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Cawdra 1, from a new series

Maureen Dowd, the waspishly wicked op ed writer at the New York Times, has periodic moments of reverie between her excoriating defamations of politicians. In a column that appeared in December, she touched on a theme that has been a steady leitmotif of this blog: silence.

As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.

There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the “cotton wool of daily life.”

“In the future, not getting any imagery or story line or content is going to be the equivalent of silence because people are so filled up now with streaming video,” said Ed Schlossberg, the artist, author and designer who runs ESI Design. “Paying attention to anything will be the missing commodity in future life. You think you’ll miss nothing, but you’ll probably miss everything.”

Schlossberg said that, for a long time, art provided the boundary for silence, “but now art, in some cases, is so distracting and intense and faceted, it’s hard to step into a moment. Especially when you’re always carrying a microcamera and a screen all the time, both recording and playing back constantly rather than allowing moments of composition and stillness when your brain can go into a reverie.”

Focusing on the newly released “silent” film The Artist, Dowd addresses the power—and risk—of using silence in an artistic statement. The film’s director, Michel Hazanavicius, participated in an early screening of the film by teenagers. Afterwards they approached him and thank him for letting them “hear the silence.” “I compare it to the zero in mathematics,” said Hazanavicius. “People think it’s nothing, but actually it’s not. It can be very powerful.”

Thanks to my friend and artist Tim Rice (who I met through Slow Muse) for flagging this article.


View of the desert sky, this one in the American Southwest

I am having an ongoing attraction to the concept of silence, of what happens when you choose to move into the spaces that exist without language, without the need to speak. I’ve written about this here on and off for months, and the attraction isn’t abating. Not yet anyway.

I was taken by this passage from Sara Maitland’s A Book Silence which I found on Quotes and Musings, a great spot for finding an unexpected mix of wisdom and insight.

Maitland shares her experience of a particular kind of silence from her time in the Sinai:

Later in the night I began to hear John Cage’s ‘sound of silence’ in a new way. It was not my nervous system or my circulation; it was not the last murmurs of almost silenced chatter, nor the shifty movements of the tectonic plates. I thought I heard the singing of the spheres. The classical and early Christian world believed that the heavenly bodies sang as they spun through their orbits; each had its – own unique and perfect note that reverberated in perfect harmony with the others. With a geocentric universe there were eight such spheres — the sun, the moon and the six visible planets (Uranus, Neptune and Pluto cannot be seen with the naked eye, so they were not known until there were telescopes); this created the perfect eight- note scale. The singing was silent and could only be sensed or imagined at moments of heightened and joyful awareness. The sound of silence, in that desert night, was the song of jouissance, of bliss.

In the desert I realised that there is something hideous, especially to a contemporary Western sensibility, about a systematic and determined attempt to break down, or thin out the boundaries of the self and become open to, participate in, the undefined, illimitable freedom of the divine. It is also very hard work. One of the Zen monks at Throstlehole remarked to me once, ‘It is strange, everyone says they want to meet a saint, but no one actually wants to be one. It’s too tiring even to think of it.’ The experience of both East and West is that silence is the ground for this work. Whether or not silence is also the goal of the task is a slightly different question.

Isle of Skye, 1999

A respectfully reverent review of Sarah Maitland’s latest book, A Book of Silence, appeared in the Sunday Times Book Review. Written by Dominique Browning, the review and book both speak to many of the aspects of silence that I have written about here in earlier posts. It is something I think about a great deal and feel increasingly drawn to.

Sara Maitland is a writer who reached her 50s and found herself with a disintegrating marriage and a home empty of children. Free to make any kind of life she wanted for herself, she decided to seek a life with silence at its center.

Her friends and family found this prospect unnerving and were not supportive of the idea. Instead of thinking of silence and solitude as a selfish choice, a “the place of death, of nothingness” as one friend put it, Mait­land was convinced that silence was a positive presence, not a negative condition.

From the review:

She begins her life-changing adventure by spending 40 days and 40 nights alone in a tiny house set high on a ridge on the Isle of Skye…Surprisingly, Maitland’s journey provokes a crisis in her work. A successful novelist, she had long depended on her ability to imagine alternate worlds. But the deeper she went into silence, the more her fiction eluded her. “This gave me the idea,” she explains, “that there might be something profoundly different between the silence of the hermits and the silence of creative artists.” The first kind of silence requires an emptying out of the self in order to be receptive to God; the other fortifies the self in order to be inventively godlike. “Silence has no narrative,” she concludes. “Silence intensifies sensation, but blurs the sense of time.” Building on this speculation, Maitland’s ambitious, wide-ranging book investigates the varied nature of creativity and dives into considerations of both madness and joy.

Browning’s conclusion made me even more compelled to read this book for myself:

This is not a silent book, intimate and generous as it is. We even hear Maitland strike matches to light her cigarettes under a canopy of stars. To my mind, it’s an open question whether reading can be part of any experience of silence. Nor did Maitland’s book leave me speechless. Instead, I found myself arguing, conversing, exclaiming at every page. I wanted to be with her every step of the way. And I can hardly wait to see what comes next from this marvelous writer, thinker and seeker. I only hope it isn’t . . . silence.


As an addendum to yesterday’s post, here’s another call to silence:

There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.

–Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks


Once again Henri Nouwen has verbalized insights that resonate with me. I’ve never read any of the wise man’s books, but he keeps bobbing to the surface. My friend Nicole sent me quotes by him while she was completing her masters in theology. My favorite online wisdom guide, Whiskey River, has also provided some wonderful Nouwenisms as well, like the passage below. And given my current state of mind as one that feels like the deep dive phase of my whale’s soul, taking to the lower depths in a hunt for the best nutrients, I’m listening more than talking. The sound of speaking is indecipherable and useless that far below the surface of the sea, so silence becomes the lingua franca, the common denominator for another world.

I am becoming aware that with words ambiguous feelings enter into my life. It almost seems as if it is impossible to speak and not sin . . . . Many people ask me to speak, but nobody as yet has invited me for silence. Still, I realize that the more I speak, the more I will need silence to remain faithful to what I say. People expect too much from speaking, too little from silence.

–Henri Nouwen

For more about Nouwen and another great quote from his writing, check out an earlier Slow Muse posting here.

Silence and solitude, as great teachers have always advised, open us up to new layers of consciousness. This week the layer I have been in features a cast of animals, each bringing its own meaning and significance.

A few days ago I opened the door of my studio and was overwhelmed by the smell of skunk. Being trespassed upon without warning can feel like its own small violation, but I felt more respect than discomfort. For a four legged, not necessarily at home in the industrial landscape that is South Boston, to find its way into my studio… Well that’s just plain heroic.

The next day at dusk my husband David and I sat on an isolated bench in the sanctuary near my home. As soon as the light faded, three or four raccoons appeared. We stayed and watched their self-absorbed scavenging beneath the bushes along the pond’s edge. Our presence there was effortlessly disregarded. We were, after all, the interlopers into their ‘hood who could be overlooked as long as we sat still.

This week I read through my dream journal, and it was full of images of animals–sometimes with starring roles and sometimes just lurking under foot. But as I reconnected with these dream sequences, the power of these animal presences brought me deeper into four legged respect.

I am acutely aware these days of how much we shove down, choose to ignore, refuse to see or feel. Being pragmatic, committed to putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, requires a specialized version of selective neglect. Meanwhile so much is going on, in us as well as around us, that we simply chose not to pay attention to. I need and want more receptivity, more sensitivity, not less.

The legendary symbolism of skunks and raccoons, Native American and otherwise, brought another layer of meaning to my encounters this week. This account rang true for me:

Of course a chunk of animal symbolism of the skunk deals with the pungent odor of its spray let off when it’s threatened.

Just think what a remarkable defense mechanism: Nonviolent, passive, effective. The skunk sends a message to would-be predators: “Nothing personal, just back off and nobody gets hurt.”

This unique method of self-protection and the way a skunk handles its predators is symbolic of:
· Defense
· Prudence
· Protection
· Confidence
· Awareness
· Pacification
· Effectiveness
· Good judgement

We would all do well to take this animal symbolism from the skunk: Do no harm. Indeed, as a totem animal, the skunk asks us to defend ourselves effectively, without causing further conflict.

Interestingly, the skunk would prefer to be even less assertive. You see, it takes over a week to reproduce its stinky juices after using them (their glands are only good for about 4 sprays). Ergo, the skunk is 100% sure it must spray before doing so as this defense tool is a commodity in the wild – not to be wasted on false alarms.

In recognizing this, we see the skunk is the ultimate pacifist, and by adopting its peace-loving ways we may obtain the carefree lifestyle this creature enjoys.

Carefree indeed, the skunk has very few predators because most of the animal kingdom recognize its tell-tale markings and know from wildlife scuttlebutt the skunk is not to be fooled with. As such, the skunk goes about its business with aplomb, and has an innocent quality that few wild creatures have the luxury of exhibiting.

Other animal symbolism of the skunk include:
· Introspection
· Innocence
· Assurance
· Patience
· Silence
· Peace

Those with the skunk as their animal totem are naturally buoyant. They go through life with a calm assurance, and exude a peaceful energy that is extremely attractive to others.

Call upon the spirit of the skunk when you need quality judgment in a situation – particularly if you’re in a stressful state, or someone is pushing your buttons. The skunk will ease you out of the situation with deft and diplomacy.

The skunk can also help calm jangled nerves, and help to center ourselves into a quiet, peaceful state.

Claims to portentious meaning are not quite as generous for the raccoon as they are for the skunk. A number of traditions refer to the symbolism of disguise, to misleading appearances and the masking of truth. On a more positive note, reference is also made to the raccoon’s legendary ability to thrive in a variety of environments and situations.

I feel schooled by the four leggeds, and grateful for it.

Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.

–Rita Mae Brown

These days I’m filling life with a lot more silence than is usual for me. Just a single thought or insight seems food enough for a day in the studio. And each morning begins by breaking everything apart and starting new (“If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts.” See posting on Picabia below.)

This morning I love this quote. Creativity. Trust. Instincts. Hope. Work. Big ideas, each.

Rita Mae Brown, author of Rubyfruit Jungle, among many others