Solstice Stillness

It’s in stillness that we prepare ourselves for dealing with the realities of life, which are often very difficult ones—Pico Iyer ‘How Can We Find More Time To Be Still?’ Ted Radio Hour 

 

When the nettles of frustration brush my skin and leave tiny welts of irrational ire, when I strain to speak and manage only a raspy caw, like the ubiquitous crow that everyone hears but no one listens to, when the voices in my networks become the clashings of a thousand cymbaleers, I know it is time to seek silence.

 

I cradle the familiar collection of equilibrium-shifting triggers in my hands. The drawing down of light as winter approaches is a smooth cool stone, heavy in my palm; within the spiraling centers of delicate shells echo the hollowness of the holidays. I am learning not to fear these found bits of worn, sculpted, worked nature, for they are natural parts of me. They are opportunities to withdraw and listen deeply, to embrace and elevate the heavier parts of my soul.

 

Author Colm Tóibín once stated that he writes the silence, the space between the words. I find such comfort in this notion, for it is a way of accepting the world that speaks to a writer who is so often overwhelmed by it. Not surprisingly, it is the times when I seek stillness that I find clarity in my writing, that new characters or ways over seemingly-insurmountable plot walls are revealed.

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the space between words Copyright 2014 Julie Christine Johnson

 

But beneath the stone and carapace are broken bits of shell and sea glass not yet smoothed by the wisdom of time. Their sharp corners, coated with grating sand, poke into the soft meat of my palm. These are the events external to my life, the headlines and sound bites and smartphone photos of action and reaction. The shared moments of our culture that become hashtags and status updates. The voices opining about it all. Briefly, I join the discussion, but quickly overwhelmed, I retreat and determine the most important thing I can do is to listen. Carefully choose the voices I allow in, and fall quiet, listening.

 

Susan Cain reminds us that this culture values action over contemplation. We are a nation deeply uncomfortable with silence and we often equate opinion with action. Author Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, expressed in a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, “I have no tolerance for people who are not thinking deeply about things. I have no tolerance for the kind of small talk that people need to fill silence. And I have no tolerance for people not being a part of the world and … trying to change it.” Jacqueline Woodson On Growing Up, Coming Out And Saying Hi To Strangers. During his seventeen years of silence, John Francis realized what a relief it was to listen fully to others, instead of listening only to the point of formulating his own response.

 

We change the world for the better only when we understand what makes the world better for others. The only way to develop the degree of empathy necessary to effect change is to listen to what those others have to say.

 

In this week of longest nights, as I continue to seek stillness within and without, I offer you a Solstice wish of peace and quiet so that you, too, may listen and hear your own heart and the hearts of others.

 

 

 

 

The Music of Silence

“Music and silence combine strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music.” ~ Marcel Marceau

I struggle with silence. I write in the pre-dawn hours to classical music, during the day to one of a few dozen playlists. I run to NPR when I need to keep a steady, easy pace, switching over to up-tempo music when the legs are ready to work. I walk to podcasts. I read to music, or worse, to the news. It is so quiet here at night, I can’t sleep without a white noise machine.

But I’m discovering the music of silence.

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Autumn brings me to the forest. In the late afternoon, when my eyes have swelled and my brain has shrunk from hours in front of the computer, I take long rambles through the woods. I force myself to go it alone. To listen. It’s scary for me to set out without music or podcast, for it means I have only my thoughts to keep me company.
But there is music in the silence.

The salal and salmonberry rustle as creatures take umbrage at my intrusion. My knees click in complaint, for they’ve already suffered a morning run. My breath puffs and my heartbeat thrums as I plod up a steep slope. The susurration of the tide on the shore far below, the bellow of a foghorn, the whine of a plane propeller, the pneumatic holler of geese and the uneven call and response of my worries and hopes create a symphony of sound.

The quieter I become, the louder the world seems. I have silenced social media, finding the crowded, noisiest rooms are the loneliest. Writing is lonely enough. And filling it with others’ noise means I’m not present on my own page.

Welcoming stillness may just give me a chance to hear the most important thing. And what could that be? Shhh…

Listen… 

Yet the Edge of Day is Bruised

It is a singularly beautiful day. Brendan and I are walking through one of our favorite haunts – a stretch of beach on the Puget Sound north of Seattle. Nature is shaking her hair free, sending droplets of rain one moment, a burst of sun the next. The wind is whipping up secret scents from the forest behind me, the kelp and seaweed at my feet weep a salty tang. Seagulls coast on air currents and fall in flocks to the water, whistling and laughing in jovial competition; geese march in armies across driftwood to the wetlands hidden among giant cattails and Lady ferns. The autumnal equinox occurred on Friday, yet there is only a slight shift of color, an occasional rash of plum red or burnt sienna staining the leafy arm of a maple or ash.

On this windy afternoon the tide is high and waves spin and slap against the shore. The water is surprisingly rough in this sheltered finger of water. The rush of whitecaps in the cobalt water mirrors the bundles of clouds rushing in the forget-me-not blue sky. Wind surfers twist in the cool air, fish trawlers crest the heaving water. A towering city floats past – a cruise ship bound for Alaska that seems outlandish in this solemn stretch of bay between Seattle and the Kitsap Peninsula. Shadowed by clouds, the Olympic Mountains beyond are a primordial and ominous barrier to the Pacific Ocean.

This is a peaceful, beloved place only a few steps removed from the chatter and traffic of a city. It is not far from where a friend recently ended his life.

I am acutely aware of Jeff’s absence as I walk along the sand, so near to where he spent his final hours. It is hard to imagine that anyone would choose to forgo this beauty, that there could be any sorrow so deep it could not find comfort in a place so unblemished and whole.

After Jeff’s body was found and his death ruled a suicide, we wondered why he didn’t ask for help, why we didn’t see it coming, how such a warm, generous, open-hearted man could hide such unhappiness and continue to function in a job he loved, to care for an ill wife of whom he spoke in the most tender terms.

But the mine shaft of depression is deep and the slide into its depths can be swift – the trapdoor opens and swallows you alive, leaving behind your skin and a shadow of your soul. You remain in the close, dark place alone, your voice silenced, like those nightmares when you try to scream, but only a croak escapes your throat.

Some are able to crawl their way back to the surface, to emerge panting and dazed. Their visible scars will fade in time, but there will be wounds which never fully heal. Others slide deeper, until the only way out becomes the only choice they believe is left to them.

We cannot know another’s heart. We cannot judge their response to or tolerance of pain any more than we can begin to understand our own. We will regret missed clues, we will feel anger at what we perceive as a selfish act, we will mourn the beautiful days they will never experience.

I am deeply sorry for the choice Jeff made. I am beginning to accept that it cannot be undone. But I’m certain he is with me on the beach today. And now I know he’s okay.