Monthly Archives: December 2012

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

Where Are the Albanians, Estonians, and Greenlanders?

MyMap2My fellow WordPressians know about the square on the Site Stats page called “Views by Country.” If you don’t, know this: when someone from Albania visits my WordPress Site, Albania turns a hue of yellowish, orange-ish red—pumpkin to tomato—deepening as the number grows. Click a link called “Summaries” and you see all the countries that have visited since February 12th 2012, which, in blog chronology, is essentially all time.

I admit I’m collecting countries the way a quilter collects scraps, hoping someday to patch the planet without holes, from Belarus to Uruguay, from Suriname to Greenland.

Okay, I chose those countries deliberately because no one from them has ever visited my blog, and I’m hoping my attention will snag some Google searches and garner love in return. I‘m finished trying to figure out why Belarusians or Uruguayans—or for that matter Paraguayans—might not care to hear what I have to say and what topics attract people from French Guiana and Kazakhstan. Now I’m begging.

Last week, I received my first visitor from Mongolia, and I pictured him in a loud internet café in Ulan Bator, hunched over a laptop, pulling in some attenuated connection from elsewhere just to read my scattered thoughts on metaphor or find my perspective on Jean Follain. It is indeed a small world after all when readers visit from countries where approximately 30% of the population is nomadic.

Of course, I don’t really know why anyone visits from anywhere, but perhaps they’re practicing their English, borrowing a borrowed image, or maybe adjusting my meditation on Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield into a fresh English paper. I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all. I like believing something I’ve said finds a place somewhere larger than my circle of friends, Chicago, or even the US. I wish someone from Guatemala—the only nation I lack in Central America—would find some value in my work.

My daughter introduced me to site called Free Rice to help me learn countries by their shapes on a map, but I have to rely on wiki-search and my imagination to know anything about Botswana where, though I’m a fan of Amantle Montsho, I say nothing relevant.

Travel is not one of my passions, as it is for other people. They’re braver. They love alien sights and sounds, the challenge of fulfilling their needs in novel ways, and meeting strangers whose culture and experience is radically different from their own. I like home. Or, more accurately, I only like the meeting part of travel and wish foreign visitors would occasionally stop by, especially people from Estonia, home of the singing revolution and somewhere apparently no one likes me.

You may think me a crass collector, someone interested in stamps, not the people who use them. My defense is the warmth I feel when a gray country turns orange or an orange country turns persimmon. They say all of us breathe a little of the oxygen Caesar breathed, but, in a time when any soul might meet and even mingle with another in cyberspace, we have so much promise to do more. I’m silly enough to believe in handshakes through electronic channels. The big blank of China—though I know it’s largely closed to traffic from the rest of the world—may someday shift, and we can exchange thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop or the devastation of envy.

I imagine what the world will be when it’s entirely orange, or even red. Perhaps we can all be friends at last.


Filed under Ambition, Blogging, Chicago, Essays, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, Gratitude, Home Life, Hope, Identity, life, Modern Life, Numbers, Solitude, Thoughts, Travel, Views by Country