Strengthen Yourself with Quiet
We talk from time to time about leaving Edmonton, and Rob does this thing where he looks on the internet at housing markets in places like Halifax, Tuscany, or New York City. We live a couple houses over from the utility corridor beside a highway. When we first moved here to the west end of town, the highway was more of a road, which ended not far from our house – it hadn’t opened up yet to the south side of the city. When it did open, the noise of the traffic was difficult to take. One of our neighbors developed a nervous condition because of the noise - her house backs right onto the corridor. Years later, she’s still here, too.
I’ve always craved silence, and yet, here I am living near a highway. We’ve been in this house for about 17 years now, and you know, here’s the thing. The noise doesn’t bother me any more. I guess I’ve learned to tune it out quite well. It’s still there, I know it’s there, but I know how to get to the inner silence, I suppose. Of course, in winter, it’s quiet as can be. Inside the house, silence, except for the sound of the furnace.
The quiet on a winter morning has a particular flavor, a softness to it. And usually I begin the day with walking. I’ll have written a little at my desk at around 6am, worked on my blog, had breakfast, and then I walk the dog. And this is my time for letting go of foolish thoughts, phrases I may have spoken, or heard, that rattle in my head. It's the time to forget about the news of the world.
The following is an excerpt from Charles Reznikoff'spoem “Autobiography: New York”:
I am afraid
because of the foolishness
I have spoken.
I must diet
Where is the wisdom
with which I may be medicined?
I will walk by myself
and cure myself
in the sunshine and the wind.
Walking, I diet on silence. Match my breathing to my footsteps. In summer I drink in colour, in winter, colourlessness, and in both seasons, birdsong, highwaysong. Sometimes I walk with my eyes closed for a while, a strange and unnerving childhood habit. A different way of seeing the world.
Walking is one way that we come to silence, strengthen ourselves with quiet, clear the mind of embarrassment and regret and myriad other unproductive thoughts and feelings.
Another way is to focus, lavish our attention, and contemplate “the quiet of ordinary things,” which is what the character Neville speaks about in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. He goes on to say: “A table, a chair, a book with a paper-knife stuck between the pages. And the petal falling from the rose, and the light flickering as we sit silent, or, perhaps, bethinking us of some trifle, suddenly speak.”
There is something about the particular silence of still lifes, that we lean toward in this house. We’ve long had practice in this art - the silent contemplation of an object, both in art and in daily life. But it’s a practice available to almost everyone, and even a kind of prayer. The poet Robert Creeley writes in his poem titled just that, “A Prayer”:
And I think this kind of deep looking at a thing, in noting how it makes us feel - as the light strikes a vase of flowers, a stack of books, a glass of milk poured for a child, our breakfast of poached egg on toast - that this changes us in small ways, and quiets our soul, takes us toward the infinite. And isn’t this the state we wish to be in when we pursue our creative endeavours?
There was a time when I was obsessed with bread - I mean, looking at it, trying to capture it with my camera, the light it holds, the holiness, its secret inner silence. And there is a poem by W.S. Merwin, titled simply, “Bread,” in which he says, “Each face in the street is a slice of bread / wandering on /searching” and then at the end of the poem he brings us to a field where the wheat sways under a radiant sun. Merwin reminds us we are all somewhere in the light, the radiance deeply embedded in our being. If we are bread, once we had our faces turned to the sun, swaying.
Reading the Merwin reminds me of a passage by Hélène Cixous in Coming to Writing where she says rather marvelously: “We who are bits of sun, drops of ocean, atoms of the god, and who so often forget this, or are unaware of it, and so we take ourselves to be employees. We who forget we could also be as luminous, as light, as the swallow that crosses the summit of the incomparable hill Fuji, so intensely radiant...”
Months go by and I forget about these breathtaking lines, and then a year has passed, so that when I come across the book again, it once again makes me gasp - because it's true that we forget we are bits of sun - we take ourselves for employees.....
What I’m trying to remind myself as I photograph bread, or a bowl of dried flowers by the window, or my teacup on the kitchen table, is that I, too, am luminous, radiant. I am trying to get closer to the mystery. This is the sort of traveling I’m attempting to do. Kafka, too, knew the way into the mysteries: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
When we find the strength in quiet, then we are only in service to ourselves, no longer employees. The world belongs to us and we belong to the world, the layers of all possible things, and there we are, sitting in the radiance; we are bits and drops of honeyed sun.