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Desperately seeking silence

By Ron Charles / January 11, 2001



Like most young parents, my wife and I weren't going to have a TV. After all, when would we have time for that blather when we were helping the kids compose sonnets in the forest or teaching them to make their own lightbulbs?

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Like most middle-aged parents, my wife and I have a television. And the kids watch it too much. And this troubles us.

Sometimes, in a burst of righteous outrage, I snatch the remote like a hostage grabbing his captive's gun. When nothing happens, my daughter patiently explains that I'm punching the stereo remote. It's not the dramatic gesture I was hoping for.

After a brief search between the sofa cushions, I find the other remote (along with 63 cents and a sock), silence the TV, and announce that there's entirely too much noise in this house.

"We're just going to be quiet. We're going to read. Or write a letter. Or draw."

"Mom!" my daughter yells. "Can I go to Lauren's?"

More than 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately. And quietly. In "Walden," he writes: "Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house." Mr. Thoreau did not have any children.

Last summer, a hefty branch of our family spent a week at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York. It's a resort-cum-college for well-heeled adults and their children and grandchildren. Brick roads run through perfectly restored Victorian homes. Gardens are groomed into casual elegance. Every morning, thousands of Chautauquans amble to the amphitheater to hear Jane Goodall plea for the environment or Sandra Day O'Connor lecture about justice. It is a place out of time, for quiet contemplation.

We had five children among us. Quiet contemplation was not their top priority. Usually, arguing over who had the biggest piece of cake was their top priority. During the day, the TV blared or the children roared.

At night, moments of peace would descend, but one of our little friends was being potty-trained. He wore a special pair of underpants equipped with an ear-piercing alarm capable of calling fire trucks from miles away. At least twice a night, we all bolted out of bed expecting imminent air attack, only to realize through a groggy haze that one of us hadn't made it to the bathroom.

By Sunday morning, I was desperate for a little quiet. I felt like one of those walking catfish that can survive for hours on dry ground, but must eventually return to the water or die. As it happened, three of our group were celebrating birthdays that weekend, so the day held considerable festivity.

In the ecumenical spirit of Chautauqua, I announced that I was going to a Quaker meeting. This was viewed as vaguely heretical. For one, we are not Quakers. More important, I couldn't take any of the children with me. It was a brilliant plan. I could tell my father wished he had thought of it.

"I'm going with you," my 9-year-old daughter announced.

"No!" I panicked in a particularly un-Quakerlike way. "You wouldn't like it. It's just silence. You just sit there. For an hour."

Other adults chimed in with enticing activities, promises of great fun to be had, but she would not be dissuaded. All down the red-brick road, I warned her of the unending stillness of the Meeting, the importance of not fidgeting or even whispering or sighing. But like a real Friend, she had made up her mind to stay with me.

The Quaker meeting house at Chautauqua is, appropriately, the most modest church on campus. As we entered the small octagonal building, the floor creaked noisily under us. We sat on one of the wooden benches, wondering if we'd make it. After a few minutes of facial pantomime, we turned away from each other and prayed. We looked out the window. We stared at the other people and tried to figure out if they were asleep. We prayed some more. We thought about how grateful we were for our family. We listened to a dog bark.

There's a rhythm to an hour of communal silence that's a delight to discover. But so much about our modern lives keeps us from finding it. Most children are never allowed to discover it at all.

About halfway through, three people got up and left in a horrendous ruckus of whispered apologies and creaky footsteps. Madeline and I stared at each other and rolled our eyes with great superiority. Then we prayed some more.

Finally, one of the older members leaned over and shook hands with the man next to her. Then we all shook hands. Around the room, we meekly introduced ourselves. Except my daughter: "My name is Madeline," she announced loudly. "I'm from Boston, and today is my birthday."

When we got home, I reported that she had sat peacefully through the entire meeting. The family was incredulous. The other children seemed suspicious.

We weren't quiet again the rest of the week, but that was all right. We don't raise our own chickens or even make our own greeting cards, and who has time nowadays for two years by a pond? But an hour of silence goes a long way.

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