Silence and Slunger

In this month's first Tiny Letter (my bi-monthly newsletter), I'm exploring silence. Sign up here to read more. 

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On an average Tuesday morning, I woke before the rest of the house. In my office, lights off, only the crickets chirping, I tried my best to find a quiet space. Still and sitting in the overstuffed chair, I focused on my breathing and began sinking into something like meditation.  It was a short sinking, and only seconds in, the voices of all the people in all the world on all the news outlets and social media spaces piped up. These were not figurative voices; they were quite literal (which might raise concerns for some). In my defense, and in defense of the prattling voices, it was quite early in the morning and I was riding that liminal space between sleep and extreme hunger. Perhaps it was this sort of slunger that induced the voices to come calling.

 

Continuing reading this month's first Tiny Letter by signing up here.

 

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The Silence and the Loneliness

I've been writing about silence lately, first in this piece entitled "Silence," and then in my bi-monthly Tiny Letter.(Sign up here to read the Tiny Letter piece.) Today, I'm continuing the exploration here. Enjoy.

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We've beaten this assumption to death--the world is noisier today than it's ever been. You've heard the supporting arguments--we have the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the endless stream of opinions on social media, the streaming bits of naked data from naked people across this great wide world. News, opinions, distraction, advertisements, the porno-poison that dances, dances, dances--all of it crowds out the inner quiet. And you know this is true. Yes?

Here's the truth according to me: I don't suppose we're any noisier than any other generation. (Heresy of heresies!) I suppose the noise has always been noisier than it's ever been, at least according to the pundits of any given generation. And though I could support this statement with citation to writers from different generations, allow me to make more practical arguments. Consider the world before the telephone, then consider the mass production and proliferation of Alexander Graham Bell's grand achievement. Didn't the people feel more connected than ever before? In a historical turning point, didn't Maude from Portland, Maine feel more connected to Claude from Portland, Oregon? Couldn't the people fill their lives with communication, with endless distraction? Next, consider the days before the television, before Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings. Wasn't there less noise (actual, by-God noise) in the living room before the evening news invaded on a nightly basis?

The people--we're always inventing new noise-producing techniques. It's what we do.

This weekend I sat alone on the banks of a quiet pond. I watched leaves fall, saw them spin like mid-air waterwheels as they made their way to the surface of the water. Seed pods resembling something like the tufts of the pussy willow drifted on top of the pond, pushed by the invisible wind. A squirrel gathered nuts on the far side of the pond, stuffed his mouth till the winter stores threatened to push out his ears. A domestic duck pecked at my jeans--look at me; look at me; look at me.  It was a moment straight from Walden, or Tinker Creek, but in the silence of the moment, I felt very little peace, at least at first. Instead, a profound sense of loneliness settled over me. I felt as connected as the leaves, the seed pods, the nut stuffed in the squirrel's cheek. One day, I'm part of the earth's beauty, the next, I'd be gone.

It's the quiet that ushered in my profound sense of loneliness, the sense that I'm somehow unanchored in eternity. And though I know that's not true, though I know that this loneliness meets its Maker in prayer (the satiating Force), loneliness, loss, pain, doubt, all of these things are the first realities of true inner silence. At least, that's my experience, and it's a brutal experience. When we strip away the noise, what's left? For a minute--if only a skinny one--there is the echo of nothing but lack.

Uplifting, eh?

I watch the noise on the internet these days--endless opinion streams, birthday photos, marketing, marketing, marketing (there's always marketing)--and I wonder how very lonely so many of us are. Are we thrashing about hoping to avoid the sneaking sense of emptiness? Are we striving to win validation so that we feel less alone, so that we're assured that we're not alone?

Who knows? I'm not sure I do. But if the divine answer is hidden in the practice of silence and loneliness, I'm willing to explore it.

I'm stretching deeper into the practice of silence. I'm stretching first into the sense of loneliness, unashamed. I'll sit there as long as it takes to learn the lessons spun by all those Bible stories, church fathers, and modern closet mystics--the Spirit of God visits the lonely, if only the lonely will be still long enough to know it.

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On Infighting, Social Media, and Weedy Noise

“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.” ― Henri J.M. NouwenOut of Solitude

1.

If home is where the heart is, we moved our hearts to a tiny green house on the outskirts of town.  When I say "tiny house," think less of the stuff of Netflix documentaries; think less of a 500 square foot dwelling built on the back of a truck trailer. When I say "tiny house," consider more a house that provides a tight fit for a family of 6 with a tiny dog.

 

The tiny green house is situated on the outskirts of Fayetteville, just across the White River Bridge in what was once the tiny community of Baldwin before it's annexation into the city limits. Next door sits a tiny Church of Christ, and its members, our neighbors, have welcomed us well. There are certain things that make for a happy home, they say. First among those things is a happy wife. Second among those things is a good relationship with your neighbors. By all accounts, we're off to a good start.

The tiny green house boasts a lovely English garden on both sides of the tiny walkway to the front entrance. And when I say "English garden," think less of a well-manicured green space in which one might choose to sit for tea. Instead, imagine two deep beds of perennials overgrown by a serendipitous mix of well-intentioned herbs, wildflowers, and a mess of greenery most would consider "weeds." There is a morning glory that has vined up from the ground, and it grows every which way, strikes out in all directions like the snakes on Medusa's head.

In the garden of the tiny green house, there is a particularly invasive weed that stands on a 2 foot stalk. It has spread into every corner of the garden, has swallowed up every spare inch of available soil. It has become a veritable redwood forest to the colony of ants that carry out their tiny work in the weed shade. Last weekend, as I was considering how to best attack this herbaceous infestation, I noticed a hint of pink peeking up from under the weed canopy. I pulled back the stalks and unwrapped a beautiful peony flower like a late summer present. The peony is my favorite flower, in part because it reminds me of the old rock house inhabited by 4 generations of Haines, and in part because it is the flower of the tattoo emblazoned on my wife's right shoulder. The peony reminds me of the rooted work of home, and of love. It reminds me that even the tiniest seeds can grow into bold and beautiful flowers.

2.

This is not piece about tiny houses, English gardens, or peonies. This is not a piece about sexy tattoos or neighborhood churches, either. This is a piece about weeds and noise.

Weeds hide the ants marching, the tiny but necessary work of surviving under the shade. The green noise of weedy foliage obscures the beauty of the peony bud, the way it pushes up from the ground in rooted glory. Weeds beat back the true prizes of the garden. Weeds, a metaphor in-and-of themselves, distract from every other good garden metaphor.

Consider the weeds and the noise of the day. There are people marching at home and abroad; there is work being done, and work left to do. And yet, the noise from the 24 hour news cycle and social media consumes every spare corner of thought and silence, distracts us from the boots on the ground. The infighting is at a fever pitch--the war of words is louder than ever--and if you listened, you might think that reconciliation is a pipe dream.

I wonder, "where is the beauty of rooted work?" And then I remember; it is hidden somewhere under all these distracting, noisy weeds.

Lenten Reflections--Silence

Silence is a difficult practice.  Stillness brings a gathering storm of ideas and ideas and ideas, the constant firing of synaptic lightening.  The truth is, I am not well practiced in the art of peace. There are messages to decipher in those first quiet moments.

The friend whose wife used to shatter and puddle like a fallen rain drop, she freezes now, blows away, gathers with the rest of the used-up wives in the middle of the snow drift.  Truth is, Amber's been part of that snow drift but there is grace for that too.  There are always second chances.

It's almost spring now, I think, and I am thankful for the rain again.  The surprise lilies have come up early, gambling against an April frost.  Not the azaleas, though.  They are more reserved.  They've weathered more than a few Arkansas winters and they know that it's best to be patient.

Occupation comes like a flood, too.  The endless checklist of revolving perpetuity.  We toil under the sun day after day, and to what end?

These thoughts advance like sheets of rain across a Kansas plain.  But dear God, these are not the thoughts of the quieted spirit.

Are they?

Number 176

Over he last few decades we have been inundated by a torrent of words.  Wherever we go we are surrounded by words: words softly whispered, loudly proclaimed, or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited, or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words in many sounds, many colors, or many forms... words which flicker off and on, move slowly, dance, jump, or wiggle.~Henri Nouwen

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A twenty something rambles on about living life... really living life, he says.  His words bubble like a bottomless Coca-Cola, sweet and sticky.  He spills them on internet pages and podcasts.  They're splashed across screens just like this one.  He is aspiring.  He'll tell you, even if you don't ask.

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Mike calls, tells me he's heard about a family struggle.  He listens to the story, offers "mm-hmms" and the occasional "I'm sorry."  When I'm finished he says nothing, allows the silence to hang.  Then he says, "I have no words, but I'll sit with you if you want."  The silence hangs again, and I feel the shaking cedars still.  I feel my bones harden like steel.  I feel the possibility of solidarity, the endless proliferation of hope.