Issue December 16, 2008

Silent note

I went on a day hike once in New Mexico with my older brother and sister. It was a pretty day, and the terrain, to a kid who had never been west of St. Louis, was otherworldly.

As we walked through a labyrinth of bizarre prehistoric rock formations and scrambled over huge boulders, we talked and enjoyed each other’s company. Eventually we made our way into a narrow crag where we had to turn sideways and suck in our bellies just to navigate the passage, which finally let out into a small, well-lit enclosure about half the size of my living room. We sat down on the coarse, sandy ground and took stock of the micro-environment we’d stumbled into. We chatted and craned our necks up at the scrap of sky that rested like a windowpane on top of the mottled, stratified cliffs surrounding us on every side. It was a close, comfortable place. A wolf’s den might feel like that, if you were a wolf and felt like staying in.

Then I noticed something, and my sister asked about the widening amazement on my face.

“It’s quiet,” I said. And it was. There was, for as long as we cared to hold onto it, a complete and thorough silence. I’d never heard quietness so complete before and certainly have not since. It wasn’t claustrophobic, nor was it cavernous or intimidating. And it was more than just the absence of sound. It was an event, a real thing that could be experienced physically. Sound and movement were removed, but nothing was missing. Another something had taken their place.

I think about that one moment of silence all the time. I’ve found that when I’m quiet, I feel more like myself than any other time. There’s a progression that I’m all too familiar with at this point where simple quiet leads to daydreaming, which then segues into procrastination, or worse, laziness. The quiet, at least, is real and good.

Some folks choose to make silence the prevailing agenda in their lives. I wouldn’t know how to do this, and wouldn’t want to. I love loudness, laughing, guitars, Cadillacs and hillbilly music too much. I try to be available to quiet, though.

I find that I’m best served by being reminded of silence. Quiet is most effective when it catches me unaware. It is the photographic negative, the obverse of being startled when, all of a sudden, I am quiet, still and relieved.

Now I’m just waiting for the snow. It’s about as good a scenario as can be hoped for outside of extraordinary circumstances like I witnessed in New Mexico. When I get the chance, I like to bundle up, walk out into a pasture, maybe with some kind of moon overhead, in the freezing-ass cold, and drink a cold beer. When the task of rattling leaves away from one another is complete and the wind goes easily and un-confronted through the limbs with little audible effect, and all the other sounds are soaked up in the snow, it gets quiet. I bet the Inuit have a word for it.

Occasionally, I find the urge to break up a flawless winter quiet with some form of Bedou shriek or frenzied raptor feeding call. I’m as puzzled by the compulsion as anyone. What I do know is that my satisfaction is not in wrecking a perfectly good silence, but in hearing the tear effortlessly and immediately mended. The reward is witnessing the determination and success of nature’s call for quiet. (Drinking beer in the snow and hollering into the night are their own kind of goodness. I cannot lie.)

I never let myself forget that my appreciation of cold and quiet are tempered by, and totally reliant upon, the knowledge that I can get warm when I need to, and that I can find someone to talk with if solitude is ill-fitting. Thankfully, few are the times in my life when I couldn’t do one or the other. I’m really thankful for that.

I happened upon my copy of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” this weekend and opened it up to Letter No. 6, dated Dec. 23, 1903. It was a balm for me, and I hope that you all can take a second to read it (Google: “rilke letter six”).

Good tidings to you.