All together in a sudden strangeness

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For some time now, I’ve been easing into a slower pace, nourishing “my hermit soul” through contemplation and solitude. I never imagined that hermiting would suddenly become the norm: millions upon millions around the world hunkered down, sheltering in place.

In this extraordinary moment in human history, we are finally “doing nothing”. As Pablo Neruda envisioned, we are all together “in a sudden strangeness.” And it surely does feel strange.

Unease and restlessness pervade my body. I want to escape, but the only exit opens inward, calling me to practise the learning gained from years of workshops, retreats and training. Mindfulness, empathy, open-heartedness. For me, it begins when I turn towards and lean into the churn of fear. Each time I open up to unsettling discomfort and track it with as much patience and curiosity as I can muster, invariably the sensations and emotions soften and move. The landscape widens. I now experience, in a tiny and admittedly safe way, what millions of others are going through – not just with the current pandemic, but in their daily lives, especially those in conflict-torn regions. I now understand, with more compassion, my late mother’s stockpiling addiction, a result of surviving the terrible Hunger Year in the Netherlands during WWII.

Meanwhile, the miracles of everyday life take on an exquisite, finely tuned pleasure: the dab of scarlet on a tree branch resolves into a singing cardinal; three Canada geese stand on the frozen surface of the swamp, stretching their wings and feet. Life continues.

Here is Pablo Neruda’s classic poem, Keeping Quiet, written during the 1950s.

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

~ Pablo Neruda, translated by Alastair Reid

Image by David Mark from Pixabay


  1. Wendy G Sarno

    March 28, 2020

    Ahh, Mary Lou, you do open me to a wider landscape, a spaciousness that opens out as I go within and feel myself moving in the same space with people across the world. This is a “sudden strangeness” in the human world while I watch Spring unfold among the birds and trees and greening things, the spring flowers, the Dawn Chorus so sweet in the absence of the usual roar of traffic. The earth is indeed proving to be alive with not a thought of this thing that both separates and connects us humans. Thank you,


  2. janice

    March 28, 2020

    This is truly a poem for these times Mary Lou. I still remember the first time I read it, I was stunned by the lines ‘this sadness of never understanding ourselves’ – they spoke to me as if written for my ears and have stayed with me. I am praying that each person can keep quiet long enough now to hear what is true and necessary to know.
    thank you, love to you, Jan

  3. Pat

    April 4, 2020

    Wow, you truly are a poem whisperer Mary Lou. This is bang on! I’m with Jan too, felt like the world shifted when I read that poem. xoxoxo

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