The Texture of Silence


The texture of silence


Silence has texture.

You don’t realise how different those textures are until you stop to listen.

There’s the broken glass, bleeding edge texture of the awkward silence that falls in the ringing aftermath of a fight. You can feel the sharp fractured edges as the shattered peace falls to the ground like glass bird-scarers in an old fashioned kitchen garden.

Then there’s the hungry salivating silence of expectation, that bated breath hush, like the dying tones of the dinner gong where only vibrations and eagerness remain.

And finally there’s the silence you find in holy places, where worlds meet and touch and even overlap. You walk in and are struck by the depth of the quiet, self conscious suddenly of the creak of a door or arthritic knees, yet any sound you make rapidly vanishes, absorbed into the deep silence as a stone dropped into an underground lake. The ripples spread out to infinity and are lost, and the silence returns. It has the texture of the finest velvet, rich and soft as forest moss. When you let yourself be still, you can hear the silence over the roar of traffic or the bustle of a busy kitchen, like a kind of celestial white noise.

When you find a place where this sort of silence prevails, cherish it. Hold it in your heart, explore that texture in your mind till you understand that beyond all the sounds of the world, from the discordant roar of aircraft, the inanity of human chatter to the melody of springtime birds and the wind in the wheat, this silence is the song of the spirit that plays on whether we choose to hear it or not.

At the eye of the hurricane

……there is said to be a centre of deep silence. Yesterday, much to my surprise, I was that deep silence.  An extraordinary Zen-like moment of stillness inside me radiating outwards into a force nine gale. Yes, really. I’m still reeling from it.

I am not talking about metaphorical or emotional or spiritual hurricanes but a physical one, albeit one generated in an environmental tank.

Yesterday afternoon I took some of my students to our local college, which was originally purely a maritime and boatbuilding college for an experience in the pool used for training rig workers, lifeboatment, pilots and so on in the basics of escape and rescue at sea. I know this seems a strange thing to take language students to, but I do what I am asked. I don’t always ask questions.

The pool is basically a very deep swimming pool, equipped with machinery to simulate extreme weather conditions. The students who were not going in stayed up on a gantry-style platform about 3 or 4 metres above the water. This not only kept them safely out of the way but kept them from getting soaked when the waves were in action.

My first concern was whether they would have a lifejacket to fit me. I am rather well-endowed and it did somewhat worry me that they would have to cast about to find one big enough… but I worried needlessly and before long, safety talks done, we trooped down to the pool and leaped in. It took me five minutes to get used to not needing to tread water and let the jacket do its work.

We arranged ourselves in a circle and the waves started. Big waves, crashing all over the place. That was rather fun, though I mistimed a few and swallowed a fair bit of water. Then out and back up onto the gantry. I totally bottled out of the 4m jump; truth to tell I wanted to try but my knees gave way when I looked down. About half of the students(some were English, from the college itself) did and then the instructor upped the odds and had the lights OFF for jumps.

I rejoined the pool the less scary way by leaping in off the side for the next exercise which was the life raft. Now when you see them in films, you kind of wonder what’s so hard about getting into one. Big round inflatable thing with a sort of pyramid/cone for cover, and handy little ropes hanging off it, what’s so difficult about that?  Eerrm, where do I start? The sheer effort required from upper body strength to heave a fully clothed body(did I mention we had to be dressed and shod for this? No. Well, we were in leggings, t-shirt and trainers over bathing suits) out of rough water, into a wet rubber thing, is enormous. No one managed it unaided, including the two fit lads who went in first. Then they helped haul the rest of us in. I did tell them to leave me for the sharks but they kindly refused and I lay soon gasping and floundering like a landed fish on the floor of the raft. I struggled to move out to the back of the raft because it was bucking like a demon possessed bronco. I elbowed a student in the face at some point. I think she’s forgiven me. Propped at the back, gripping some inner ropes I leaned against the wall of the raft and the last of our ten person crew flopped in and then everything changed again. The waves and the wind and the rain began and we were flung around like a cork in a whirlpool. Everyone was screaming, partly out of excitement and partly out of real fear. I wasn’t. I squealed once and then stopped.

The lights went out. Almost total darkness and the storm raged around us, flinging the raft around, whirling it like a leaf and artificial lightning leapt across the blackness. The screaming intensified. I went deeper into the quietness inside and became the silence. I seemed to be totally withdrawn from the emotional responses I had been feeling seconds before. I’d been close to total sensory overload and now, all was stillness. I was stillness and silence and utter peace. I didn’t understand why people were screaming. Could they not feel what I felt?

The moment passed and the storm, controlled by the instructor waned and stopped and we all flopped out, swam to shore and the next group got the perfect storm while we stood and dripped. We were asked to climb a rope wall from the tank, which is unbelievably hard. I tried twice and fell off twice; my arms simply not strong enough to haul my sodden (and let’s be honest, bulky) body out of the water on a ladder that swung and slipped and took the skin off the palms of your hand. We all had a chance to be winched out, which was quite fun and then it was over.

Back in the changing room I reflected first on the fact that at sea I would have died, probably from cold, because I wasn’t strong enough to climb out alone and then on where that peace had come from. It was a totally awesome moment, using the word in its truest sense and not the slang meaning.

I didn’t sleep much last night. Aching muscles and an over active mind saw to that. I’ve got through a hard day today on about three hour’s kip but I keep returning to that still silence at the eye of the hurricane. 

At the eye of the storm is a point of peace; how often can I become that point of peace in a troubled world?

Echoes from a Retreat

“You are beautiful but fallen.”

Words echo across more than twenty years; I’d never forgotten them and in fact I have probably seamlessly incorporated them into my personal philosophy. It came up in conversation with J a few nights go, about the idea of a mantra repeated to oneself about liking and approving of oneself. I said I had tried it and it simply didn’t work. It made me sad every time I have tried it because my instant response was simply that it wasn’t true and saying it wouldn’t make it true. I hasten to add that this is purely personal. It works for many people and is a good method. But just as from my teaching experience I know that there are always more than one way to explain something, I also know that since people are unique, one method will not work for all. Indeed, when I consider all the self help books I’ve seen or read, this explains why even successful authors of such books are obliged to write more, putting the same stuff but in a  slightly different way. The cynic in me thinks too that it’s about making even more money out of people’s desire for wholeness and healing but I will give some the benefit of the doubt. One size does not fit all.

Reel back the years then to March 1989 and to the North York moors. Ampleforth Abbey, home to the famous boys’ school where lived Cardinal Basil Hume, then the Abbot and one of the few truly holy men I have ever come across(once in Westminster Abbey for the enthronement of the archbishop of York, and once in a tiny village on the moors where Hume was directing traffic after a massive influx of pilgrims clogged the one main street and left it gridlocked) I went on retreat, seven months pregnant and I remember being about the only woman there , where most of the men were either ordinands(those preparing for ordination) or like my husband, firmly on the way to becoming such. It struck me then as surreal, a heavily pregnant woman at a silent retreat and it still does now.

A silent retreat is pretty much what you think it is; a weekend of silence. After the initial meal, and the first talk and finally Compline, talking was forbidden. The experience was extraordinary. You might imagine that little communication went on and you’d be wrong. People communicated on other levels and by other means and while talking was forbidden, laughing was not, and a lot of laughing went on. For those who needed to talk, we were permitted to talk outside the building. March on the North York moors is cold, and the talkers(I did join them) huddled like the smokers today to exchange a few words  before scuttling back inside. I will never forget someone miming the sequence from Fawlty Towers “Duck’s Off!” during lunch on the Saturday.

I cannot remember the speaker’s name but I remember a lot of what he said but the thing that is relevant to this post is the sentence I started with. “You are beautiful but fallen.” Translate “fallen” in this context and I get, imperfect, incomplete, work in progress, damaged. For me the fact that this mantra starts with the positive and then qualifies it is why I can’t say, “I love and approve of myself”. For me, I can only go so far because I can’t tell myself lies and make them truths. I am beautiful. I know this; it’s my own personal beauty, internal and external. I’ve come to accept it over the years even when at times I reject it because of despair . But I also know that I am far from perfect or even complete and so the two statements are ones  can live with. I live better with duality than I do with singularity; for every night, there is(and must be) a day. Yin and yang. Light and dark.

One day I may be able to say I love and approve of myself but until that time I will say, I am beautiful but fallen.