I used to be quiet. I used to be incredibly self-conscious. In fifth grade I had to give a five minute speech on The Island of the Blue Dolphins. I remember it because of the inordinate amount of dread that I carried for weeks leading up to the public speaking assessment.
At work this past academic year, I talked all day. I taught. I sang songs about my students to keep them positive. I used all of my mind, will, and muscle to get them to be quiet while I explained how to determine the theme of a novel. It was exhausting.
Now, I am on summer break.
Now, my roommates come home from various office jobs and ask me what I did all day. I tell them I slept all morning, cleaned the bathroom, read New York magazine and made a rhubarb crumble. Their jealousy is thinly-veiled when they tease me about my “rough life.”
For the summer at least, I am happy to be the one that stays home, cleans the house, and cooks the dinner—periodically pausing to open the paper and read about our modern-day heroes out saving the world. You go and I will care for the small, quiet space I have here. After all, it is much more manageable.
I have been reading eco-criticism of Shakespeare (apparently this is the kind of thing you do in grad school), and I’ve learned that Elizabethans believed that the human world operated in a microcosm in relation to the macrocosm of the gods and the supernatural. I am happy spending these days caring for my microcosm of the tumultuous New York.
It’s the quiet I like the most.
I think we rush to fill silence in the same way we rush to fill our lives. I recently heard a sermon that reminded me that we are innately worshipping beings. If it’s not God, it’s money, career success, or exercise. Going to spinning classes has made me extremely aware of the religious aspects of group exercise. It’s easy to buy in to a cult. When I signed up for Monster Cycle, their welcome e-mail subject bar even said, “Welcome to the cult.” So I spent an hour sweating in a room full of loud and inspiring music and worshiped the class instructor who punished, encouraged, and affirmed me. I loved it.
I don’t think this is wrong. It’s natural to want to fill your life. But in a life-long attempt to fill my soul with the “right” things, I have recently become fond of silence and stillness.
I’m trying to learn to be comfortable with quiet again. Driving through the country in my boyfriend’s truck, I’m troubled by the misogyny of a country song that mocks women for talking incessantly, while still immensely enjoying the peace in which we spend our two-hour car ride. Two couples for two hours on a two lane highway without sharing many words except to request new songs—on our way back from a quiet camping weekend where we enjoyed the simple beauty of respiratory trees and relaxed human company. Back in the city, my phone dies and I ride the subway home without my usual musical comforts. I overhear a tall young Haitian woman invite an elderly retired chef to her extremely new and hip restaurant in SoHo. At my parent’s house in the suburbs, I accidentally sleep until 11:00 a.m. because it is so quiet. I wake up and tell my mother that Buddhism is appealing to me. “It’s appealing to be absorbed into the great nothing?” she questions.
“Kind of, yeah.”
I read about Thomas Merton, who was a Catholic monk, but also liked Buddhism. In 1955, he wrote, “If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth.”
What would he think of us now?
One evening, I join some old friends for a new exercise class where you do a different high-intensity calorie-burning activity every ten seconds. The instructor shouts, “Jumping jacks!…Hit the deck!…Bicycles!…Spirit fingers while jumping around in a circle!” It’s something like the world’s longest and most exhilarating game of ‘Simon Says,’ but I prefer the closing yoga poses. I like that in yoga there is strength in stillness.
At the end of the class, my friend who recently referred to a religious relative as “crazy” puts her prayer hands to her third eye and is one of two people in the class that bow to the instructor.
The other person, of course, is me.
Caroline Higgins (’11) lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she spends the vast majority of her time teaching English Language Arts. You may also find her at barre exercise classes or playing (and losing) at bar trivia. She continues to be inspired by the energy and diversity of New York City and the beauty of that certain slant of light.