As I look back on it, I realize a good portion of my college career was spent looking for quiet places. Studying in my dorm room was usually out of the question, due to hall soccer and stereos.
My quest often lead me to upper reaches of the library -- where government documents yellow slowly into oblivion. But even here, the drone of the air conditioners could sometimes get to be too much, and I'd go off again looking for a shady tree or tucked-away office. It was in these places that I was able to untether my thinking just a little bit more than usual. There was less chance of getting distracted. Or so I always told myself.
That was before a summertime trip to Maine changed the way I think about silence. I had come to work at a camp -- a typical summer retreat with a lodge that looked out over a lake where boat wakes criss-crossed and sunlight flickered like silver guitar strings down toward the depths.
I was assigned to live in a tent on the edge of the lake, off a ways into the woods. It was a comfortable spot to spend a late afternoon watching the speed boats vie for open water. And I have to admit that it gave me a slightly smug sense of satisfaction to be in this prime location, away from the hubbub of the camp. It was like living in my own corner of Walden.
Sleep came slowly the first few nights. I found myself straining to hear the familiar sounds of screen doors falling shut and hushed whispers between the bunks. Instead, there was the silence of the woods and the lake. Sometimes, when I listened carefully, I could hear a boat cruising the coves slowly, but even that had a natural rhythm -- like the lap of the lake against the rocks.
In the morning, the lake would be muffled under mist. Steam rose off the surface as the water surrendered yesterday's sunshine to the morning chill. It seemed as though time were suspended in grey silence. The quietness was calm and complete.
This, I thought, was what I'd been searching for during all those late-night study sessions. Bring on those term papers and textbooks, I said to myself, I could handle even macroeconomics in a setting like this.
Sometimes, when I rowed a safety boat for a group of early morning swimmers, the mist hung heavy until we were on our way in for breakfast. The dip of the oars and the sounds of the swimmers' strokes melded with the morning, and I would feel a sense of silence within.
It was then that I realized my idea of silence had been wrong. So often we think of silence strictly as something external and beyond our control -- something we have to search for, like a lost book or a missing button. But it's this kind of silence that can get blown away like a dried dandelion in the wind the minute a siren goes off or a car backfires.
Sitting in the mist on those Maine mornings, I came to realize that there were plenty of sounds. The eerie call of the loons out by the island or the footfalls of an early morning hiker, it was all there. It was just a matter of listening -- or perhaps not listening. The quietness I felt there on the edge of the lake came as much from my own thinking as it did from the setting.
Lasting silence, I realized, had to come from this inner source. As long as I was looking for it in places, it could be too easily taken away.
That's what I'd been doing in college, and that's why I never seemed to feel satisfied for long. There was always that lawmower outside the window, or some other nuisance, that I could blame for my lack of concentration.
It took a change in perspective to see myself as source, rather than subject of the silence. At the same time, this new outlook stripped away an old excuse for putting off my academic responsibilities. After all, it was very easy to push aside An Introduction to Economics and German adjective endings -- when I could pin the rap on a noisy lawnmower.
When I went back to school for the next term, I still couldn't study sitting on a stereo speaker. And I was still a frequent fixture among the library's government documents. But there was a difference. I wasn't always looking for my peace in some place. Silence was a state of mind I could take with me everywhere.
This doesn't mean I would pass up a quiet chair on the beach to do my reading in a crowded Greyhound terminal. But, at the same time, the experience that summer taught me that when I had to read in a bus terminal, I could.
The lake is far away from me now. But I've been able to take the silence of those mornings with me -- back to college, and later, into my office.
And when I do hear some maddening sound, like the idle of a tractor-trailer as frozen hamburger patties are unloaded at the restaurant next door, I try to think of the mist on the lake and my place in the silence. And it's here.