I’ve been watching the swallows so long that they start to transform, turning from birds feasting mid-flight into new forms. First it’s fighter jets, zooming and diving and curlicueing against a backdrop of grey. Then it’s sleek black fish, navigating the depths of the clouds with deft flicks and turns. I tilt my head back further, and the sky drops under me, the tips of the ponderosas piercing an ocean of cumulus. The evening firmament becomes a canyon.
Eventually, I pull myself up. The pond below shines like a polished stone, the river mumbles secrets to the trees, the meadow across the way shows the first yellows of fall in the stalks of its false hellebore. Beyond, aspen trunks paint slender white lines through the forest.
How long had I been laying on that rock, watching the graceful and fierce nightly feeding ritual of the swallows?
Long enough to let my mind wander, my senses fall quiet to receive, my imagination unfurl, the ideas bubble to the surface. To fall into a reverie. Which, I realize, is a rare thing these days, a bit of a vanishing art that requires some effort to achieve.
In fact, I am achieving it only because I have a container that makes it both acceptable and possible. I’m in a remote river valley in the Tusas Mountains, high above the desert country of New Mexico, where the monsoons arrive at 12:30 p.m. like clockwork, cellphones don’t work and my schedule is cleared of tasks aside from doing breakfast dishes.
For four days, I’m free to reverie. I drink my morning coffee good and slow as the sun warms up the land, marveling at all the shades of green one meadow can hold. I watch bees fly drunkenly through a patch of purple wildflowers, spy a pair of western tanagers flitting through the brush, stumble upon a patch of raspberries, devouring the tiny fruit, and take a dip in the river in a spot where the water is knee-high. I almost step on a family of garter snakes by the fire circle, find a rock encircled with a perfect white line and pick through the puzzle pieces of ponderosa bark. I even fall asleep under a massive ponderosa, and I’m the worst napper I know.
Through these precious days, I think about the scope of time, the silly and beautiful ways of people, the range of colors that butterflies come in, about commitment and love and death and coffee and how much I enjoy breakfast. Watching a vibrant orange beetle crawl across my hand, I think how I’ve never even noticed this guy before, about all the bugs like him I’ve brushed off my person without a wink of care, about the range of my days and his and the rock’s that sits next to us.
“Do anything rather than give yourself to reverie,” William Ellery Channing wrote. Being a Unitarian preacher in the early 1800s whose life was devoted to scripture, Channing was shaped by an altogether different set of circumstances. However, his sentiment seems to have survived to this day, because in modern society, many of us will do just about anything to avoid reverie. Scroll our phones at stoplights, page through celebrity magazines in waiting rooms, hike with friends so the air is filled with chatter, plug into earbuds or screens or whatever it takes to ensure it’s not just us alone with our thoughts.
Much has been said about the culpability of technology in this behavior. But there’s something else to it, some invisible switch that is flipped between childhood and adulthood that tells us idleness is no longer acceptable. That if there is a free moment, it is gluttonous to luxuriate in it and let our minds run wild. Instead, we should maximize it with industriousness. Send an email, fold laundry, run to the post office, check Facebook, do anything to avoid doing nothing.
I come from a German Lutheran family of farmers who believed it was sin to waste a drop of daylight, and that behavior is in my DNA. As a teenager, I would hide the fact that I took naps, telling my mom that I was reading instead. In my 20s, a good day was one crammed full of activities that ended in a list checked off and my body worked to the point of exhaustion.
But when we deny ourselves reverie, we squash the childhood imagination that makes life so colorful and staggering. Ideas get choked and stunted. Creativity requires time and air and space and the nourishment of nothingness to grow.
That’s why when it comes to reverie, I prefer the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind.”