My mother’s basic prescription for bad feelings–hurt, frustration, disappointment, injured pride–was “Don’t dwell on it.” She practices what she preaches, being a lifetime member of the “Snap-out-of-it-and-get-on-with- it” school of mental health. I admire the ability she shares with other purposeful and effective people to let things go, get on with the gardening, get over herself and go visit the sick or forget her troubles and sing while she cooks the spaghetti.

Unfortunately, I missed that gene in the DNA lottery and became instead much more like my brooding father who could sit for hours in a chair not reading the Sunday paper, eyes closed or gazing into middle space, “dwelling on” something. We were often reluctant beneficiaries of these long silences; many dinnertable conversations were dominated by his lengthy musings on how to solve the water problem in India or rid the L.A. basin of smog or, less usefully, how to avoid General Eisenhower’s mistakes and win World War II with fewer lives lost. He rarely dwelt on his own injuries, but did suffer from a curious form of megalomania that convinced him he needed to save the world from its own folly. And so he periodically retreated in monastic disregard of us more worldly lot to ponder the immensity of his task.

I regard the monastic life as one of my many roads not taken; I look down that road with a certain envy from time to time, and realize as I sit frustrated in committee meetings that I foolishly hoped academic life would provide, instead of budget sheets and late book orders, long hours of quiet in filtered sunlight with Gregorian chant in the background. Now and then it does. Now and then the luxury of a long afternoon spent reading, writing, pondering the implications of a line of poetry, imagining a graceful sentence, a new way of putting something old, finding words for something just beyond the reach of language, descends like a gift of grace in the midst of the world that is “too much with us.” I know with what keen pleasure the reclusive Emily must have written, “I dwell in Possibility– / A fairer House than Prose . . . ” And I like her description of what she did for entertainment in that many-windowed dwelling place: “For Occupation– This– / The spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise–“.

The association of “dwelling” with paradise is reinforced repeatedly in the King James Bible where the profoundest comfort offered to wanderers in this world is the hope that they will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” that they will, with the upright, “dwell in his presence,” and not only hereafter, but even now–and not only with the Lord, but in him–in the “secret places of the Most High,” in the “shadow of the Almighty.” (The Psalmist with his audacious way of addressing God on the subject of his covenant, lest he forget his rather forgettable people, reminds him, “Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations” [Ps. 90]. He goes on, on the strength of this reminder, to urge the Lord not to give up on the faithless rabble he’s chosen, but to satisfy them and make them glad and establish the work of their hands. Sometimes the Psalmist seems at home with the Lord in rather the way a slovenly adolescent feels completely justified in expecting to be fed, clothed and housed despite the growing pile of moldering detritus that turns his dwelling place into a den of unwashed laundry.) The prophet Isaiah delivers a gracious answer to the Psalmist’s unabashed plea for the Lord to reward his stumbling people with words that dignify desire and turn memory to hope: “And my people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places” (Isa. 32:18). The words of reassurance deepen in poignancy when one thinks how often and longingly they have been invoked especially by the homeless and oppressed whose last best hope lies in the belief that “this world is not my home.” Brahms offered a similar word of comfort in the very face of death when he began the third movement of his Requiem with a great swelling chorus singing, “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts!”

Dwelling is not just a lovely idea–it’s a lovely word–partly because it is a participle. I love participles for their insistance on being verbs even when they’re made to act like nouns. (When I read “In the beginning was the Word,” I choose to believe that that Word was and is a verb, not a noun, though to satisfy our craven desire for nouns, the Verb consented to appear as a person, place, and thing on a few remarkable occasions.) “Dwelling” is ongoing, like the sound of a bell, and inward turning. The word curls on the tongue even as it suggests curling into a chair before a blazing fire or curling up with a good book in a window seat on a rainy day. Roget in his well-meaning Thesaurus treats it as a noun, and suggests (with shameless lack of poetic imagination) a series of inert alternatives like residence, lodging, or, more abstractly, occupancy. But dwelling, to my mind, suggests much more than the bald fact of staying put, squatting in a particular spot, or the empty inertia of not going anywhere (at home on Saturday night with the TV and newspaper, too tired to go find out where the action is). “Dwelling” has a feel of action in stillness; like Eliot’s recognition that “the still point of the turning world” is the pivot point in a great dance, dwelling seems to be the predicate of all meaningful action–the stillness that contains sound, the emptiness that gives shape to what fills it. The prepositions we attach to it barely modify the encompassing power of its directionless, declarative act of consent and assertion: dwelling on, dwelling with, and dwelling in merge somewhere deep in the psyche where all action evaporates, leaving only a small human echo of the great, rumbling “I am.”

The word “dwelling” brings together several of the activities that make us most human, though we have much to learn about how to dwell trustingly in the world and in the moment from the watchful contentment of beasts and birds. Reading, writing, thinking, praying, meditating, gazing, enjoying, revelling, savoring are all ways of dwelling in, dwelling on, dwelling with. “Get into it, don’t just get through it,” I tell my students as they make their slow way through Moby-Dick. The point really isn’t to find and kill the great white whale so much as to dwell, with the curious and cryptic Ishmael, on the meaning of things–Ahab’s scar, Queequeg’s pagan rituals, the image on a coin’s face, the way a woven mat maps the warp and woof of human destiny. “What word or phrase stops you?” I ask them as we read a Shakespeare sonnet. “Haply I think on thee. . .” one says, whom I know to be in the throes of unrequited eighteen-year-old love. “Beweep,” says another, who likes the word for its antiquity, and we wander into a conversation about the subtle shades of sorrow. “Bootless,” says another. “Why?” I ask, expecting a reflection on futility. “Because I don’t know what it means,” he replies. “A good poem,” I conclude, raising my voice as they unzip their backpacks, “holds you back. It doesn’t want you to finish it. It wants you to dwell in it. A poem,” I add, though their stomachs are growling and their watches have the look of watches that are looked at, “is a dwelling place.” They shuffle out the door. They’re glad to be doing poems. They’re short.

The hardest thing to teach (and practice) in reading is the best part–pausing over and dwelling on. It’s hard because it goes against the grain of everything we are taught about how to live in a fast-paced, goal-oriented culture where the game, the race, and the battle are the dominant metaphors for both work and play. To pause is to be unproductive; to retreat and reflect is to lose both your photo-op and your sound bite. Too bad–you forfeited your fifteen minutes of fame. If I can get students (and myself) to resist the momentum of going onward for the sake of a moment of going inward, I will have my reward. But the insidious perfectionism that makes us want to measure what we learn in pages turned and projects completed makes it more satisfying to tell ourselves (not to mention the admiring crowd), “I survived all 700 pages of Moby-Dick” than to tell them, “I spent three weeks on three chapters in Moby-Dick and let Melville teach me something new about how to see.” It’s hard to put that in a one-liner on your bumper or a button on your backpack.

Getting through to the end is the only kind of completion this culture understands and rewards–with certificates, diplomas, paychecks, and promotions–yet one of the lost meanings of “dwell” is “a slight pause in the motion of a part of a machine to give time for the completion of the operation effected by the particular part” (OED). In this sense, dwelling becomes an integral part of the productivity we value so highly; apparently even machines must have pauses built into them so that what is begun may be completed without the interference of ongoing activity. They must “dwell” or stop awhile to allow something to happen that more activity can’t bring about. Half of a tennis game is waiting for the other guy to hit the ball. Half of the labor in giving birth is the time between contractions. Half of learning is the unsought epiphany that comes when you finally give up trying to pursue your preconceived line of argument and dwell, baffled and bemused, in the problem. Suddenly you hear the question in a new way, get a new angle of vision, and a solution flowers forth from the very words of the problem itself.

These revelations only seem to come in relaxation. Dwelling in (or even on) a problem is the opposite of pursuing a solution. It’s giving the problem time to unveil its less obvious complexities. Often the seeds of a solution are already there when the nature of the problem is understood–the way you suddenly see how the puzzle piece you’ve been holding for the last ten minutes fits into the picture. Those who work with the I Ching as an instrument of discernment know that it is largely in the formulation of the question one brings to the casting of the coins that the answer lies. A friend who walked me through this ancient ritual once had me return again and again to my question until I “got it right.” I’d know when that happened, she assured me; I’d know when it felt like the right question. I had to dwell in the question rather than stepping on it to reach the answer. I did. I played with the question for two hours, rearranging syntax and tense, replacing words, until suddenly the question took a shape I hadn’t anticipated. I hardly needed the reading after that process. The way I had posed the question taught me what I needed to know.

Now I know that questions are lenses that both sharpen vision and serve as mirrors. Reading, looking at a work of art, gazing at the landscape, or at the face of the beloved can open layer after layer of feeling, recognition, wonder, interest, curiosity if we dwell in their possibilities or in the questions they raise, like Blake’s about the “Tyger burning bright”–“What immortal hand or eye / framed thy fearful symmetry?” We know that this discipline of stopping to ponder questions without easy answers is a route to wisdom; a wealth of stories from every culture remind us of the wise ones who have dwelt in mountains and caves, dwelt in cells or a hut by a New England pond, pondering, reflecting, contemplating, until they find themselves on the “wide shores” Keats envisioned, and find, as he did even in the face of death, that fears dissipate and “love and fame to nothingness do sink.”

It’s also useful to know, perhaps, that among the more obscure root words of “dwell” in the Old English are: to be stunned, benumbed, torpid, even stupefied. You can dwell in things too long, it seems, and get stuck. You can zone out when you think you’re meditating. You can turn into a vegetable if you don’t recognize your animal needs for pursuit and predation. At the end of his two-year sojourn, Thoreau left Walden Pond, having, as he realized, “other lives to live.” The creative tension between dwelling in and moving on, pausing and pursuing, enjoying an image and enjoying the plot has to be kept in balance, like the warp and woof of Melville’s matmaker. Sooner or later, contemplation must be tempered by action; as Martha knew, even Mary was eventually going to want a little something to eat, and somebody had to get dinner on the table. But most of us, as the story of Martha and Mary suggests, don’t run the risk of getting lost in contemplation–rather of losing ourselves in getting and spending and laying waste our powers–even, perhaps, in preparing dinner.

My mother’s advice, often delivered in the course of dinner preparation, when we had some of our most memorable conversations, was good common sense: not to dwell on injuries and ills is to live in gratitude and grace. But the habit of dwelling on some things, though it take us through some dark valleys of brooding and even to the brink of obsession, may finally serve to keep us humbly in the presence of mystery and happily in a state of rightminded awe.

From Word Tastings

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