Silence

Swing!

My daughter’s pre-school teacher suggested we try to make deliberate spaces in the day for silence with the kids, maybe just 3 minutes to start with. Find a quiet spot in the house, light a candle in the center of the space, and sit quietly. She suggested that these spaces would be incredibly nutritive for the children at many levels, mentally, spiritually, physically – silence is restful, regenerative, necessary, fundamental even for the human being. And we have less of it all the time.

Our first try at three minutes of silence did not go well. My son, who is pre-teen, took charge of the timer and introduced a competitive edge, “I’m going to win at being the most silent!” he said. OK, I thought, that’s fine, if it helps guarantee the silence. But after 10 seconds my daughter started talking:

“What should I do daddy?”

“Shhhhhhush, we have to be quiet – Listen to the birds!” I said

“You both talked!” said my son, “I won!”

“Quiet both of you!!” I hissed.

And from there the whole thing broke down into a mess of whispering and chatting and celebrating (my son) and me getting stressed trying to get everyone to shut up! Neither restful nor regenerative and definitely not what the teacher had in mind.

Curiously, earlier on that day, having already read the teacher’s email, I saw my daughter sitting still on the swing in the garden, hardly moving, just swaying slightly in total peace. I was going to call out to her, to ask what she was doing, but remembered the email about silence, and decided to leaver her alone. She stayed like that, in happy silence, for over 15 minutes. No space or candle or competition required.

So from now on, I’ll let the kids find their own silences and leave them in peace when they are in there. And when I find a bit for myself, I’ll try not to move or disturb it either.

I’ve just finished Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession, a peculiar (and pleasant) book in which very little drama takes place, but two nice, innocent and unassuming people move quietly through changes in their lives. Silence plays a big part in the book, and Hungry Paul, like my daughter when left alone on a swing, always knows what to do with it. Nothing. Here he is waiting for a job interview in a run-down old theatre:

“[Not owning a] mobile phone, he was not tempted to scroll through his texts or refresh his social media feed. His freedom from restlessness meant that he didn’t explore his nasal cavities or fiddle with his zip. His mental stillness left him untroubled by the passage of time or the spooky run-down emptiness of the place. Standing behind the stage curtain, hidden and peeking through a gap, were Arno, Lambert and the chair of the interview board, Mr Davenport from the Arts Council. They marvelled at Hungry Paul’s composure and were humbled by his profound inactivity. After fifteen minutes of observation they were in no doubt that they had their man.”

Later in the book silence is given the celebration it deserves:

“Hungry Paul stared at [his bedroom] ceiling and bathed in the quiet all around him. He tuned his ears to listen to the ever-present silence itself, rather than the bubbles of noise that floated in it. He began to appreciate its profound scale. All major spiritual and philosophical traditions throughout history had emphasised the value of silence. The universe, whether expanding or contracting, does so amidst a vast ocean of it. The big bang sprang from it and will one day return to it. And yet, silence, for all its ubiquity and timelessness, had found itself at odds with the clamorous nature of modern mankind. This noisy opinionated world had made an enemy of silence: it had become something unwelcome, to be broken or filled.” Both quotes from Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession.

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