The Value of Silence

To me, there’s always something unbearably claustrophobic about winter. Sure, there are lots of people quick to point out how pretty the snow is, and how cozy it feels to be tucked up in a Snuggie with a mug of hot tea and a thick book. Now, don’t get me wrong. That is undoubtedly a relaxing scenario, and something I definitely enjoy. But I find that too many days spent in this manner tends to gnaw at the soul. Eventually, the relaxation chewing at the fringes of my consciousness is going to bite into a hard kernel of restlessness, and that’s when strange things tend to happen. A matter/anti-matter reaction, if you will. Destructive? You bet.

Another important claustrophobia factor is the road situation. See, in this neck of the coastal temperate rainforest, we tend to be creatures of humidity and relative warmth. Fully adjusted to our habitat, the first flakes of snow that stick to the road tend to inspire panic in the hind-brain, and cause the loss of gross motor functions in certain limbs — namely, the ones that usually control a steering wheel and gas pedal. I don’t usually paint people with a kilometre-wide brush like this, but the number of vehicles in ditches I’ve observed recently seems to support this theory. And hey, I’m not exempt from it either. Back in the dark ages when I was a tender-treaded new driver enrolled in lessons, all of the parts about winter driving were frosted over with an “Aw heck, you’re never going to need to know that!” Which is not very comforting when you’re sliding sideways on a mountain road at night while frantically trying to remember what your instructor said about controlling a skid. But I digress.

The point is, if I venture a couple of hours in any direction (barring a visit to another country), I’m going to encounter snow-encrusted highways. And while I have had the fortune of gaining a few proverbial notches on my scarf when it comes to handling those kinds of conditions, I simply don’t trust that other motorists won’t reduce my already diminutive vehicle to proportions more befitting of a microwave. And my faithful little runabout is no alpine expert either. Topping out at 109 horsepower (which is more of a half-gallop, really) and equipped with “all season” tires, it’s more suited to the “soaking in a hot tub” method of enjoying a ski hill. All of which leaves an avid road-tripper like me feeling a little boxed in. (And tells me that I probably need to plan better and invest in winter tires next year.)

So, why is all of this road-related rambling important? At this point, you’re probably thinking “Geeeez, just get on a fucking plane, already!” It’s important because I crave, I need the silence that comes with pursuing my own way along the asphalt ribbons criss-crossing the country.

It took me awhile before I realized that silence was the key factor driving (heh) my vehicular explorations. And how this particular kind of silence is different. After all, you can be quiet at home (though apartment/city living is never completely hushed). But we’re creatures of habit, and the routines of home life are spectacularly conducive to creating the dull, stagnant thought patterns that follow us from day to plodding day. And, speaking for myself, those patterns can sometimes be harmful. Not three days ago, I was plagued by fork-tongued tendrils of idle cerebral whispers, repeating that I was unlovable, undervalued, unworthy… Suffice it to say a whole bunch of adjectives beginning with “un.”

“Untrue!” some people might cry, if I vocalized these musings. And obviously, I would like to believe them. But the machinations of the mind are insidious, and difficult to combat if one is stuck in an unfavourable pattern, which I was. At first, I tried to fight it with noise. I attempted to drown out the insistent mental mutterings with TV and screeching, sensationalist online content. The loudest, most blatant bullshit I could lay eyes on was consumed with an almost frightening voracity. As you might already have guessed, it was completely ineffective. It just resulted in numbness and disgust. But I was also afraid to switch it off, because I knew the organized chaos of the whispers would return. I needed another solution.

So, what could I do? Where could I go to find the kind of silence born from a seemingly endless stretch of horizon? The sort of environment where stillness settles no more than a skin’s breadth away, allowing unaccustomed senses to experience the slow, deep breaths of an evergreen forest, or the faint, multicoloured melodies suggested by a yawning arch of sky? Normally, I’d hop in the car and head hood-first along the most sinuous and scenic stretch of road I could find for as long as I could keep both eyes pointing in the same direction, cut the droning engine, and let silence have its say.

In this situation, my best bet was the ocean. But not a tourist-crammed, pristinely manicured stretch of grass and gravel. No. It would be a smaller, less “fashionable” beach. Park where you will, pick your way along streets of colourful dwellings until the patchwork gives way to a gradient of sea and sky. That kind of beach. I set off, threading my way along side streets, avoiding highways, tracing half-remembered mental map fragments formed during my years of youthful, insomnia-inspired wanderings.

The tide was out, rippling sandbars interleaving with streams of brilliant, wind-lapped water. It was the kind of wind that tends to seep its way through the very teeth of a jacket zipper, so I picked up the pace. The variety of cloud formations overhead brought to mind the image of an indecisive painter testing tints on a stainless blue canvas. Or perhaps a nursery for clouds, where rain-laden streamers frolic with whimsical cumulus before drifting inland as grown-up clouds with responsibilities. In any case, among the receding water and transient sunshine, I found silence.

Now, you’re probably wondering what good this “magical” form of silence is. It’s simple, really. Silence is infinitely vast, which allows those prosaic, sometimes harmful patterns to dissipate. They simply can’t maintain cohesion in the sheer amount of space provided. The negative bonds break, and the component thoughts are enfolded harmlessly into the atmosphere. Sometimes, you can even pick them up again and restructure them in a more positive way, building blocks-style. (Those Kindergarten skills do keep paying off, don’t they?) Essentially, silence functions as a reset button. The human psychological equivalent of “turning it off, and back on again.”

As beneficial as this is, silence isn’t somewhere to linger permanently. We are, after all, of the active world, and have to return to its cyclic churn eventually. The threat of stagnation is just as real in the realm of silence as it is in the frenetic rush of the everyday. Silence is a place you go to let the whispers rise unimpeded, to take in the wild, messy beauty that can be found pretty much everywhere, and to just be.

Shhhh.

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