I recently read something in a spiritual self-help book about how us modern people cannot stand silence; it makes us antsy and too directly confronted with the present moment or our interior nature or such things. But I have absolutely no problem with silence. Sometimes I forget that it is there, like an unassuming friend that lets me lose myself in navel-gazing without bothering me to talk about trivial things. I do not believe this is due to some spiritual attainment. Rather, it is probably just because of the inertia of my introverted nature that I do not seek to enrich my life with inspiring sounds, nor allow the discomfort of silence to strike me with a sharper consciousness.
But there is one thing I can say for my own incidental practice of silence. It makes the noises that do interrupt it more significant—sometimes wholly enchanted and even holy.
I live a quiet life lately. I spend most of my day in my little apartment, because I work part time at a very technical redaction job that can be carried out entirely from my computer at home. I cook, I wash my clothes by hand, I meditate, I write things in a small orange notebook. But I do not feel alone. Aside from the presence of something eternal that presses inexplicable eyes upon me, there is also a world of effervescent sounds that seem to be born just to accompany me and to have a place in someone’s memory before they die.
For example, I was scrubbing some clothes once when I began to hear a distinct bleating sound every 30 seconds or so. I took it in stride, thinking, “A sheep,” as any worldly person would do. But then I did an auditory double take and realized that this was a remarkable development in my quiet life. What on earth was a sheep doing in my neighborhood? I thought about the sheep all day, as it continued, occasionally, to call out from afar, as if inviting me to a happier, simpler place full of green pastures and fresh milk. Finally, as I was hanging some of the washing, I saw it out the back window, standing in the shadow of the cliff, calmly ripping up grass from a lawn that runs behind our row of houses. It was a large black creature, and I determined that it was in fact a goat. I love goat’s milk, and every time I heard its bellows I felt that I was living some tiny part of my dream of cultivating a farm.
A few days later, the goat returned. This time I looked at it with greater deliberation, and started to doubt that it was a goat. Perhaps it was simply a black sheep. It has come back a few times since, and I still haven’t determined what it is. But I am happy to carry within me the contrasting symbols of saintly sheep, condemned goats, bountiful life on the land, separation from the promised land, and a glorious confusion of these things that just might resolve all the dualisms of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Human sounds are no less miraculous to me. Sometimes, a young man in an adjacent apartment begins to pronounce discourses that sound as if they were addressed to a community of angry ducks, or perhaps a meeting of flamboyant opera singers. Which is to say, they are extravagant and incomprehensible. Sometimes he sings, though usually he just shouts and makes sound effects. I thought perhaps I had found a Colombian as wacky as me, and felt hopeful about the possibility of acting more like myself in this culture, which usually upholds social harmony over the free, expressive individualism that I so cherish.
After careful listening and analysis with the help of a native informant, I realized that all of my neighbor’s emotive auditory expressions could be traced back to a soccer video game that appears to be his primary occupation in life. While this disappointed my hopes of finding a kindred free-spirited individualist, I still delight in his noises, and I keep imagining that they are the utterances of a wild soul that is calling me to embrace my own wildness, even in the midst of my quiet, socially harmonious life.
At other times the sounds bring me into greater harmony with precisely the ethos of social cohesion that reigns here. Once as I started down our street towards the lower regions of the neighborhood, I heard someone hammering in their house. People around here are always building, repairing, expanding, making room for their sister or their cousin or a stranger to rent out an apartment. Then immediately, from down the hill, I heard someone else hammering in another house. The two hammerers traded several strikes in a row, from up above and down below, as if they were having a conversation. I imagined that maybe they were; maybe they knew each other and were tapping out a secret code. Or at least encouraging each other to keep building, for the story isn’t over yet.
As I listened to the hammerers building, I thought of all the people in Colombia who are displaced from their homes by horrific means, for horrific purposes of greed and domination. They are forced to find a way to make homes in other places, particularly in the large cities, often arriving to fringe neighborhoods like this one. They have been exiled from their promised lands, usually rich agricultural land laden with life-giving histories and traditions. The hope of return is occasionally, vulnerably, fulfilled. But meanwhile, they must try to build and to plant and to reap where they are. I like to imagine that those hammers were singing a song of hope for finding a home in a strange land.
That is my hope, too. I have by no means been violently displaced from my home. But I am also wandering far from the land of my birth, the dirt from which I was formed. And I find myself in a quiet stretch of my life, when the jingling bells of revelation do not come easily. But sometimes, here in this strange little neighborhood on the fringe of everything I once knew, even the silences between revelations can take on a certain resounding meaning, if only I pay attention.