“My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence.” ― Edith Sitwell
I’m re-reading Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, a book I return to when my need for silence is weighing on me and for whatever reason I can’t get any.
What I like so much about this book is that Maitland treats silence as a positive. Her focus isn’t on silence as the absence of sound or conversation so much as on silence as a quality to seek out and to cultivate.
Maitland describes herself as having had an “unusually noisy” childhood. Thus she establishes her credentials, proving she is talkative as the next person and can function perfectly well in the noisy social world, therefore her interest in silence is not pathological or a symptom of her failure to ‘fit’ into ‘normal’ society.
I have no such credentials. I grew up in a very quiet house. We were not a radio-listening, television-watching, music-playing household. My parents sometimes played records from a small collection of classical music, but evenings were often silent with only the sound of the clock ticking and pages being turned. We were a reading house, and reading is a solitary and silent activity.
Perhaps this is why silence doesn’t distress me. Silence represents engagement with an inner life, be it a book or one’s own imagination. My father drew and painted, my mother knitted, read and wrote, and these activities were carried out without conversation. Silence was productive. it was the sign of someone being fully absorbed in an activity of great personal value.
It wasn’t a lack of anything. It was, on the contrary, total presence. Mindfulness by another name.