Silence warmed the room. I considered my hands, my boots, the fibers of my jeans, the stacks of paper on shelves in the anteroom across from me. I counted books and meditated on paintings and faded photographs in frames on the walls. Without a clock in sight, I willingly lost track of time. People continued to enter the room.
By and by, I found myself talking with God.
Though to put it that way makes it sound as if I received some answer, which I did not. But the silence flushed my mind clean of all distractions and opened up my channel of communication with the divine, which has existed since I was a small child. I have always spoken to God. Gently. Questioningly. The way I would address a dependable friend. This isn't something I've even considered prayer. It's a reflex. My thoughts are simply open, and sometimes directed skyward. But it's been a while since I've spent any time in this vein intentionally.
Part of that has to do with the noise of my life. When I have downtime, even to cook or clean, the television is on to keep me company. When I walk somewhere in the city, I listen to podcasts. I begin and end my days at my computer or fingering the screen of my smart phone. That bright light--all those digital images and instantaneous updates from friends--is noise, too. It isn't that I can't tune it out; it's that I don't even try. I am complicit in a life lived noisily.
There have been times in my life when I have dutifully given myself over to silence. Daily devotionals in high school. Writing sessions with friends. One weekend away at a remote hytte in Northern Norway. It is no surprise to me that these respites end with better writing from my pen or with a deep sense of personal peace.
For many years, my brother the Marine could only fall asleep at my parents' house with his stereo blaring or the TV on. I could not understand this. Or I could, but I didn't want to dwell on it. Silence did not comfort him. Even as he drifted off to sleep, he needed the backdrop of screaming, angry music.
I must admit that I cannot easily fall asleep in total silence either. We grew up with white noise at bedtime: a fan whirring in the hallway between our bedrooms. Today, my fan whirs atop my dresser, and Jonathan has gotten used to it. It's almost an addiction, me and this fan. But I don't really hear it. That's the way white noise works, as a regulator, a canvas against which I can experience the world with more control. I can fit my mind into a specific slot for that hour or two, let my hands and feet move as needed separately from it, and emerge sometime later, productive, though perhaps not in mind.
It's like hypnosis. The worlds of others--real and fictional--unfold as I fold laundry. My brain pulses with this information, none of it necessary, none of it satiating, all of it pleasurable. A low hum of mildly stimulating data, which I can release as quickly and as soon as I can see it. No one expects recall.
But what is sacrificed in this practice? Maybe I avoid admitting all this--avoid even acknowledging the problem--because to sit in silence and allow my thoughts, varied as they are, to find one another on the downhill, to trickle together until they become rivers, would be to stop denying the constant pain of the real world outside my carefully constructed bubble.
Everywhere there is war, violence, mayhem. Everywhere disease, famine, abandonment. Everywhere hopelessness. It crushes me to read the news every day, which is something I do because I hate willful ignorance more than almost any other human tendency in this world.
There is so little I can do in the face of these large scale tragedies in the world that long ago I began to allow myself denial. A sweet balm. A heady temptation. To live here and now, to do right by my fellow man insofar as I interact with him daily. And to do nothing else. To pretend everything else happening to everyone else out of arm's reach isn't real. To shrug off the existence of these graver issues because I can string together 10,000 unaffected days, personally.
I hate a hypocrite, especially when it's me. So, I give money to reputable organizations and inform myself about issues so that I may assuage the fear perpetuated by the media machine, both in myself and in others. And I live with white noise in the background.
This way, it remains easy to laugh at my husband's jokes or wipe my leftover dinner into the trashcan or spend two hours at a movie theater watching superheroes save the world from aliens. (Because invented superheroes require worthy foils. Because starving children and racial hatred and genocide as they exist today aren't flashy enough for the likes of Thor or Captain America.) With the white noise, I remain in control.
But what is it I fear exactly? That my helplessness in the glare of these silently considered realities would be too acute? Or that I would be compelled to action as a human being? Yes, that must be it. I am afraid I would need to give up the laughter, waste, and movies on principle. This is where extended silence will lead. Or has this fear of where silence leads been taught to me, too? You've got to be taught everything you aren't born with. We emerge into this world naked and carrying no burden. Fear is taught.
There is ample evidence that silence is good for the mind, the soul. So today, I cast aside that fear and sat in collective silence with fifteen strangers.
It was my first Quaker meeting. For a solid hour, we sat in a circle and did not speak. I could feel my own heart beating. I could feel warmth at the back of my neck, as though my cerebellum was heating up like a radiator coil. And my thoughts were not peaceful.
They seemed to pace back and forth within the confines of my skull, measuring the distance from one wall to another, an impatient prisoner. Too many thoughts to keep track of, in fact, and never was I able to follow one to a true conclusion.
I thought of my ancestors, my bloodline to the Quaker church, the overwhelming desire for peace they preach.
I thought of the clothing those around me wore--all muted colors and thick layers. Several people wore slippers.
It was warm in the room, but I didn't want to distract anyone by reaching for my water bottle.
I thought of water. Its necessity to human life, how many people on earth lack clean water, how much I drink every day. Tears, sweat, urine.
The great flood and the way it is taught to Sunday School children in two-dimensional felt.
The woman beside me let out an abrupt, hacking cough that startled me enough that I jumped in my seat. I wondered if people suspected I had been sleeping.
I focused on the solid, wavering point of light in the center of the room. A candle flame. The tall, white candle was noticeably shorter by the end of our time. It sat in a pewter holder, heavy in the middle of an octagonal table, surrounded by books and pamphlets on the Quaker faith.
I thought of Concessions and Agreements, the original document signed by the Quakers in America in 1677. My ancestor, John Pancoast, signed it.
I thought about love and peace, and how those two virtues are often seen as easy or naïve, especially when compared to the hatred they abhor, or the violence from which they abstain.
And I thought of how difficult it is to achieve true peace and love in all aspects of one's individual life. How almost no one does it.
I thought of the most horrifying calamities in the world today, and how much fear there is in the hearts of men.
And I thougt of sin. That is, I think of how we wrong one another in petty ways, when our lives don't require this. To feed myself, I need not swipe bread and milk from the mouth of someone else. The same goes for my happiness. To be at peace, I need to not disturb the peace of my neighbor. This is my luck.
In the quiet, with no one telling or shouting at me what to think, or what is lurking in the dark to get me, I heard that voice again, that divine voice. The one I was born with--naked and unburdened except for my mind, a kernel of potential energy and light--and that voice sounded like my mother's. It sounded like my own. Perhaps it was me.
I am concerned , I said silently, about the state of the world, and I am afraid of a long list of things which, realistically, will never touch me. Evil exists, and I hate that, and I want to stem the bloody tide of tragedy lapping at every visible shore.
But the only thing I can control is the way I operate in the world, and my compass tells me the right direction is kindness and mercy. That divine voice reminded me that I should strive to oppose the evil in this world by embodying the opposite of what it stands for. If that evil bears a face of hatred and a fist of rage, I can only hope to do rightly by standing in its way with a face of love and my hands at peace.
To do anything else would be to slide down the scale and join those who seek to destroy all that is good and innocent in this world.
This is how I spent my first hour in silence.