At the start of the week I run across the flat fields at the top of the village. A jet plane comes overhead, banks and arcs around, the sound at roaring intervals like phases on tracing paper behind. Crops are bending long and low in the wind to the sea ten miles ahead. It is break time at the primary school and I can hear shouts, the roll of a whistle, red jumpers and skipping rope.
Mum and I are on a silent retreat this week – something I agreed to a while ago without really considering what it would mean. We are in a house with eleven others and our leader, whose book I read a few years ago. We are here to be silent for a week. A daunting prospect.
On our way, I think about my life and times when I have been silent by chance or by circumstance, but very rarely by choice. Perhaps that first week in Crovie when I was by myself, or when I am in the studio alone or when I am travelling somewhere. But even these times will have noise – when I am walking I’ll call a girlfriend for a catch up, when I get up in the morning the first thing I do is switch on the murmur of the radio. I often get talking to people next to me on the train and I always seem to have a running monologue, a chattering list in my mind of things that need to be done and conversations I wish I’d had.
An hour in and I am finding this already hard – and we haven’t even started yet. All I have done is come upstairs to pull some clothes out of my rucksack and I find myself humming Waltzing Matilda to myself for no conceivable reason except to break the silence. This is going to be difficult. I watch a bird circling on the air above and find myself about to message a friend. I have no signal and I want to stop myself anyway so I turn my phone off and drop it back into my bag.
As I walk away on the first morning, the stone of the retreat house is warm yellow in the morning sun. Behind me, the others are inside but it rained overnight and I wanted to get out into the wet grass. At the bottom of the lawn, the grounds turn into meadow and I watch the bouncing rumps of heifers as they canter away, startled by my presence.
I want to ask myself how will I find silence in my life? In London, in my twenties, in a job that entails writing and meeting people? Indeed, as a person who (as my friends will testify) loves talking and making a racket? It is all very well to be here, sitting silent in the walled garden with the morning light and a cup loose in my hands, but how does this peace translate to the ‘real world’? Sara, our leader who lives on the remote Galloway moors, wrote that “in the contemporary Western world it is very different to be silent for very long in the place where you live – people phone, they come to visit, to canvass your vote; the postman needs a signature, Jehovah’s Witnesses knock politely, someone has to read the meter, you run out of milk and have to buy some more and the woman in the village shop starts to chat” (Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence, Granta 2008, p 37). But – and here is the stubborn me – I like these quotidian interactions. They shape me and who I am and what I write about and how I see the world.
But there is still something about silence that we all crave, something about silence that we equate with stillness, peace, a sense of restoration, preservation.
Throughout the week we eat our meals in silence in two rows facing each other. To start with, this is odd – I find it socially unusual especially as I love going out for dinner with friends for the conversation and the chatter. But in the silence, I find myself taking more time to taste things, I eat slower and everything tastes amazing: the porridge at breakfast, strong morning coffee, even the white emptiness of water.
Perhaps it is less about silence but more about attentiveness. There is the sound of wind in the pine forest, across the meadow and amongst the grass verges. The different levels of one sound. I am more aware of my footsteps, the sound of my breathing as I run, the emptiness of my mind. I watch the house martins on the front step, the young ones learning to fly, the sunlight on sandstone, think about what has happened this week, the news we all got.
On the last day we can talk and discuss about things beyond and below words; silence not flat or neutral but layered and interwoven.