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Courtesy of Mike Willis
Millie Willis, 88, tent camping at the Galax Fiddler's Convention in 2011.
Saturday, January 5, 2013
Sunset in the ethereal waves:
I cannot tell if the day
is ending, or the world, or if
the secret of secrets is inside me again.
— Anna Akhmatova
The faded, lovely soulfulness of winter — especially noticed from a lonely, gold-weeded pasture, cradled by powder-blue mountains, or walking at sunset through a tan-white-and-gray woodland, or along a bleak, dank, chill-clammy riverbank — is never mentioned in the ads.
It didn’t likely get discussed, last month, at many holiday parties or in news reports or, probably, many school classrooms, science labs or church sermons.
How could it? You have to go find such things yourself, or be quiet and let them find you, so that “the secret of secrets” within yourself can wake up again, and unfold.
Well, if anyone could say it, could hand it over directly and finitely, it would not be very secret, now would it?
But here’s my willing-to-be-wacko guess.
The secret Akhmatova perceived is akin to that spark in the pit of every person — Meister Eckhart’s “God-seed,” the “daimon” of Socrates, the lovely “emptiness” of Jiddu Krishnamurti — fertile with a potential unfolding of the growth, truth, beauty and wisdom this universe is about.
It’s the secret you felt inside you as a child — your particular original bit of the ancient exploding fireball, slowed down enough to give you — strange creature — a consciousness and free will that are utterly rare in space and time.
Sound incredible and weird? Well, it’s quantum and astrophysics — weird-indeed research that, if we thought about it, could certainly shake humans out of our autopilot slumber, these days.
But it doesn’t take the findings of quantum physics to recognize the miraculous, live-wire, secret-of-secrets light blazing in a person — growing stronger throughout a lifetime.
Cognitive-development researcher Joseph Chilton Pearce has worked for decades to convey the expansive potential of human consciousness, and under what conditions it most likely unfolds.
Intelligence initially wakes up in a child, he has written, in response to outer stimuli — stars in the night sky, jonquils in spring, birdsong and thunder, the lively vapors of moss, rocks, creek-water, sand, tree-bark or pine needles underfoot, running down the road with wind on the face or toiling with a shovel.
Life parked stagnant before a flat digital screen doesn’t evoke the spectrum of nonverbal intelligence that the five senses can wake up — those initial doorways into the universe that we are, in fact, made of, conscious of and — most strangely — helping to unfold.
The universe is, after all, expanding — not least from within: and thus, within ourselves.
As this column has mentioned before, cognitive researchers find that humans are the one species whose awareness/understanding can continue growing significantly, long after pubescence — throughout a lifetime.
Perhaps because we’re the creature given the strange gift of consciousness, we are the one species that never finishes growing up. And so we humans — ideally — keep growing, if we don’t instead grow hard, petrified, despairing or bitter, set in autopilot ruts and reactions that never question themselves.
This continued unfolding, the lifelong reverence for “the secret of secrets” inside oneself and others, requires a kind of humble surrender and constant ego-erosion. Only this kind of childlike bend-ability, it seems, makes possible the practice of such scary, outgrow-yourself disciplines like “Love your enemy,” or “Forgive,” or “Return good for evil.”
Psychologist James Hillman called it “growing down” — the humble task of adult human beings who have physically “grown up.”
Each person, Hillman said, came into the world with a particular “acorn,” that secret gift needed by this world and packed with potential.
Acorns grow by dropping down, getting “cracked-up,” soft-shelled and annihilated into something bigger and, potentially, endless.
You’ve seen this growth in certain people — the kind with light pouring out of their eyes, who still feel awed by the beauty of a snowfall, the moon, photos of little eaglets, glimpses of backyard rabbits, great stories, astronomy, migrating butterflies — the kind of people who have grown down and deep with care for the whole world.
Millie Willis, a Roanoke hero of mine, was one of those people. Everyone around her noticed it — her joyful spark-fire, fascinated by other people’s ideas, awed and wonder-struck by the vast universe and the tiniest flower, alike.
She — like Etty Hillesum, Albert Schweitzer, George Washington Carver, Peace Pilgrim and others of her kind — identified with and worked for the underdog and downtrodden, in her embrace of the whole universe.
Millie helped get legislation passed for housing the mentally ill, served in the League of Women Voters in the 1970s, actively opposed strip-mining — even loading up a bus full of concerned locals to go visit a West Virginia mine — and championed trees, birds, watershed protection, interfaith fellowship and schoolchildren.
“Mom cared about everything,” her son Mike Willis told me.
Millie died at 89 this past week — the very hour that 2012 was unfolding into 2013.
Reflecting, I perceived that it was because of spiritual growers like Millie, throughout history, who yearned, worked and prayed for the good of the whole world, that humankind outlasted 2012, on a planet still viable enough to support our clumsy, continued efforts to evolve.
Because Millie herself grew down, an unusual acorn dissolving and taking root, her tree will keep unfolding long into the future, benefiting everyone in our growing-up universe.
Liza Field’s column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
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