Degrees of silence

Silence is a word that we think we all understand, but Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence has prompted me to think about the role silence plays in my own life.

A few years ago, I suffered a bout of seriously debilitating nervous exhaustion. In the years I’ve been recovering I’ve realised that I have become increasingly aurally sensitive. Some days a too-loud television can leave me feeling as though someone is rubbing at my taut nerves with a violin bow, yet other days it doesn’t bother me. I struggle in an open-plan office with a cacophony of noisy people competing for attention. At home in a toy-strewn living room, the ‘noise’ of clutter overwhelms.

Before my son was born five years I had always been an early riser able to go out on long morning bike rides, do yoga or undertake craft tasks in the stillness of a house yet to awake. Now I’m a mother, I’m still an early riser, I’ve got no choice, but I’ve increasingly missed that early-morning space and quiet to start my day. My son goes from zero to 60mph and brings with him his own energy of noise. This week I’ve been waking at 5.30am, just before the sun/son’s risen, made a cup of tea, sat in the window seat and read A Book of Silence; it’s been just the tonic I’ve needed. I’ve had some peace in which to be alone with my thoughts within the pages of a thought-provoking book.

Not everyone can go to the extremes of looking for silence that Sara Maitland has; she spent six weeks on Skye, and tried various religious retreats, as well as ultimately moving to a live in a house in the middle of Galloway, so I think that the key is to find our own pools of silence in a noisy world. Realistically it’s not achieveable for us all to find houses in which to live in the middle of nowhere; we need to learn to turn the volume down on life.

Where once we may have waited for a bus or gone for a walk and just switched off, we now fill that time with mobile phones. This is one area that she discusses. For instance, my phone is always on silent mode, but I would still class my checking Instagram or Pinterest as being ‘noisy’ as they keep my brain constantly engaged. I do, however, find silent reading restful, as does Maitland. Modern society is so much noisier today in many ways, it’s aurally noisier, we have more visual clutter on our streets, and in our homes, and we invite visually noisy stimulants into our minds on a daily basis in the form of our phones.

I’ve yet to finish this fascinating book, but it has articulated something that I hadn’t quite realised was fully missing from my life; not an absence of noise, but a way of paring down the aural and visual stimulation and enjoy opportunities for peace quiet when they present themselves.

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