The Necessity of Silence

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written here. I have to believe it is because I had nothing to say. It’s a novel concept these days – keeping one’s trap shut when one has nothing to say. We’re encouraged to engage, to talk our ruddy heads off, to comment on every news story, to chatter on about celebrity mishaps and political misdeeds. We get attention for jumping into the latest outrage. We link and like and re-whatever. The nonsensical cacaphony pummels us, creating mental calluses until one death, one wrongdoing, one injustice is the equivalent of a new gadget or somebody’s after-baby body or the on-the-rocks marriage of strangers.

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To allow ourselves to grow tender again is a daring thing these days. We might not be seen. We might not have presence. The last year of personal and family mishaps, the last few years of vitriolic public discourse, the constant stream of news about violence happening in real time, every minute of every day, have hardened me in unflattering ways. Inevitably there is no physical armor or fortress that can protect a person from the bruising of being a human in this world. We only get to select our weapon/defense of choice: love or hate.

There is a silence that matches our best possibilities when we have learned to listen to others. We can master the art of being quiet in order to be able to hear clearly what others are saying…We need to cut off the garbled static of our own preoccupations to give to people who want our quiet attention.

Eugene Kennedy, American Philosopher

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I’ve made mistakes over the last couple of years. I’ve dotted some comment forums with spicy, sharp words refuting ignorance or hatred. Words were, as they are for many people, my weapon of choice. There is approximately 2.5 seconds of satisfaction before the shame sets in. This is not the person I set out to be. The extremes have come to dominate our civil conversations – normalizing behaviors that one wouldn’t accept from a toddler. Not just the tantrum in the White House, but a lot of us are slowly giving up bits of ourselves to anger and propaganda.

The argument for speaking up is so that one is not complacent or complicit or condoning something despicable. Many of us want to be part of the solution in a world where only the loudest voices are heard. Some of us just like to hear the sound of our own voice. I’ve started to ask myself who is listening, does my opinion carry any weight or make any difference, and do I have anything of value to add? The answers follow: a handful of people, no, and usually not.

There are 7.7 billion people on this planet, with 3.5 billion able to access the internet. A lot of people are speaking up. And many of them are the people who should – erudite, witty, sharp observers. Some are compassionate and welcoming and have ideas to move forward. Some speak out of lived experiences. Others of us are just meme repeaters. Somebody has already posted our thought times a thousand and added a picture. You could argue in the power of boosting a hashtag – a lot of social movements have them as their rallying cry. Maybe I’ve become a little too precious – refusing to become an indistinguishable part of a mob. Or what we sometimes call humanity.

I’m reading Paul Kingsnorth’s Savage Gods and it’s hitting me right in the solar plexus.

We are building a world in which silence is a crime: a waste of something. An empty thing which must be filled. Ours is a world of metaphors and sentences, unpunctuated, flowing on faster and faster, building in rhythm and urgency until they crash, fatally, into the last page of the book.

Savage Gods, Paul Kingsnorth, 2019

For the last couple of days, I’ve been unscheduled. The family has been off to work and school. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt myself. Solitude and silence allow me to sink inward, to reconnect with the person I am, not one buffeted about by external voices and news and appointments and crises. I have devolved into a tender little meat sack, all vulnerability and 70s ballads. I’ve been calling it a need for decompression, which suggests a forthcoming outward expansion. Instead, my inner tension releases. I have tears. I do little ridiculous dances about the house. I meditate, imagining that I am physically putting aside one anxiety after another.

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Without those moments, those protected snippets of time, I forget who I am. I forget that it is better to remain silent than to lash out in frenzied anger. I forget that I can be circumspect and reasoned in the face of someone else’s frenzied anger. I forget that I don’t need to have an opinion on everything. I don’t have to weigh and judge every byte of information that comes my way. There are many people who are much better at responding in the moment. I am not that person and never have been, and I have to believe there is still room in this world for slow reaction times and thoughtfulness.

Sometimes I think my silence comes from paralysis. If you practice seeing any issue from multiple angles, you learn that no one is ever truly right. My passion has never been dogma. It has always been the pursuit of knowledge in hopes of finding wisdom. That’s a soft sell in a world that is full of know-it-alls. Truth is now treated as a perspective, not something in accordance with fact or reality. People seem to require very little of either to draw their own conclusions.

canstockphoto29460775Silence is not, in and of itself, an indicator of virtue or vice. It is what happens in that space that makes it valuable. Like sleep, it gives our brain time to integrate information, instead of speeding onto to the next shiny thing. It gives us space to remember who we are – and in a world that insists on talking increasingly louder and faster, who we are is all we really have to hold onto.

Cold Open

Hello, Internet. I am an average person who writes about average things. I write about head colds and depression and failed writing attempts. Sometimes I dig deep and write about parenting or the military or I really reach and write about how much I hate social media (yes, Alanis, that is irony). I hear Charlton Heston in my head yelling Internet is people!, but I’ve been disconnected of late, so rather removed from the humanity that apparently resides in my computer. I’m also old-ish, so I can only make obsolete references to old songs and actors that you will have to Ggoogle (thanks to Dreyer’s English, I’ve been sorted on the whether or not to capitalize neologisms).

canstockphoto14303156It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written. Anything. I have a lot of excuses – I was sick, my daughter’s orchestral season has kept me on the run, I’ve had to make some lifestyle changes to counter encroaching health issues. They’re solid excuses, except that they’re not the reason I haven’t been writing. I simply didn’t want to. I got tired of the sound of my own voice. It turns out that my introversion extends to even myself. Shut up already, self.

I’ve spent a lot of time saying nothing and even more time reading, walking, and doing chores. I’m psyching myself up to get ready for a more dedicated strength training program, as well as pushing through novel edits. And as soon as the #@$% snow melts from our April blizzard, I’ll be getting back to work in my garden. So I return here, to warm up my writing skills and re-connect with the many lovely people who apparently live inside my computer. Nano-people.

41048099I’m in the middle of reading Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet. It’s one of those books that tells you what you likely already know, but feels reassuring when someone else says it. After a long winter of anxiety, depression, and sadness, I have found my way out of its shroud. I disconnected from those places on the internet that fueled either depression or rage. I’m limiting my intake of news. I’m focusing on the things that feed me – reading, exercise, being outside, staying in the moment. Listening. Not talking. I still have work to do. Even now, as I write this, I feel a modicum of anxiety. It seems that periods of silence sometimes reset my discomfort in engaging publicly.

I’ve given this blog some thought – the why, when, how of it. It remains, after deleting Twitter and just using Facebook to manage a nonprofit page, my only public voice. Who do I want to be on the internet? How do I add or detract from this space? There is nothing in particular I will change here, except to clarify to myself what I want it to be – a slow, calm place with gentle conversation, some humor, and a chance to counter toxicity with thoughtfulness. It’s not faddish or viral or cutting edge. As much as being a replicated contagion seems to be desirable, I am too much of a tortoise. Slow, steady, unwilling to give much shrift to my knee-jerk reactions.

canstockphoto50415411It takes some will and personal stamina to downshift one’s life in a rapidly accelerating world. I resent being hurried. I resent being cajoled or berated by advertising. I’m tired of the perpetual dissatisfaction that saturates a capitalist society. I’m tired of self-criticism. Of criticism in general. I’m tired of being bludgeoned by breaking news and shitty Twitter journalism. I’m tired of reviews and stars and thumbs and smiley faces. It’s a system designed to feed insecurities and fears. It’s fantastic if you’re immune, but most of us, I believe, are not.

One must make a deliberate choice to go slow in this world. And it’s not even really that slow. I’m the driver who stays within five miles of the speed limit while I’m being tailgated by the impatient, the entitled, and the dangerous. I must resist the pressure, drive safely, stay as far away as possible from other drivers, and ignore the rude hand gestures. That seems like a pretty decent metaphor for my life at the moment.

Getting Warmer

This little writing session was all it took. I now have a few post drafts for the next week. It’s a reminder that always surprises me. When you’re stuck or silent or uninspired, all you have to do is start. It might be the shittiest start ever, but giving yourself permission to start where you are can be the beginning of something amazing. Not this post, of course. But something.

The Space Between

An interval of silence

when your arm no longer bows

music at rest

time to breathe

canstockphoto7479668An interval of rest

between reps and sweat

your muscle regroups

lives to fight another set

An interval of breath

dozy conscientiousness

before sleep carries you

into the shadows

An interval of quiet

before the kids wake up

and after the dog has been walked

coffee steam swirls up your nose

An interval of observation

standing in lines

watching the cashier

have a good or bad day

An interval of thought

Mouth closed mind open

walking about

in the shoes of someone else

An interval of grace

for that momentary glance

that says I’ve got your back

for the child still snoring on a school holiday

An interval of peace

a cup of a tea

the list that doesn’t need

to be started right now

Small Talk and Slightly Bigger Ideas

canstockphoto3538551.jpgSpring is a dangerous time for writing in my world. It’s the time I’m most likely to quit blogging. It’s the time when every new novel idea looks better than the one I’m working on. It’s the time when dust collects in the study.

It was a tepid winter this year in Minnesota. I might need to move further north at this rate. Ride a melting glacier, run a homeless polar bear shelter. I’d like to see some studies on the impact of hot flashes on climate change. All I know is that wherever I am, it’s too damned hot.

*****

It was two weeks ago last when I was inspired about my writing. It got kicked off by an extended family get-together.

So, are you working now? Oh, still writing? How’s that going? What’s it about?

I have a script I now use for these occasions. Little jokes. Self-deprecating nonsense that flies out of my mouth automatically. Well, my book is about my husband wanting to retire eventually, so I’d better sell something. Har, har, har.

My spirits sunk a bit. I’d had this same conversation for years.

canstockphoto0970790.jpgThe following day, I pulled out all my notecards, the rough first/second/third draft and I starting writing page after page of notes. I reviewed old notes. I rewrote the first chapter and last chapters for the sixth time. I scrawled deliriously across blank paper. Lines connecting words, concepts, timelines. It was heady. It felt productive, but I was suspicious. I’m the queen of busywork when it comes to writing.

Then I started to see motifs and themes and realized that there was a reason I was writing this particular story over and over again. A flash of understanding, a moment when the entire novel coalesced inside my head. It’s these damned moments that keep bringing me back. Progress? I don’t know. Just when I think it’s time to move on, I get hooked again.

*****

Summer vacations have already been planned and scrapped and planned again. A family road trip through southern states was vetoed by moi. The heat was a determinant, but throw in bugs that don’t get controlled by an annual killing frost and a little regressive anti-LGBT legislation and it got crossed off the list.

A friend said “Why do you care about the legislation? It doesn’t affect you.” That’s what these times do to us – they surprise us with bigotry in our familiars. People who have never seemed particularly unkind take on a malevolent glint and you step back a bit.

canstockphoto14554749My first impulse is a rage that I have to rein in. Then I go to reason, which usually involves these questions “How are these laws going to be enforced? Are they going to be doing crotch checks?” My rage is not reined in well enough.

I’ve written several draft posts about the laws in Missouri and North Carolina (and southern states are not on the hook for this – many states are taking a trip in the way back time machine), but they always end in spluttering anger.

And if you’re not in fear of your life in public restrooms before these laws, you should have been- it’s a public restroom. They’ve never been high security against people intent on nefarious actions or drunk couples who can’t wait until closing. Do your business and get the hell out. Stop worrying about other people’s genitals. I’d back a law for mandatory soap and water hand washing before exiting, though. Seriously, that’s just gross.

*****

canstockphoto17007161.jpgMy daughter wanted a musical weekend for her birthday present. We were fortunate to catch a Jeremy Messersmith performance on Friday and then on Saturday, the Minnesota Orchestra. I’d never seen a professional full orchestra before, except on TV. We went whole hog and bought box balcony seats, another first. We are the plebes, the unwashed masses (well, we did shower) and usually sit in the cheaper seats.

It was a lovely experience not being shoved ass to elbows for a performance. My daughter is a viola player and we were able to see Roberto Diaz play the Viola Concerto composed by Jennifer Higdon. The piece had been commissioned by the Library of Congress not for an event, but for an instrument – a Stradivarius viola. I felt pretty posh about it all, but seeing my daughter’s wide eyes and having her say “this is awesome” a hundred times made it worth it.

*****

A melancholy settled over me these last few weeks. It surprised me. Spring seems a time when the world blooms with possibility. I was moody and my need for quiet became its own sort of clamoring. I walked through the woods a lot last week and listened to the birds. I saw a group of wild turkeys – the males in full regalia strutting their stuff. A fat muskrat puttered its way along the water’s edge. Bluebirds and woodpeckers and ducks, all plotting and courting.

canstockphoto4786661.jpgI saw a man with a large camera on the path coming towards me. My body tensed. I smiled a tight smile and he smiled back. I immediately thought thank you. It was the fear that I’d have to talk, when I was in a place both physically and mentally that needed no words. Maybe that’s where he was too.

Sometimes it’s good to hear life firsthand.

A Wish for Peace…and Quiet

canstockphoto8203272Leonardo da Vinci wrote that silence was the best way to strengthen authority. Lincoln suggested that the sin of silence, instead of protest, made cowards of men. Neither was on Facebook or Pinterest, nor could they have envisioned the great equalizing platform of social media, where blowhards get as much airtime as critical thinkers.

I’d written a long draft for my blog about the murders in Paris, which I left unpublished. Often I allow events in the news to pass by my writing with nary a whisper. I am deliberately obtuse at times. Too often we try to draw our connection to tragedy, try to put ourselves in the picture, try to see what it means to us. It rings false to me, like filling the air with anecdotes from the brother of the barber’s cousin who ate at that particular cafe in 1987. Perhaps it is our cry to say me too.

I’ve been on the periphery of tragedy in my life. Sometimes I tell the stories. A murdered grandfather. Suicide by my father and an aunt. A mass campus shooting ending violently in a classroom where I had been the hour before. These are stories that make me, for a few moments, interesting in the eyes of others. It’s the kid performing Over the Rainbow and telling knock-knock jokes at Thanksgiving. It’s the ham and the drama queen waiting at the edges of my ego to break out in tragic dance.

If I wait a little while, bite my tongue, and let the story sink in, my narcissism fades to a gentle murmur. I imagine myself having dinner with friends at a sidewalk cafe. I imagine being at a concert. I imagine walking home on a warm evening. I imagine that moment when it all turns from routine to terrifying. I feel the solidarity of my humanness, sadness and sympathy and anger all at once. I feel empathy.

There is the sentiment that we can let the victims and families know we’re sorry for their loss, but those words fall on grieving, frightened and mostly, deaf ears. I am sorry about the loss of human life anywhere, but saying it to the internet has all the veracity of signing an office sympathy card, accompanied by those trite phrases we use, so that we don’t look like assholes. You’re in our thoughts. Wishing you comfort. Our prayers are with you. I don’t want to fill the air with my nothingness.

The voices of outrage come out in full force, relentless anger directed at them, at us, at anything that’s a moving or easy target. Presidential candidates fall over themselves trying to prove how many people they’d kill in response to this nightmare. Political idealogues and bigots of every persuasion grab hold of the pain and anxiety in vain attempts to support their own version of hate.

This is not my story. This is not my opportunity. This is not my moment on the stage. This is my time to listen, to learn, and to try to comprehend other people’s stories. I don’t stay silent because I don’t care.  I stay silent because, at this moment, nothing I say will make as much difference as listening.

Radio Silence

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Allegorical sculpture (Silence) by Giuseppe Blasetti, Campo Verano, Rome Italy.

A fog enveloped me in the last week and like most dense, inexplicable fogs, I find my way out of it by writing. Of late, there has been much lauding of the introvert. I have read Susan Cain’s Quiet and while the studies she cited were interesting, the clear agenda was to battle the predominate value of extroversion in our society. I am an introvert who can function as an extrovert when needed. But there is a dark side.

In the last week, I’ve been at events, on phone calls, in meetings and pummeled by emails and texts. Several days in, I began to wonder if I had a brain tumor. Words were getting stuck in a loop in my head. People’s agendas seemed crystal clear beneath their rhetoric and I went into sensory overload. My brain declared a partial shutdown.

In science fiction shows, when someone gains the ability to read minds, they are bombarded by the cacophony of voices – so many people with contradictory thoughts and agendas. I am not a mind reader, but like most humans, I have the capacity to read body language, hear voice inflection and understand verbal cues.

Whenever we talk to someone, there are a thousand little nuances that our brain is taking in, without really noticing. It’s an assimilated part of the conversation. When that starts to unravel, my brain notices the strands. Nuances become separate channels of information and I feel bombarded. It takes all of my energy to focus, to listen and to not turn and walk away while the other person is mid-sentence. Sometimes I just stare while they talk, turning over a word or phrase in my mind that they said 10 minutes ago.

Unfortunately, I always come to this realization when it’s too late. I become short-tempered with the people I care about because I’ve been drained of energy by social engagement. I begin to feel like a ball of walking rage, where every interaction feels like I’m being imposed upon. Every conversational exchange, in person or via the many electronic means, requires effort, thought and focus.

Since the partial government shutdown, the rhetoric has become so intense and nonsensical that it causes me paroxysms of swearing and muttering to myself. I keep hoping there is a finite supply of sports and war metaphors, but politicians and pundits keep coming up with more to describe their inaction and playground shenanigans. Like our duly-elected representatives,  I stopped listening.

Emails and voice mails go unanswered. Appointments and meetings are rescheduled. My writing becomes awkwardly introspective, like a teenage girl writing bad poetry (1983 was a very prolific year). When pressed, I’m irritable and abrupt and have no desire to converse. Sometimes I’ll sit in my reading chair, staring morosely out the window, unable to shake the feeling that the world just needs to shut up. Since I’m writing a blog post, I’ve taken my morning coffee with a little irony.

Silence wants nothing from me. I don’t have to respond or react or hold a certain expression on my face. I don’t have to follow up or get back to it or take notes. No actionable items, no content to manage, no concerns about giving the wrong impression, no feelings to hurt, no opinions to enunciate.

Sometimes solitude feels uncomfortable – the quiet being such a contrast to the constant noise of everyday life. All the emotions and thoughts that were summarized and cut short, in order to communicate effectively, bubble up and I wait until they settle in and are absorbed.

Standing on the deck this morning at 5am, I inhaled the autumn silence, crisp and undiluted. It seems such a luxury in our modern age, in the middle of suburbia, to hear nothing. Slowly, the fog begins to dissipate. And I prepare to engage with the world again.

Wishing you a few restorative moments of silence

before your week begins!

Shhhhh……