“For silence is not God, nor speaking; fasting is not God,
nor eating; solitude is not God, nor company; nor any other pair of opposites.
God is hidden between them and cannot be found by anything your soul does,
but only by the love of your heart.”
~ An Epistle of Discretion in the Stirrings of the Soul. (14th century)
The act of writing is as much tied to syntax as it is connected to context. And yet another factor for reflective writers is the essential attribute of observation. During my overscheduled years in graduate school, and in my overcommitted years since, I’ve made the necessary chore of laundry-doing into writing opportunities. The weekly wash is a constant. I’ve often said to Pam the laundromat proprietor, “death, taxes, and laundry!” And journaling. Though I’ve rarely seen others writing in laundromats, I’ve typically seen readers, crossword puzzlers, students doing homework, those who only appear for loading and unloading machines, and those who simply sit or stand with their thoughts. More recently, and today was no exception, I was the lone journal writer- surrounded by hunched individuals enveloped by their glowing phones.
Although this culture is a decade into the “smart phone” era, I’m still startled to notice that commonplace disjointedness which I refuse to espouse. Comprehension requires a mere conscious acknowledgment. Glancing around the busy laundromat, just like peering around any dining area, park, or train, I saw that everyone was engulfed by their little mirror-like electronic devices. Every last soul but me. Amidst the large room full of brow-knitted hunchbacks, I suddenly thought of the lost trait of looking up. Simply gazing upward, at least to me, is a natural motion: something of an interlude from whatever I might be reading or writing. Staring into space has its own healthful aspect, reminding us of distance, proximity, and context. Consider how cats like to watch life from windowsills, thoughtfully and meditatively. Or, perhaps not. Maybe the spacing-out in itself is a wise gesture from which we can learn.
When academic research was new to me, in high school, the idea was to pile up the source material; it was an additive process. With databases and boolean search strings, the conundrum became one of paring down to the relevant; it is a subtractive process. In a general sense, having everything to distract us, from every angle (including elevators, gas pumps, and between innings at ball games), the more conscientious among us must know to subtract. Instead of scarcities of amusements, the profounder rarity is reflective time.
Along with the slivers of breathers I carve away from chore-filled weekends- and monthly sojourns at the Boston Athenaeum- about every 4 months I make time for personal retreats. In our obligatory frameworks, nobody instructs us to seek out healthful silence. It is for us to inevitably know to step back into respite... when possible. Earned time off is a rare benefit, and many of us must endure extended gauntlets en route to a prize of time. Increasingly, as I navigate this world, I notice my stealing away to find tranquility away from the chaotic dins of disappointment. As the encroachments intensify, so does the hunger for unfettered quiet. That very appetite, fueled by depletion, sent my steps toward a recent retreat. And for a week in Boston, public transit is the wisest way there. Busses are clenched and jostling- but they have a strict no-cell-phone rule. Trains are roomier and smoother- but passengers are the mercies of the behaviors of other passengers: this has become a woeful risk.
Sure enough, what could’ve been a tranquil mid-day train ride was an excruciating two-hour sandbagging between a couple of phone-yakkers. No amount of glaring or blatantly sticking my fingers in my ears while trying to read was of any use. I wound up listening to music through earbuds, via my netbook, trying my best to drown out the boors. There is a difference between the dulcet hum of passengers and coffeehouse ambience- compared to the shrill paroxysms of “cell phone voice.” Aren’t there enough of us wincing through such boundariless abuses? Amtrak personnel merely shrug, and that has none of the usefulness of creating and enforcing a rule- like the bus company effectively does. And thus our general culture further extends its unbounded adolescence. Many of us witness how self-obsessions supersede common respect for shared public spaces. Sadly, our defenses are relegated to plugging wires into our ears and turning up “neutralizing” sounds, metaphorically painting ourselves into corners. So much for calming respite.
Getting through the two hours intact, I kept in mind that I was on vacation, and would be getting away from the brutish Downeaster passengers. Navigating the streets and Boston’s subways, I found some refreshing civility. The trolley cars are loud, and instead of hollering into their little mirrors, people are swiping and texting instead. It was good to observe other people reading, as well. Moving through the adjustment from work and routines- to leisure and study, it was easier to notice things easily overlooked. While pursuing a week of reflection and quiet, I was pronouncedly reminded of the popular aversion to silence by the many who cannot (or will not) still themselves or detach from their pacifying devices. Sure, I see this every day during my downtown commuting and lunch breaks, but hadn’t really noticed how strange this looks. Before this current decade, it was considered “abnormal” to walk around in public, talking to oneself. Now we’ve all gotten used to the gesturing solo-talkers, contributing to the characters that surround us that make all the world a phone booth. (Remember phone booths?) I’ve learned to identify the white droplet-looking ear inserts, indicating “hands-free” yakking.
The quality of our civilization’s public settings rests very much in the hands of those who use these common spaces. “Sanctioned” quiet spaces, such as private enclosures and religious sites tend to comprise some expectations and rules. But when the common space is public transportation, a dining place, a building, or even a park, it’s really up to the individuals’ consciences to uphold the qualities of these spaces. Recently, and enjoying the continuing mild weather, I sat in a city park to write. Portland has a no-smoking law posted in all parks, yet there were smokers scattered throughout the place. I chose the least downwind part of the park, to avoid the fumes as much as possible. Each gust of ocean air made the park that much more enjoyable. Then, sure enough, a well-groomed man, that I assumed should know better, appeared in the park. He was pacing in circles, never more than ten feet from me, yammering into his glossy phone about schedules, restaurants, and various domestic trifles. He was so loud and obnoxious that other park denizens and I began exchanging disgusted glances. I could hardly think my next line of journaled text; so I began writing about him. Every time he’d walk one of his “laps” of his nervous circles, I’d think I was rid of him, only to hear the circular yelp get louder again... until suddenly and thankfully he pushed off to sully some other unfortunate part of town. Upon the man’s exit, I looked up from my books, and a park bench sitter and I swapped collective sighs. Even the universe celebrated the boor’s departure, as a busker appeared in the park, playing baroque music on a portable piano. The music was twinkling in its mellowness, blending with the composite din of passing traffic, non-phone chatting murmurs, dogs, and the occasional jetliner in the clouds overhead. This evenness allowed me to listen to the park.
As always, the Boston retreat was a week of salubrious respite. I was welcomed by many friends, and my studies at the Athenaeum were brought together by themes I created around the strengthening of character. Conviviality, collegiality, and kindredship- all threaded together by the leafy streets of Beacon Hill. On this occasion, I was hosted by the College Club of Boston. They’re situated in a grand Victorian town house near the Boston Public Garden. I was offered the writer’s room, which has a stately drop-leaf desk near a window. The house is a retreat in itself; no two alcoves, or rooms, or views are alike. My hosts were heartwarmingly kind to me. Then there was the quiet. Upstairs from the parlors and dining room, the large house was cushioned in a consoling hush that creates space for reflection and rest. I marveled at the difference between the bustle of Newbury Street and Commonwealth Avenue, compared with the muffled interior of the house. I believe that I’m not alone in my cherishing of tranquility and recognition of stepping away from unnecessary noise. Yes, retreats are great and healthful things, but ironically it takes some major effort! Current advertising seems to have caught some of the current: hotels market themselves to resemble spas; vacation getaways include the trappings of “peace and quiet.” These venues all look very expensive and dauntingly stress-inducing. Still, there is a detectable, general thirst for contemplation. Much less exotic, during a walk through Copley Square, I saw ads for public events called “The Big Quiet,” one of which to be held in the Boston Public Library. We can all use some recollective silence.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan author, recently published an article called "Finding God in the Depths of Silence", in which he wrote: “Probably more than ever, because of iPads, cell phones, billboards, TVs, and iPods, we are a toxically overstimulated people. Only time will tell the deep effects of this on emotional maturity, relationships, communication, conversation, and religion itself.” He added that although silence may come across as a luxury, it is inevitably a decision. Striking a very familiar chord, Rohr offered this succinctly-articulated observation:
We are all forced to overhear cell phone calls in cafés, airports, and other public places today. People now seem to fill up their available time, reacting to their boredom—and their fear of silence—often by talking about nothing, or making nervous attempts at mutual flattery and reassurance. One wonders if the people on the other end of the line really need your too-easy comforts. Maybe they do, and maybe we all have come to expect it. But that is all we can settle for when there is no greater non-self, no gracious silence to hold all of our pain and our self-doubt. Cheap communication is often a substitute for actual communion.
Indeed, the soul needs silent space, in some accessible form. We must procure it for ourselves, even if it is at our expense. Even if it means a few less enslaving gadgets, apps, or activities. Even if it might mean sitting with our thoughts as we decompress in laundromats and on trains. There is more to be missed than to be amassed.
The week of retreat and reflection happened as late-summer transitioned toward early-autumn. A liminal season of noticeably changing light and air. Being in Boston, I’m unavoidably reminded of the annual return to school for the new academic year. Added to the city’s usual intensity are the swarms of arriving students. I saw reminders of this time of the year in all my places of community and study, through the week. But I was in the city for the contrasting purpose of respite. Ancient pages of text reflected up to me in the Athenaeum reading rooms, while muted sounds of traffic audibly reminded me of where I was- albeit on my own schedule. As with the moments in which I saw common spaces upheld by a shared sense of sanctity, I was able to savour the sounds of the environment. Finding silent space of any duration, amidst our chaotic swirls, is essentially our developed skill for identifying counterforms between our time structures. During work weeks, morsels of respite, discovered between rigid forms, can serve as windows through which we can admit light and air. Just as in graphic design, the ability to delineate counterform leads to improved perception of solid form. In the life of thought, this would be parenthetic quiet. Surely not a rule for every person, as we must each determine whether or not some grasp of our consciousness is being denied. Beneath this realization is an awareness of a deficit to be transcended.