The noise was getting to me.
It felt like my head had a door closed in it, and the noise was putting so much pressure on that door that it couldn’t open. Something was yelling, muffled, and trying to get out, something important, and I couldn’t for the life of me get the world to shut up so I could listen.
I decided to stop the noise. I invited others from my spiritual community, and the Silent Retreat took shape.
We set up camp at generous Kay’s beautiful home and land in Indiana, in the middle of an incredible, flaming Autumn.
As we were preparing for the opening meeting and meal, I kept wondering what would be in my head once we stopped talking and words were gone. We sat around the table, talking about our goals and hopes for the weekend.
“I want to know what’s in my head when the noise stops.”
Talking died down, a few last-minute blurts, a prayer was said. Then, finally, we stopped, and my world was silent. I listened.
The Mario Brothers theme song started playing in my head.
“Doot, doo-doot, doo-doo-doo, de-doo-doo-doopdoot do doodle dootdoot…”
It played and played. It played loud, and it played nonstop. So that’s what’s in my head.
[Now, as the sun sinks, the temperature drops noticeably. I go from shorts and bare feet to sweats and a wool hat with ear flaps.]
At the campfire, the popping of green wood was sharp and satisfying. Crickets, crickets, crickets. No words, no chatting, and other noises became the centerpiece of my aural experience. The jingle of John’s keys as he shifted in his camp chair.
And you know what’s really amazing? We live in an actual galaxy – with, like, a million stars in it! Did you know that the stars make actual shapes? One is an M, and the other is a guy with a belt and a flaccid penis. Huh. God is weird, the stuff S/he comes up with. Oh, and cows? They don’t say “moo”. It’s more like “Ohhhh …” As in, “Ohhh, my udders! Please, somebody milk me! Ohhh…” I wouldn’t have ever learned that had I not stopped blabbing for a while.
When I got tired, I climbed into my enormous tent. I drifted off, Mario Brothers singing me to sleep.
Night one: cold. Really, really cold.
Sounds ruled. All night long, it was dogs, all around, at least a mile circumference around us. A dozen different voices saying bark woof-woof baaaaay and a few little yelps. Pre-dawn: dogs and roosters. Dawn: dogs, roosters, crows and songbirds.
When I tried to get my hands warm, my butt got cold. When I tried to cover my butt, cold leaked in from the other side. It was miserable. So I got up and tried my hand at making a campfire.
[I did that! I’m so proud! And it’s actually burning! OH! OH! Barred owls! Mates, calling to each other? I’m in heaven. The stars have been slowly fading into the lightening sky. The sun isn’t quite over the horizon yet. The dawn sky is pale blueish orange, some leaky green, a washed-out milky color, not particularly glorious, but a lovely morning nonetheless, sitting here by myself, warming my happy feet by my fire. Crows are caw-caw-caw-cawing in rapid succession like little black-feathered machine guns. The grasses around me, 3-4 feet tall, are golden and pink in the morning light. My mind has been chattering to me nonstop, but I don’t really mind. Now cows are waking up … “Ohhhh … my aching udders, ohhhh …” and a flicker is flickflickflickflicking in the woods behind me. Crows calling from all sides, roosters, sun, and now the sounds of the neighbors, visible 1/2 mile or so away across the field, banging feed buckets. Golden morning light. Breathing deeply.]
[Song-in-my-head of the day: Kesha, “Take it Off”. Good God.]
[Someone brought donuts. That’s so not fair.]
[Today, I vow not to eat a chocolate glazed donut, a chocolate frosted donut, a blueberry glazed donut and 5 helping of s’mores.]
In the morning I bushwhacked through the brush-filled young woods, crunching dried leaves underfoot, to a dried-up stream bed. Dry waterways always have neat washdown trash. I collected rusted old-time truck hubcap, the mouth and shoulders of a thick blue glass bottle, and a twisted, corroded piece of metal, a lone E all that was left of its lettering. I made them into a sculpture on the bank for someone to find and wonder about some day.
Then I heard rifle shots a mile or so away, realized it’s probably hunting season for some kind of poor animal, and speed-hiked back through the brush, scratching m myself to crap on pricker vines and acquiring some good sharp splinters along the way. Forest green tee, old brown sweatpants. Not exactly safety orange, my outfit. I tried to make a lot of noise, but I could feel a long-range rifle sighted on me, Deer Genia, at every hasty step. Don’t worry, I didn’t get shot.
Once safe back at the house, I joined the other retreaters up on the porch for some reading, sitting and art-making. We set out a wide variety of art supplies, every color in the landscape accounted for … oh, that candy-shop feeling! First I made a chalk-and-sharpie drawing on tree bark for Ry, incorporating the natural cracks and surface into my design. Then I made a collage for Mo out of a handful of dried flowers and tiny dried yellow petals. In a lovely little flash of inspiration I hollowed out the middle of a dried, gray thistle flower, put three tiny white berries in there, and it became a soft little birds’ nest. Rayya will love that, I thought.
[Sunning my chilly toes. It’s a lovely warm evening at the end of a golden sunny blue-sky day. Kay’s house is at the edge of a large field growing a sea of goldenrod, thistle, dried-out Queen Anne’s lace and tall, wheat-colored grasses. A large swath of forest rings the fields and house, sporting every shade of green, plus the russets, reds and burnt-warm colors of Indiana autumn.]
At one point, sitting in the field, I really became still inside, and all the noise of the city finally faded away. At that moment, I realized I was hearing something extraordinary. A hundred little hoverbees all around me, darting in and out of this late summer goldenrod.
[Now, on the porch, I’m listening to the fast-flying energetic bizz of black flies, the drone of a hundred honeybees and hoverbees, the sporadic distant blam of hunters’ rifles.]
The monstrous splinter in my thumb was starting to swell painfully, so I dug it out with a sharp stick. I’m not kidding. I am so badass. Who needs pansy tweezers?
[On the bush next to the porch steps, strung between two twigs, the filaments of a tiny spider’s web are shimmering in the evening sunlight.]
That afternoon, three of us did a slow, lovely, contemplative dance in the woods. I was filled with God: the spirit of Nature, and the power of women moving in unison. From time to time, I am an ecstatic Priestess.
[I’ve broken my silence for only two reasons – to baby-talk to Kay’s two sweet dogs, and to curse. Each slip-up was totally accidental, but entirely necessary. I’m certainly not going to ignore cute, attention-seeking dogs, and I’ll give up talking, but seriously, I’m so not giving up swearing. It’s like breathing.]
“You make me/ feel like I’m living a teenage dream/ the way you turn me on…”
BLAM … BLAM … BLAMBLAM … whatever it was, it’s very dead now.
[Just before sunset. I’m so incredibly glad I can see these colors, not just glance over them but truly See them, and that I don’t feel separated from this landscape, but a part of it. This light shines through me, through everything. I’m awestruck at the beauty and the wonder of it.]
At dinner, I was struck by the intimacy of people eating together in silence around a table. Each moment, each action, felt charged with intensity and purpose, and it was not always entirely comfortable. I kept looking down at my plate, because where else would I land my gaze? The super-crunchy food made me smile. I realized I was setting down my glass gently, slowly, so as not to make a clunk. I noticed the others were doing the same. I think that profound intimacy would have been lessened by talk. I probably wouldn’t have noticed the taste of my food as much. I marveled at the cool taste of my ice water, the sharp bite of cocktail sauce.
[I haven’t spoken for over 24 hours. I’m beginning to feel a profound change … and, well, I can’t put it into words.]
Night two: Warm.
Some time before dawn I heard coyotes. A wild little band of them, singing and yodeling and yip-yip-yipping, right here in this field. The dogs were barking like crazy. It sounded like they melted away, like they were calling in an echoing chamber, inside a dream, and they floated away into the woods, laughing and being crazy and carefree, a little spooky, a little magical, laughing at the frenzied dogs. Oh, they were having fun!
I dreamed that my pal Terri from church was one of Mo’s relatives, and she was trying to get me to take home one of dozens of adorable kittens she had at her house. The one she wanted me to take was black, and named Pya – also the name of one of my pal Maggie’s novels.
Having learned my lesson from my miserably chilly butt the night before, I had bundled up like crazy. Two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, pants tucked into socks, three or four shirt layers and a parka snapped all the way, the ear-flap hat and the parka hood up. Inside at least three layers of blankets, which I wrapped under my sleeping pad so they wouldn’t flap free and let cold air in. So I slept like a rock. I slept on until I heard the cows groaning to be milked.
Song-in-my-head of the day: Prince, “Darling Nikki”. If you know the words, you know that it’s not a song that exactly lends itself to quiet contemplation. I guess it depends on what you want to contemplate..
[Last night’s firewood is still smoking, curling tendrils floating up into the early sunlight. Sunlight has been my good friend this weekend. Golden, golden flaxy-wheat colors.]
[Today I go back. I can feel my jaw clenching at the thought.]
In all, I spent about 40 silent hours, probably the longest I’ve gone without talking since before I could talk.
Breathe. Enjoy. Relax. Remember.