[This evening, on this longest night of the year, we will be joined in the barn at the edge of the woods for a celebration of darkness and the return of light. As part of that, we will sit in silence. What follows is my Solstice offering.]
It was in college classrooms that I began to see the power and variety of silence. I would pose a question and for a while no one would speak. I would wait it out, which is how I thought of it at first, giving them a chance to respond without my stepping in. But then one day I realized it was something more, that I was making room for a particular kind of silence, the sound of thought, with a texture you can feel if you close your eyes, which I sometimes did, or look out the window, sensing the charge in the air, almost electric, I can hear you thinking from way over here.
Gordon Hempton, an acoustical ecologist, describes silence as something other than the absence of sound. Otherwise, there would be no silence except in the farthest reaches of outer space, beyond the reach of solar wind. Even there, I imagine, there would be the sound of my brain running at idle.
Silence, he says, is an absence of any sound that would intrude, that might draw our attention. For me, then, there can be silence with the sound of wind, but not a cell phone going off. Hempton believes the silence of large spaces, as measured in square miles, is not only becoming harder to find, but is endangered, like animals driven to extinction.
Very different from the silence of thought is the silence of someone sleeping, with its unmistakable weight, like a stone dropped in water and sinking to the bottom to rest until lifted up again.
Or the silence beneath a wind moving through the trees, the leaves drifting to the ground.
In meditation, there is sound to be noted above the silence—bird calls outside the window, a plane passing by high overhead, the ticking of the heat coming in, breath moving in and out, Nora shifting on her bench, Roxie standing up on the cushion we put down for her, lying down again with a sigh, the silence in a quality of stillness in which sound does not intrude.
Sometimes the silence of meditation can take on a weight like sleep, especially in the company of others, which I have experienced in a Buddhist meditation retreat and in Quaker Meetings where silence can go on for an hour or more. It is a remarkable experience and rare. I cannot think of another place where it is possible to be in the company of forty or fifty people who are both awake and in silence for so long a time.
Such silence can feel like a presence, which is why I would sometimes open my eyes just to see what is there, so strong was the feeling. I looked at people’s faces reflecting the inner stillness they brought into the room, now added to my own, a palpable sense of ease and calm that can wrap around and hold you, an embrace.
Silence can bear a different weight in the absence of someone who was there and now is gone, carving a hole in a room at the moment when they die. I was in the doorway of my mother’s room when I knew without looking that she was gone. Her body was there, wasted by the cancer, her face, her hands, but she was clearly not, as if her evacuation had been so hurried and complete that it left a kind of vacuum in its wake, an absence of air to carry the all but inaudible pulsation of a living being.
In the time after a death, there is the silence of stepping into an empty house and closing the door behind as you pause to listen for what is missing, expecting to hear the familiar sounds that do not come, your mind and body sinking down over weeks and months into the quiet knowing that some things are both forever and never again. It is the silence of waking in the middle of the night to a room that feels empty even though you are there, the furniture where it always was but now an absence, empty and still, beside you in the bed.
There is the silence of death and there is the silence that comes in the instant before the dying, a moment always there and yet strangely not until it comes. When my father died I was sitting beside his hospital bed after spending the night on a cot in his room. It was just before 6:00a.m. on a Friday morning in December, and I was watching him breathe slowly in and out. He had congestive heart failure and had been unconscious since before I arrived the night before.
For 93 years—almost 34,000 days, more than 800,000 hours—he had taken a breath and let it out at least every four or five seconds in an unbroken string of almost 600 million consecutive respirations. Until this moment as I watched and listened to him breath out one more time, a breath like any other, and then there was the beat of silence that always comes before the next one drawing in, except this was to be the first and last time in his long life that another breath would not come, as death entered in so softly, not unexpected and yet unannounced, for no particular reason, why not now? and I sat back and looked at his face as the silence grew long and deep, gathering up my father to carry him away.
The silence between breaths, like the silence between notes, on which the music rests.
Which is similar to the silence between people who know each other so well that words may only detract from what passes between them as they look in each other’s eyes or gaze out the window, together.
Of course not all silence is peaceful.
There is the awkward silence of not knowing what to say, the lull in the conversation when you cannot escape that it really is just the two of you sitting there, as you are, the insecurities, the doubts, the nervous smile, the glance away, the clearing of the throat. Why are we not enough just as we are?
There is the silence of bad news undelivered, hanging in the air with nowhere to go; or the awful secret shared by all but one; or what both of you know but neither will say.
The suffocating silence of fear and dread and worry in the middle of the night.
The silence of mendacity, the slippery beat following the practiced lie and the sad little pause just before it’s taken in as true.
The silence of tiptoeing around the truth, of denial and complicity and consent, of injustice and suffering unnamed and unremarked. What goes unasked and unreported on the news, what is not covered in the history class. The silence of saying nothing while the woman is raped down the hall or beaten next door.
No matter what kind of silence it is, it contains an opening for something unknown or unknowable to enter in, which may be why some work so hard to avoid it while others go out of their way in its pursuit.
When Nora and I were first together more than thirty years ago, we lived on a busy corner in the West End neighborhood of Hartford, just a block from an exit off the interstate. I once sat on the front porch and counted the cars going by, estimating an average of ten thousand a day. Across the street was a fire station, whose bone jarring horns might go off in the middle of the night.
After a few years we moved to the next town over. Across the street was an elementary school which was quiet by comparison, but within a few years we were yearning for real silence, the kind where you can hear yourself think most of the time or have moments where thought stops altogether.
This last move took us to the house we built in the middle of the woods, far from city lights and sounds, where silence can be so palpable and deep that I am sometimes compelled to stop and listen, realizing where I am,
1234567890 sitting in the middle of perfect
silence knitting everything together, seamless and whole, into the stillness beneath our lives, from which we come, to which we all return, softly, to be known at last, oh, yes, this is who you are.
Gordon Hempton interview, On Being, National Public Radio, July 4, 2013 available at http://www.onbeing.org/program/last-quiet-places/4557
The lines, “sitting in the middle of perfect/possibility” are from Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Afternoon in the House” in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1996).