The Peace of Wild Things By Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Reflection: When Everything Feels Like Bullshit
When I was around 8 or 9, I remember this time my mother’s best friend, Patrick, was at our house, as he often was on the weekend. He and my mom met in college: my mother as a returning student in her late 30s after raising her kids and he as a fellow undergrad, albeit nearly 15 years her junior. They met in their interior design and architecture classes and they became fast friends with their comparable sharp wit, their endlessly creative ideas, and their similarly excellent taste in, well, pretty much everything. He was gay, brilliant, and every inch the icon my mother was to me. From his vintage Cher dolls to his collection of well-dressed mannequins that he displayed in his Shadyside apartment—which he acquired as a former window-dresser at Saks Fifth Avenue—he was who I wanted to be when I grew up.
In the early 1980s, my mom and Patrick started a business together, making these extravagant soft-sculpture dolls with yarn hair, lavish clothing and jewelry, and elaborately concocted back stories. They sold them to wealthy urban Pittsburgh women that Patrick knew from either his interior design or makeup artist work. They loved these unique, highly unusual, and gorgeous pieces of art and sometimes, if I was lucky, I would get to go with Patrick when he’d drop them off at a buyer’s home. And as Patrick would help the lady of the house find the perfect place for her new treasure, I’d ogle their gorgeously appointed rooms, lush and opulent furniture, with gold accents everywhere.
When my mom and Patrick weren’t getting high and giggling together in her black-walled bedroom with the red, turquoise, green, and gold dragon wallpaper on the ceiling, they were dreaming up or piecing together new creations for their business in the Purple Room—so-called for its enormous 1970s purple-flowered wallpaper—which was now a multipurpose room, a former dining room cum playroom and sewing room.
On this particular day, we were taking a break together—me from draping every luxurious piece of silk, satin, taffeta, tulle, faux fur, feather boa, stretchy sequin fabric onto my body and they from carefully removing each of said items from my body—as needed—to measure, cut, and stitch. And so during this break, we decided to play a game. I asked if we could play Bullshit!, a shedding card game where I both got to lie and swear as an essential part of the gameplay. They obliged and we gathered around their sewing table cum game table and I made Patrick deal so I could go first.
Now this table wasn’t really a table at all. It was a long, hollow uncut interior door—painted red, sitting on two black metal sawhorses—and I had to sit on my knees on our kitchen chair so I could get the best view of our “battlefield.” As I watched Patrick dole out the cards, I asked them to remind me of the rules of the game. Essentially, all of the cards are split between the players, who then go clockwise around the table and have to place their cards face down in the discard pile, in rank order from Ace to King. You can discard single or multiples of each sequential card during your turn and, as you place the cards, you declare how many of the cards you are discarding. For example “One King,” “Two Two’s” or “Three Queens”… And then whoever discards all their cards first, wins.
It’s a game of deception because if you don’t have the next card in the sequence when it’s your turn, you have to lie. And because the first player to discard their entire hand wins, you also want to try and discard as many cards as possible before your teammates win, so discarding multiples may be a good strategy for you. However, if you do lie and someone calls, “Bullshit!”—which was of course my favorite part of the game as a young girl—the other person flips their card or cards to show them to you. If they are lying, then they pick up the entire discard pile and add it to their hand. If they aren’t lying and you incorrectly call “Bullshit!” then you as the accuser have to pick up the entire discard pile and add it to your hand.
Now as a kid, these rules seemed relatively simple and straightforward to me and the anticipation of shouting “Bullshit!” was utterly distracting. However, because I was playing cards with adults instead kids my own age, what I didn’t anticipate was the fact that I wasn’t just trying to guess if someone was lying but that people I had heretofore trusted would deliberately try make it seem like they were lying—even if they were telling the truth—to trick me into saying, “Bullshit!” erroneously. It hadn’t even occurred to me that adults up to this point may have been “going easy on me” when playing games with me, possibly even letting me win, which I quickly learned was no longer the case during this particularly fraught game.
Basically, I was getting trounced. Not only was I a terrible liar at this age, which I’m sure made my mother proud, but I was also terrible at discerning between my opponent’s faux lies and their actual lies. And so as the game play got under way, I kept incorrectly shouting “Bullshit!” at them or having them correctly call “Bullshit!” on me so I would have to pick up the discard pile and add the cards to my hand.
It felt like the most interminable game and as I grew more and more frustrated and defeated, I’d slump further and further down in my chair until I was just barely peeking over the top of the table and who could see me anyway with so many damn cards in front of my sad little face?
At one point, I ended up picking up a gigantic discard pile, essentially more cards than what I felt I could both sort and handle in my small hands, and so I crawled down off my chair, under the table, and while I shouted at my opponents to keep their eyes “up there,” I slowly organized my cards by rank, then carefully gathering them back up. I climbed back into my chair and fanned my enormous hand of cards in front of my scowling face. This happened several more times— me climbing down off my chair to sort my cards under the table while shouting “don’t look” before sullenly returning to the game with a giant fan of cards—until I realized that in all of my ineptitude due to my inability to deceive or to know when I was being played, I had a lot of cards in my hand. And, most importantly, my opponents had counted me out and were no longer really paying attention to me.
My surly, pouting posture of defeat had worked in my favor. Don’t worry, that’s not the lesson here. Slowly, I was able to start discarding multiples of cards and my opponents would call, “Bullshit!” because they just assumed I was a lying liar like them. As they’d pick up the discard pile and get distracted sorting their own cards, I slowly began to hold my own diminishing pile of cards lower and lower down behind the table. And as I sat up higher and higher in my chair, I held my remaining cards as low down and close to my chest as I possibly could. And then, in a glorious final moment, I triumphantly and quietly placed my final card on the discard pile without any fanfare because it was a complete and total lie and I did not want to draw any attention to myself.
It was only after my mother took her turn that I breathed a huge sigh of relief because I had gotten away with my deception. And then, much to my delight, Patrick took his turn and it was only then that they finally looked at me in anticipation of my turn that they both realized what had happened. Mouths agape in shock, they finally realized my cards were gone and, most importantly, that I had won. This guileless, moping, defeated little creature with too-long bangs nearly covering her sad blue eyes was sitting there with a sly look on her face—you know the one—wiggling in quiet glee in her seat at her victory.
They were properly impressed, as well they should have been, and I was practically floating after my win. And while I don’t know for sure, I like to imagine I wrapped myself in my favorite stretchy sequin fabric, draped a feather boa around my neck, slipped my feet into my mother’s Candies high heels and strutted out of the room, which was generally the way I liked to exit any room ever, regardless of well-earned victories.
I’ve often wondered why this story has stuck with me for so long and why it remains such a vivid memory. Over the years, it has taken on different meanings and I’ve gotten different things from telling it. When viewed through the narcissism of youth, that journey from utter delight to seeming defeat to eventual and unexpected victory used to always be about perseverance and the satisfaction of the win. But now, with the perspective of time—particularly when the entire world feels like a giant game of absolute, complete, and total “Bullshit!”—this story has taken on new meaning and depth for me as a hopefully wiser, slightly more mature, and fractionally less fabulous adult.
Recently, I shared this story in a circle I was leading about the importance of living life from the center, using a model called the Circles of Intimacy, Responsibility, and Impact. In this bullseye-style model, the goal is for us to invest our time and energy in the most important relationships in our life, which begin at the very center—in that bullseye—with our relationship with Self and with Spirit. During our conversation in that circle, we talked about what happens when there is conflict or uncertainty in relationships, what to do when relationships change or end and it leaves us unsettled and overwhelmed, or what happens when we find ourselves struggling to show up the way we want in relation to others? My answer was always the same: go back to the center of the circle—back to your relationship with Self and Spirit—in order to find your footing, to practice peace within yourself, to reset your boundaries, get clarity on your vision, and to renew a sense of what matters the most in life.
In other words, when you feel overwhelmed—as if you’ve lost your center, you’re holding too many cards, and everything feels like bullshit even when it’s not, climb under your metaphorical—or literal—table and get your cards in order. Reconnect with the truth of the circumstance, have compassion for your suffering, don’t over-identify with your stories that arise from that suffering, and find your center again.
Now the truth of the circumstance isn’t meant as a diminishment of it. Where some people might have said “stop taking it so seriously, it’s just a game” or “hurry up and quit being such a baby about it,” that would have been an unnecessary denial of my feelings and a perpetuation of the stress and suffering I was experiencing at that moment. In my case, it didn’t feel like “just a game” and I didn’t have the capacity to “hurry up and quit being a baby about it.”
Rather, the truth in that moment was that I was in the middle of a game, it wasn’t going the way I expected, and I just picked up a lot of cards that I had to figure out what to do with them. The truth was that I was feeling embarrassed at falling for their hijinks. The truth was I wanted to win and would be mad if I lost. The truth was I needed space to get my literal and figurative cards in order because I couldn’t do so given the realities of my circumstances and what that giant pile of cards meant for lil’ ol’ me.
The truth was I needed a moment to myself to regroup so I could resume gameplay from a less chaotic and stressed out place. I needed a chance to find what I call the gooey center of peace again so I could stop this endless teetering between embarrassment, frustration, and disappointment. I needed to find my focus so I could keep reemerging from under the table and stay present to the game. I needed the calm that this inner detente—this inner peace—afforded me so I could actually pay attention and do my best, win or lose. (It just so happens that in this case I won, in case you forgot.)
And as incisive and insightful and wise as this all might sound, I’ve actually always really struggled with the idea of inner peace. It has always felt like I had to let go of something that was important to me in order to achieve it. My anger. My hurt. My sense of fairness. My need for justice. My fire. The quest for inner peace has always felt like I had to transcend the parts of me that are the most relatable, the most interesting—the most human—in order to become some tranquil paragon of watery virtue with soft robes and a beatific smile on her face. But for what? And for who? And to what end?
That kind of peace I just described has always felt impossible, at least for me, because, well, it is. That kind of peace is a state of being that must be achieved and maintained at all costs, which I have come to realize is just another act of war—where the relative truth of separation and divisiveness that exists in our world is denied in favor of the quest for the absolute truth of Oneness but only for me. And for me to achieve that kind of “peace”, I would have to deny the reality of our most vulnerable and marginalized communities, I would have to sidestep their suffering, outright reject the existence of the privilege that my white body has afforded me to this point, and ignore the brokenness of our systems and institutions…all in a quest to feel good.
And I don’t want that kind of peace. Because that kind of peace isn’t peace at all. It’s a delusion that perpetuates harm instead of heals it.
It is only now as I try to find a center of sanity in a world that seemingly has none, I realize that true inner peace—real peace, lasting peace—is, in fact, not a state of being at all but rather it is a deliberate process of becoming. It is not a passive resignation but rather an active resolution to end conflict or war in a world—both inner and outer—that is constantly changing.
Peace is not a transcendence of the truth but rather the examination and reconciliation of the multiple truths that may exist in each moment. And to find peace within myself in order to be the peace I wish to see in the world, I have to learn how to embrace the seeming paradox of these multiple truths and try not bypass or deny them. Instead, I must allow each of them to take up residence as a different aspect of truth within me. I must hold them with curiosity and compassion, and learn to find appreciation for the expansion that they afford me in the process. And only in doing so can I finally return to that gooey center of “self + spirit” before I finally emerge from underneath the table, ready to take my turn once more at life.
In the past, I have been indiscriminate and unapologetic when it comes to believing the obviously superior value of my feelings and my beliefs in relation to others. Anything I perceived as “negative” was bad and anything I perceived as “positive” was good. But this absolutist’s view of the world is an act of war in and of itself because I was also unaware of how mutable and relative the truth is when it comes to, say, other people’s circumstances and how they may be different from my own.
I had been unaware of how my ideologies of superiority and inferiority—shaped by my family, society, and culture—have been internalized and expressed in the world until I began to examine them. I had been unaware of the conditioning that began long before I was born and of the storylines that were placed upon me long before I exited the womb. I didn’t know until I knew that people I was taught to trust—and I don’t mean my mother or Patrick, but congressmen and law enforcement officers and Supreme Court judges—could deliberately try and deceive me all so that they could win something for themselves.
The world feels so, so hard right now. Every day I find myself screaming “bullshit!” at the perpetuation of violence, hate, discrimination, and intolerable injustice. At the regressive policies and the absolute denial of the harmful impact they have on both people and planet. At the outright lies and utter hypocrisy of it all. But unlike the card game, there is no consequence of my shouting, there is no one who concedes to their lies and picks up the entire discard pile and adds it to their hand to reconcile.
There are days when I don’t know what to do. Days I want to lie in bed and live a fiction in my head and dream a fantasy of a world that hasn’t gone mad. And there are days that I do that because we all need those days. But then I remember myself. I remember that little girl—who when she felt confused, and overwhelmed, and unsure of what to do with the cards she’d been dealt—took refuge under that red table. And I remember that in spite of her circumstances, or maybe because of them, she knew exactly what to do to find inner peace. She had to set her boundaries (“don’t look!”,) take stock of the cards in front of her, get them organized, remember her vision and mission, cultivate a plan, and return to the table so that the game can continue.
That little girl—that little girl who wouldn’t give up—is a woman. And she’s no longer alone under the table.
Because now she’s got you.
And we’ve got each other.
And this place—this moment, this time—that we have together in this, our House of Belonging, is our refuge. It’s the place where we come together to find our gooey center of peace, the place where we can find our redemption and remember our vision and mission to make the world a kinder, better place, the place where we cultivate our plan for our collective liberation before we return to this ruthless game we find ourselves playing so we can try to win it.
And win it we will. Because this time, we’re going to change the rules.
This time, instead of looking the other way, instead of keeping our eyes averted and playing against each other—playing to win only for ourselves—let’s show each other our cards, our hearts. Let’s do our work together. Find our center, our peace, our freedom together.
Let’s partner up and play as a team and see how we can win this thing. Together.
Not against each other but for each other.
But only, only as long as we promise each other one very, very important thing:
This reflection was delivered by Rev. Jessica Steward as part of a full order of service in our free kindness community—the House of Belonging—on April 16, 2023.