Shilly-shallying makes a lot of sense, when the other options are hyperventilation or total collapse. Some forms of shilly-shallying are in fact quite pleasant, and even useful. Feeling paralyzed by that email you really need to send? Fear not! The anemones, raspberries, and roses need cutting back. The dahlias need digging up.
I dug up the dahlias that my friend at the women’s advocacy center gave me this spring, in the form of a brain-sized clump of root. When I put them in, I really had no idea what I was doing. I broke off bits and buried them here and there – among the tomatoes, behind the lavender – proceeding with all the deliberateness and expertise of a squirrel in a nut-frenzy. Then, also like a squirrel, I forgot all about them. There were other things to shilly-shally about.
Gradually, dark-stemmed, frondy-leaved creatures started to poke up in a kind of circle-chorus around the garden.
I did nothing for them, just watched. As everything else started to die off this Fall, they gained momentum, eventually shouting a deep-red chord of impossible complexity and grace. Then the frost came, and they withered overnight.
I dug up the dahlias and saw that each original root-bit had transformed itself into a multi-breasted fertility goddess, nodes and nodes of dahlia packed together into yam-like clusters of useless, harmless beauty. I loved them even more then, knowing that what I had taken for the dahlias’ shilly-shallying period was in fact root-building, storing up for the wild blooming yet to come.
Get it? I’m a little annoyed at myself for this metaphor, but it seems inescapable. Plants I took to be meh-meh shilly-shallying while the lilies and peonies Made an Effort were in fact following their own fertile, invisible cycle. I dug up the dahlias yesterday to keep them safe over the winter, and found that my friend’s gift had quadrupled during its obscurity in the ordinary-extraordinary ground. Next year we can have dahlias out the wazoo, or I can give dahlias to everyone I know. Either would be fine. I will keep the roots in the dark, unfreezing cellar for their long winter’s rest.
In fact, my own shilly-shallying can be a way of quietly working out the steps between where I am now and the places that scare me. Maybe my fear of that email is actually grounded in not yet having the tools and resources I need to elicit the responses I wish for. Better to wait, to grow root and depth, than to send another ill-formed squawk into the already-crowded airspaces of the world. I look for ways to find relationships with what’s already here, to ask rich and squirrely questions, without hope of immediate reply. My friend, in a similar place of transitions, says, “I know my rhythms.” Yes. Sometimes I do, too. I do the Shilly-Shally Samba and the Shilly-Shally Shake. I learn Shilly-Shally Stillness.
Out the small square window of this library room where we write on a cherry-wood table, some late leaves cling to the tops of otherwise bare branches. Who’s to say whether they are shilly-shallying or not? So much of what I call standstill is actually ripening. So much of what later appears in imagination begins imperceptibly. Here I am, laying down under gradually thickening covers, to sleep, clench my teeth and elbows, and dream. What will that accomplish? My mother, a chronic insomniac, complains of the waste of time that sleep (or in her case, serial novel-reading) represents. I don’t feel that way, welcoming instead the opportunity to breathe, to let go of control, to dream of beautiful old houses, handmade weapons, and communities fully-formed without the slightest conscious effort on my part. I sleep, I dream, my soul’s roots grow deep and fertile as the breasts of a grape-bodied goddess.
Soon I will be shouting in flowers.
Soon I will wither to the ground.
Soon I will be dug up for storage, and planted again when the ground is soft enough for shoveling.
This weekly writing itself has a quality of shilly-shallying, of lingering long enough in the company of my own experience to allow its cycles of growth and dying back. Often I finish with a sense of not-knowing how any of what has come through my hand fits together. Then I read it out loud and find: Yes. There is a thread, a chorus, a weaving-together. I did not know how word would follow word, or what form the finished creature might take. Only generous shilly-shallying has revealed what is here. Only time, space, and acceptance.
“I’ve never regretted time spent on the cushion,” says my Art and Dharma friend, and I know I’ve never regretted the kind of shilly-shallying that parts the curtains of intention, opening itself to listen deeper than thought.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.