In Praise of Silence

Camp Rest

Last weekend I had the privilege of being invited to Grand Lake Stream, Maine, pop. 150, to a friend’s camp at the end of a ten-mile lake. There is not another camp in sight on any horizon. If that wasn’t wonderful enough, I opted out of water sports and had the camp to myself one afternoon. Olive was so tuckered out from scampering up and down the pine needle paths and wading for frogs that as soon as the boat pulled away and I sat down with my book, she fell completely asleep at my feet.

Funny thing. Silence.

Initially, I felt suspended, and maybe a slight bit of tension. My hands were idle. I had absolutely no cell service, my phone off and on my bunk. Nothing moved. There were a few birds busy in the tall pine trees, I sensed as much as heard the folding sound of the lake touching the shore. But mostly — nothing. For a split second I was a little worried. I sat back in my deep adirondack chair and watched the still water. I’m alone in the middle of nowhere, after all. But in a few heartbeats or two, my body let go. My hands rested on the smooth wood. Sun shadows broke over me.

I stopped reading.

I don’t actually remember when I last heard nothing. My writing retreat in Seattle has been under siege with a construction project next door going on a year (earplugs). My town life is full of cars, trucks, dog barking and neighbor improvement projects (fan/air conditioner). My garden fountain spews water 24-7. The refrigerator hums. The washing machine thumps. Car doors slam. My phone buzzes or dings all day long.

What I immediately recognized was how my brain began to expand in the quiet. All the problems that have cluttered up my thinking — wresting over title words, passages that have gotten stale, blog ideas — began leisurely rolling through my head, uninvited. I had nowhere to go, I could just sit there and think, inhaling the smell of bark and dusty pine. In and out. In and out.

Then a word became the answer. Then one had to go. Of course that chapter really doesn’t work.

I never moved, just thought about whatever popped into my head.

Recently I applied to a writing residency in Washington State, to a women’s writing center called Hedgebrook.  Seven women are chosen for seven cabins over a given period of time, to write and share ideas. All meals and housekeeping are provided. If accepted, you have to surrender to your project during the day in silence. Lunch is delivered to the door of your cabin. Dinner is communal.

I hadn’t actually understood how rich that could be until the afternoon began to deepen. Olive rolled over, and the sun lowered slowly through the tips of the trees. I had no sense of how much time had passed. I had written five pages in my notebook — good pages — and I was mentally refreshed in a way no workshop or hour at the computer has ever provided. I wanted to stay for a month in my chair and dream.

I reluctantly clued into the drone of the engine, the laughing shouts from the water skiing boaters. Olive jumped down to chase a small wood mouse to the water’s edge. While the peace and quiet had ended, I was relaxed. Ready for kitchen work and a last swim and good company. I tucked my notebook into my bag, hoping I was tucking some of that quiet in, too.

Moments like this are not lost on me these days: I am determined to find another quiet space, or be invited to Hedgebrook some day, or just remember to rest my hands and let my thinking go where it may. An important and lasting lesson amongst the pine. Solitude is good for me. Thank you friends.


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