Monday, January 2, 2017

Searching for the Sounds of Silence

So yesterday, Brad and I thought we'd attempt to jumpstart a family New Year's Day tradition by taking a walk together as a family.

We headed for a path that wends its way through the peninsula of trees dividing various suburban enclaves of Herndon.

Inspired by a recent episode of "On Being" about the power of silence, I suggested to the girls that we try to walk without talking.

"Let's be quiet and use our ears to listen for sounds in nature," I said attempting the sweet-but-authoritative voice I'd heard Lily's kindergarten teacher use to wrangle her class.

In my dream scenario, I'd imagined the girls nodding soundlessly in agreement – small smiles playing on their lips as the spirit of adventure and discovery danced in their eyes. We'd be like a family of Muirs or monks communing with the wonders of the natural world and filling our souls in the process. 

I imagine right about now you're doing what my neighbors -- more seasoned parents -- did when I told them about what actually happened on our New Year's Day walk -- which was laugh loudly (while probably inwardly rolling their eyes) at my general naivety and stupidity.

Because they knew what was coming, even before I did.

Which was not silence.

Kind of the opposite of that, in fact.

My girls made it, maybe five seconds (if I'm being generous) without uttering a sound. Jovie broke the short-lived serenity of our contemplative stroll by roaring like a wildcat and suggesting that she and Lily pretend to be characters from the "Lion Guard" chasing each other down the path while barking orders at each other to watch out for hyenas and marauding wildebeests. When they tired of that they picked up sticks to use as wands and broomsticks but began frantically yelling when we got too far ahead of them and thought my suggestion that the small branch they were holding between their legs might be hindering them was absurd. 

The day was unseasonably warm, so we stopped so they could hop the stones that crossed the creek. They announced that they were now puffins and – going full Method – proceeded to squawk with the volume of an entire colony of puffins.

When they started toeing the creek water I suggested that it was time our little birds migrate on down the path and brought up again how I thought it might be fun to try walking without talking ... just for a little bit. And again I was ignored.

They poked holes in the dirt of an uprooted tree, demanded that we stop and count the rings on a stump (120 in case you were wondering) used another downed tree as a balance beam, tried to walk on my feet as if they were baby penguins, all the while chattering away and despairing about the endless walk back to the car, which they predicted would take forever. And I kind of agree, the whole endeavor felt like an eternity.

To be fair, even if they had humored me, our quiet walk really wouldn't have been all that quiet. Airplanes flew overhead, a chainsaw rumbled in the distance, dogs barked as we passed by. What did I expect really? We were smack dab in the middle of modern civilization. Always moving. Always rushing. Always noisy. 

Several times I swallowed the frustration creeping its way up my throat and sighed. I accepted that the rejuvenating excursion we'd devised to welcome 2017 with clear hearts and minds was just not meant to be. 

Maybe I will attempt it again another day. I should probably bring duct tape for their mouths. They'd probably be all for it (and look less like kidnapping victims) if I got the fancy tape at the craft store with the pink and the glitter. 

Or not. 

Maybe when they're older. Or come down with laryngitis. 

Quiet is a "think tank of the soul," said acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hampton, the guest on that episode of "On Being."

Ever since I heard that, I've been craving silence. Though not really finding it -- quiet is hard to come back during Christmas vacation. 

It's not just the kids though, I've found myself filling silent moments with noise. Whether its music, busying myself with cleaning or cooking, or the visual noise of all the apps on my phone. 

Why is it that quiet feels like wasted time? When I slow down or sit down in silence and stillness I feel useless and listless and anxious. Doing nothing feels lazy. Idle hands are the devil's workshop and all that.   

It's such a destructive way of thinking.

I had this thought the other day that silence is where you go to listen for inspiration. That's where musicians go to hear music. And artists go to create art. And writers go to write. It's solitude and silence where you have the opportunity to be open to new ideas and fresh thinking. If we run away from silence, we run away from the truths inside ourselves. 

If we can't be silent with those around us, we're running from their truths, too.

And where has that gotten us?

It strikes me that the past year was so noisy. Our thoughts and our phones, TVs, radios and conversations crammed with headlines, photos, videos, comments, Tweets, tirades, pleas – all the agony and rage of existence 24-7. And are we really hearing any of it over the screams of our own confused, exhausted brains?

I don't think I've been listening. Not truly. 

And I want to change that. I'm not big on resolutions because I have terrible follow through. But if I were to make a resolution, it would be about shutting up and listening. About seeking out opportunities to be quiet in the natural world, and also quiet in the busy world in which I live. Not an antisocial quiet, but a companionable silence. Or one that invites the words of others. 

"I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was important even before I had heard it and screening out everything that was unimportant even before I had heard it," Hampton said.

But what we really need is a silence without expectations or preconceived notions.

"Real listening is about being vulnerable," host Krista Tippet said on the show.

A silence without knowing. 

A curious sort of silence.

From Hampton: 

"The ability to see is not essential for survival. There are blind animal species in the back of the caves, in the bottom of the oceans and stuff like this, but sound is so important that every higher vertebrate species has the ability to hear. And sight is such an affordable luxury that eyelids evolved. We can close our eyes. OK, that’s enough of that. I’m just going to close my eyes and take a break. But not once in the fossil record do we have any evidence that a species evolved earlids. That would be far too dangerous. Animals must listen to survive." 
To survive as a person, as a country, as a species – it's time to start listening. 
Unless you're my children. In which case you should probably continue pretending you're a talking honey badger while poking your dad in the ear with a stick. Just don't be surprised if a crazed woman covered in cat hair and the stench of desperate expectations comes after you with glittery pink duct tape.

It's really your call. 
Happy New Year. 

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