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.
On a cloudy day in late December, I find the whitened blue-gray of winter distances soothing. The tree-covered hills of Middle Tennessee, bowed like the backs of ancient wanderers huddling on the edge of town, work a strange, restful magic on the eyes. And then the early dusk: how the blue-gray deepens; how the ends of bare limbs silhouette into thousands of gnarled and knobby fingers, heaving here-and-there in the brashness of bitter breezes–the kinds of breezes we’re never dressed for, so we hurry from the car to the great indoors, where our bones ache a few minutes more.
All these things conspire to the mystery of winter. I know no dread of a long night, only the embrace of a cavernous, comfortable dark, one that welcomes introverted sojourning, where I cocoon myself in flannel and plaid and lamplight. Winter makes many think of death, but doesn’t it also somehow make you feel more alive? Is it because I was born in January, that I have this drive?
Our Tennessee cold spells never last long; perhaps if I had a Michigan address, winter would be more of an inconvenience. But for now, living as I do in the humid South, I get excited when I hear the temperature is dropping. Will anyone else claim this?
The present ache is not physical, but metaphysical perhaps, meaning that the symptoms are likelier to be furrowed brows and drawn-out silences than anything requiring Ibuprofen. It seems to come, this ache, from an overabundance of existence. Do you know what it means for existence to feel like a burden? Not in a depressive way (though it can go there), but in an overwhelming way—a feeling that’s not really an emotion, yet is still big to the point of restlessness, when all you can do is stare into nondescript places and try not to embarrass yourself by spazzing out in public.
So I drive and stare straight ahead as if wearing blinders, aware of the gray-brown treescape falling away on both sides, but not needing to look at it. All is a soothing, comforting gray. Even the noises are gray. More and more, these days, I want to leave the radio off. Coasting down I-65, I feel, oftener with age, a compulsion to quietness—a need to listen to the road sounds: tires at high speed; the double-knock of wheels over changing pavements; the motor’s quiet roar and the thin, dry clicking of my vents on low. Rounding a curve or banging through a pothole, a loose thing in the back loses footing and topples against the inside of the car, sounding like an animal trapped and pawing for escape.
When I listen like this, I think I’m getting closer to the texture of existence—the part we lose from being on auto-pilot; the part we drown in music or conversation. Listening when there’s not much to listen to: this is a valid way to center oneself. And I’m the type that needs frequent centering.