Sea lions, starfish and silence


Simon & Garfunkel sang its praises and Ode magazine devoted an entire issue to its value. As an introvert who has learned to turn ‘on’ when required, I’ve always felt most at home in quiet.

Last week, as I made a mad dash to attend the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference in Seattle (Prizes and Surprises! For all the juicy details, click on Poetry at right) I was reminded of the solace that silence brings.

Mad dash, in this case, meant a two-hour drive to a small airport that took me to a bigger airport that took me to an even bigger airport.

It had been a full week with a houseful of loving, enthusiastic family who were visiting the Oregon Coast for the first time. Our happy band enjoyed a full week of lighthouses, beaches, kayaks, forests, bayfronts, sea lions and starfish.

In the midst of all the fun, I got a bout of the stomach flu and spent 24 hours queasy and weak.

By the time I raced to attend the conference, I was spent. When you live a quiet life — as I now realize I clearly do — it’s not obvious until you experience unquiet.

I often rail that our (the collective our meaning, I suppose, everyone else and sometimes me) fascination with connection has made us chatty but no more connected. Cell phones, email, and yes, even blogs like this, contribute to the white noise of our lives. We’re all talk and not much listen. We’re screaming to be heard.

But when no one listens, the noise level must increase until the racket is just normal. When we are — miraculously — faced with silence, fear takes the place of noise. We don’t know what to do with our minds, so full of banter and chatter. We feel a need to fill the space and so we reach for the ipod, turn to the computer, turn up the tv. It’s too much to hear our own still voice.

And what a loss, this quiet erased.

How did silence become so scary? I’m tempted to say this is a generational issue but that’s too easy a dismissal and inaccurate, too. I know many people my age, and older, who feel edgy in the empty spaces.

Of course, silence is far from empty. Even the quiet is alive with sound — hums and buzzes prevail. Nature, so seemingly serene, is — when you really listen — bursting with sound.

In silence — when the mind is quiet, receptive and at rest — words rise, songs take shape, paintings form. Inspiration is surely rooted in quiet, in a willingness to be, not do.

I am lucky. I have always considered quiet an ally. Just as a cell phone needs a battery charge to take the next call, I need quiet to replenish my mind and body. I need the equilibrium silence provides.

And so, my two-hour drive to the airport was wonderfully silent. No radio or cd. No cell phone. No last-minute plans and worries. I crawled into silence and clung to its comfort.

When I arrived, my head was clear, my body rested, and my enthusiasm restored. Even my voice, when I spoke again, was hesitant and thin, as if it too had needed the rest.

Talk less. Listen more. I’ve always appreciated the sentiment but today I appreciate it even more. When we value the restorative power of silence, we don’t see the adage as an admonition but as a coveted invitation.


Solo, not alone

To travel is better than to arrive.

— Robert Pirsig
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I had forgotten how much I like solo travel. Something about being alone allows the mind to wander, the heart to open.

Traveling with a spouse or friend allows the thrill of shared experience but traveling solo provides unexpected opportunities to meet ordinary people that, in the right mind, seem especially warm, kind and interesting. I had forgotten the pleasure.

On a recent trip I must have been especially open and receptive because I met people at every turn:

• A woman who worked at Boeing. Thirty years ago she began as a data entry clerk and steadily worked her way up to mechanical engineer. “It’s not hard,” she said, seemingly very humble. “I took classes they offered and they even paid me to go to school.”

• A truck driver and I shared the very narrow, very back row, of a very small plane. Before a knee injury last year, he had worked 17 years transporting goods for FedEx, which required fevered three-day hauls from Chicago to Portland and back again.

• A kind Canadian couple returning from a three-week excursion through Europe. It was late and they had been traveling toward home for 24 hours. Though worn and weary, we talked and laughed for nearly an hour, and they shared with me their English chocolate, a souvenir from their travels.

Earlier in the day, as I grew exasperated with my delayed flight, I met a man suspended in airport limbo.

Since his wife's passing four years ago, he had retired and spent all his time traveling the country to be with his grown children and their youngsters. But on this last trip, his car broke down. A new engine was required. The car was towed home but he was stranded in the airport. One flight was cancelled, another delayed. He was now stuck in the Portland airport for endless hours, far from home.

And because he and I were so chatty, he did not hear his name called for his stand-by flight. He missed the plane but was unbelievably unruffled.

I noted his admirable attitude and he answered quite matter-of-fact. “When I was 20, I would have been arrrgh,” he said, clenching his fists and knotting his face, “but what are you going to do?”

And, as if the universe was rewarding his calm, he made it on another flight — mine — that departed just a few minutes later.

It’s true that when you see goodness, it’s easier to see more. In turn, it’s increasingly easier to feel happy, and pass it on. It’s simple, yes, but I forget. Solo travel helps me get quiet inside, so my outside can allow.

That night, when I reached my destination, I was buoyant in the conversation and accomplishments of fellow poets and writers. My delight took a new hue. It wasn’t my own happiness I was feeling but the many individual joys given kindly to me throughout the day.


Perspective, please

Just when my I'm taking myself too seriously, a friend tenders this treasure from Argentinian poet Alicia Partnoy:


I am talking to you
about poetry and you
say when do we eat.
The worst of it is I'm
hungry too.

- Alicia Partnoy


Yes, actually, it is brain surgery

"Self-criticism, like self-administered brain surgery, is perhaps not a good idea."

- Joyce Carol Oates
The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art


Kick the Critic

The world, and my head, is full of critics.

Big talkers with sandpaper voices that cripple every action with an overwhelming fear of mediocrity. When my inner critic is louder than my mind is bright, I go to the experts:

Natalie Goldberg, who wrote the classic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, encourages writers to kick their critic to the curb. And indeed, in my copy (circa 1980s) the chapter Trouble with the Editor is dog-eared and nearly every passage is underlined.

Anne Lamott’s self-deprecating wit and tender humor always move me to a place of possibility — and my inner critic rankled enough to go away. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is her classic how-to book. Fortunately, this ‘manual’ is more humor and heart than step-by-step guide.

But sometimes even the ‘experts’ aren’t enough. To keep my mind encouraged and my spirits lifted, I have this touchstone at easy reach:

Keep the Channel Open

A letter from Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille

There is a vitality, a life force,
a quickening that is translated through
you into action. And because there is only
one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through
any other medium, and it will be lost.
The world will not have it. It is not your
business to determine how good it is,
nor how valuable, nor how it compares
with other expressions. It is your
business to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself
or your work.
You have to keep open and aware
directly to the urges that motivate you.
Keep the channel open.