Silence Speaks Loudest

From the first of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies.

And maybe that’s why we fear it. Possibly, the title made you think of the silent treatment we give those who’ve wronged us, but that’s not what this is about. This is about the silence of nature and of the cosmos–the deafening roar of an empty house, how its newly cavernous dens and bedrooms (when we find ourselves alone) press in with a sound more profound than any human voice can render, much less a TV or a radio–the dryer drum spinning incessantly with its metal-on-metal crack of blue jean buttons. Silence is a sound made up of no sound (abstraction is the only way to render this), when we stare into the void and it stares back at us.

But the sound is not altogether hostile. Have you ever taken a long walk in the woods with no agenda–no deer to harvest or no mileage to meet before dark–and found yourself pausing to listen. But to what? Not even the birds are whistling. Maybe the occasional whisper of pine boughs lets drop a message you’d swear is only for you. Maybe you honed in on a specific whisper and called it God.

When we listen to silence, she speaks. I’ve believed this for years now, though I don’t always listen. I’m as susceptible to modern life’s distractions as anybody–the television’s drone is a comfort, however superficially, and my Spotify playlists grow ever more tailored to my musical taste, which makes them hard to ignore when I’m driving here and there.

One thing I do have going for me, however, is an immunity to the need to always be talking. Dr. Joel Fleischman of the nineties show Northern Exposure is a New Yorker transplanted to a backwoods Alaskan town as a way to pay for his expensive education by serving as a general practitioner to the town’s eccentric populace. He misses everything his quiet moments try to teach him, because he won’t shut up. You probably know the type. You may even be the type. If you’re a Fleischman, I implore you to face down the terror of your quiet, alone on a trail or in your living room with TVs and radios and oscillating fans turned off. If you’re not a Fleischman, then face it down anyway. It may accomplish nothing, but in our harried world of ceaseless distraction, amid all the noise grasping at our attention, there’s something noble in being stubbornly quiet, in being quiet on purpose. It’s like holding up a middle finger to those homogenizing forces that would have us sequestered like cattle in pens, oblivious to our impending slaughter. Maybe a voice will speak to you out of the silence.

Alan D. Tucker
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

Pretending Something’s Great

Fergie defines cringeworthy.

Pretending a thing’s great, because we’ve already decided it’s great (or the media or an authority figure has convinced us it’s great), is an affliction suffered by many (particularly in the insecure American middle class). For example, people sometimes praise a film because respected and intellectual movie critics give it a high rating; when those same people watch the film, they find in it virtues that may not really be there, simply to avoid feeling like they don’t “get it.”

This tendency creates some awkward public situations. Imagine a famous singer waiting to sing the national anthem before a game. She stands center-court or midfield, depending on the sport, knowing whichever team loses will see its season end this very night–that’s how important the game is. The singer’s voice is the source of her fame. When she performs, people expect flourishes, tonal modulations, effortless vibrato–a general mastery overall. The lights are brighter than those of the venues to which she’s accustomed, and it’s odd to be alone in the center, with no backstage to retreat to, and all that anxious energy stewing in a ring around her. Nevertheless, she’s a professional. Clutching the microphone with both hands, the tip comes to rest lightly on the indentation between her chin and lower lip, and she begins.

Except on this occasion, she starts the song a couple steps high, effectively placing the word “free”–the big climax, seventh word from the end–just out of range. No one knows this but her, and she struggles to keep a quaver from her voice. This game is televised–the effects of a screw-up are infinite. The audience assumes she can sing anything, and in any range. As long as she’s playing to her strengths, which would normally be the case, she can prevent them ever knowing she has limits. But tonight, apparently, a limit was going to reveal itself. The word approaches. She feels she has no choice but to go for it. So with all her respiratory might, she belts it out long and loud, and it’s a half-step flat, and there’s an obvious strain in her voice. Anyone not tone-deaf would notice. She is mortified, but manages to finish the song.

The audience goes wild with deafening cheers and applause. A generous observer might credit their enthusiasm to their esteem for the American flag, and for a handful, this may be true. Still, others might simply be getting a head start cheering for whichever team they support. But the majority of the crowd is clearly blinded by celebrity–by what they expected to hear, as opposed to what they did hear. They react out of the foregone conclusion that Singer X is great, that she is a famous singer because she’s a phenomenal singer; that money follows quality. You can be certain, though, there’s another, more quiet contingent who feels extremely awkward right now, because they’re honest with themselves about what they just witnessed: a famous singer blowing it on a really big stage. And it somehow makes it worse that people are pretending it didn’t happen. In fact, they’re going beyond pretending it didn’t happen: they’re acting as if it was wonderful.

Alan D. Tucker
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

 

 

Buffalo? I Don’t Think So

Photo courtesy of gocadiz.com.

For nearly forty years, I’ve called this animal a buffalo. Somewhere along the way, I learned it’s also called a bison–American bison, to be exact. But that didn’t make it any less a buffalo, it just now had two names–interchangeable, like pig and hog.

At Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, the part near Cadiz, Kentucky, I’ve driven through the Elk & Bison Prairie numerous times, once even having to stop the car completely, because buffalo–er, bison–had surrounded us (I was with my dad). It was a transcendent moment, having these beasts on all sides, who could end us with one toss of the head, these icons of the American plains.

Blue Buffalo
My old painting, Blue Buffalo. Blue bison doesn’t have the same flow.

There are cities named after it; there are national brands with the word in their names; the animal is used in countless folk and Americana songs. But I learned, not too long ago, that to call this furry behemoth a buffalo, is to call it the wrong thing. After all these years, I decide to look it up, to see if there’s a difference between the two terms. What I discovered surprised me. It turns out the only true buffalo are in Asia and Africa (think water buffalo). What we have in America is actually only a bison. Though it’s no less majestic, it’s also no more a buffalo.

Imagine all the names of things that must be changed now, things integral to the very culture we inherit, and that we hope to pass on to our kids and grandkids! Doesn’t this revelation make you wonder if everything we assume to be true is really just made up? Or that we’re making it all up as we go?

Okay. I might be overreacting. But now, when I see Blue Buffalo dog food in the grocery store, with a little blue bison leaping on the logo, I think, “Your brand’s a lie!”

Alan D. Tucker
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist