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.