Seventeen years ago, the American novelist Anne LeClaire gave up talking to people for two days each month. LeClaire is married to a fisherman and they have a son and a daughter. At home, she ignores phone calls and won’t talk to her husband. When she’s out, she shows people a card that says “I Am Having a Day of Silence.” Now, in a new book, Listening Below the Noise, A Meditation on the Practice of Silence, LeClaire reveals the hurdles and rewards of her “silent meditation.”
She was an unlikely candidate for an oath of silence. “The concept was alien to my personality. In high school, I was once given three detentions in a single study hall because I found it impossible to sit through 40 minutes without talking to the girl next to me.” The idea to stop talking struck her while she was walking on a beach. A disembodied voice told her, “sit in silence,” and, oddly, the voice didn’t frighten her, she says. “For some reason, it did not cause me to panic or question my stability.” And “No, I didn’t think I was being sent messages from heaven.”
The next day, she stopped talking for the first time in her life. She was a work-at-home mom, writing novels and running a small business on the side with her normally supportive husband, Hillary, who resisted her plan at first, calling it “inconvenient” and “frustrating when I need to ask you something and you can’t answer.”
In her office the first day, she noticed, “My writing flowed effortlessly. As I thought about this, I wondered if the energy that was normally dissipated in speech was going instead into the work.” She remembered Picasso’s observation: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.” The same day, she overheard her husband answer the phone and tell her friend Betsy, “No, she’s not here right now. I’m not sure when she’ll be back.” She thought: “What a commentary on our civilization, when being alone is considered suspect, when one has to apologize for it, make excuses, hide the fact that one practises it—like a secret vice.”
On another occasion, LeClaire’s friend Heather arrived to help with housework. LeClaire presented her “silence” card and returned to her office and shut the door. But “soon my concentration was broken. Pots banged, cupboard doors slammed. I tried to convince myself that whatever was going on had nothing to do with me. She probably had an argument with her boyfriend.” But as Heather was leaving, she told LeClaire her silence made her angry. “My mother used silence as a weapon,” Heather said. “Her silence was so punishing it could slice you like a knife.”
LeClaire sympathized. Her parents had done the same. “Their anger was disguised in thin-lipped, cold-eyed punitive silence, one that fostered guilt and left you guessing what you’d done wrong.” Had she been in “speaking mode,” LeClaire writes, “I would have said this to Heather: not all silence is punishing. Not all silence is disempowering.” Later in the book, she explains, “Silence holds two faces. To be silenced is not at all the same as choosing not to speak. To be silenced is crippling, belittling and constricting. Chosen stillness can be healing, expansive, instructive.”
Then there was the day her husband voiced a petty complaint while they were driving. “Has he deliberately brought up the reproof because I can’t respond? My heart claps shut. And he keeps talking. Don’t think this is the end of it, I fume. Just wait until tomorrow. You can bet we’ll be discussing this.” The next morning she lies in bed and cannot remember the words he used that upset her. “And I wonder this. What if it hadn’t been a silent day. Knee-jerk reactions. Automatic responses. Spontaneous eruptions. How many times do we jump into an argument when if we waited a day, an hour, our words would be tempered?”
The practice also helped correct her tendency to be critical of others. Once, at an artists’ retreat, she listened as the others introduced themselves. “I slipped into critical mind. One was boastful. Another authoritative. Still another boring. And a fourth dominated the conversation. I was not speaking but my mind was busy—impatient, disapproving. Once again, I was so busy judging, I was unable to hear. I was separated from my fellow artists not only by my silence but by my own insecurities, which had engendered a need to be superior, so very often the place out of which judgment is born.”
A friend once asked her, “What do you gain by observing silence?”
“It makes me smarter,” LeClaire said.
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