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#3347 - Monday,
November 10, 2008 - Editor: Gloria Lee
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Beyond peace and quiet
I have lived a very noisy life. As a matter of fact we all live very noisy lives. But for everyone who complains about RAF low-flying training exercises, background music in public places, loud neighbours and drunken brawling on the streets, there are hundreds who know they need a mobile phone, who choose to have incessant sound pumping into their homes and their ears, and who feel uncomfortable or scared when they have to confront real silence. "Communication" (which always means talk) is the sine qua non of "good relationships". "Alone" and "lonely" have become almost synonymous; worse, perhaps, "silent" and "bored" seem to be moving closer together, too.
My life has also been noisy in a more specific way. I was born in 1950, the second child in a family of six. My parents were deeply sociable and the house was constantly filled by their and our friends. Introspection, solitude, silence or any withdrawal from the herd were not allowed. Later, I was sent to boarding school, a place where the entire ethos depended on no one ever being allowed any silence or privacy except as a punishment, and where the constant din created by 200 young women was amplified by bare corridors and echoing rooms. From school I went to Oxford, where to speak out (and, to be honest, shout down the opposition) was not only permissible, it was virtuous. In 1972 I married an Anglican vicar: a vicarage is the least quiet place imaginable - a house that is never your own and never empty or silent.
I liked my noisy life. All that talking. I love talking. I used to say that if I were ever in Who's Who I would put down deipnosophy as my hobby. Deipnosophy means the "love of, or skill of, dinner-table conversation". And it was an extremely happy life. I achieved my personal ambitions. I had two beautiful children. I felt respected and useful and satisfied.
Then, at the very end of the 80s, that well ran dry. My marriage disintegrated. As a writer, I ran out of steam. In the early years of the 90s, I was suddenly living on my own for the first time in my life, in a small village in Northamptonshire. The entirely unexpected thing was that I loved it.
I discovered the silent joy of gardening: cells divide, sap flows, bacteria multiply, energy runs thrilling through the earth, but without a murmur. Gardening gave me a way to work with silence; not "in silence" but "with silence" - it was a silent creativity. Another of the things I started to do during this time was what Buddhists normally call "meditation" or, in Christian terms, "contemplative prayer". It began to supersede deipnosophy as my favourite hobby.
The most important thing that happened was that I got interested in silence itself. All our contemporary thinking about silence sees it as an absence or a lack of speech or sound - a totally negative condition. But I was not experiencing it like that. Instead I increasingly identified an interior dimension to silence, a sort of stillness of heart and mind which is not a void but a rich space.
Silence resists attempts to explain it. Indeed, ineffability is one of the key tests of mystical experience. I might even say that the "best" hermits are those who have least to say about it. The only thing Tenzin Palmo, a British Buddhist nun who spent three years high in the Himalayas in radical silence, seems ever to have said - at least publicly - about her personal experience is, "Well, it wasn't boring."
I decided to forge a life with silence at the very centre of it, but it was clear that this could not happen in Northamptonshire. Oddly enough, village life, although peaceful and often tranquil, is one of the least silent ways of living. You can be alone in the wild, and invisible in a city; in a village you are known and seen and involved. What called to me was space, wide, wild space - the "huge nothing" of the high moorlands. I wanted to live there in silence.
People asked me why. People still ask me why. Why leave the south where you have been happy for so long, where your friends and your children and your work are? Ladylike retirement for rural peace and quiet makes sense, but why go to such extremes? Sometimes I would joke, "It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it," or say - like Mallory - "Because it's there." But in honesty I was serious.
I was encouraged by other individuals who had sought out extreme solitude. Richard Byrd, a US admiral and polar explorer, said about his decision to spend a winter alone in the Antarctic: "I wanted to go for experience's sake: one man's desire to know that kind of experience to the full, to be by himself for a while and to taste the peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are... I wanted something more than just privacy in the geographical sense. I should be able to live exactly as I chose, obedient to no necessities but those imposed by wind and night and cold, and to no man's laws but my own."
I was looking for something similar. If I had said to people, "I am in love with someone and we are going to live on an isolated moor", I doubt anyone would have said "Why?" in quite the same way. But I was falling in love with silence, and like most people with a new love, I became increasingly obsessed - wanting to know more, to go further, to understand better. So in the summer of 2000 I moved north to County Durham, to a house on a moor high above Weardale. I started to walk a good deal. I felt increasingly pared down, lean, fit and quiet, shacked up, as it were, with the wind and the silence and the cold.
However, I also began to realise that Richard Byrd had been right when he speculated that "no man can hope to be completely free who lingers within reach of familiar habits and urgencies". In the contemporary western world it is difficult to be silent for long - people phone, they come to visit, to canvass your vote, the postman needs a signature, Jehovah's Witnesses knock politely, someone has to read the meter, you run out of milk and have to go and buy some more, and the woman in the village shop starts to chat. In fact, it is impossible. Moreover, there are what Byrd calls "urgencies" - the economic urgency of making a living, and the emotional urgency of love and friendship. I was living more silently than before, but I still was only dabbling on the margins of that deep ocean I sensed was there. I decided that I would go away and spend some time doing nothing except being silent and thinking about it. Forty days seemed a suitable amount of time.
I rented a cottage on Skye: small, isolated, with no TV. In late October, my car laden with foul-weather gear and six weeks' worth of food, I left my sister's house near St Andrews and drove east to west across Scotland. It was a long drive, and all the time I had a growing sense of moving away - the roads getting narrower, the houses less frequent, the towns more like villages and the villages tiny. I was exhausted by the time I had arrived and settled in, but I also had a powerful sense of excitement and optimism. I was at the beginning of an adventure. I felt oddly foxy - I'd slipped my leash and got away.
At one level, Allt Dearg was never completely silent. The wind roared down from the mountains more or less incessantly. When it rained, which it did a great deal, I could hear it lashing on the roof-light windows upstairs. Even when the wind and rain paused, the burn did not. Just behind the house, it descended sharply in a series of small waterfalls, and they sounded like distant aeroplane engines. Yet my sense was that none of these noises mattered; they did not break up the silence, which I could listen for and hear behind them.
For the first few days I wallowed in freedom: no phone calls, no emails, no neighbours. I tried to settle into the silence and somehow lower my own expectations - to plan, scheme, rule, manage the days as little as possible. Unlike sound, which crashes against your ears, silence is subtle. The more and the longer you are silent, the more you hear the tiny noises within the silence, so that silence itself is always slipping away like a timid wild animal.
People ask me what I did all day. I prayed and meditated. I read a bit. I walked a good deal, but I was restricted by the vileness of the weather and the very early nightfall that far north in November and December. I worked on some very intricate sewing. And I listened to the silence, and I listened to myself.
The first effect that I noticed, towards the end of the first week, was an extraordinary intensification of physical sensation. My sense of body temperature became more acute - if I was wet, or cold, or warm, I experienced this very directly and totally. I have never been so physically tired, so aware of weather, of sound, and of the variety of colour in the wild environment. Before long my emotions also swelled into monumental waves of feeling - floods of tears, giggles, excitement or anxiety, often entirely disproportionate to the occasion. It felt normal. These were not new or inexplicable feelings; they were the old ones felt more strongly.
I was quite shocked to find how quickly and easily I abandoned many of the daily activities I'd assumed were "natural" or necessary, like washing, or brushing my hair. It was curious to discover how far I had internalised prohibitions on things like shouting, laughing, singing, farting, taking all your clothes off, picking your nose while eating and so on. These inhibitions fell away at various rates. I felt as though the silence unskinned me. I stepped back into infancy, into the wild, "beyond the pale". I found myself, for example, overwhelmed by bizarre sexual fantasies and vengeful rages of kinds that I had never dared admit.
Almost every account of prolonged silence I have ever read contains mentions of "hearing voices", whether these come in the form of divine intervention or tongues of madness. In my journal I repeatedly recorded my sense that I could hear singing. One evening I heard a male-voice choir singing Latin plainsong in the bedroom. Almost immediately I realised that this was ridiculous; the acoustics were all wrong. But I could hear singing, and I could pick up occasional words.
On one unusually radiant day, I took a walk up the burn above the house and into a steep-sided corrie. It was sheltered there and magnificent - mountains on both sides, and below, tiny stands of water which looked like handfuls of shiny coins tossed down. I sat on a rock and ate cheese sandwiches. And there, quite suddenly, I slipped a gear. There was not me and the landscape, but a kind of oneness: as though the molecules and atoms I am made of had reunited themselves with the molecules and atoms that the rest of the world is made of. It was very brief, but I cannot remember feeling that extraordinary sense of connectedness since I was a small child.
As the six weeks went by, I found it harder to maintain a sense of time passing. This is clearly something that a lot of people in silence and solitude find difficult. Over and over again I found accounts of people finding ways to replace clocks and diaries - marking each day as it passes with a notch on a stick or a stone on a cairn, inventing or at least contriving "tasks". However, I enjoyed this sensation; it gave me a sense of freedom coupled with a sort of almost childlike naughtiness.
Later, I had a series of very strange experiences when I stopped being able to distinguish easily between what was happening in my mind and what was happening "outside". One, in my fourth week, stands out: I heard a vehicle come up the track and a white van crossed the window. Then nothing happened. I was furious at the interruption. But nothing happening was strange - no knock on the door, no sound outside. Then there was a series of piercing whistles. I was hiding from any intrusion in the bedroom and, looking out the window, I saw a sheepdog on the far bank of the burn. I pulled on my jacket and went out - the wind was howling and the rain lashing down. I stood at the door. The sheepdog had four sheep huddled on the far side of the burn, and on my side was a shepherd, a scruffy bloke in a blue woolly hat. When he saw me he called the dog, who let the sheep go and came splashing back across the burn. The shepherd smiled at me and said, "I was looking for a stray." Then I went back into the house and he got back into the white van (which had a large dent in the driver-side door) and drove away. I never said anything.
The scary bit is that I am not sure whether this actually happened, or whether I imagined it. I attempted a "reality check": my jacket was bone dry - but then I had not left the shelter of the doorway. If it was a hallucination, it was both bizarrely mundane and ridiculously detailed. But why would anyone chase a stray in this weather - or, having decided to do so, abandon the project so quickly?
Reading my journal, I realise with what insouciance I seem to have regarded such episodes, which in my pre-silence life would have terrified me as signs of incipient lunacy. I had only one seriously frightening experience while I was on Skye. One morning I decided I would take a walk from Luib to Loch Slapin - from sea to sea along a well-marked track between the mountains. It was a strange day, very still with no wind. I left the car and walked up the path, and after a couple of hundred yards it turned round a knoll and I walked into a tight, steep-sided glen that I could not see out of. Nowhere. No one. Nothing. The path was boggy and hard work. I came to a little loch with reeds standing in the perfectly clear water, which reflected the hills rising sharply either side. At first I was enchanted, then, abruptly, I was spooked.
In the silence and the mist, I found myself becoming increasingly uneasy. I became convinced I was being watched. There were two black shapes on the hill above me. I thought, or rather I felt, that they were alive, although rationally, I decided that they must be rocks. I felt the silence stripping me down. I could hear the silence screaming. Adventurer Augustine Courtauld, who spent six months alone in a tent in the Arctic, recorded strange and inexplicable screaming noises and said, afterwards, that it was the only thing that really frightened him.
I ran and stumbled out of the valley, as though there were something dark in pursuit. Back at the car I found I was soaked to the skin and covered in mud, although I had no memory of falling. The sane me said, "This is silly" but I was also at the mercy of the sensation. One part of me was delighted and reassured that that was as bad as it got on Skye - obviously silence suited me. At another level, I felt somehow slightly cheated. I wanted to experience the whole of silence: the dark disintegration, the howling emptiness, the demons of the desert hermits.
Then, that winter, back home in Weardale, I got snowed in. Early in 2001 there was a major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. It was horrible. The markets were closed, people did not want to visit other farms or have people on theirs. The moors, like the rest of the countryside, were closed to walkers.
In late March there was severe snow and blizzards. The rural roads of County Durham are normally snowploughed by farmers, but they were confined to their farms by the outbreak, so the road to and from my house soon became impassable. With little preparation, I was alone and locked into an involuntary period of silence. The telephone lines were down, and with no radio or television I had no idea what was going on in the "real world" or how the epidemic was spreading. I became increasingly scared. Some of the anxiety was realistic - would I eventually run out of food (or more seriously, in my case, of cigarettes)? What would happen if the weather did not improve? Was my family all right? But more of it was emotional - despite the fact that I was supposedly longing for quiet, I increasingly felt invaded.
I realised that snow produces a peculiar acoustic effect: it mutes nearby noises but causes distant sounds to carry farther, with startling clarity. In addition, the snow flattens everything visually. The effect is disorientating. One day, walking to my gate, the collar of my jacket blew up against the back of my head and I screamed aloud, convinced I had been attacked from behind. It was baffling. Why had six whole weeks far from home, and in almost equally unfavourable weather, filled me with delight - even ecstasy - while barely 10 days in my own home with my own things around me reduced me to semi-hysteria? I now believe that the determining factor in whether a silence ends up feeling positive or negative is whether or not it was freely chosen. Chosen silence can be creative and generate self-knowledge, integration and profound joy; being silenced can drive people mad.
My assumption had been that silence was monotone; that it would be very pure, very beautiful but somehow flat, undifferentiated. But the more silences I encountered, the more silent places I inhabited, the more I became aware that there were dense, interwoven strands of different silences. Silence can be calm or frightening, lonely or joyful, deep or thin. There is religious silence; a self-emptying silence, and romantic silence - what Wordsworth called the "bliss of solitude".
After the whiteout, I decided to move house again. I wanted more silence, I did not want such immediate neighbours nor so much space. What I needed was a hermitage.
How much stuff did I really need to live happily? First I got rid of things that made noises. I never had a mobile phone, the television had long gone, likewise the radio. The sound-generating programmes on the computer went next. I kept the car radio for longer, but eventually it broke and I have not replaced it.
Soon I discovered that a person living alone in the country does not need a doorbell or a microwave oven, and certainly has no use for a tumble dryer. Some modern inventions, however, make silence a great deal simpler. Email is a wonderfully non-intrusive communication tool, an answering machine means that I can unplug the phone without inconveniencing anyone, and online shopping resolves a great many dilemmas. Above all, in my case, a computer goes a very long way to solving the financial difficulties of living in extreme rural solitude: I live now mainly by teaching creative writing online.
Gradually, I began to be clear about what I was trying to do. I am not a "back to nature" survivalist. I do not want to grow all my own vegetables, live without cigarettes or coffee, knit or weave my own clothes, or write with a quill pen. I do not want to struggle each day to milk my goat, or forage for wood. And even if I did, there would still be council tax. What I want to do is live in as much silence as is possible at this point in our history.
I spent months looking for my house in the Scottish Borders. I knew what I wanted: a small house with a big room. I wanted to integrate living, working and praying into a single whole, and I did not want any rooms that I did not use. I also wanted a very particular landscape: high moorland, a huge and silent nothing of peat bog, rough grass, bracken, broken walls enclosing no fields and the harsh cry of curlew. I would need a kitchen and a bathroom. My asceticism does not run to cold-water strip-downs.
A derelict little shepherd's house finally came up for sale. Empty for nearly half a century, it had no roof, no water supply, two feet of sheep dung on the floor and a tree growing out the front wall. Of course I bought it.
The glorious intensity of those six weeks in Skye is not, in the long term, sustainable. But you can do a surprising number of things without speaking. One of the seldom mentioned advantages of supermarkets is that you can shop without exchanging a word, smiling at the staff's mechanical greetings and fixing your eyes on your list in order to avoid eye contact with anyone. However, there is something bogus about that, and rude.
Say I am walking alone and high on a narrow track. The day has been silent except for the sound of streams and a distant caw from a crow - and lo and behold, coming towards me is a group of cheerful walkers. I know they will say "Hello" and what do I do? Duck behind a rock? Increase my pace and smile swiftly as I pass? It is less "noisy" and more rational to say "Hello" back.
The questions have really become about how much everyday silence I can create. At the moment I am aiming for 80%. Two days a week I unplug the phone and with it the internet and email. I try to limit all social activities to a maximum of six days a month, but it can be tricky because unexpected things happen, and people other than I have needs and desires.
I pray for about three hours a day. I earn my keep, I walk, I read, I do my sewing. I am extremely happy in my little house, but I still find silence deeply mysterious - certainly not an absence but in many instances something strongly positive. There is the intimacy between mother and infant at the end of the night feed. There are those awed responses to the "natural" world, in which words fail or rather step back from the experience. There is the positive psychoanalytic silence that seems to allow a new kind of self-knowing. There is the aftermath of seriously good sex. There is the silence of mystical experience. There is the particular silence in some sorts of reading where writer and reader work at meaning-making together. There is the silence in listening to music.
Silence does not seem to be a loss or lack of language; it does not even seem to be the opposite of language. I have found it to be a whole world in and of itself, alongside language and culture, but independent of it. It comes from a different place altogether.
So here I am, sitting on my doorstep in the sunshine, looking out at my huge nothing. I don't feel worried about falling over the edge of a bottomless chasm, but rather I have a sense of moving up a level, into some finer, cleaner air.
© Sara Maitland, 2008
This is an edited extract from A Book Of Silence, by Sara Maitland, published by Granta on November 13 at £17.99. To order a copy for £16.99, including UK mainland p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875. Also on Amazon for USA.
article from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/nov/08/sara-maitland-silence-addiction
Sara's website: http://www.saramaitland.com/Home.html Sent to me by an old friend, Dave
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