Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Listen to All That Quietness

I don't think my father ever realized that he was a wordsmith of sorts. I've mentioned before on this blog how he liked to subvert normal usage and pronunciation of common words, and I'm sure it was all in good fun, but he really did seem to enjoy uttering profound, folksy statements at just the right time. One day, while vacationing in Hot Springs, Arkansas, we turned off the Chevy and stepped out at a scenic overlook in the Ouachita National Forest. It was absolutely still, and as my dad took in the glorious view, he said simply, "Listen to all that quietness." I'm not sure at that time that I had ever heard the word "quietness" used in a proper sentence, but my dad really hit it on the head with that one. There was not a sound to be heard anywhere. We stood there for a few minutes looking out over the verdant scene in front of us and then got back into the car and returned to Hot Springs for some "diamond" shopping. (Hot Springs mines its own diamonds, which are actually faceted rock crystal, but they look splendid to the naked eye.) I remembered that "quietness" thing.

It may come as a surprise to many of you who know me, and particularly to those of you who have worked with me, but at my core, I'm really all about quietness. Sure, I'm as ready as anyone to engage in some serious (or sometimes, not so serious) storytelling, but I absolutely relish solitude. This is probably one of the reasons that walking is one of my favorite hobbies. It's for the most part solitary, and even when I'm plugged into 99% Invisible, The Memory Palace, or some other favorite podcast, I can always remove the headphones and snap right back to peace.

When I'm engaged socially, I'm totally there. I grew up as a rather shy child, and with the exception of a few close friends, I didn't really reach out to people much until I was in fifth grade, at which point I decided I wanted to become a secret agent and would do anything in my power to get there. I guess the fact that I didn't (and still don't) have a penchant for guns and violence probably kept me from pursuing that as a career. But playing secret agent got me involved talking to other kids in my class, and it went on from there. I experienced the awkward years around seventh and eighth grade and clammed up a little then, but by tenth grade, having found a group of seniors who accepted me as one of the cool kids (from a student government and political interest perspective, that is), I was going full throttle. Strangely enough, in college, I tended to be rather quiet except around my closest friends in the dorm and elsewhere. I didn't have the "rah-rah" experience at college, because a) Northwestern never won football games, and b) I was too busy studying neurons. When I entered the working world, however, I got my social skills back and have since, for the most part, enjoyed being in that space (as they say in the business world).

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While walking this morning, I was listening to a Super Soul Conversations podcast (surprise!) hosted by Oprah Winfrey in which she was discussing with spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle the concept of living in the moment. This is a popular topic these days, given our constant bombardment with information in all sorts of formats and our incessant need to keep ourselves busy. You can't go fifty feet without hearing someone say that we all need to be more mindful, and I totally agree with this idea. The question is, how do we get there? One of Tolle's basic tenets is that stillness is a very necessary part of our existence. He believes that we derive strength from being restored in peaceful moments. And yet, we often bypass opportunities to take a quiet, reflective moment to ourselves, either out of necessity, as in work situations, or because we just don't think to do it. I suspect it's often more of the latter.

In the last couple of years, I've had a lot of time to reflect on this kind of thing. I've spent days and weeks in compromised physical situations where there was sometimes no other choice than to relax and reflect, and although I wasn't particularly fond of the way this all happened, it has had a very positive effect on me. I have always been guilty of sweating small stuff, but after a weird bout of pneumonia and, only one year later, a series of eye surgeries, almost everything tends to look like small stuff, and for the most part, I've adapted. I don't sweat nearly as much now, unless it's 95 degrees and I've underestimated the duration of my walk.

Don't get me wrong: there is nothing I enjoy more than getting together with family and friends. To me, it is the very essence of life. When I am with other people, tipping a glass or having a wonderful dinner, time seems to stand still. Jimmy Buffett has a song called "I Wish Lunch Could Last Forever," and I can totally relate to that. And yet, when I'm out walking with just a well-applied layer of sunscreen, my headphones, and sunglasses that I've yet to break, time stands still in its own way. And after that time of (relative) peace and quiet, it always looks like a whole new world. It's been this way ever since I started serious walking back in 2005, and I have no reason to believe it will ever change.

Listen to all that quietness.