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Longing for Silence and Solitude

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I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
        And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

William Butler Yeats (1839-1922) lived in an earlier less populated time than ours. But in "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," he expresses a longing for solitude and for a silence defined by the loudness of bees. In most places in our industrialized world it is impossible to be out of range of machine noise. I live in fairly densely populated countryside on a back road. In the rare moments when my neighbor's bulldozer or wood processor (that's wood, not word) is stilled, when no one is using a chainsaw, leaf blower or revving an ATV, there is always the sound of planes overhead and traffic from the main road.

Most people I know have become inured to noise. They try to be sympathetic, but I can sense their impatience with what they consider hypersensitivity. I have several friends with chemical sensitivities who encounter the same exasperated tolerance in others. I am not affected by off-gassing from new carpets or other environmental hazards, but my sensitivity to noise helps me to understand the plight of those who are. It is only six months since we moved next door to the wood processor and the earth-moving equipment, but as with any allergy, my response becomes more acute with prolonged exposure. No matter how I reason with myself and though I spend much of the time with earplugs in, my body never fully relaxes. At some level, I remain in fight-or-flight mode.

I like to get up before sunrise and be alone outside for an hour before the day begins. It is my contemplative practice; it's what gets me through the rest of the day. I have made (more than once) what I hoped was an amicable and mutually acceptable agreement with my neighbor to hold off on machine noise before 8 a.m. The wood processor began this morning at 6:15 and went for two hours. So I went through the negotiation process again, which always begins with talking him down, finding common ground (we are both self-employed, work from home, etc.), reassuring him that I see his point of view, too. We ended our discussion cordially and with renewed assurances of quiet until 8.

Nevertheless, when I read Yeats' poem, I wept. I am so homesick for a place that may not exist any longer. Last week I went on hermitage retreat at Villa St Dominic, where a small band of sisters are the stewards of some beautiful land by the Hudson River. In addition to the communal retreat house, they maintain two small hermitages. My retreat was not as quiet as The Lake Isle of Innisfree. The sisters' property is adjacent to a housing development, and the river carries sound. But it was quiet at dawn, quiet enough to hear the wing beats of small birds, quiet enough to hear the flow of the stream below the bluff on its way to the river, quiet enough to hear the sound pine trees make in soft wind. Quiet enough to be still.

It was also a great relief to be in a place where solitude and silence are held as valueable. For a brief time, I did not feel so aberrant. For a brief time, I felt almost at home.

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