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The Safety of Silence

I’ve always been a reader. For as long as I can remember, even back when I was a small child, I sought refuge in bed with a book. I have many memories of hours spent under the covers reading, during the day, at night, in the summer with a fan blowing on me, in the winter with cold toes. In the quiet, in my bed, with the words of others: that has always been the absolute definition of peace to me.

It is the quiet as much as—or more than—the books, I suspect, that is essential to my feeling truly calm. I have always preferred it quiet, and made many choices as a child and young woman that reflected my basic instinct towards silence. As I get older, this bias is becoming both stronger and better understood. I don’t listen to music in my home or have the television on as background noise. I am easily overwhelmed by loud noises or by multiple people talking to me at the same time. My poor family endures more than their share of shushing.

As I learn to sink into the familiarity and safety of silence, I hear the music it contains: there is texture to silence, a universe of sounds (below, beyond, I am not sure) more profound than the everyday sounds of life. In these I find true comfort and, more importantly, some measure of spiritual ease. It took me a long time to realize that there was a pattern connecting the individual moments of lambent peace where I felt closest to holiness. The thread that ties these disparate moments together is, I see now with the perspective of midlife, the silvery strand of silence.

As a child in church, I was most moved by those moments right after a hymn or a prayer. I could feel, somehow, the language of the benediction reverberating in the quiet. As a lonely teenager at boarding school in New Hampshire, I was drawn to the woods, where I ran, alone, for miles and miles. In these winter woods, I heard nothing but my own breathing, the crunch of snow under my feet, and the occasional call of a bird, and I felt comforted, close to something akin to God. Awareness of the whole, of that which is larger than each of us, floats over me in these quiet moments like a light mantle about my shoulders. I sense the presence of something surpassing, beyond understanding but deeply reassuring, and I exhale.

The books in which I have found the most solace in those moments of silence surely say something about the contours of my spiritual life. Most of all, I am drawn to poetry. Instinctively, when I need to touch the hem of heaven, I pick up Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry or Stanley Kunitz or Adrienne Rich. Into these familiar volumes, whose covers are bent, spines are cracked, and pages underlined and full of marginalia, I tumble, the quiet of the room enabling my free-fall into a place where I can imagine that the universe will catch me. This is as close to conventional “faith” as I have ever come, and it suits me just fine.

One of the primary joys of motherhood has been watching my children develop their own passions for reading. So far I see this predilection in my daughter more than in my son, through some combination of personality and age. We have spent many quiet hours lying next to each other on my bed, each engrossed in a book. I feel a very real sense of communion with her in these silent times, and I trust she feels the same. Occasionally my son climbs in to join us, and I can tell he’s seeking not just to be a part of the action but to participate in the gentle calm that suffuses the room.

It is a joy to observe my children feeling their way around the worlds of both quiet and books. I can see that they are both nurtured, to varying degrees, by each. I imagine this is an inheritance from me, though whether it is biological or because of influence I don’t know. I don’t think it matters either way. I will be happy if, as a mother, I have taught my children about the holiness that quiet can carry, about the magic that’s contained in the pages of a beautiful book.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and headhunter who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and son. She graduated from Princeton with a degree in English and has an MBA from Harvard.  Her writing has been anthologized and published in a variety of print and online sources and she writes daily at  www.adesignsovast.com. 

Lindsey Mead Russell is a mother, writer, and headhunter who lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband, daughter, and son. She graduated from Princeton with a degree in English and has an MBA from Harvard. Her writing has been anthologized and published in a variety of print and online sources and she writes daily at www.adesignsovast.com.

Posted in: November 2012, Reflection

7 Responses to The Safety of Silence

  1. Lindsey November 8, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    What an honor to read my words here. Thank you so much. xox

  2. Elizabeth Grant Thomas November 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    Beautiful piece, Lindsey. I, too, find myself turning more towards silence as I approach middle age, my tolerance for noise waning. Have you read “A Book of Silence?” If not, you need to!

    • Sally Willits November 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

      You’re right. The holiness of silence is wonderful. From one Quaker to another. xo

  3. Maggie January 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    Your contemplative use of the language is equivalent to Mary Oliver in this piece. This piece is so cool!

  4. Susan Knox January 5, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    City & State
    Ponte de Lima, Portugal
    I always thought I loved to read, but reading your article, I realized I loved the peace and solitude that is so essential and that I learned as a youngster to manufacture for myself as I read and left behind the everyday reality and dove into the mind of some author, even shutting out sounds, even the sound of someone calling me to dinner! I’ve always been easily distracted too, but can concentrate when reading. Thank God for teachers who taught me how to read!

  5. Nancy Turner January 6, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

    City & State
    Kingsland, TX
    Your article so well reflects my feelings toward reading and silence and of finding God in nature. And I also see in my family, as yours, the chain of tradition: I was read to by my parents every night and books were sacred; one of the key moments of my childhood was when my mother took me, at about age 6, to the library to get me a library card. I read to my two children every night as they grew up, and now my daughter (and I, when I visit) reads to my grandson nightly and he is a 7 year old book lover. My son also loved reading, but he died just before his daughter was born and so she unfortunately did not have the benefit of family daily reading. But for me, as for you, silence is the strong thread. My adoptive father was a quiet, gentle man, and in his last years of life, when he was in his late 90s, he would tell me of his childhood: his father from a family of birthright Quakers, dating back to colonial Philadelphia, and as a boy he’d attend Quaker meeting when visiting the Turners and Motts and another family name of long-standing that I cannot remember at this time. And I learned how Quakerism molded my father, and also me through him, to be oft quiet and pensive, gentle and peaceful. Dad died peacefully, at age 99 1/2, in 2005; and on his grave I had engraved words he told me were his philosophy of a long, happy life: BE HUMBLE. Because of your article, I’ve today, as part of my New Year’s resolutions for 2014, subscribed to Quaker Journal.

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