The air conditioner in our bedroom rattles while my husband watches an episode of “Father Brown” before he falls asleep. In the living room, the kids watch “Wheel of Fortune” shouting at the television whenever appropriate. Or not. The boy rocks in the orange recliner which has developed a squeak and between segments of the show, commercials blare their subtle fear: cancer, illness, injury.
If I turned off the electronic devices, I would still hear the cars whoosh past our house, the cicadas swell their song from the trees.
Is silence even a possibility in this noisy world?
Two months ago, I went to a writing retreat where each morning we had the option of spending 15 minutes in silence/guided meditation. I gave it a try because why not? The first day we sat in folding chairs in a circle. Our leader invited us to adopt a relaxed posture–shoulders back, spine straight, arms resting lightly on our legs/knees. We breathed and we listened to a reading of a short poem a couple of times through. Then, we participated in silence for 15 full minutes.
I thought it would be impossible. I thought I would need to fidget, that my body would start to ache, that my mind would wander. I thought it would be difficult to tune out the other sounds, but I found myself undisturbed, even when I knew people were walking into the space we occupied.
When our leader rang a bell at the end of 15 minutes, I could hardly believe it was over already. And I felt such peace in my soul.
The next morning, I looked forward to our time in silence as much as anything else. We moved to a different location, inside a house, but the experience was similar. And I left the entire retreat feeling that the time spent in silence and not doing was as important as the work I do actually writing.
Since then, I have not had a smidgen of silence. Nor have I sought it.
The kids run in and out of the house all day, and when they are quiet for a few moments, I choose a podcast or music to help me through my chores.
When the kids were younger, I used to crave silence. I would never turn on music when the house was empty because I needed to hear myself think. This led someone to remark that I didn’t like music, which wasn’t true at all. I just couldn’t handle more noise when I had the choice.
Now, though, it seems that even when the house is empty, I am choosing noise because I can control it. I listen to podcasts or let a Netflix show run. Another friend says she needs complete quiet in her house to write and I am the opposite. I would rather be in a crowded coffee shop where I am forced to focus on the work in front of me. In my house there are too many distractions, and if it’s quiet, I hear every.little.thing.
Better to have the noise I want.
The van was silent and I was not alone.
The kids sat in their usual seats while our new friend sat in the passenger seat as I drove us through the city. I had driven her to her appointments several times before this, and though I could not speak her language nor she mine, I felt pressure to fill the silence.
On our first meeting, I blurted out all the Spanish words I could think of. “Hola!” “Ninos?” “Siete y nueve.” It was as awkward as it sounds. I can’t use Google Translate when I’m driving.
I quit trying to fill the silence with words after the first few car rides, opting instead to just be present. I heard every sigh as she coped with the pain in her body, and I interpreted every facial expression inadequately. But I figured the kids would try to talk to her.
I was wrong. In the car that first time for them, they were silent. Our friend would turn and smile at them and talk about her grandson still in Cuba. When we were free of the car, then the kids, face-to-face, did their best to communicate although “no comprende” was a phrase we heard often.
The silent presence was uncomfortable. I felt like I should be saying something. Anything. And I hate making small talk. The idea of just sitting with a person without exchanging even the most basic of conversation is so unfamiliar in our culture. If we’re not talking to someone, we’re listening to something so we don’t have to talk to anyone, but do we dare spend time with ourselves?
What might we learn about ourselves and others if we stopped filling the silence and instead listened to it?
Noise distracts us.
If we have to focus on the sound waves, then we don’t have to focus on the inner workings of our heart. If we can’t hear the inner monologue then maybe we don’t feel so bad about ourselves. If we fill the void, we don’t have to think. Period.
We recently spent time with our deaf niece (she is so much more than this). She has an implant to help her hear, but my sister-in-law talks about how if she had to do it over, she might not have agreed to that. The implant magnifies every single sound, the background noise as well as the speaking. I remember my grandfather sometimes turning off his hearing aid because he couldn’t hear what he wanted to hear.
I can’t imagine choosing not to hear, but one of my favorite images of my niece from her time here was when she lay on a blanket in the park, feeling the music as it left the stage. She was transfixed. So was I.
Some part of me thinks she was the one truly hearing the music.
The house is quiet now. It will only stay that way for a few hours, unless the mouse we can’t catch decides on another kitchen caper tonight. All too soon, the sleeping house will awaken and fill with the sounds of breakfast dishes and coffee brewing and children either laughing or fighting or both. We will fill our day with words until I bellow in frustration, “No. More. Talking.”
I might get a moment of silence before being asked a question or told a story.
It might last a little longer.
Silence might elude me, but I will not stop seeking it.