It’s been a crazy few weeks, to put it mildly. Work pressures (including an unusually complicated appellate brief and a client preparing for trial), holidays, out-of-town relatives in town, and rehearsal for this weekend’s performance of Haydn’s The Creation. When I was finally able to take a day off last week—my first in nearly three weeks—I spent it cleaning the house and finally putting down most of the rugs I’d picked up from the cleaners a month earlier.
Unsurprisingly, writing has been sidelined during this period. Although my mind has never stopped trying to resolve various plot problems in my novel-in-progress, it’s been a struggle to find time, inclination, and energy all that the same time so that I can commit any of it to the page and see whether these notions actually work.
Earlier this week, in a fit of rebellion, I made breakfast and took it into the living room instead of the office. I curled up in my ancient oversized recliner with tea, English muffin, and a library book. The cats settled in around me, and I settled in with Ann Patchett’s latest essays.
I’d been reading for more than an hour when it dawned on me that I hadn’t turned on music. Normally, my day is accompanied by instrumental classical music. Turning on the listen-live feature of WCRB is my cue to begin work. In the evening, if I’m not reading with Bach in the background, the television provides the soundtrack to my chores or winding-down.
On that Tuesday morning, though, I found myself surrounded by silence. And it was exactly what I needed, a soft blanket of nothing.
Later, I considered the character of silence. Recently, I watched an episode of Bonanza where Ben Cartwright is alone at his dining table. He and Hop Sing, the Cartwright family’s cook, bemoan the silence in a house that was once filled with his young family. The scene felt a bit like an overreaction—after all, it certainly wasn’t the first time his adult sons went away on business, and they would soon be coming home. Besides, in a house where turning on the radio or the television was never an option to begin with, surely he couldn’t have been unfamiliar with the lack of sound from others. Still, I understand what the writers were doing in that scene, i.e., using the characters’ contrasting the sounds from the past to the present unwelcome silence in order to underscore how Ben felt his family was becoming fragmented.
Silence, it turns out, is not merely the absence of sound. It comes in many hues, from heartbreaking abandonment to blessed relief. Here are just a few of the types of silence I’ve considered:
negative—the absence of sound
affirmative—the choice to make no sound
protective/guarding against the outside world
all I can manage
Then, there’s the silence that isn’t quite silent. This silence exposes all the tiny background sounds:
the flutter of a cat shaking her head
the rustle of her claw scritching her chin
the hum of the furnace blowing heat into the house
the faint tinkle of water falling in the cat’s fountain
the soft thump of paws landing on the back of my chair
the snore of a sleeping cat
the squeak of my fingers against the bowl of the wineglass
the rumble of a plane far overhead
the hiss of my fingers gliding against each other
the whisper of pen and hand moving across paper
the swallowing that normally goes without notice
the distinctive brrr of a cat who wants food
the song of the bird outside the window
Silence changes in different light. The silence that welcomes relaxation in warm daylight can suggest isolation in the evening’s darkness. The overtones and implications—chosen solitude versus unwelcome aloneness—color how we experience silence.
This weekend, my world will be rich with glorious music—solos, duets, trios, and choruses interwoven with the orchestra. In these final hours before I move from my quiet home to the lush aural tapestry of The Creation, I recall reading somewhere that the true music lies in the spaces between the notes. In fact, I suggest that it is the combination of the two—the note and the silence—that makes the music. In the same way, silence offsets the noise and bustle of daily life. When I drive home from rehearsal, it’s entirely possible that I will do so in silence, allowing the echoes of the evening to resonate in my mind’s ear before fading into road noise and, eventually, the sounds of normal life.