01/04/2013 04:17 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

How to Be Silent

When I was a toddler with an enormous vocabulary and an English accent courtesy of a fancy-pants London nursery school, I apparently talked so much while sitting on the lap of Kingsley Amis, a well-known talker, he requested I be removed and silenced. So, I can talk. My whole family can talk. They talk simultaneously, name-drop, pontificate and insult people in a way that only the Irish can appreciate. We're mean, we're verbal and we're smart. But sometimes, regularly, I want silence. Not whispering, not an occasional lull but full-blown silence. The rustling of leaves, lapping of waves, the call of a bird or the sound of ice cracking is fine, but otherwise there should be nothing.

In my yoga class last night there were a number of conversations about books, food, travel, the weather and diets. I wanted people to shut up. True, the class hadn't started yet, but still! Why are you taking yoga if you can't be silent? This is what I was thinking. I have been on a retreat with this same group and they talk incessantly when not practicing yoga. They are much better at yoga than me, wonderful women, but they are not taking yoga to explore silence. They take yoga to hang out with each other. This is, of course, perfectly fine but I need to be quiet. I long to be silent. When I was in my early teens I used to rise from the dinner table, assure my mother I'd be back to clean up, and run out the door to escape the conversation, the brilliant repartee of two Harvard graduates who were fascinating and funny. I would run across the grass to the meadow and fling myself down on my back and wait to hear nothing. I needed to be alone, to be quiet, to listen and hear nothing.

My boyfriend in college was quiet. I found this comforting and exotic. He listened and he pondered, whereas I immediately absorbed information and identified its importance. He liked to lie with me in his arms saying nothing, and I loved that stillness. My family found him creepy. I wanted to remain in that calm, but fate took me elsewhere. In the midst of an early nervous breakdown, I told my father I wanted to drop out of school and watch for fires like Jack Kerouac. He did not find this a viable plan. "I want to be quiet," I sobbed. "I need to be alone."

"That is silly," my father said, although I knew he understood. "What would you learn?"

I learned how to survive in silence. After a few years of trying hard to stop grieving a sister's death, I went to live part-time in a Zen Buddhist monastery. It was all polished wood and lowered eyes, monks and incense and bowing and silence. We sat for hours on our zabutons and during sesshin, a weeklong silent retreat, there was no speaking at all. Some people found it awful but I felt like I had died and gone to paradise. At the end of the week people chattered about how they felt, they went on and on about the effect the quiet had on them, and to me it sounded like glass shattering -- words, words, words. I felt sad. There was nothing to say. Sitting helped me let go of my grief; wordless silence let me accept that my sister's life was gone.

When I was pregnant I couldn't sleep and often sat alone in our living room imagining what this boy, this stranger, would teach me. After he arrived, those feeds at night, the silence of the city asleep and that creature who had my sister's eyes snuffling as he fed, it was a silence of love and peace and happiness. Now, I make sure to get up early. I write or read, drink my coffee and welcome this loneliness. I tell my writing students to stop talking because they will not hear anything without the silence. The cats sit in my lap, stare at me, but they don't meow. They understand the rarity of this time together before the talking resumes and the silence is lost forever.

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