Reality in 2020 has often meant sacrifice, separation, confusion, and a lack of solace. At this time, I look to my home tradition, where we celebrate the six weeks between the sabbat Pomonalia in October and the sabbat Saturnalia in December as a time of repose. In a year filled with crisis after crisis, pain, and discouragement, the body and soul need a break. Our worldwide mental health, affected by repeated restrictions, lockdowns, and sacrifices, deserves a state of quiet resolution and active repose. Repose is a time of anticipation, when we are just waiting.
At a time of year when music from many cultures and religious traditions fills the air, it’s almost like we can take a breath before starting something else. Repose is the space between the end of one activity and the start of the next. Too often we spend our days rushing about at a frenetic pace, so we miss that brief pause. We wait while we shop, we wait for the gifts we make for others or purchase to give to others. We wait for the anxiety of the current year to stop, or at least to pause long enough for us to breathe.
Some activities lend themselves to natural repose, such as deep breathing or alternate nostril breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is encouraged to reduce stress in part due to taking the time to notice and celebrate that point between the inhalation and the exhalation of the lungs. Some opera singers learn to practice singing and breathing on their backs. The pure tones that resonate through theaters during performances evince the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. Taking the time to pause celebrates the life giving benefits that the lungs bring with each breath. During the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the greatest blessings is the ability to just breathe normally.
Alternate nostril breathing forces a recognition of the pause as a part of the technique. For many the practice provides relaxation and it can be a part of a meditative practice. As a break from the hectic pace of life, taking the time to physically change the pattern of inhalation and exhalation brings about a different type of awareness. In a way, any chance to experience repose in any form opens the body and spirit to new experiences.
Think of a running preparing for a race. They have practice runs; they changes their diets; their focus is entirely on the upcoming race. Once the actual day is concluded, however, what happens next? A competition that covers a certain distance will be over once that distance is past. Even if there is another race the very next day, there is a natural, built-in break in time that is left between the finale of one and the start of the next. There is the runner’s high and the feeling of exultation at the conclusion of any task. If only for a few minutes or hours, the pause brings a time to celebrate and to enjoy the completion phase.
2020 is no different. The tempo of this year has brought frenetic crashes of high notes, suspenseful delays of low notes, and a crazed whirlwind that continues to defy words, emotions, and expectations. If nothing else, 2020 reminds all of us the importance of the rest note. This is no more evident than in the music that forms the symphonic resonance of our lives.
Any musical composition has harmony, melody, and spaces inbetween that truly form the piece. We enjoy the wait for the first note. John Cage’s “As Slowly As Possible” consists of a series of rests for nearly two years, with a first note played almost four years later. The interplay of rests with chords in such a long piece marks the work as contemporary; it also allows time for the listener to fill in the space with any number of thoughts, thereby making the piece for each audience member different and unique.
To create a work that will outlive the musician’s own life and those of his descendants for multiple generations is one of the ultimate expressions of repose. At 639 years, the performance of Cage’s piece at Halberstadt, Germany, takes the idea of silence and musical breaks to new limits. I remember when I read about this piece and wondered what it would be like to be the performer, the person sitting in front of the organ doing nothing as the rest notes continued for nearly two years. Would bathroom breaks be permitted? Are there stand-in performers? Would anyone notice if no one was sitting at the organ for a few minutes or an hour? (In the actual performance, sandbags on the organ pedals keep the notes playing continuously; they will next be adjusted on February 5th, 2022.)
Rest is a time when the body restores itself. In singing a song, a note is limited to the length of a single breath. Whether in a chorus or as a soloist, the human voice repairs and returns to its original state with each new inhalation that provides energy and new life to the notes of the song or musical piece.
Our lives are a musical piece that require regular pauses to renew, refresh, and reframe the direction we choose to follow. During this time when enforced lifestyle changes during a pandemic require a fresh approach to living, an active embrace of repose can clear a path to healing.
Active repose does not mean spending all day laying around in a bed or on the sofa. In my home tradition, repose means taking the time to finish up those loose ends, promises, dedications, and affirmations that we make before the gods and ourselves. Yes, what we promise to ourselves matters most because if we aren’t able to take in a deep breath, then we have no energy to continue on with our lives and the very essence of what it means to be. We are human beings who are experiencing a crazy tumultuous year. For those who have lost jobs, repose may mean taking time to pause and not give up. For those who are heartbroken, rest may mean finding others who need what we have to give. For those who are recovering from COVID-19, each day of lungs taking in air and symptom relief counts as repose. For those who are healing in families torn apart by the election season, the ability to focus on something else brings repose. For those suffering from insomnia due to the chaos of 2020, a break may bring a calm that allows some sleep to seep in.
We are in a halcyon period after the storm. The waters need time to calm. Our emotions settle and become more even during a time of repose. For this moment, we pause, experience the calm, and breathe. We refrain from exertion as we let our bodies, minds, and spirits take in relaxation.
This is a time to rest, to heal, to inhale, exhale, and not to miss the pauses: Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Repeat.