there is power in occasionally practicing the discipline of silence. When we choose silence, we choose to relinquish control. We are forced to listen unconditionally. A stillness gathers, a groundswell of peace that will eventually overpower the noise. – Shawn Smucker
I have forgotten the wisdom in Shawn’s words. I used to hold it. In fact, I wrote a really sizable essay about it. I have read most of what Thomas Merton has written just for this reason – I need silence. I crave it. I forget that craving.
Here is my essay on silence, in full. It’s long, so read what you’d like. Maybe it will be your moments of silence today:
Dust in a Ray of Sun: What Monastics Have to Teach Us about Being Still
But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude. – Thomas Merton
Eleven pm. My eyes aren’t adjusted to the darkness here yet. So I shuffle into the yard, edging a toe forward to be sure I don’t careen into the small pond full of now-sleeping frogs. As I reach the center of the grass, I look up. More stars than most of us know to be possible twinkle overhead. There is no light pollution here. Only stars shimmering back from millions of years away. I take a deep breath.
In my ears, I hear the train over the hill. Its horn sounds by the road, alerting deer rather than cars I imagine. Then I hear what I have come to find in this starry darkness: silence. Not the complete artificial silence of a sensory deprivation tank or even the muffled softness of hearing under water. No, this is the silence of life. A breeze breathes through the trees and the leaves sigh. An owl calls out her haunting hoot in the distance. My feet slide over the grass with a hiss. I breathe deep and find myself whole.
My life, until recently, was this continual wash of sound. My alarm rang at 6am. After shoving an English muffing down my throat and rushing through any number of chores I could finish in a half-hour, I was out the door and off into a day of classes, conferences, and commutes between schools. Sometime in the late afternoon – four classes and two office hours later – I guzzled down a latte to keep me awake for the ride home. The evening was then spent grading. Eating and reading were crammed into the times when “I was taking a break,” and around 11 I waddled to bed, read the same two paragraphs of Motherless Brooklyn that I read the night before, and dropped dead to sleep. All of this surrounded by sound – the radio, the voices of students in discussion, my internal to-do list.
I’d like to think my usual day isn’t usual for most people, but I know it is. Many of my friends have three email addresses, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and cell phones. Even my dad, out here on the farm in rural Virginia, has Internet service and a cell phone. It’s sad really. We’ve lost our ability to be alone. We can’t seem to be quiet.
Somehow I had convinced myself that quiet moments were not important. Yet, these still pockets when time bends and slows like cold maple syrup are the moments when I’ve known myself best; they’re my best memories: watching my friend Megan dance before a fireplace the night before she was married, staring at the city lights of Edinburgh from a hill above the city, sitting alone on a deck looking out over the Atlantic.
Until last November, I didn’t stop. I didn’t slow down. I didn’t let the silence descend. I was frightened, scared that what I’d find in those still pockets was shallowness and pain. I was afraid that I would discover nothing except a shallow woman bruised beyond bearing. Then, life stopped me dead and shrouded me with silence.
Five months ago today, my mom died of cancer. My brother and I came home to help our dad and be with our mom.
Two weeks were exercises in the excruciating silence of a death vigil. Mom slept almost constantly, and so we maintained our quiet as best we could. We did jigsaw puzzle after jigsaw puzzle and used papers cups and plates so that we didn’t have the clamor of washing dishes. We talked in whispers so quiet that when I broke away to walk for a few minutes one day the sound of the wind seemed blaring.
When Mom left us, silence enwrapped us like a sheepskin blanket. We barely talked. We cried without noise. We didn’t stay at the grave to hear the sound of the earth hitting her casket.
Since then, I have been here on this farm where the loudest sound in the evening is the panting of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever on the floor behind me. I can walk into the yard on a starry night and hear nothing but wind. It is a blessing.
Once I stopped, once there was nothing but silence to comfort me I found that my fear had been a mistake, as most fear is. I didn’t find a shallow, decimated woman. I found me, and I found this woman to be stronger than I knew and deeper than I imagined. It is good that the strength has come with the depth in this silence because the depth is the cavern of grief in which I abide for this time. There is pain here, but it is a pain of life – of grief and loss and the utter beauty of remembering my mother. I would find so little of this if I didn’t give myself this gift of silence.
Richard Anthony Cash, the biography of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, describes Merton’s life in a monastic hermitage like this: “When a man is quiet . . . he comes face to face with himself in the lonely ground of his own being . . . .” It is this quiet, this silence that lets us see ourselves – a terrifying and holy endeavor.
On Stanford University’s campus, Andy Goldsworthy has created a serpentine sculpture from the chipped remains of university buildings that were damaged in the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. Standing at eye level with the sculpture, I notice the tiny scratches in the stones’ surface, the scars left by the mason’s axe. I see the sculptor’s care in placing each stone at an angle that forces near jigsaw-puzzle attachment with the stone next to it, the cracks made tiny by his design. The details of this sculpture transfix me as I rest my chin on its top layer.
When I walk away and look back over my shoulder, one last glance before I go, the stone sculpture seems to writhe gradually out of the ground, calling to my mind images of the Smoky Mountain creeks of my childhood. Only inches of stone show above the earth at each end. In the center, where the soil has been carried away to leave a wide canyon, the sculpture weaves from side to side like a sea serpent trapped on dry ground. The curvy yellow wall arcs through the dirt before sinking back into its dusty home yards away.
The great form of the sculpture is only apparent from a distance, the curve that mirrors so much in nature – snakes, ocean waves, the curls in my own hair. At eye level, I notice the sculpture scars and cracks, but without distance I never would understand the mammoth form that those beautiful pieces fit into – the full presence lost in the details.
Silence creates that distance where I can see details coalesce into a whole, where I can step away in order to move back in again, a practice of perspective crucial to me as a writer.
For me to be able to write well, I must be able to see both the details and the larger picture, and silence gives me the space to fit the details of a day – the piliated woodpecker that crossed my path, the family visiting from Switzerland who came to my door, the humidity of an April day – into something cogent, in a story, an essay, into a life. When I stay engrossed in what Jonathan Rosen calls the “muffled amnion of mediated words,” the words of my own mind, of the people I surround myself with, of the media, I cannot see the larger picture, the arcs and ebbs of a story. I need details in order to create; I need silence to give shape to that creation.
One of the greatest sources of inspiration for me is the world of the monastic. In cloistered communities, I see people attenuated to the daily – prayer offices, making bread, tending gardens, maintaining community – with the purpose of affecting the universal. Monks and writers serve the similar purpose of recording a life’s experience in the world. We withdraw in order to create. “Today, the poets and other artists tend to fulfill many of the functions that were once the monopoly of monks,” says Merton. Monks and writers reflect the deeper voice that seems to come from beyond, from our spirits, from our universe, from our God.
Monastic writers, like Merton and Kathleen Norris, remind me that quiet and distance bring freshness and clarity to life. They tell me to remember that my voice left untempered by solace can cut too quickly, can sever rather than bind.
For a monk, silence does not mean simply the lack of sound or noise. Instead it’s the kind of quiet that falls when a baby goes to sleep and a mother listens to his breath. It’s the crunch of autumn leaves under hiking boots. It’s the roar of a waterfall in spring. In her book Fifty Days of Solitude, Doris Grumbach describes it: “Silence, unlike the harsh, unacceptable sounds that bounce off my ears like stones, could bring tears to my eyes and break my heart.” Silence, then, is not the lack of sound; it’s the absence of sound that assaults the mind.
I will probably never find total silence, and I don’t know if I’d want it if I could find it. Instead, I seek the places and times where I can feel the quiet around and in me. Only certain places give me such a chance. I have found silence to be most elusory in the cities – San Francisco, Cleveland, Baltimore – where I have lived, but still, I seek it. In San Francisco, I would walk to the ocean and sit in the sound of the waves where all other noise was washed away. Here on the farm, I simply walk away from humanity, find a vista and stop to listen to the wind. Some people can sit in meditation and ignore all else – a man I used to know had only to ring a small Tibetan bell before he dropped into a deep quiet. Others find their deepest quiet and peace in activity. My friend Karrie loves to run for this reason, and my father can sit and build furniture for hours, lost in the pattern of the grain.
For me, silence requires solitude, a word linked in its root to “solace” – comfort. My own nature, my way of being in the world, requires that I attend to the people I am with on as many levels as possible; I simply cannot be in the same space as someone and not attend to them. So when I need silence – even the silence of a mind not feeling bound to another – I have to slip away to a place where I am alone.
While Merton argues that the only real solitude is inner solitude, he also says:
Although it is true that this solitude is everywhere, there is a mechanics for finding it that has some reference to actual space, to geography, to physical isolation from the towns and cities of men. There should be at least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought to the presence of other men.
Only in this “untethered space” can I experience quiet that is substantial enough for me to think well and to write true.
For monks, such awareness occurs in the regulated solitude of the monastery. The patterns of life in a monastic community often require hours of time alone for prayer, reading, and work. The community gathers at certain moments in the day to worship or dine together, but in many monasteries, the monks spend the bulk of the day alone. This pattern of solitude is similar to many peoples’ routines or prayer or meditation or even a small child’s practice of piano. Same time, same place, same ritual every day. Routine and ritual help to create a space in a person’s consciousness that is always open and ready for entrance into that solitary place.
When I find this space, it seems vast and secluded, as I imagine the valley around Petra in Jordan must be. A place secure, intimate yet massive. When I’ve been writing for a while, I become immensely focused. My head fills with only what I see on the screen or in my notebook. At first, I stop noticing the things around me – the bird on the feeder outside the window, the teenage baristas at the coffee shop, the cat mewing at my feet. Then, I feel like I’ve dropped onto the page before me, the words within reach of my hands. As I sit, I find myself able to pull the words down from their vastness and place them on the page. I live in this giant, isolated world of the essay, nothing beyond its edges reaching me, until I smack up against my own mental and verbal limits or the cat gets annoyed and digs her claws into my bare foot.
I read the monastic writers to study under masters of the practice of silence. As I read Merton’s strong, quiet words, as I stroll with Paul Mariani on his monastic retreats, I begin to slide into the slower stiller life of the monastery. Just as I disappear into St. Ogg when I read Elliot’s The Mill on the Floss or smell the burning blood of the pages of O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I begin to feel the cool stone of the monastery’s halls beneath my feet; I hear the singing of the Psalms; I taste the freshly mown grass beside Merton’s hermitage. The simple, silent, solitary act of reading lets me live in that experience a bit.
For many people, the artist’s life seems decadent. How is it possible that someone needs so many hours a day alone to only produce a few thousand words on a page? How can reading a book or taking a long stroll through the woods be considered work? In this, writer’s are like monks as well. Many who live outside monastic communities see them as places where people go to hide from the pain and pressures of the world at large. Some assume that to cloister oneself away – to pray or to write – means that one is weak or avoidant or just plain lazy.
Yet, monks don’t seek to avoid their lives; in contrast, they go to confront what is most essential about their identity, just as writers do. We do not seek a cloistered existence in order to hide; we hide in order to be found.
I’ve often heard writers say – and I have known – that they couldn’t grasp the essence of an experience while in the midst of it. There’s something about lapsed time and emotional space that allows me to capture a story more fully. Maybe our brains need to sit with and consider an experience before we can commit to it in ink; or maybe our emotions in the midst of a situation block the verbal process with their primal energy. When I try to write from too close a perspective on moment in my life, I get trapped in the scars or carried away by the joy and find myself writing with no perspective, no purpose. There are just some things that need to be tempered by time and space. Sometimes we need to retreat for a bit before stepping back into the pain.
When my marriage fell apart five years ago, I felt like I needed to write that story. I need to capture the pain of that failure, the loneliness of the moment, the grief of a life changed forever. So I did, and it was terrible. It was trite and obvious and far too sad for it to be accessible for anyone, AND it was also not the whole story. Now, from this distance, the pain, the grief, the loneliness are still there, but there is also hope and freedom and a great sense that all is well and all will be well. That is the real story, a story I can only see from five years away.
When I am ready to come back from my silent space and put my experiences on the page, it’s because I am ready to connect with other people – that’s why I write. I’m not writing for my own reading pleasure or for some sort of therapy (I do not discount those as valuable practices; they are just private experiences, not ones meant for general reading); I’m writing so I can share, so I can connect. In speaking of American society, Kathleen Norris says:
In our relentlessly utilitarian society, structuring a life around writing is as crazy as structuring a life around prayer, yet that is what writers and monks do. Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems. That is what others want and expect of us, because if we do our job right, we will express things that others may feel, or know, but can’t or won’t say . . . . Maybe it is the useless silence of contemplation, that certain “quality of attention” that distinguishes both the poem and the prayer.
My solitary work as a writer fills a need in society, both in its product and its process of attention. When I write at my best, I remind people of their need for stillness and quiet to hear their own experiences.
Silence teaches me how to recognize my life, those moments when the dust particle becomes visible in a ray of sun, when I catch the right glint of light and really see the glorious world floating right before my eyes. When I’m quiet, when I can see what’s unique about my life, I am whole, full; I remember I am loved. I don’t need noise. I have all I need.
When do you need silence?