Write a blog long enough, and you start to repeat yourself. I started this blog in April 2011 and have written about silence a few times since then. As I sit down this morning to write the newest post, silence comes immediately to mind. Silence, because I’m wearing noise-cancelling headphones due to the noise made by some kind of industrial-strength vacuum cleaner (or pump?) operating out of a white van parked beneath my window. Silence, because I woke this morning to city sounds—cars, the bus. There was a bird, but it sounded like a crow, and I found myself thinking, Crows don’t count. Like pigeons, they’re easy to dismiss as city birds rather than the blackbirds, swallows, robins, and small brown juncos (or sparrows) that I noticed earlier this week, while on retreat. Silent retreat, or I may not have noticed them as much. For some time Tuesday afternoon, I sat in a chair looking out over the Russian River valley; an arm’s length away from me, a bush with purple flowers—from the shape of the leaf, I guessed a type of salvia—hosted several bees (I lost track at six) and one very busy hummingbird. Have you ever noticed how much noise a hummingbird makes, swooping—or hovering—near your ear? Almost like the white van outside my window, which just stopped. Like that. And now I hear only the noise-cancelling whiteness of my headphones.
Yes, it’s December and the Christian season of Advent, which means I’ve just returned home from an annual silent retreat at the Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg. I spent a lot of time sitting and looking, walking and noticing, trying to just be—which is a difficult thing for me. I get antsy, anxious, much too obsessed with what I could (or should?) be doing. So it’s a good discipline to sit and hear a hummingbird.
On my third night up there, though, as delicious and rich and deep as the silence felt—in large part thanks to the community of familiar faces and strangers with whom I shared it, for on my own, I don’t think I would savor silence so much—I needed a novel. I needed something to read other than the books on the dining room table about prayer and spiritual healing and the enneagram. I went into the library. I looked for spines with blue dots for Fiction. Not many, but my eye stopped at a title I knew but had never read: My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.
It was familiar to me in the way that songs like “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” and “Seasons in the Sun” are familiar; I saw the words of the title on a mass-market paperback, the kind with pages tinted red along the edges and small type printed on paper that smells musty. My Darling, My Hamburger. The Outsiders. Middle school—grades six through eight. I associate Asher Lev with that era, but why? I’d never read it. Had it be an optional reading for my Language Arts class, one I passed over for Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack? It might have felt too foreign to my suburban WASPy upbringing, with its mention of Shabbos and tzitzit. (Not that shooting smack was familiar, but at least I recognized the reference.)
So I picked it up, I read the description on the back, I took it to a comfy chair and started reading. I finished it the next day. I know there are people—some who read this blog—who read a few novels a week. Richard Burton, according to a review of his recently published diaries, sometimes read three books a day. As a writer, I’ve often felt that I should be a reader like that, someone who uses a few spare moments to read a page, a paragraph, but I’m not. I love to read, but other than days on which I’m fighting a cold (or a mood), I’m lucky if I get in ten pages before falling asleep before bed. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but I rarely give myself the kind of time I did, in one 24-hour period, to read My Name Is Asher Lev. It’s a terrific book. I won’t say more, other than if you haven’t read it, I recommend it.
But most of all, my wish for you, whether you observe the season of Advent or not, is to find some silence, to carve out a quiet place in your daily life. Don’t work on the gift list. Don’t address holiday cards. Don’t make your shopping list. Don’t bake cookies, or surf for online deals. You don’t need a view of a river valley, or a salvia (or any other) bush. You don’t even need a hummingbird, or noise-cancelling headphones. Just try being quiet for a while. Practice silence. And if you’re lucky enough to stumble across a book you didn’t read that book all those years ago, pick it up.