I’ve learned to live simply, wisely,
To look at the sky and pray to God,
And to take long walks before evening
To wear out this useless anxiety.
When the burdocks rustle in the ravine
And the yellow-red clusters of rowan nod,
I compose happy verses
About mortal life, mortal and beautiful life.
I return. The fluffy cat
Licks my palm and sweetly purrs.
And on the turret of the sawmill by the lake
A bright flame flares.
The quiet is cut, occasionally,
By the cry of a stork landing on the roof.
And if you were to knock at my door,
It seems to me I wouldn’t even hear.
by Anna Akhmatova
English translation from Russian by Judith Hemschemeyer
Anna Akhmatova was born in Ukraine in 1889 and went to college in Kiev. She then moved to St. Petersberg, where she became a cult figure of her time. Her life was marked in multiple ways, many of them profoundly painful, by the history and politics of her part of the world. Particularly poignant is that she chose not to emigrate, but remained in the Soviet Union.
In this poem, she seems to me to speak of the wisdom of mindfulness in a life laced with suffering. In the midst of it and in spite of it all, Akhmatova is bestowed myriad gifts in each moment from life’s simple continuation – sky, walking, burdocks, the fluffy cat, the sound of a stork landing on the roof. And she knows how to walk off her anxiety and take time to restore, away from the complexities of the human world, symbolised by the imagined knock at the door.
‘We must risk delight…we must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world’ said philosopher Jack Gilbert. There are a thousand reasons to be joyful right now and a thousand ways to be nourished by living simply…even after listening to the news. Can you experience them?
I find myself swinging between joy and horror – they seem so close together at the moment, sharing airtime within. The astounding insanity and brutality that human beings are capable of brings disbelief and incredulity. Right now for me mindfulness, which is always so available and close – just a breath away, seems to be almost a political act (as one of my teachers Lama Rinchen, once described it to be in a talk on Holy Isle in Scotland). And if I add to the mindfulness a flavour of appreciation, which only requires me to lift my eyes and let my soul be fed by beauty and all that is right and good – it feels like peaceful rebellion.
PS. If you want to find out more about how mindfulness and gratitude can boost resilience for engaging with the troubles in the world, check out our Engaged Mindfulness course https://www.mindfulnessassociation.net/course/engaged-mindfulness-13062020/ beginning in September.