The Sound of Silence

“You are awfully quiet, are you ok?” That question was asked of me often in my youth. I replied aloud, “Yes, I’m fine,” while I silently thought, “You sure talk a lot, are you ok?” God forgive my bias toward quiet people.

I do embrace my introversion though, because I had quiet mentors in my life who were not afraid to gather themselves in a single point of consciousness instead of being dispersed everywhere into a cloud of chatter and unimagined extroversion.

My Grandpa Taylor was a quiet man. He once served on the school board in the Timber Hill area of Northeast Oklahoma. It was during a pie supper to raise funds for the school that a local drunk of majestic proportions continually disrupted the pie auction to the point that things were getting very awkward. Grandpa walked over to the drunken man who towered over him (Grandpa was 5’6″), took him by the arm, whispered in his ear, and led him away. My Dad was a boy at the time and said it was much later in life before he thought to ask his Dad what he had said to the disruptive drunk. Grandpa Ross simply said to the man, “Don’t you think I should take you home?”

I’m a little taller than Grandpa, but we talk about the same amount. As needed, when spoken too, or if there is an awkward silence that needs piercing.

Mostly though, I’m content not only in silence, but aloneness. I enjoy hiking far from the city and cross country driving with nobody controlling the radio but me. Those are the moments that I can play music that I wouldn’t let my own children hear, the indulgent songs that speak to the corners of the heart that are not often visited.

I love some of those songs the way I love my wife’s cinnamon rolls. Amazing taste but then I feel heavy and can’t get the tune out of my head the rest of the day.

Which songs imprint the deeper indulgences of my mind? Jungleland by Springsteen, Lyin Eyes by the Eagles, Lola by the Kinks, and Sound of Silence. This is not a proud confession, but an honest one. Lord heal me of my musical afflictions.

Imagine the opening scene of The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman returning from college to his parents home as Paul Simon sings Feelin’ Groovy. It doesn’t work. It must be Sound of Silence. Hoffman is on a people mover at the LA airport moving inexorably into a joyless future as Simon and Garfunkel sing,

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

I love the Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel but after it fades, there is no middle ground…I’m curing my aloneness by either moving to Patagonia or doing co-ed Zumba to Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. 

Paul Simon stated that the song was written in his bathroom, where he turned off the lights to better concentrate. “The main thing about playing the guitar, though, was that I was able to sit by myself and play and dream. And I was always happy doing that. I used to go off in the bathroom, because the bathroom had tiles, so it was a slight echo chamber. I’d turn on the faucet so that water would run (I like that sound, it’s very soothing to me) and I’d play. In the dark. ‘Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again’.”  Garfunkel once summed up the song’s meaning as “the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly internationally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”

I’ve noticed that when I’m alone, my silence is loud. My mind races and I juggle thoughts like a drunk chasing a balloon along a steep cliff. Is there another silence that opens the mind to a deeper level of calm? When is silence therapeutic and when is it neurotic?

We live in a world that honors the loud and obnoxious while stigmatizing the quiet and alone. So, in honor of a quiet man, my Grandpa Ross, here are five perspectives on silence from Max Linsky’s piece in Slate magazine, Silence, to make us think before we speak.

J.D. Salinger: The Man in the Glass House
Ron Rosenbaum • Esquire • June 1997   A pilgrimage to Salinger’s New Hampshire home

“Just being here, at the bottom of the driveway, just beyond the verge of the property line, feels like a trespass of some kind. This is not just private property. It is the property of the most private man in America, perhaps the last private person in America. The silence surrounding this place is not just any silence. It is the work of a lifetime. It is the work of renunciation and determination and expensive litigation. It is a silence of self-exile, cunning, and contemplation. In its own powerful, invisible way, the silence is in itself an eloquent work of art. It is the Great Wall of Silence J.D. Salinger has built around himself.
“It is not a passive silence, it’s a palpable, provocative silence. It’s the kind of silence people make pilgrimages to witness, to challenge. It’s a silence we both respect and resent, a lure and a reproof. Something draws us to it, makes us interrogate it, test it.”

Solitude and Leadership
William Deresiewicz • American Scholar • April 2010
A speech on the value of being alone with your thoughts, delivered to the plebe class at West Point

“You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Concentration means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?”

The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation
Michael Finkel • Men’s Journal • August 2012   A trip to India for total silence

“These are my final words: ‘Why a camp chair?’ I speak them to a man named Wade. Wade from Minnesota. I’m in line behind him, waiting to enter the Dhamma Giri meditation center, in the quiet hill country of western India, for the official start of the 10-day course. Wade tells me that this is his second course and that he learned a valuable lesson from the first. ‘I’m so glad I have this,’ he says, indicating the small folding camp chair tucked under his arm. I utter my last question. It’s never answered. One of the volunteers approaches, puts a finger to his lips, and the silence begins. Not just silence. I have— we all have—signed a pledge to observe what’s called “noble silence.” This means no speaking, no gestures, no eye contact. ‘You must live here,’ we’re told, ‘as if you’re completely alone.’ There is also no exercise permitted, except walking. No cellphones. No computers. No radios. No pens or paper. No books, pamphlets, or magazines. Nothing at all to read. There will be only two simple vegetarian meals a day. My suitcase, with my phone and laptop, is locked away in the meditation center’s office. I have just a day bag, with a couple of toiletries, a med kit, and a single change of clothes. I’m wearing sandals and sweatpants and a loose T-shirt.”

Searching for Silence
Alex Ross • The New Yorker • October 2010   John Cage’s   Art of noise

“On August 29, 1952, David Tudor walked onto the stage of the Maverick Concert Hall, near Woodstock, New York, sat down at the piano, and, for four and a half minutes, made no sound. He was performing ‘4’33”,’ a conceptual work by John Cage. It has been called the ‘silent piece,’ but its purpose is to make people listen. ‘There’s no such thing as silence,’ Cage said, recalling the première. ‘You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.’ Indeed, some listeners didn’t care for the experiment, although they saved their loudest protests for the question-and-answer session afterward. Someone reportedly hollered, ‘Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!’ Even Cage’s mother had her doubts. At a subsequent performance, she asked the composer Earle Brown, ‘Now, Earle, don’t you think that John has gone too far this time?’
“This past July, the pianist Pedja Muzijevic included ‘4’33” ’ in a recital at Maverick, which is in a patch of woods a couple of miles outside Woodstock. I went up for the day, wanting to experience the piece in its native habitat. The hall, made primarily of oak and pine, is rough-hewn and barnlike. On pleasant summer evenings, the doors are left open, so that patrons can listen from benches outside. Muzijevic, mindful of the natural setting, chose not to use a mechanical timepiece; instead, he counted off the seconds in his head. Technology intruded all the same, in the form of a car stereo from somewhere nearby. A solitary bird in the trees struggled to compete with the thumping bass. After a couple of minutes, the stereo receded. There was no wind and no rain. The audience stayed perfectly still. For about a minute, we sat in deep, full silence. Muzijevic broke the spell savagely, with a blast of Wagner: Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from ‘Tristan und Isolde.’ Someone might as well have started up a chainsaw. I might not have been the only listener who wished that the music of the forest had gone on a little longer.

The Unspeakable Odyssey of the Motionless Boy
Joshua Foer • Esquire • October 2008

Silent since a car accident nine years before, Erik Ramsey prepares to speak again. “When Erik thinks about puckering his mouth into an o or stretching his lips into an e, a unique pattern of neurons fires—even though his body doesn’t respond. It’s like flicking switches that connect to a burned-out bulb. The electrode implant picks up the noisy firing signals of about fifty different neurons, amplifies them, and transmits them across Erik’s skull to two small receivers glued to shaved spots on the crown of his head. Those receivers then feed the signal into a computer, which uses a sophisticated algorithm to compare the pattern of neural firings to a library of patterns Kennedy recorded earlier. It takes about fifty milliseconds for the computer to figure out what Erik is trying to say and translate those thoughts into sound. “This is the hardest work Erik does all week, and after three hours he’s fading. Despite the dissolved Provigil capsule that he ingested through his feeding tube at the beginning of the session, his eyes are starting to close. Kennedy promises him that if he can do one more round of testing, he’ll play the Headbangers Ball CD, one of Erik’s favorites. This seems to re-energize him. He tries uh-ih again, and this time guides the cursor precisely from hut to hit. The deep Southern drawl that fills the room is actually a digitized sampling of Eddie’s voice. Nobody would ever mistake these simple vowel sounds for language, but they’re just the first steps. This fall, a new decoder that Guenther is developing will allow Erik to form consonants as well. The goal: full sentences within five years.”

And finally, one verse of many in Holy Scriptures that speak to a quiet soul:

Proverbs 10:19-21   The more talk, the less truth; the wise measure their words. The speech of a good person is worth waiting for; the blabber of the wicked is worthless. The talk of a good person is rich fare for many, but chatterboxes die of an empty heart.


5 responses to “The Sound of Silence”

  1. I thought that was one of your better pieces. Your latent morphing into the blogger never hid the focused quieter thinker I remembered you as. Thanks for reminding me…

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