Sounds of Silence

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“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”—Thomas Keating.

When I was growing up, my father moon-lighted as the sexton for our church, and my first paying job was to go there on Saturday morning, pick up last week’s bulletins from the pews in the sanctuary and set chairs up in the Sunday school classrooms. I loved the empty church, especially the sanctuary. I loved the way colored dust floated in the light through the stained-glass windows. I loved the smell of candlewax, the soft carpet under my feet, and above all, the palpable silence that enfolded me.

I’ve been in love with silence ever since.

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“…but the Lord was not in the wind… the Lord was not in the earthquake… the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”—1 Kings 19:11-12.

I measure the worth of my pilgrimages, retreats, and other trips by the amount of silence I experience. I recall with joy the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, where sound seems muffled in ethereal light, and the Arizona desert, as the rising sun over saw-toothed mountains silently splashes light over prickly pear, cholla, barrel, and saguaro cacti.

Conversely, my stomach still reels when I remember the old city of Jerusalem: the noisy labyrinth of streets and alley-ways, strange chants from Armenian priests in black hoods at Saint James’ Cathedral, Orthodox Jews bobbing in front of the Western Wall, torrents of Muslims returning from Temple Mount after Friday prayers. Gawking spectators, money changers, tasteless displays of religiosity. And everywhere, voices yelling at me to buy, buy, buy.

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“Silence like a cancer grows.”—Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence.”

I’m sorry, Paul, you blew it with that line. Don’t get me wrong, usually, I like your stuff, like especially that in your seventies (like me), you’re still writing new material, still performing. It’s noise, however, that’s the cancer of our culture, and it’s gotten worse since you wrote that song. I can’t buy groceries, go to the dentist or the doctor, wait on hold, without being assaulted by the blasting or the bland. (Who of us growing in the 50s and 60s would have thought that the music that so shocked our parents would be today’s shopping center Muzak?”)

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“… there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”—Thomas Merton

If you want to talk cancer, during the months of November and December of 1988, I sat by my eighteen-year-old daughter’s bedside at the Eastern Maine Medical Center, watching Laurie die of the disease, and asking “Why?’ Why weren’t any of the treatments working? Why couldn’t the doctors and nurses keep her more comfortable? Why did she become sick in the first place? Why was she dying?

After one particularly bad day—Dr. Brooks had explained to Laurie that her cancer had spread into her pelvis, the new patient next door kept screaming at everyone to “Fuck off!” Laurie had started vomiting green bile, and my ex-wife wanted me to complain about one of the nurses—I left Laurie’s room about 4:00 p.m. to return to the Ronald McDonald House. I was so upset that I didn’t realize that the elevator had dropped me off at the second floor and not the lobby. Lost in thought, I walked down a hall until I found myself standing in front of a door that said “Chapel.” I turned the doorknob and entered.

The first thing I noticed was how quiet the room was. Even in Laurie’s single room at the end of the hall, there was always a steady undercurrent of noise from machines or voices in the hall or near-by TV sets. Here, there was only the sound of my heart beating to the question, “Why?”

From somewhere in the ceiling fresh air cooled my face. I felt my body loosen. The silence seemed to keep drawing first my angry words and then all of me into its embrace.

Out of the stillness I heard the words, “Don’t ask why, just ask for help.” These words might have saved my life.

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…you, congregation

of one

are here to listen

not to sing.

Kneel in the back pew,

make no sound,

let the candles

speak.

—Patricia McKernon Runkle: “When you meet Someone in Grief”

After Laurie died, I received all kinds of advice—Be patient… It’s God’s will… You’ll get over it… I know just how you feel because my uncle/cousin/grandmother/dog died…Suck it up!…—none of which was helpful, and nearly all of which pissed me off. It wasn’t until I started trying to counsel other grieving parents that I realized how difficult it is to find words of support. That was when I realized the only thing that had helped me was someone compassionate enough to simply sit with me in silence. I try now to do the same.

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“Silence is helpful, but you don’t need it to fine stillness.”—Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks.

What I’m really after, of course, is interior silence, what my twelve-step program calls “serenity,” and Eckhart Tolle calls “Stillness.” And, say he and others, one can have that stillness even in the midst of the noise that harasses us almost every minute o every day. I read an account once by a writer who took a Buddhist monk to a movie. Apparently the movie was louder and more violent than the writer had expected. He turned to the monk to see if he wanted to leave and saw in meditation, a half-smile on his face. Later the monk thanked the writer for giving him two hours of uninterrupted meditation time.

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You have called me into this silence to be grateful for what silence I have and to use it by desiring more.”—Thomas Merton

But I’m not a monk, Buddhist or otherwise. Especially as I enter into this holiday season—not only noisy in the good ways that being with family can be (Mary Lee and I have just had twenty people for Thanksgiving), but also deafening in its crass materialistic ravings, all complicated by the fact that this is the time of year I spent by my dying daughter’s bedside so that every day from now until December 23 will be an anniversary of some sorrow—I need to set aside places and times of silence, where I can relish and nurture the memory of those silent retreats and pilgrimages, draw from them, drink from them as if they were oases in the desert.

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“The rest is silence.”—Hamlet

This morning, Mary Lee and I went for a quick walk before breakfast. Under a motionless November sky, the 20° air was still. An occasional oak leaf fluttered noiselessly to the ground. Trees raised their bare branches to the sky, as if in silent prayer. We walked without talking, something we do more and more these days, resting in what we have created between us over the past thirty-three years: a silence and a stillness too deep for words.

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Edu-cations

Dingle, Ireland - 053

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The other day, I was trying to consolidate photos on my computer (Does anyone besides me miss the old photograph albums?), when I found around a hundred pictures from August of 2009 when Mary Lee and I participated in a “Stonecoast in Ireland” program. Looking at the slideshow I created (Okay, computers have their advantages) I realized I’ve never thought of my week in Dingle on the southwest coast of Ireland as a pilgrimage.

At the same time, it wasn’t a vacation.

I decided the best word to describe it would be an “edu-cation.”

Now there were certainly elements of a vacation. Our program leaders, Ted and Annie Deppe, (both fine poets, teachers, and really cool people—check out their work), had planned each day:  mornings devoted to each participant’s teaching a class on a writer we admired, critiquing the essays, fiction, and poetry we’d submitted (I’d never been in a mixed genre workshop before), and listening to guest lecturers; afternoons and evenings eating in Dingle’s fine restaurants and listening to Irish jigs and reels in the pubs, and being chauffeured and guided around southwestern Ireland in style.

Dingle is a town geared for those on vacation. In addition to all the places to eat and drink, there are gift shops, a lovely book store (where we did a reading one night), woolen shops, and an aquarium. Walking the streets, I heard German, British, Italian, French, and Japanese, as well as American accents. The week I was there, Dingle harbor was full of yachts for some regatta. Tour boats took passengers out to catch a glimpse of “Fungi,” a beloved dolphin and tourist attraction since the 1980’s. The Coastline Motel, where we stayed and had our classes was comfortable and the breakfasts were scrumptious.

On the other hand, pilgrimages are supposed to be difficult, and traveling to Ireland was more difficult than any pilgrimage I’ve been on. When Mary Lee and I put together our trip, we wanted some retreat time, so we booked our first night in Ireland a day early in Glenstal Abbey outside of Limerick. Due to thunderstorms and something called “pilot time,” however, we spent the first night of our trip in Saugus, Massachusetts. (To help me write this blog, I put on the Skyteam tee-shirt I still have from Delta’s overnight bag.) On the day we’d planned to be in silence and slow time at Glenstal Abbey, we spent thirteen hours in Kennedy Airport in New York City, trying to find an internet connection so that I could explain to the Brothers why we weren’t there (They were very nice and didn’t charge us), running back and forth from one end of the terminal to the other because the plane to Shannon Airport kept changing gates, and listening to people screaming at ticket agents in eighty-seven different languages. (If someday for my sins I go to Hell, I expect it will be a lot like Kennedy Airport.)

The other challenging trip was to Great Blasket Island, three miles off Ireland’s western coast. Because of weather conditions, we didn’t know when we were going, and the trip we did make came at the last minute, when the captain of our tour boat saw “a window of opportunity.” (Which, I found out later, meant that the ocean swells had dropped from twenty feet to six to ten feet.) In a steady rain, we boarded the boat, and chugged to the island, where we transferred to motorized rubber rafts to go ashore.

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Once on the island, I entered the same kind of liminal space I’ve talked before about in these blogs on pilgrimage. Empty windows of stone houses peered at me from the furze and heather growing on peat bogs. Wild sheep and donkeys grazed and rabbits scampered across foot paths. The island had been abandoned since 1953. Before then, it had been inhabited since the 16th century, and by the early 1700s, there had been as many as 170 people fishing and farming there. The reason Ted and Annie included this trip in the itinerary was because in the 1920s and 30s, Great Blasket Island was known for its writers, publishing in the native Irish language about life on the edge of European civilization. But after that, the population kept declining until there was no one left.

By the time we disembarked from our rubber rafts, the rain was coming down hard. Good Mainers that we are, Mary Lee and I had our L.L. Bean raingear and waterproof hiking boots, so we took off for the northern part of the island, past the houses and the sheep, splashing through mud puddles and a bog that seemed to be breathing.

My wife was in heaven. In her other life (our term for the years before we met), she’d owned a donkey, and she thinks of the donkey as her spirit animal. She immediately gravitated to those descendants of the work animals Islanders used instead of horses.

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I was more interested in the views of the water and the fifteen seals bobbing up and down like kids waiting for the movie theater to open, and the melancholic sense of standing on the soggy, uneven ground between life—Mary Lee petting the donkeys, the seals below me, the seabirds circling overhead—and death, symbolized by the collapsed stone houses.

Great Blasket was not a “spiritual” destination as such. Although I gather monks lived here in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were no ruins of monasteries, not even a cemetery (when someone died, they were taken to the mainland for burial). Unlike most of my pilgrimages, there was nobody in particular I had made this journey to honor.

Still, as far as I’m concerned, the day was a spiritual experience.

Which raises the old question: what does “spiritual” mean? Writers on pilgrimage often refer to “the call to pilgrimage,” a longing to reach a destination, one connected with a destination within yourself, one that ties you to the transcendent. One of the reasons I wanted to participate in “Stonecoast in Ireland,” was that I yearned for my writing to be published, and fulfill a vow I’d made to my daughter Laurie after she died to become a writer as a way to honor her memory. (And the essay I took with me to Ireland did eventually become published as part of my novel Requiem in Stones.)

I was also paying homage to writers I admire and want to emulate. I taught a class on Frank McCourt, one of my literary heroes, both because he was a former high school English teacher and because he didn’t publish his first book, Angela’s Ashes, until he was in his late sixties. (Which as far as I’m concerned is a triumph of the human spirit.)

So while the call to make this trip probably wasn’t “spiritual” in the sense of my trying to become closer to God, it wasn’t simply to get away, either. My edu-cation to Dingle became an interior journey to creative parts of myself I didn’t know were there. I began writing poetry. I developed a love of Irish music. I made friendships that continue to this day.

Edu-cations show me how blurred the line between pilgrimage and vacation can be. Which reveals how blurred the line between spiritual and secular can be.

More and more, I’m coming to believe that no matter how they begin, my real pilgrimages are the journeys I make through the landscapes—the bogs and ocean views, the empty houses and spirit animals, the loud conflicts and lilting music (not to mention through the digressions that keep pulling me off track)—of myself.

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