My family has grown up on the prairie, in the Midwest, on land that, according to author Kathleen Norris, rubs off on us to make us feel that we don’t need to connect. Norris, who grew up and lives in North Dakota, frequently stays at upper Midwest monasteries for reflection and to continue her monastic-influenced spiritual education. These monasteries, according to Norris, often “follow silence at certain hours, but I had never before immersed myself in the kind of silence that sinks into your bones…. To live communally in silence is to admit a new power into your life. In a sense, you are merely giving silence its due. But this silence is not passive, and soon you realize that it has the power to change you.”
There are places for silence, moments in our days that we require, not that we want, but that we absolutely need. And the more we have them, the closer we get to ourselves and the world. I know that when I am dusting or cooking, the world drops to the side, but not completely away, and I am absorbed in the focus of my work, just as those monks who are finding praise and glory in their silent prayers of work. But most of all, I find the kind of silence Norris speaks of so deeply and transformatively right here, in this moment, writing out these words. I suppose that I have mini moments where I allow myself to daydream on the garden bench or on the porch, but they are soon interrupted by other thoughts. Here, the focus is intense, onrushing, consuming, it sinks into my bones to the point that every part of me is aerated and I breathe deeply some fresh, new life—as one might do on a cool summer’s evening after a hard rain.
In these silences, these deep breaths, there is a necessary mystery I follow, sometimes discovering new roads, new ideas, sometimes ending up in a place I’d never dreamed of, sitting back, and feeling blessed for having had that moment. It is an intense shuddering through my body, it reverberates, it’s like a limb warmed up after coming inside form the winter cold, tingly, pulsating, coming alive again.
I get in trouble all the time for being silent. Even after nine years of grad school and being silent in classrooms, and being chastised by peers and teachers alike, no one has ever suggested—and me neither until just right now—that my silence wasn’t ever so much about shyness (though certainly it played a part) as it was about respect for language and the search for belonging and understanding in this chaotic world. In my personal relationships I’ve noticed a tension of silence in my refusal to chit chat with those closest to me about things that seem to be already implied or said. Words can fail when there are too many of them, and frankly, there are too many of them. They confuse the issue of being alive, of being alive not “with” but “in” the world.
I don’t understand people who jog or garden with headphones on, and I certainly don’t understand and even despise the construction workers with loud stereos fixing the siding on the house down the street. There is so much language around us everyday that there’s an overload of perception in place before we wake up, and I’m not talking about human language at all. Here’s Thomas Merton, talking about his arrival at a hermitage in a rain storm. “All that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.”
When I’m in the garden I learn the names of birds without having to turn my back, or shutter with the seemingly large shadow moving over me. I don’t jump back (as much as I used to) when I’m dive bombed by a bee. I’ve learned to comfort myself outside by the presence of the wildness around me. I know the call of the red wing blackbird, the cardinal and blue jay, house finch and grackle and yellow finch and mourning dove and so many more. The other day a streaking black and yellow mass buzzed me and I thought for sure I’d stumbled across a hornet’s nest, but it was just a dragonfly come to perch atop a penstemon. How beautiful it was, clear shoji screen wings, pencil like abdomen and tail. And how beautiful they are at dusk, plastered along the west side of the fence in the fading sunlight, a full warmed silence until the crickets and frogs take over at dusk. Yes, language is all around us, and so much of the time we tune it out and call it silence when in fact it’s not even a fraction of true silence—it’s an echo or afterimage only.
Moments like these remind me of a high school art teacher who once told me that in drawing and painting you should first sketch the shadows, and then the forms of what you intended to draw would reveal themselves more truthfully on their own.