Three years ago, vacationing in Rome, I was mesmerized at the Piazza Navona. It wasn’t simply the masterful marble—the Fountain of the Four Rivers, Neptune and his Nereids, the Moor wrestling a dolphin. It was also the street performers. I was rapt: gilded and motionless men in cowboy suits forever holding their gun aloft, a headless man (woman?) in glasses and a sun hat sitting on a park bench (there’s a picture of me with him—or her), a yogi in full lotus and orange robe suspended mid-air, one hand resting on a tinsel-covered rod.
How do they do it? I asked myself. But I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to look and absorb the wonder.
Turns out, this phenomenon is apparently not unique to the Piazza Navona.
“Oh, street performers!” my daughter shrugged, dismissively, “Like in Washington Square Park.”
But they’ve stayed with me, these logic-defying stillness artists every bit as much as the motionless marvels in marble. How do they maintain that detachment, that apparent equanimity?
“Pain is not a reason to move,” says John Eicke, a performance artist from East Germany in last week’s New York Times magazine, “Recognize what’s happening, but don’t give in,” he says.
Well, good for him. But that’s not me. I’m a mover. Literally a mover. When I was younger I was a dancer. Now I practice yoga. And I don’t live in one place well, either. I’m on the move right now. It’s a local move. But it’s all about the packing, the shifting, the relocation.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to have stillness be your way of life, though in many ways I would like to. Because in our lives I suppose we arrive, eventually, at stillness. And to practice that seems sane and grounding, prophylactic almost. I don’t incline to it, though.
I remember getting tested for allergies a few years ago. The technician stuck me thirty times or so on the inside of my absurdly tender, white forearms. I was then to sit, motionless, for the next fifteen or twenty minutes. There was something on the ubiquitous television that you find in any doctor’s waiting room, but I didn’t like it—and I couldn’t move to change the channel. And People magazine, that refuge from waiting room anxiety? Well, I couldn’t read one because I couldn’t turn the pages.
What did that endless, arduous twenty minutes get me? Confirmation that I’m allergic to cats.
The larger point, of course, is that both stillness and motion are braided into the pattern of our lives. And it’s a pattern that stays with us throughout our lives.
I’m waiting to get into the house I’m buying. I want to paint, imagine a life there, pace and measure the floor. This is where I will write. This is where I will drink coffee. This is where I will bathe.
But I also want to remain—remain still—in the house I am leaving. I am glad for the new owners. I met them and I like them. That doesn’t alter the fact that I brought dreams into this house, dreams that morphed and burned away like fog in sunshine
The late author, Mark Strand, in a slim and brilliant poem writes this: “We all have reasons/for moving./ I move/to keep things whole.”
And of course, despite our best efforts at equanimity, we never achieve real stillness. Our bodies won’t let us. Our blood courses, our nerves keep up a chatter, our muscles remember the dearest motions of our bodies. And even the weary performers on the Piazza Navona—or Washington Square Park—at day’s end put away their costumes and make-up and make a grateful and lumbering way to wherever they can call home.