A Quest for Quiet and the Ability to Live in it

My husband and I are on a road trip this winter. With freedom heralded in by an empty nest and working from home, we loaded the car on New Year’s Day and began driving west. We’re keeping to ourselves, preparing and eating our meals in hotel rooms, and doing everything possible to stay safe and remain socially distanced from others. The destination was Colorado Springs where we bought some serious snow tires for our car and then headed into the San Juan mountains.

Of all the things chilling me out in Colorado, the biggest has been its soundtrack. Spending an extended period of time in a remote town, I couldn’t help thinking about noise, or the lack thereof. Here, people drive slowly and they don’t honk. I haven’t heard one big truck straining uphill, one motorcycle revving at a red light, one lawnmower or leaf blower. Instead, as I walk the dogs I’m accompanied by the sound of a river flowing around moss covered boulders, of wind through the pines, of my boots crunching atop dry, hard-packed snow, the tinkle of the dogs’ tags, and sometimes their low growl warning of someone’s approach.

Maybe I’m just a sensitive creature, possibly even bordering on Sensory Processing Disorder, but I’ve always resented loud noise and its imposition. You see, I grew up in a household with many televisions. Nothing big and high tech — it was the mid ’70s and early ’80s and we had about six channels to choose from. Our TVs had antennae, no cable hook ups, and small, rounded monitors relative to their chunky plastic casings. We had an RCA color set that held a place of prominence in the family room and a couple little portable black and whites my mother would stow on her bathroom counter or by the kitchen sink. She puttered through the house to the sound of the Today show, Bob Barker and the Price is Right, and an afternoon marathon of soap operas. At 5pm, the local news announced it was time to start making dinner (and socially acceptable to pour a first glass of wine). Later when we got cable, my father kept a TV on his desk with the monotone voice of news and markets keeping him informed.

Maybe a background of tv voices was my mother’s antidote to loneliness, or a preference for the voices on TV over her own internal chatter. Maybe it was even a way of manifesting prosperity to those who entered our home — after all, her generation clung to the memory of which families on the block were the first to purchase those shiny new things called TVs. Whatever her motivations, those transistors made an imprint one me. As soon as I became the master of my own domain and later a parent of young children, I put a value on silence, on peace, and on being careful to not disturb others. And no gratuitous television. My children would not have to compete with Al Roker to be heard before leaving for school in the morning.

I first became really aware of my sensitivity to sound when my husband and children and I moved to Switzerland. In Zurich, there are laws against making noise on Sundays and in the middle of the day (like a nationwide observance of nap time) to the extent one could be fined for running a washing machine or cutting one’s grass. It seemed a little over-reaching when we first arrived, but I quickly became a fan. Just as with my time in Colorado, I appreciated the silence like the missing ingredient I had been searching for all along. And when we returned to Boston, I noticed with even more acuity how much sound is thrown into the atmosphere.

Some of this noise is unavoidable: lawn mowers, snow blowers, construction, the byproducts of industrialized life. But there are also car stereos that blast bass to the point of vibrating the street, Harleys designed to let everyone within a mile know you’re accelerating, and those little pocket-computers we call smart phones, some of which don’t seem to come with a mute button. I’ll readily admit to being sensitive. But when my husband suggested I purchase an expensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones as a cure, I thought of my mother-in-law who, at the end of her life, opted to stick with her malfunctioning hearing aids, admitting to me she was happier in a cocoon of silence. Not really the solution I was looking for. We live in a world, for better or worse, where quiet is a rare commodity and maybe its not just quiet I’m seeking.

I recently participated in a series of Zoom workshops run by Kim Chestney to discuss the lessons of her book Radical Intuition. One participant who was 101 years old made the point that she owes much of her longevity to her ability to sit quietly. Whenever she has a problem, she sits alone or with a book and has a conversation with herself. It was her opinion that the ability to do such a thing was missing in the modern age. Maybe for my mother it was TV, but these days there are phones and games and other sources of input hard to put down. Unlike the centenarian in my Zoom workshop, I won’t blame the phenomenon on technology or the modern era. It has probably always been hard to just be with quiet and listen. After all, I am not impervious to the desire to fill my time and eardrums with a podcast or playlist.

Sure, I’ve found quiet in Boston when I’m willing to wake early enough, and experience those sacred hours between 4am and 6am when even the Harley riders are still sleeping. I’m even familiar with the pure quiet that exists in my bedroom in the middle of the night when I lie awake with insomnia. That’s not really the solution either. The challenge, I’ve realized, isn’t so much reducing the noise input as it is being able to sit with quiet; to be with it rather than filling that quiet with television or podcast, audiobook, music, or a stream of things to worry about; to experience nothingness.

I point to my meditation practice as an example of how challenging it can be to center on my breath, how annoying those thoughts are that pass through my mind, the ones I am supposed to send off in a helium balloon. Just as I resisted COVID lockdown at first and had to accept being alone more, it’s human to resist quiet, and whatever the still small voice has to say. It can feel scary. What will we know when there are no distractions?

In Colorado, with more opportunities to interact with quiet, I am going beyond soundlessness to listening. I’m reminded why I love walking the dogs in the woods, and why it’s okay to fall deeper and deeper into an introverted, locked down state. Maybe the newfound simplicity of my days mirrors what my centurion classmate experienced as a younger woman.

As if the universe really wanted to drum the lesson of listening into me, our time in Colorado has coincided, quite by chance, with the topic arising in my reading. I devoured the audio version (and the irony is not lost on me) of Julie Cameron’s latest book, The Listening Path, which is a great companion to The Artist’s Way. Both books are ones I highly recommend for creative people — as in, all people. A first step in The Listening Path is to listen to others, truly listen in order to be a good conversationalist and a good partner. After reading that chapter I had to apologize to my husband of 31 years. You see, despite my affinity for quiet, I’d fallen into the habit of not being the best listener, of interrupting him and assuming after all these years I’d heard everything he had to tell me and could finish his sentences. Needless to say, he appreciated the self-awareness and my desire to do better.

A next step in The Listening Path is to listen to the environment — to wind, rain, thunder. I practice this step walking the dogs through the snow-covered valley, the chilly carpeting muting noise even further. Next, Cameron suggests listening to ourselves through journaling or what she prescribes as morning pages, three handwritten pages composed every morning within 45 minutes of rising, a practice I have long held. This leads to listening to our higher selves, becoming aware of the still small voice, and to moving beyond physical listening to something more profound: being in touch with those who have passed over, listening to our heroes, and great authors we admire.

Over the same weeks I was walking the quiet riverside path on the valley floor, chewing on Julia Cameron’s sage words, and chatting on Zoom about Radical Intuition, my Torah study class was discussing the wisdom of King Solomon. When God appeared in a dream to ask the young king what gifts he would like bestowed upon him, Solomon asked for an understanding mind in order to lead the people and to be able to judge between good and bad. God was so pleased Solomon did not ask for a long life or for riches, that he added the extra gift of a listening heart. To learn that the authors of the Torah viewed the heart and not the mind as the place where decisions were made, the place where listening happened and knowing occurred, felt like a culminating piece of the puzzle. In discussions about a listening heart with the rabbi, it sounded a lot like an ability to trust one’s “Radical Intuition” per Kim Chestney, or what Julie Cameron calls listening to our higher selves. To have a listening heart sounded a lot like having the patience to pay attention to my husband’s long story over dinner.

I’m grateful to have evolved to a place where those loud televisions of my childhood are on mute. I’m grateful I’ve adopted a practice of writing every morning that helps me sort through the chaos of our world. And I am so grateful for the quiet and synchronicity on this journey to Colorado, which has put this lesson before me: that the sacred gift of quiet comes hand in hand with a call to listen, a timely, timeless, and daily practice. My challenge is to continue listening once we leave this quiet place. And as I type this final sentence, I’m perking at the sound of birds chirping outside still weeks before the emergence of spring, and I hear something inside my heart that sounds like permission, saying it’s okay to get up from my keyboard, put the dogs on their leads and go out in the sunshine to walk.

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Jeanne Blasberg

Jeanne Blasberg

Jeanne is the award-winning & best-selling author of EDEN (SWP ’17) and THE NINE (SWP ‘19). A graduate of Smith College, she lives in Boston & Westerly, RI.