Silence is an interesting thing. It can speak volumes, like when someone is glowering silent disapproval all over someone else’s third spilled glass of milk that day. Or, if you wake up early enough in the morning, before everyone else is up and chatting, silence can just be gloriously, miraculously restful.
I am not good at quiet. In my work, I chat non-stop, which is kind of funny considering I work in a library. It is a one-person branch in a small community, though, and people don’t come there to study in silence. They come to chitchat about the weather and their children and most of all, books. I love that, because getting paid to talk about books is just about the closest thing to heaven I can imagine from a professional perspective.
Still, I do crave silence sometimes, and with two little girls in the house silence is not an everyday (or every week) occurrence. We seem to get louder all the time, raising our voices to be heard over the din of raucous giggling, yelling, singing, crying masses. Okay, it is not masses, it is only two but sometimes they feel like more.
So this past week when I was hit with a whopping case of flu, complete with silence-inducing laryngitis, it got me thinking about ways to be quiet. I suppose that is the easiest way to shut me up, to strike me with laryngitis. So everything I said has had to be whispered, while at the same time the sore throat meant I was extremely frugal with what I had to say at all. If it was not important, I just saved my breath. I waited for people to come to me, rather than trying to yell over the din.
Hmmmmmm. I might have something there.
Could this be a new way of communicating effectively? Because frankly, I am tired of raising my voice.
Anyhow, the other side of the coin is that it was just nice to feel like I didn’t HAVE to talk. I could sit silently. We are, in these days of extreme connectivity, apt to fill silences as quickly as they arise, when really some empty spaces would be good for all of us. Being quiet means you can hear the wind blow, or the birds sing, or the soft breathing of a sleeping child across the hall. It also means you can be completely present in that moment, rather than clicking away on your smartphone or cranking up your earbuds.
Last fall, as part of a mindfulness-based stress management course, I had to take part in a one-day silent retreat. That meant for the full day, there was no talking, no eye contact with the other participants, just silence. Let’s just say right up front that I have never, ever in my life been silent for an entire day, and I was intimidated. Even while eating lunch at a table with others, no talk, no eye contact. We spent the day doing relaxation exercises, meditating, yoga, writing in a journal, or just sitting in a peaceful spot staring at the sea. There was a little boathouse down by the water with a hanging swing chair, and I remember sitting there, idly swinging and thinking “I want to do this every week.”
Which leads me to try to find ways of being silent in my everyday life and in the life of my family. Getting up early seems to be the best way for me, while staying up later seems to work best for Dan. Carving out even a half-hour of time to be alone and quiet makes such a difference to my day. Sometimes I do some yoga or stretches. Other days I make a cup of tea and just sit down at my little desk with a notebook. Some mornings I sit and watch the birds outside the window. It sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is, but it is amazing what a difference it makes. Last year I had just been finding that stress was hijacking my day right from the second I became conscious in the morning. The moment I heard a child wake up, I would leap out of bed with my mind already on overdrive, thinking of all the things I had to do, my heart rate already pounding and that cranky feeling already well-established for the day. THAT is not healthy.
We are trying to help our children find a little quiet as well, which is not easy. But the most simple way to do it is to allow a bit of time at the end of the day for them to read in bed on their own. Just giving them that silent 20 minutes to sit in bed alone with a book helps them unwind and quiet their minds enough to really relax for sleep. Of course Ava can’t read yet but we encourage her to just look at books, which she loves to do. What is really important is that our children learn ways to quiet themselves.
We are always saying “Take a deep breath.” This is a catchall phrase that is sometimes an attempt to divert someone from a tantrum or from smacking their sibling across the head with a Groovy Girl. But it is also a way of diffusing a kid who is getting so wound up that her eyes are actually unfocused and her heart is pounding. It is healthy for children to learn ways to self-soothe, and just taking five deep breaths with the eyes closed is a simple technique they can use anywhere. Heck, it’s a simple technique we should all use.
Needless to say, going on silent retreat is not an option for everyone, and laryngitis isn’t an easily-acquirable solution either, but a little quiet time is good for everyone in the family. It helps us to ground ourselves in the world, to just “be” without constantly having to “do.” That is a huge challenge especially for busy parents, but if we can provide that example to our children it will also help them to handle stress and busy-ness with greater calm.
So take a deep breath. And for heaven’s sake, be QUIET.