April 2018

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Heart of Silence

Our Wednesday night class on being a social worker who works with people at what may be the end of their lives is an intense one. Sometimes, I cry. Sometimes, everyone cries.

Our professor begins each class inviting us to sit in silence, often doing a guided meditation. The practice is healing and centering for me, and our professor sees this connection with sacred silence as a way of life. So do I.

In our first session, our professor asked, “What do you think of when you think of silence?” She seemed to anticipate the responses. I did not. People said things like, “Uncomfortable” and even “Painful.”

Last week, as the class discussed starting fifteen minutes earlier, and some people said they couldn’t get there that early, my jovial classmate Brian said, “That’s okay, it’s just silent then. It doesn’t really matter.”

To this, our professor responded with the closest thing to a yelp and howl of laughter as I have seen. To her, this moment of silence is essential. To me it is, too. (If I were still teaching, I think I would do this at the beginning of my classes. Sister Jen says that one of my niece Isabella’s teachers at her boarding school does that. Smart. Since I’m a student now, I’m getting to think about teaching from the perspective of the learner, something I did hypothetically as an instructional coach.)

I am often surprised by how different I experience the world than so many people around me. It seems like I’d expect it by now. In contrast to my classmates, I seek silence. For me, silence is a warm presence: in it I feel much like I felt in a warm Costa Rican bay as I struggled with depression so many years ago. In silence, my body and my spirit, which can come apart, drift gently back together. In silence, for me, there is healing.

Of course, I know from listening to Simon and Garfunkel that for many the sound of silence is the sound of loneliness and disconnection:

"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you.
Take my arms that I might reach you."
But my words, like silent raindrops fell,
And echoed
In the wells of silence.

There have been times for me, too, when silence was painful. In junior high school, I was the lone young one on the varsity high school volleyball team. My teammates were kind to me, but I was overwhelmed by my loneliness among the ladies who seemed so close to being grown-ups. I’m not sure I spoke in practice all season except to call “mine” when the ball coursed over the net in my direction or “out” when it was.

As an adult, I have experienced painful silence, too. Once on a hike in the first year that Ann and I were together, she asked me why I didn’t talk anymore, why I was so silent. I hadn’t realized I’d stopped talking. The winds of discord in my brain, as I dealt with the darkness of not having known myself before coming out, were so loud that I did not hear the silence. Thank heavens, Ann got me talking again. And noticing silence as a gift again.

In teaching, my colleagues and I sometimes organized an activity I called “Board Talk,” a variation of the Coalition of Essential School’s protocol “Chalk Talk.” At the beginning of the year, my 75 juniors could participate silently by writing on white boards for maybe ten minutes. By the end of the year, they could sustain the silence for 90 minutes. This unusual way of being together, in thoughtful and quiet reflection, was a favorite time for me.

Once my students embraced the quiet, they celebrated being together in this way. And this silence wasn’t just a gift that my suburban advanced students enjoyed. When I moved to urban schools with high levels of poverty and violence, my freshmen participated thoughtfully in this silence, too. In grad school (different degree) even my adult colleagues seemed to appreciate it.

I have never been one for background noise: I only want the television or the radio to be on if I am focused on them.  Otherwise, I’d prefer silence. When I get my hair cut, I don’t really want to jabber with the person cutting my hair unless we have some real connection (and I always appreciated Ray, who put the scissors down when we talked.) After brain surgery, my head ached when the puppies next door barked or the workmen hammered on a new home nearby. Then, silence was a gift.

Though noise doesn’t generally give me a stabbing headache anymore, I still prefer silence to the onslaught of wave after wave of racket. (That’s what my grandmother called it: “Robert!” she’d yell at my grandfather. “Quit makin’ all that racket!” It always seemed ironic to me that she yelled this.)

Why do I prefer silence to background noise? I want to be present in the moment. I see so many people these days as they walk down the street distracted from their reality: young mothers pushing baby strollers as the mothers talk on their cell phones, ignoring their children; teenagers with their hoods up and heads down, oblivious to traffic as they cross the street; teens with large headphones keeping them incased in a world of their own (because with my disabilities it’s difficult for me to move out of someone’s way when they’re not paying attention, I sometimes have to yell at a person wearing headphones and fingering their smart phone so that the person does not plow into me. “Look up! Look up! Look up!” I yell. I generally see someone’s eyes for a moment as that person sees me and mumbles, “Sorry,” but before the person has passed, the head is back down again.)

I want to say, “Look up!” both physically and metaphysically. “Notice the world, how lovely it is. Be here with me in this moment and in this place.”

It’s funny that in many ways, our birth does not prepare us for silence: I have heard the sonogram of a baby in the womb, and the whooshes there are not quiet. When I am quiet, I hear the noises around me: cars going by, people on the street, a distant siren. It’s this quiet that I love.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, “I love the silence of the church better than any preaching,” resonates with me. I love that silence, too, or the grace of the choir practicing, their sound waves all aligned (that’s such a miracle to me).

Pablo Neruda’s poem “Keeping Quiet” (trans. Alastair Reid) is my favorite on this subject:
And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Yes, please. Silence, do interrupt this sadness. Stay with me and my world while the poet goes. And bless us all.


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