a few wonderful moments. 

I see that when I am in an encounter with a wild creature my mind gives itself over entirely to that experience. I am still – in a way I almost never am. 

Coming out of hospital,  angry, scared and sad, although mercifully free from serious long term damage, I return again and again to that morning.

I try to find the words to describe the experience and the memory of it, working and reworking them to myself in my head or, occasionally, out loud into my phone as I wander the eerily quiet lockdown streets. 

It helps. It doesn’t cure me or save me, but it helps. Finding words for the stillness makes me still. 

For a while at least.

14 thoughts on “Be Still

  1. Beautiful imagery. I wish I could honestly sayIi’ve found a single image like this which could quieten my heart when I needed it.

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    1. Chris Priestley April 29, 2021 — 9:14 am

      You need to find one! Make one, Cliff. Get yourself off to the coast and look out to sea. Or into a slow moving river. It sounds so woolly written down, but I do think we need this stuff – at some primitive level. I definitely do

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      1. This is not woolly at all Chris. Poignant stuff.

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      2. Chris Priestley April 29, 2021 — 9:35 am

        Thanks Val!

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  2. Brilliant, Chris. Both what you say and how you say it.

    “Broadcasting silence”, in particular, fills me with writerly envy.

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    1. Chris Priestley April 29, 2021 — 9:34 am

      Thanks Dave!

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  3. There is an owl called a ghost owl. It is virtually silent in flight.
    Your title reminds me of a short Bible verse. The only time God allegedly spoke to anyone, “be still and know that I am God.” There’s always been something spooky about that line to me.
    Nice piece of writing.

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    1. Chris Priestley April 29, 2021 — 9:33 am

      Thank you. Ghost owl is one of the many names for the Barn Owl, I believe. I love that connection. And yes – there is something eerie about that line.

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  4. As always, this is so very touching – you have the unerring knack of locating every emotion and prodding it. I recently spent time in hospital after a cardiac event, despite being a young(ish) 51 and healthy, so I understand your raw emotions in response to your illness, and it’s a great relief to know that you’re recovering well. You are one of my very favourite authors, and I recommend your titles to all of my students, frequently using your brilliant work to showcase examples for them to aspire to in their own writing. Thank you so much for all your hard work, Chris – it is truly appreciated.

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    1. Chris Priestley April 29, 2021 — 11:33 am

      Thanks Wendy and I hope you’re well too

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  5. Exquisite and honest. Almost a poem.

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  6. Chris Priestley April 29, 2021 — 10:37 am

    Thank you. Poetry got me through the first lockdown. It was all I had the concentration to read. I know some people hate prose that veers toward poetry. I never have. It feels very natural to me.

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  7. patric clarke May 1, 2021 — 11:14 am

    If that’s a poem, maybe I’m into poetry after all? Whatever, Chris, it’s beautifully written and conjurs images of the barn-owl that my brothers and I used to watch hunting in the fields behind my Granny’s house – silent as a ghost. These days I get similar peace from close encounters with any wildlife (mainly birds) on my daily rambles by a local river – who knows how bad my depression might be if it weren’t for these experiences…

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    1. Chris Priestley May 2, 2021 — 10:02 am

      Sorry to hear about your depression, Pat, but glad you’re getting some respite. It would be great to think we’d get to chat about this stuff in person over a beer one day

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