A Dozen Thoughts on Silence

flanagan-shushing.cropt1. When a theatre, a stadium, or arena goes silent, air seems to still in anticipation because the next sound will start a train of motion no spectator can stop. But you also feel a strange relief. Whatever wait led to that moment ends, and every mind in the crowd—whatever hoped for gratification or consummation—seems aligned to experience the same reality.


I noticed profound silences just before the gun to start the 400 at high school track meets. If I drew an outside lane, I might be nearly alone with only the starter nearby. The flap of fabric in the wind, the listless cry of birds, the hollow tap of feet on aluminum bleachers, random laughter or voices, the wash of traffic nearby—everything I knew to ignore—suddenly became audible, and I heard my heart, pounding to meet the chaos to come.


“Silence is as deep as eternity,” Thomas Carlyle said, “speech as shallow as time.”


At eleven, my son used to supply the words “Awkward silence” when conversation flagged. Of course, his words did nothing to ease awkwardness, and, when he injected “Awkward silence” into lulls between two adults, the silence seemed to curdle and sour. I tried a few times to explain why calling attention to unease might be the wrong thing to do, but he always defended his words as the truth.


Not all silence is self-restraint. You are lucky to know one person with whom you can be quiet and comfortable. Feeling that comfort with everyone would be a greater gift than I can imagine.


Though I’ve always liked Simon and Garfunkel, for a time I thought “Sounds of Silence” was a silly, over-clever title. Why not “Light of Darkness” or “Color of White”? But, listening to the lyrics, I hear it differently now. The song is about how the memory of one can occupy the other and how desperation can infuse any moment. At the end, when they sing, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, And tenement halls,” I see the city as a vast unread sermon, a swallowed scream.


Many times in my life, people spoke and I could only answer with silence. Perhaps they revealed a truth they’d learned about me or exposed how misplaced my hope had been. Maybe they told me news no one could absorb or developments only dreamed or dreaded. Words said in affection, anger, or confusion await replies that never arrive. When you do speak, it’s often not to what was said, but to the silence it engendered.


As a teacher I might fear my father’s fate when he lost his voice box to cancer surgery, but I can still remember his smiling at people talking around him. They could have no idea what he was thinking, and he seemed to enjoy that.


Edith Sitwell used to say her hobbies were “Reading, listening to music, and silence,” which is to say her hobbies were saying nothing… or silence, silence, and silence.


Sometimes, when my class works in groups, a hush overtakes the room from nowhere. Suddenly everyone reaches a pause together, and the break seems magical, as if visited upon the students by a loitering spirit seeking to quiet the racket.


A sort of silence lurks in every moment, and, if you find it, you might find peace.


Quiet is rare in a city like Chicago, but not as rare as in New York. If New York is “The city that never sleeps,” Chicago is the city that dozes for a few hours every night. Awake at 3 am (as I sometimes am), you may hear a distant band of revelers laughing, a truck rumbling through potholes, or the L streaming along as if it meant to run through every sleeper’s dream. It isn’t really silence exactly, but it isn’t life. It’s the way life pauses, calm to balance storms.


Filed under Chicago, Doubt, Education, Essays, Experiments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Modern Life, Silence, Thoughts, Voice, Words

6 responses to “A Dozen Thoughts on Silence

  1. Beautifully written, as always. #1,6,9,11, and 12 are my favorites, ones I related most to.

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks. Lately, it seems as though I’m swinging from one post to the next. Suddenly blogging seems like such a demanding hobby. At points this fall, I was well ahead on posts, but now–as you can tell–I’m having trouble keeping up with comments. I mean to do better though. Thanks for visiting. –D

  2. Thomas

    4, 5 and 11.

  3. Joe Smolko

    Sharp observations and insights as usual!

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