A Kind of Hush

(July 2007)
Published in Good Weekend (Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age)

I was twenty. I’d left university to hitch-hike around Australia and washed up on a fishing trawler where I was shut in with five crewmen and the constant drone of diesel for weeks at a stretch. Back on shore, I shared a tiny flat with eight others. One morning, I walked into the centre of Darwin, rented a room, and locked myself in with a journal and pen, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. I didn’t leave or speak for three days. I’d never been so alone, or so quiet but, my god, it was like the first taste of sunshine. I could feel the fibres inside unraveling. I could hear my thoughts. I could breathe. After all, without being able to hear your breathing, how can you listen to your heart?

Composer John Cage insisted, “there is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.” In 1951, Cage studied sound and its absence, spending time in an echoless chamber. He reported hearing his heartbeat and the blood coursing through his body. After negative audience response to his 4’33″—three movements without a note—he wrote: “What they thought was silence because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.” The first time I snorkeled, it was the noise of the quiet which mesmerised me: my breathing amplified so that when I emerged, blinking, from that underwater world, I was dazed, as though literally transported, having to remember my own name. Yoga is the same: which is why yoga done to to music seems odd to me. Yoga is at least partly about the transportation of self through silence. Some practitioners suggest that the physical transformation—the asanas, or postures—are secondary to the main purpose, which is a subjugating of self to something greater, deeper.

My life is busy and noisy and I’m the noisiest thing in it. The fact is, I talk a lot, often loudly. Certainly I laugh loudly. Snort, actually, or so I’ve been told; I play music of both the dirt and digital kinds. Yet silence etches its way through it all, escalating at crucial moments. As a child, I immersed myself in books, huddling under an old grape vine in the backyard, diving into the quiet of the pages with nothing but the noise of my own breathing to disturb me. In high school, I forgot about quiet and gave in to the demands of adolescence: noise, action, talk. My mouth was rarely closed, and when it was, I pumped up music loud enough to fill the gaps. Like many ex-teenagers, I reckon I could point a finger at my back-then hair-gelled, Cure-listening self and suggest that I was depressed. And that the noise wasn’t helping. In fact, I dived into depression whole-heartedly in my late teens—and I wonder now whether that was simply a reasonable response to the cacophony. When there is no language, no context, in which it would be acceptable to ask for a few days peace, how else is a girl to retreat?

Yet a retreat into a lonely sulk is not the same as active creative silence. The Trappist monk and prolific writer Thomas Merton wrote “Silence has many dimensions. It can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. Negative silence blurs and confuses our identity and we lapse into daydreams or diffuse anxieties. Positive silence pulls us together and makes us realize who we are, who we might be, and the distance between these two.”

When I was twenty-two I had, as many people do at that age, a messy break-up. I could barely haul myself through the day, I’d been so reliant on my boyfriend and my self-esteem was heavily, desperately, bound up with being desired. Rebounding madly, I started to date a man I’d known for about five minutes. On the second date—I think I was babbling, sobbing into my wine, and he was no doubt desperate to shut me up—he told me about a retreat he’d been on in South-Western Australia. Run by a lay catholic community, it was a retreat which demanded silence, for up to three weeks. I thought about not having to speak, not having to explain my red eyes, not having to answer any questions. I caught a coach the next morning.

That retreat woke me up to something astonishing: the creative power of silence. There were maybe ten of us, all doing our own thing, eating communal meals wordlessly, passing each other on walks, nodding. And here’s a strange thing, at the end of my stay I felt in communion with those strangers. Words aren’t always the tools for connection. And something else, transformed within me. I had arrived in that old convent broken, deeply wounded. In the midst of the empty space, I discovered, in the words of Coleridge, how “the silence sank/Like music on my heart”. A week after my return to the city, I ran into a friend on the street—”what’s happened to you? ” she asked “you look transformed.” And I was. I had realised, not before time, that I was not the centre.

Writing of the film, Into Great Silence, about the contemplative monks of La Grande Chartreuse, many journalists have been astonished at the notion, and the effect of a silent film about silence. Who’d have thought? And those monks, day after day, wouldn’t they go nuts? Only allowed to speak on Sunday? It’s as if we are so enormously separated from quietness that the very notion is bizarre; as though we are defined primarily by the noise we make, even if the noise is babel. The human world once was punctuated by the sounds and rhythms of nature; before mechanisation, periods of silence were inevitable. Now we are more bombarded by consumer noise than ever before. By consumer noise I mean noise of the purchased, chosen variety, as opposed to the sounds of nature, or of industry, or incidental life. Reviewing the film in the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Byrnes marveled that “its rhythms are so alien to the 21st century”. Yet I wonder whether our century’s noisiness has made us either happier or healthier?

I make my living in a creative field; so my need for silence is somehow legitimised. My hunch, though, is that solitude and silence—those undervalued siblings—are crucial in the creation of a beautiful life. In The Call of Solitude, Ester Bucholz writes: “Solitude is an important route to creativity… forging a happy and worthwhile life—and navigating through that life fully and gracefully—is itself a creative act.” Erica Jong goes further, suggesting that talent is common, while “What is rare is the courage to nurture it in solitude and to follow the talent to the dark places where it leads.” And stillness does require courage, though its rewards are bountiful, and beautiful.

New York author Jonathan Franzen has claimed, though I suspect some exaggeration, that he spent much of his writing time, while working on The Corrections, in complete silence, blindfolded and wearing earmuffs. Tim Winton has declared that he too needs absolute silence to work, with any noise a potential distraction. Unlike Franzen or Winton, I don’t have the circumstances either in life or architecture which allow me to keep silence through the average working week. I have children who punctuate the days with welcome noise. My study is part of a house set in a real place. Dogs bark. Workmen batter at a house down the road. Instead, I find chunks of time—weeks or days—when I can dive down into silence.

When I told a friend recently that I planned to take one of my regular sojourns into silence, he paused, startled. Then: “You? Silent? You couldn’t shut up for ten minutes.” Which, in a social context, is true. And which is precisely why I feel such a strong—physical—desire to feed the quietness in myself. I wrote the first chapter of my first novel while staying with a group of nuns on the edge of the Home Counties in the South of England. The nuns weren’t silent, actually—not that lot. They included a jazz harpist, a clown, and a drummer. The guest house, though, was empty except for me and I could breathe, think quietly, in solitude. And after a week, or maybe two, I woke up in the middle of the night with the story of that first novel pouring itself through my body. It’s become a professional habit now, a few times for each book: a week or two spent in silence, sleeping in a single bed, working at a narrow desk with a blanket over my knees, relishing the absence of any sound except the blood coursing, and the words tapdancing in my head. This is the alchemy of silence.

My father died in 1997. I flew across the world to Sydney, and drove through the night to the funeral. His five children gathered and we proceeded to shout and sing and fight and cry. We made—as we usually do on the rare occasions when we are all together—a lot of noise. Perhaps this noisy brood is another reason I’m so precious about my silence. Grieving, I canceled speaking and teaching commitments, huddled in and spoke to no-one for over a month, and at the end of that time I felt ready to—albeit nervously—re-enter the world. People called, wanting to talk, wanting me to grieve with words, but I could not. As with initiation rituals, I often feel that our culture, our time, has lost the ability to value silence as one of the colours on the palette of human experience.

Last weekend I took my children to a large cinema complex. Christina Aguiliera was blasting out in the foyer, competing with the noise of a mass of Timezone games; threading through it all, an electronic voice called ticket numbers for the snack bar. In order to communicate, children and parents shrieked at each other: it was the aural equivalent of coke and chips. And I wonder whether, as with an excess of junk food, we’ve simply stopped noticing the effect of all that noise.

Then the other day the family conversation turned to the question of birthday presents and the prospect of MP3 players. My six year old son turned to me.

“Mum,” he said, “You’re too old for an Ipod.”

It’s a relief really: one more excuse for the alternative, the music in my heart, the silence.