Thursday, October 2, 2008

Listen well. Some thoughts on silence...

Last night I attended a reading of two short stories at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side. Salman Rushdie hosted - and Anthony Rapp (Mark in the original cast of Rent) read the second story, "The Year of Silence" by Kevin Brockmeier, originally published in the literary journal Ecotone. Both stories were part of the 2008 edition of "30 Best American Short Stories" which, by chance, also includes my friend's sister, Karen Russell. It was a fun night, and I don't normally do this sort of thing, but I'm glad I did.

So, my thoughts on silence... (as a firetruck siren blares outside my window, and the subway rattles by...)

First, a quick synopsis of the story (skip ahead if you're planning on reading it yourself): For no apparent reason one spring morning, for a few seconds the entire city spontaneously becomes quiet - as if all the pauses of ordinary life lined up at the same moment. The next week, it happens again, for a few seconds longer. Pretty soon, these moments of silence begin to make their way into the collective consciousness in the city, people start looking forward to them, start to appreciate the sense of peace, of contentment, of being that these moments bring. The city passes a law banning all noise. Streets and sidewalks are paved with rubber, pretty soon the only sound is the birds, the rain, and the wind. And, the city is peaceful. Crime rates drop, romances begin and end as people begin to experience life in a deeper way than anyone thought possible. After several months, people begin to settle in to their new world - but something is missing. One day, all the spontaneous sounds of this nearly quiet city align - coughs, stubbed toes, dog barks. It happens again the next week. Sounds, noise, start to overtake the city again. Eventually, the ban on quiet is lifted - as people realize that their worlds had become too predictable... they needed the spark, the energy that their noisy city brought them.

As performed by Anthony Rapp (an amazing performer, and an amazing person), Kevin Brockmeier's story resonated... I could feel the entire audience in quiet assention on this. Now this was quite a liberal crowd, and some of them very well may have regular moments of voluntary silence in their lives, but they were still New Yorkers. And New Yorkers are noisy. But, it was a great thought experiment. How would we react to a world with no noise? Could we handle it?

For the times in my life where I've been able to be in silence (JVC, SLU retreats, Africa) it has been something to treasure. Now, in New York, at times I feel all the jumble that the noisy city brings, and it is overwhelming. I tell my friends that I couldn't survive the city if I didn't have a job that let me leave every day - and see the green trees of the Hudson Valley. Sometimes I wish I could quit my job and just be. Silent, reflective, contemplative. Just be. But then, what would be the fun in that?


Janet said...

That's why you still have a "home" in keep grounded, and of course enjoy our "silence"..
love you!

Jennifer said...

Mom's right...silence can be found quite easily in Kansas, too! Just drive a couple miles outside of town to some farm land or pasture, watching the stars at night and the beautiful sunsets!
Thanks for always posting such great messages to make us all think a little!
Love you!