Making peace with silence

"We win! We win!" The shouts of children playing in the courtyard below pierce through my windows. Laughingly they run and holler, their short, shrill voices rising above the soft hum of the air conditioner -- an air conditioner which I've positioned as much to cool my living room as to mitigate the racket of moments like this. In fact, the whirr of the dishwasher, the buzz of the refrigerator: the whole soft chorus of my appliances seems to act as a buffer against the outside world, a cocoon of white noise.

When you live in a big city -- even a city with quiet, peaceful pockets like Chicago -- silence can be hard to pin down. Even the sleepiest of street corners suffers the occasional wail of an ambulance or rumble of a train-car. These sounds I don't actually mind: they are the sounds of the world's gears turning. They rise up out of the quietude, as if to say, "Hey, remember that the Earth is still spinning?" before fading back into the distance.

Satoshi Sakurai, flickr.com
Satoshi Sakurai, flickr.com

These sounds dance with silence. They take their solos, and then offer silence a turn in the spotlight. Other sounds are not so polite: the rowdy friends voicing faux-tearful goodbyes outside the bar; the frustrated honking of cars stalled behind a backup at a green light; the truck idling in the alley, sloppily unloading packages with a thump on the hard concrete. These sounds linger. They overstay their welcome. These sounds are like your aunt Polly, who just doesn't seem to notice your all-too-frequently yawning and glances toward the door.

This was how I felt that day, as the cacophony of children in the courtyard brazenly and unknowingly marched its way into my living room, edging up my already-remarkable disquietude. On days like that, the inevitable howling is enough to make me wish I lived some fancy apartment with giant walls stuffed full of insulation, thoughtfully engineered to keep the inside in and the outside out. Safely tucked away from the mess of the city, I would look down on the bustle of hushed cars below.

It's certainly an appealing thought. 

But when I honestly ask myself, that's not really what I want. A place like that is too detached from its environment, floating like a fairy-tale castle in the clouds. There is something unsettling about being surrounded by noise and yet unable to hear it. The silence doesn't quite feel real. You open the door to step out into the world and the full force of the city hits you right in the face.

I believe a good home should be permeable. It should blend into its environment, with authentic sounds of the city making the humblest of cameos in the living room. I like to be able to passionately throw open a window and welcome in the bustle of life below, to step out the front door and inhale the soft buzz of a bicycle whizzing past.

Accidental Scholar - Karen Hollingsworth (b.1955)
Accidental Scholar - Karen Hollingsworth (b.1955)

Places like this do exist; I've visited them. But they hide in sneaky pockets of the city. They blossom in odd, micro-climates of sound: the spots where you can turn a single corner, or go up a flight of stairs, and suddenly feel as if you've left Chicago entirely, perhaps wandered into a sleepy, enchanted forest. And then, with a few more paces, you're back in the middle of a boisterous six-way intersection.

In this searching, I've learned that silence is not something you can actively seek out; it's too elusive, like trying to grab at water coming out of the faucet. You don't capture silence. It comes to you when it feels like it, in moments you don't expect: an insomnial trip to the bathroom, stopping for a moment to marvel at the stillness of the trees outside the living room window; a middle-school classroom at 8:50am, the moment before 30-some 7th and 8th graders come galloping in like a herd of socially-awkward elephants. These moments come to you like gifts from a secret admirer you didn't know you had.

Billy Collins captures the intangibility of silence in his so-named poem:

Silence

There is the sudden silence of the crowd

above a player not moving on the field,

and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase

before it strikes the floor,

the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,

the silence of the moon

and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,

the silence of the window above us,

and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning

which I have broken with my pen,

a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house—

the silence before I wrote a word

and the poorer silence now.

For me, Collins' poem elevates silence from an aural phenomenon to an entire mode of being. That is how I feel silence. It is awareness, acuteness, absolute tuned-in-ness to the Earth. It's the reason I love seeing my friends at parties almost as much as I love coming home to my own bed; the reason I'll sit in my car, or on the train, lingering a bit longer than I have to -- just to soak up a few more minutes of aloneness before diving headfirst into the world.

A recent Brainpickings article called "How to Be Alone" invokes British author Sara Maitland on the value of silence:

I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. 

Of course. This is something I have slowly come to understand, and to hold dear. Meditation, yoga, "purposeful pauses" -- silence is not just about the lack of sound, or the ability to "concentrate;" it's a chance to re-boot our brains, to start again. Somebody told me once that the phrase "sleep on it" is like a human equivalent of the I.T. dictum "have you tried turning it off and on again?" Humans have a battery life, just like our machines do. We need "on" and we need "off."

Mark Robinson, flickr.com
Mark Robinson, flickr.com

As I finished getting dressed that afternoon and stepped out the door of my apartment, I happened past the same children whose shouts had addled my slightly woozy Sunday-morning brain, as I'd tried (unsuccessfully) to recharge with a catnap on my couch. And yet, I couldn't help but smile as I watched a boy of about 8 years run the entire length of the courtyard and pose like a professional football player, ready to receive an extremely difficult and important play. He was still squealing, jumping about in the same familiar racket, but something about it was different. Or rather, something about me was different. I felt my preoccupation with silence begin to dissolve, as I stood in awe of the full life-ness of the moment.

Because connection, in that moment, came at the cost of relinquishing silence. The alternative to living with uncontrollable, districting sounds is -- well, not really living. It's detaching from others, and from things that, with frustration, also bring joy.  So while Thoreau writes that he has "never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude," there's that catchy little E.M. Forster bit that urges us to "only connect."

I like reading what famous poets and novelists have written on this subject because it feels so essentially linked to how we forge connection or isolation through our art. So I did a bit more digging and found an excerpt from a piece by Wendell Berry. In his view, these two yearnings are not in conflict; in fact they depend on one another. He writes:

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

And so it occurs to me that silence itself may be the wrong target. That the more important thing is the way we allow silence to play between moments of joy and despair, the way we let it bring us back to our selves, to our insecurities, and to a deeper understanding of our experiences. Because making peace with silence means accepting it as-is, like a lover who you know will never be, and never expect you to be, free of flaws and imperfections. It means understanding that quiet reflection moves us through life and toward the universe -- not away from it. And because sometimes the loud, disruptive cries that yank silence from our hands are actually just a wakeup call, a missive to return to life -- just as it is.