If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
~ from “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda
In the Silence
by Rebekah Choat
I had assumed it was an American ideal, this sense that we must always be moving, always chasing the carrot, always doing something. We are trained as young children to set goals and map out steps to reach them; we’re reminded as freshmen in high school that we have to be thinking of the future, taking the right courses, making the right applications to the right institutions before it’s too late; people expect us to be able to tell them on graduation day what we’re going to do with our lives. If we should be so utterly careless as to reach our mid-twenties without a well-organized five-year, ten-year, twenty-year plan, we are considered irresponsible and “lacking purpose.”
But apparently it’s not just an American thing after all. Chilean Pablo Neruda was clearly familiar with this manic pace. Maybe most people in modern times are single-minded about keeping our lives moving. We work more and more hours, straining for the next rung on the ladder; we even schedule our leisure time to “make the most of every minute,” cramming so many activities into so few days of vacation that we arrive home exhausted and barely able to distinguish our memories of one day’s events from another’s. We are not comfortable with the idea that we could for once do nothing.
And our activities are accompanied by a constant backdrop of noise. We turn on the tv news as we get up in the morning. The car radio starts simultaneously with the engine. We carry portable listening devices everywhere we go.
Perpetual motion. Unceasing sound. But beneath it all, masked by the rush and the roar, too often there is an undercurrent of confusion, dissatisfaction, even panic.
Two years ago, I was caught in a whirlpool of circumstances spinning wildly out of control. I ran myself ragged, trying to manage problems far beyond my capability, to convince myself and everyone around me that nothing particularly out of the ordinary was happening, to keep up the appearance that all was well. But I couldn’t fix things, and what I was experiencing was not normal, and all was not at all well. And one sunny September Saturday, my world began collapsing around me. The deluge of crises started washing away the foundation, and the stones of the retaining wall I had built started falling faster than I could pick them up and put them back.
I reached a point at which there really was nothing I could do, and a huge silence engulfed me – not a silence of all the noise around me stopping, but of my going quiet and shutting down, losing my voice. The silence didn’t interrupt this sadness, exactly; it was more like I was cocooned with my grief, unable to feel anything outside it, incapable of articulating my pain. What few thoughts would come together coherent in my mind died unspoken in my throat. In that dim, silent place I was forced to begin to understand myself, to realize that the way I had been functioning was actually threatening my life and the lives of those I loved.
A faithful friend helped me begin working through my brokenness, speaking truth to me over and over until I could hear it, coaxing words I needed to say out of the deep places where I had buried them. My friend also brought me into connection with poetry in a way I had not experienced before, which has been an inestimable part of the saving grace that is healing me day by day.
One of the magical qualities of poetry is its capacity for showing us glimpses of worlds beyond our own. But there is something supremely comforting in the balancing aspect of finding that poets living right now across the ocean and across the street, and poets living hundreds of years ago in bustling Old World cities and sleepy New England towns have felt what I feel, have struggled with the same demons that harass me. I don’t know how it works – how hearing my life in their words helps me find my own voice – but I am forever grateful.