There is a contradiction in the title of this post – well, it was there already back when Simon and Garfunkel wrote the original song. After all, silence assumes that there are no sounds – it sort of goes with the concept. Silence may be mute but it can be tangible, like “a heavy silence settled over the company” it can be restful like “they lay close together, hands clasped. There was no need for words, the silence was like a comforting quilt covering them” and it can be threatening, like “the silence extended between them. His eyes never left hers, his posture shifted, shoulders shoved forward, his torso leaning towards her. ‘Say something,’ she whispered. He shook his head, advanced in her direction. Without knowing why she retreated.” (Hmm. I could do something with that last example…)
Whatever the case, silence is rarely truly silent. In the absence of normal sounds, all those other noises we don’t hear become loud and insistent. Take the example of a night out in the country. The house is silent, there is no reassuring sound of distant traffic, (and it doesn’t help that there’s not a streetlamp in sight) there is no muted music from the neighbouring apartment, Mrs Greene’s dog isn’t barking (or if it is, you’re not close enough to hear it) and suddenly there it is. Plopp. Plopp. You sit up in bed, and what was until five seconds ago a peaceful lack of sounds is now a veritable symphony, because now that you’re back to being alert you hear the rustle of little feet inside your walls, there’s the night call of a bird, and what is that squeaking sound from the floorboards straight above your head?
I like silence – I like being silent. One of the benefits of having a place in an isolated spot is that there is a lack of the constant chatter that numbs my ears into inattention. Second benefit is that there’s no one to talk to, ergo I can spend hours in silence. My silence leads to contemplation. While my mouth is noiseless, my brain buzzes with ideas, with problems I need to sort. Now and then, my brain checks out, releasing a happy little sigh as it descends into non-activity. For some seconds, silence rules absolute, both inside and out. I sit on a rock, staring at the frozen lake before me and am suddenly aware of not having thought anything for a couple of minutes. In the distance a goose honks. The sound breaks the interlude and recalls me to the present, to a world where the wind whips through the bare branches, the snow crunches under my feet and the ice scrapes against the rocks that line the shore. Sounds I’ve never really heard before as they’re too fragile to survive the onslaught of city life.
John Bauer – look at that night sky!
The other night, my husband told me to hurry up and come outside. It was pitch black, it was well below zero and I was happy in the sofa with tea and biscuits within easy reach.
“Never mind that,” he said, “you have to come!” Ever the obedient wife (weeeelll…) I stuck my feet into my clogs, draped a heavy quilt over my shoulders and stepped out to join him in the night. The air was so clear one could almost hear it crackle with cold. Above, stars glittered, a myriad of little pin points of light. My husband placed an arm around my shoulders and held me close.
“Listen,” he said. So I did, and from the lake rose mournful notes, hollow and dissonant they filled the air.
“It’s the ice!” I said.
He just nodded. We remained outside for as long as we could, while the ice on the lake sang for us. And way up high, the stars seemed to tinkle in return, the faint, sweet sound of ancient light trapped in space. I think I finally understood what Simon and Garfunkel were on about when they sang “listening without hearing”. Sadly, that’s what most of us do. We rush through modern life and our senses are under constant onslaught from TV, computers, traffic, other people, construction work. No wonder we don’t hear – it’s hard enough to listen!
I have heard the ice sing. When my husband tightened his hold on my shoulders, my ear was pressed to his chest and I could hear the sound of his heart. The ice, his pulse, the sounds of silence; sounds that you will never hear unless you actively listen for them.