Silence & solitude

Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence. James Ragan’s Too Long a Solitude. Jane Brox’s Silence: A Social History. Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude

Is it just a coincidence, or did I subconsciously start reading books dealing with silence and solitude in the weeks before I planned to spend a few days alone in a friend’s rural cabin? And will the relative silence make my somewhat maladaptiveness to busy environs even worse? For I freely admit that living for thirty years in an area that borders on the rural, and spending so much of my time in the garden, has made me less inured to excess, human-made noise.

Sara Maitland writes, after spending some years outside of London ensconced in a quiet town, that “going to cities, to large parties, or to any place where there are a significant number of loud, overlapping but different sounds remains stressful and tiring at best.” This reaction is not mere “introversion”–indeed, for most of her life, Maitland appears to have been an exceedingly social and sociable person, quick with a retort, response, or witty reply and often in the company of boisterous, talkative people. She definitely cares deeply about relationships and communication, both between close friends or family members and between reader and writer/author. Like her, though more of a shy person in my younger years than she was, I value communicative aspects of conversation and togetherness while finding it harder than ever to live in the midst of noise pollution.

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Near Windemere, where Wordsworth trod…

Of course, writing is a communicative act, a form of creating relationships between reader and writer, and therefore may not always or necessarily thrive amid silence, or in solitude, though that Romantic notion remains intact in most people’s minds. When I consider my own work, I recognize the lyric “you” (implying an Other), the narrative action (requiring the behavior of living beings dwelling in the world with Others), and various interactions among the lines that set up relationships that are not only abstract or metaphorical but concrete and physical, even when the poem skates along the reflective mode (how can there be a consideration of  a Myself without an Other?).

So although part of my brief upcoming “retreat” is, in fact, for solitude’s sake–a few days to be alone with my own writing process and make some creative decisions–the solitude’s less urgent than the silence. I’m not an ascetic nor a spiritual seeker, just a writer who wants a few days unplugged (and not entirely so) to mull through ideas and revise some poems. This process seems easier to me when I do not have to deal with anyone’s society, even the companionship of those I love. It’s been quite awhile since I last made this kind of silent time for myself, and I’m curious as to what will result.

Maybe just some naps and daydreaming, which might not be an entirely fruitless harvest.

 

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The value of noise

Having posted several times on the value of silence, I feel I ought to balance things out by writing about the value of noise. These thoughts likewise stem from my recent reading: Kay Larson’s book about John Cage, creativity, and Buddhism.

This morning, there were a few hours of intermittent sunshine; the air, still nippy from a recent cold front and some high winds, had warmed up a few degrees. I felt inspired to prune some shrubs and start the rather significant task of removing fallen branches from the lawn. I did not realize how big a job this will be until I started the work because the grass is long and the leaves provide a bit of cover. Every few steps, though, I encountered clumps of twigs, broken branches, sticks of all sizes. We won’t want to run a lawnmower over this mass of debris, and it will get caught in our rakes when we try to remove the leaves. The best way to rid the lawn of storm-downed branches will be the old-fashioned way: human power, gathering one or two sticks at a time. The fresh air streamed into my lungs, the sun shone on my back. I pulled on my husband’s old sweater and my daughter’s old coat and my son’s gloves and my own boots and started to work.

What I noticed this morning was noise. John Cage, a man whose later compositions often engaged with silence, also loved noise. His percussion pieces were scored for tin cans, plates, pipes and modified pianos, and he was prescient about the incorporation of electronically-produced sounds into music. I love reading about his experiments with noise, and today I recognized the music in everyday sounds very clearly.

Today’s noises:

Leaf-crunch. The damp leaves produce difference tones from the dry ones. Leaves of different species vibrate in a range of tones depending upon their thickness, brittleness, serrated shapes, oiliness.

Vehicles. The roads are not terribly close to the house, but when the trees are bare we get a range of vehicle sounds from as far as the highway. Large trucks still growl, wheeze, squeal, rumble, and beep as neighbors get trees removed from their properties and department of transportation crews work at street clean up. Cars drive past.

Somewhere, a leaf-blower. Several chainsaws in the distance.

Mockingbird–not all of them have flown south just yet. The buzzy twittering of starlings and small flocks of sparrows. Woodpeckers drilling at trees.

My breathing.

The sound of the nippers and hedge clippers, the sound that pruned branches make as they whoosh and scratch and shimmy earthward and get tangled in the shrubs. The different noises of a cut made on dead wood and on live wood. The snap of twigs. The silken whisper of long grass underfoot.

Creak and groan of the walnut trees as a stiff breeze hits the woodlot. A dog, barking. The hens, chuck-chucking in their run.

The telephone from inside my house. An overhead jet.

And it isn’t cacophony; it’s a kind of music, certainly. The randomness and the patternedness work together. As do the silences.

 

Here’s one of Cage’s most melodic works, “In a Landscape,” very apropos … very lovely.

YouTube/John Cage “In a Landscape” Stephen Drury pianist

 

Silence (John Cage, Zen, head-noise)

Slow Muse blogger Deborah Barlow–artist, critic–recommended Kay Larson’s recent book on John Cage, Where the Heart Beats. Silence was so significant in Cage’s work and thinking that, given my recent reflections on noise or lack thereof, this seemed the right time to pick up that text. Lo and behold, synchronicity of several kinds. The author, Kay Larson, thanks John Daido Loori, a rōshi of the Mountains and Rivers order of zen Buddhists and long-time abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery near Woodstock, NY. She studied with him beginning in 1994.

In 1992 and 1993, I attended two weekend retreats there; the brief days remain vivid in my memory. Perhaps more on that another time. Haiku is involved…and silence.

Recently, given some irregular bumps along the walk of life that have led to excessive “head-noise” (my term for stress I can’t quite let go of), I have been returning to some zen-influenced texts and trying to remember to breathe and to be here now. Arne Naess’ writings on joy and environment and Buddhism–I’ve just finished reading a collection of his essays–dovetail very neatly into this reflective book on Cage’s life, work, and influences. Larson’s “Zen” approach to writing about Cage is so gentle and refreshing that reading this book soothes me. I find within myself a kind of inner silence, my breathing returning to its slower, quieter pace, as I read the brief selections of prose Larson uses to explore the life of the mind of this peculiar and innovative artist/composer/writer.

Very like philosophical analogies, Confucian fables, parables of many cultures, koans, meditations, prayer and other forms of contemplative practice.

What reduces head-noise? For me, the best strategy is calmness, but I am not an adept at meditation. I have sat zazen badly, and learned much from the practice of sitting zen badly, but I have never managed to make meditation a genuine practice in my life. Deep breathing and slow movement, such as tai chi or qi gong, seem to work better for me. In addition, the Quiet Place. I settle down better when I can detach from computer, phone, electric lights, appliances. Art reduces head-noise: art requires attentiveness. Poetry, yes. Gardening, walking out of doors–good choices. Music, sometimes.

Philosophy, not so much. (Alas.)

Politics? Weather reports? Analysis? ….as the Buddhist monks might say: mu. Translation into teen-speak from five years ago: “not.”

And also, compassion. The practice of compassion keeps a person attentive and also relaxed. It is a form of active prayerfulness, of acceptance of self through the acceptance of others. After the bruises and bashings of a presidential election year in 21st-century United States, a little compassion would reduce the malaise and anxiety we have had to endure intellectually, emotionally, and–in the wake of bad storms on the east coast–physically.

I give you Quan Yin, or Guanyin, or Kannon Bodhisatttva, known as Avalokitesvara  in Sanskrit and termed the goddess of mercy, a counterpart to the Christian Jesus or Mary. This being represents the compassionate, merciful, kind, non-judgmental, accepting aspect of the cosmos, the universe, or god. I realize that it seems I may have wandered a bit far afield of Cage at this point. But read Larson’s book; I haven’t drifted as far from my topic as it seems.

And just because it does seems as though I am rambling considerably in this post, I think I can close with a poem from my collection Water-Rites, and somehow make it fit with these topics:

Intervention

I am thinking about the cowbirds who fought
in my driveway this morning
and how they struggled, one overbearing the other,
pecking at its head, keeping it pinned
to gravel. I wonder, now, why I chose to stop
and free the losing bird from its aggressor,
lift its bloodied damp body in my hands,
rescue it even though
it was also a cowbird, a pest
that usurps the nests of thrushes—
although I respect the dominion of beak & claw,
I want to preserve the generation
of songbirds; there was no reason for me
to intervene, no logic but somehow I felt
surely there is a place,
in the battle that is this world,
for the mandate of compassion.

© 2012 Ann E. Michael

Hurricane & silences

Having been through some big hurricanes before, I was prepared as possible for the weather that hit along the MidAtlantic states of the USA (and west to Pittsburgh PA, and north to the New England states).

We are somewhat rural, and we do not have city water or sewer; so if the electricity fails, we lose those modern amenities along with lights and computers and a stove. In Europe, and in newer developments in the US, power lines are more often underground. A wise idea, but not in our current infrastructure at my home.

So weather events–as the news media terms them–are significant to us. They alter our relationship with our house, our land, the earth. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it is pleasant to wake at dawn and hear no humming, no sounds of modern appliances at work. We note, instead, the noise of owls or wind or starlings. The rustle of grasses.

We miss hot water the most. That the well pump isn’t working and the water heater’s not heating: that means our standards of cleanliness necessarily fall. We can get used to it, but we miss it. Cooking on charcoal or a camp stove takes longer but isn’t really a problem for us, however. We can sleep in the livingroom by the fireplace if the cold weather sets in before the electricity comes back on to make the furnace fans operate.

We lost power Monday evening, and since then the human-made sounds are those of vehicles, chainsaws, and generators. And a pleasanter noise: my windchimes.

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When the winds were very high, I sensed the resolute structure of our house, which did not shudder, though the windows made some alarming sounds–a kind of whistle, a bit of rattling, the occasional thump.

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Days without electricity take me back ten years when my family spent a week on an island off of Nova Scotia. Our host lived off the grid by necessity–no electricity or plumbing on the island even though it had been inhabited since the mid-1800s. Tides, sunrise and sunset were our time-keepers. The natural sounds were restful and healing.

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So, too, the kinds of silence I experience when a large tree falls on the powerline, though the sense is less restful because of anxieties over family members, job, and the awareness that there are messes and expenses to deal with once we are reconnected to the 21st century. For a day or two, however, I feel my breath returning to a more animal pace and fullness. I watch things more closely. The line of water droplets beading irregularly under the porch handrail, the grass tassels’ subtle color variations as they move in a breeze, a toad’s progress across the patio slate, a few brilliantly yellow trees that kept their foliage despite the gale.

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Weather like this is refreshing, my sister says, even if frightening, because people need to be reminded that technology cannot control everything. The hurricane interrupted cell phone use, communication systems, transport networks, traffic, electrical grids. We ended up wet and cold and we needed to take shelter with friends and to share supplies and stories, to wait awhile before we hurry on our way.

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So here’s irony, that I am using technology to enter these words into a system that keeps them in an electronically-maintained, digitized data ‘cloud’ so people in the Netherlands or Norway, Seattle or Colorado, India or Britain can retrieve and read them…even though my theme is the joy of low-tech lifestyle (for awhile, at least). My power at home is still out, so I am posting these thoughts from a borrowed computer an hour from home; but I composed these thoughts at home, on paper, with a pen, by kerosene lamp. And I will be going back to that quiet, chilly environment later this evening to feed our pets and continue waiting for the valiant and hardworking utility crews to get to our backwater…

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My reading material during this ‘weather event’ has been The Ecology of Wisdom by Arne Naess, an excellent philosophical companion for study by lamplight. I was struck by his essay “The Place of Joy in a World of Fact” which is so life-affirming. Not playful–Naess is serious about joy–but sensible. Environmentalists need to get out and find joy in the environment, he says, not just focus on the joyless losses. He urges all of us to give up the “cult of dissatisfaction” and promote good causes by example.

“One may say, somewhat loosely, that what we now lack in our technological age is repose in oneself. The conditions of modern life prevent the full development of the self-respect and self-esteem required to reach a stable, high degree of acquiescentia in se ipso [self-acceptance].”

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What I feel when the power goes off is repose in myself. While it may not reside within me for long, the fact of its appearance–its existence–is gratifying, joyful, powerful. I do not require the fridge, the computer, the lights. I am an animal alive in an animate, changing, living world.

It’s good to be reminded, now and then.