Silence is Golden

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Silence is not the absence of something

but

the presence of everything.

   John Grossmannn

 

 My best friend Sally and I could ride our ponies for hours through the English countryside where I grew up.

On the way back home, all of us – humans and horse – tired from our outing, would mosey our way along the grass verge, feet out of the stirrups, dangling our boots through the cow-parsley, while the ponies took the odd snack-on-the-go.

In those moments, life often seemed sweet and almost perfect, and it wouldn’t take much for one of us to burst into the chorus of one of our favourite songs…

‘Silence is golden, but my eyes still see

Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see…’

Anybody who remembers the song will know it doesn’t say much for our taste at the time, but it was 1967 and we were 12-years-old, and we were collectively in love with the Tremeloes, who, as it turned out were going to be a one-hit wonder, with not even, as I found out many years later, their own song.

What I remember thinking in those far-off days, and it’s a thought that has stayed with me all my life, is that there are two kinds of silence – an outside silence, which in a sense does not really exist, and an inner one, which arrives on a rare occasion – well, rare to me at least – unbidden, as a sudden sense of quiet inner peace.

I grew up in the country, and I now live in the country, and I still horse-ride – these days through the green macadamia-covered hills of northern New South Wales.

Until recently when we sadly lost my daughter’s Shetland pony, Sally-the-Boy to a brain tumour,  I would take my daughter for a trail ride on him, and  I would walk beside her.  Whenever we did our lane outing, she liked to close her eyes, so, as she said, she could hear the ‘quiet’ sounds. And the quiet sounds were the sounds her pony’s hooves make clip-clopping steadily along, the sound of the breeze, the carolling of the magpies and the far-off hum of the motorway.

If you want to further the argument that silence in a sense is a concept, and not something that really exists – think of the phrase, ‘Silence please’, and where it is used.

Take a school classroom for instance, at the beginning of an exam and the room falls quiet as students begin the unenviable task of working through an exam paper – is it silent in there? Of course not. There are a million little noises: the scraping of shoes on the floor, the occasional cough, the sound of a chair being adjusted, paper being turned – there is almost, in fact, a ‘noise’ of concentration.

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And yet, conversely despite this outside noise that makes the notion of silence not – in any world I know at least – a reality, there is that time when you are in the exam, when your inner world is in silence. Then, if you are lucky and you have studied your subject, a kind of meditative trance falls on you where you become unaware of anything around you, blocking out everything other than that which you are doing.

When we were children we used to play many games in the fields and the woods around my home. One of them, a perennial favourite, involved an attempt to be silent. One of us would hide our eyes into a tree, while another would pretend to be a Red Indian – as we still called native American Indians then – and would creep silently up behind to scare the person hiding their eyes. Sometimes if one of us was feeling cruel, we would all run off and leave the innocent waiting to be startled alone at the tree, and as I know, that produced its own torturous silence – the silence of no response.

For a large part of the past 35 years I have been a journalist working in busy newspaper and magazine offices, and in those offices the ability to call on inner silence becomes absolutely vital. They’re noisy places, newspaper offices. Not quite as noisy as they were pre-computers, but noisy enough. A large open plan-office with telephones ringing and people talking, meeting, arguing, creating is not necessarily the kind of place that you would think would be conducive to writing, but write you must – and so you do – learning to block out every sound, so that you can meet your deadline. Much, dear reader, as I am doing now.

In a relatively quiet, relatively small space in my house, with white desks and two windows overlooking the paddocks below, I am typing an essay on silence. Outside I can hear the sound of the neighbour on his ride-on mower, every now and then my son’s mobile phone pings. I can hear the magpies, crows, rosellas, butcher birds, minah birds and doves that are just part of the noise landscape. One of the dogs is drinking water, each lap magnified by my attempt to hear silence. If I pause for a moment, I can absorb these sounds deep inside, and by absorbing them they become part of the silent interior, the place from which I am attempting to write.

William Penn once wrote: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” For me that rings true, because the curious thing about turning into the inner world is how energising it is.

Sometimes, although not often enough, I manage to get up in the very early hours of the morning to meditate. Even then, deep in the country at four in the morning, the world is not silent. The creaks and groans of an old house keep me company; the cat appears at my side and grooms herself, if there is rain every tiny drop is magnified by the absence of day noise, and the silence of the night reveals itself as anything but, as I try to empty my mind and find that still place within.

If nature is so noisy, is it ever silent? “See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grow in silence,” said Mother Teresa. “See the stars, the moon and the sun how they move in silence….we need silence to be able to touch souls.” I like that idea that the tree whose branch creaks over my roof, is growing in silence, that silence can be something tangible, if not in fact what we assume it to be. I’ve never thought of the sun, stars and moon as silent, but it’s true, at least from a human perspective. I see its trajectory over my house, I don’t hear it and that somehow reinforces the idea of silence being a sensation, having a presence, rather than an absence.

I have often wondered if wilderness places are silent – if you climb Mount Everest, for instance, do you sit in silence? In the Antarctic are you surrounded by silence? People tell me this is not so, that even in the quietest places there is noise, even if the noise is the beating of your own heart – even the absence of noise can be noisy.

There is a wonderful book by photographer Jeffrey Gusky entitled ‘Silent Places’. This poignant photographic journey through Eastern Europe documents in black and quite the crumbling landscape of the Holocaust. Houses, synagogues, railway lines, a simple corridor, a door, the entry to a Jewish home now used as a public toilet – every image silently tells a screaming story. His work is of outstanding quality, and somehow what he brings to the photographs is even more poignant than those of the time – the absence of people tells us these were their homes, their places of worship, of education and play – and in the case of the railway line to Auschwitz, their journey to death.   You feel that if you stare at them long enough you will bring them to life somehow, that the families will return, peeking out of the shadows, bringing light and love and warmth and noise with them, but until then this landscape bears silent witness to the bloody past.

 

 

'Corridor in Kazimierz', former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

‘Corridor in Kazimierz’, former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

Battlefields, memorials, cenotaphs, burial mounds, roman ruins – everywhere where man has once existed but is no longer, it is not the silence, or lack of it, in the direct environment of these places it is the silence of the structures themselves that strikes one as being so overwhelming, hinting at one’s own mortality. I am here, I am noise, I am flesh, I am anything but silent, my blood flows, my heart beats, my stomach growls, my joints creak, my eyes see, my ears hear, tongue tastes, in each movement I make, each kiss or cuddle I give or receive, in each angry word, or happy laugh or bossy command I am an active presence.

Perhaps it is this more than anything that creates anxiety for a lot of people around the idea of silence. In a world full of iPods, iPads, tablets, phones, facebook and computers, whether we live in the (supposed) peace and quiet of the country, or the white noise of a city, the idea of silence, without or within, can be laden with fear. I can’t hear, does that mean people can’t hear me? Do I, if I am not constantly in contact with humanity, matter? My lack of silence, my constant interaction reassures me – I am here, I do matter, I am in contact.

The very fact of modern human’s difficulty with silence means that it is increasingly more important for us to acknowledge it, to hold it within and embrace the silence – to give our soul a chance to speak.

Perhaps one of the best-known prose poems in the world is the Desiderata, which far from being written in the 1600s as was commonly thought, was in fact penned by Max Ehrmann in 1927. Ehrmann, a philosopher and writer who wrote six books in ten years and then became a lawyer because he felt he would never write a book that made him enough money to support his family, would be astonished and gratified to know that 84 years later the Desiderata is one of the most widely read poems in the world.

‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste,’ he wrote, ‘and remember what peace there may be in silence.’

What he was speaking of, I am sure, is inner silence – that deep, profound state of being when all is right with the world, so right that one could still be compelled, in the right circumstances – a horse ride along a quiet avenue of trees, a dog or three at my heels – in my case – to sing out loud, ‘Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see’. And always to remember, of course the wise words below:

Keep-calm-and-enjoy-the-silence

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The Worry Monster, Mother’s Day and muddling through…

Cranes from the Art of Japan exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

Cranes from the Art of Japan exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

I woke up in the early hours of the morning to the sound of the rain on the roof – as I so often do living in the green hills of the Northern Rivers.  (Note to self:  In Australia, a country renowned for its droughts, there’s a reason why this area is always green.  Second note to self:  Always research an area before moving there.)

As I lay there wondering if it was too early to get up at 4.30 am and work, the Worry Monster came to visit, and soon we were running through our favourite conversations – too many horses with too many fungal diseases (also due to the weather); too little time, too much to do, not enough money, no clear direction at the moment as to the way forward – and why not?  And what is wrong with me??? Everything was absolutely focussed with crystal-like clarity on what is wrong with my life.

And this day, the Saturday before Mother’s Day is always a little hard because three years ago we were told a very beautiful and valuable thoroughbred horse, Fox, whom we’d owned only for a few months, was dying of pneumonia.  It was a catastrophic series of tiny mistakes which had led us to this sad place, but there we were with just the slightest chance he would make it through the night, but at 5.00am on Mother’s Day morning, he died, and I’ve felt the sadness most acutely at this same time of year ever since.

I took a deep breath.  After several years of trying my best to acquire the positive habit of the Law of Attraction I knew I wasn’t doing myself any favours.

I decided, as I also often do, to tune into one of my favourite shows – Jennifer McLean’s Healing with the Masters, and her replay of her interviewer with author and teacher, Patricia Cota-Robles.

And there it was – the exact phrase I needed for that moment:

“The company of heaven say that worry is a way of praying for what you don’t want.”

 OMG!  So true.

I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself, ignore the rain and take the dogs for a walk before I fed the horses.

As I drove up the lane where I live there was a single White-headed pigeon sitting bang-slap in the middle of the road.  I had to get out of the car and shoo it away before it decided to fly up into the nearest tree – and that was just the start of my morning adventures.

The pigeon was followed by more bird-life than I usually see in weeks, all in the space of half-an-hour.  Ground-nesting plovers stalked imperiously away from me scolding me crossly for daring to drive through their territory; flocks of Australian White Ibis and the Black-headed Ibis took to the sky in their droves as the dogs and I walked up and down the avenues of macadamia trees trying to avoid the pouring rain, a pair of delicate Grey Herons, (actually the Australian White-faced Heron by the way), rose gracefully into the air looking exactly like birds on a Japanese scroll.  Even the sky – a deep shade of Payne’s Grey – looked like a painting, ominous, brooding and beautiful all at once. On the way home a pair of Willy Wagtails and a pair of Butcher Birds were right next to the White-headed pigeon – which led me to wonder why the pigeon was by itself?  Had it lost its mate?  After all, pigeons are monogamous and mate for life – like many bird species who seem to have achieved something with which we humans have difficulties. Were the other birds keeping it company in its loneliness?

Stranger things have happened – certainly in my animal-filled life!

Talking of which, what do you when you get home and you need to move a guinea pig and rabbit from a horse stable so you can put two horses in the two stables in order to dry them out a bit?  You put them in an Ikea laundry basket – you know, the silver ones, with a wire frame and fine mesh all around.  Plenty of air, light to carry, fine enough mesh that the sawdust doesn’t fall out – problem solved – and it only took 20 minutes of chasing them around the stable to get them in there.

(Of course all of that might beg the question as to why the guinea pig and rabbit are in a horse stable to begin with, and that goes back to the weather.  They’re living in massive five-star hotel luxury because they were constantly being rained out in their previous home and I got sick of rescuing them.  Now they live in a stable big enough for a 17hh warmblood, and are ejected only when I need the stable.)

Then, because ‘needs must’, as my mother used to say, I heat up a bowl of olive oil – not as a nature’s own remedy for me, but in order that I can rub it in to one of the horse’s legs.  Our old show-jumper, Cardigan, gets regular outbreaks of Greasy Heel, which spreads up his legs, and olive oil is just one of the numerous treatments we have to apply.  I let the leg soak up the oil for a while before I spend half-an-hour happily engrossed in scratching scabs off.

By now my human needs are more than calling me – it’s time for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea.

I discover, to my surprise, that I’ve enjoyed this morning much more than I might have thought I would when I first woke up, and the Worry Monster has been well and truly banished – at least for a while, and when she makes her presence felt I will remember, when I worry, I am praying for what I don’t want.

The illustration with this post is actually of cranes, of course, but it captures the heron spirit!

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Wattle days are here again

And I love the great land where the Waratah grows. 
And the Wattle-bough blooms on the hill.” Henry Lawson

Photo by Candida Baker

So the Olympics have come to a close, and those of us who’ve been sleep deprived for the past few weeks can eschew the sofa for our beds at last.

It was just before our Australian contingent began to leave for London in their droves, that I noticed the wattle – the green and yellow bloom which is the inspiration for our athletes’ outfits – was starting to bud.  It seemed a happy synchronicity.

I love it when the wattle flowers begin to appear in their cheerful, sweet-smelling profusion; for me the wattle heralds the beginning of the end of winter.

The green and the gold… the uniform of our London 2012 Olympic team.

The combination of a bout of nationalistic fervor coupled with the landscape’s physical representation of that fervor set me thinking – how did Australia choose wattle as its national emblem and why?

I remembered how moved I was when the-then Governor General Sir William Deane, picked sprigs of wattle from the gardens of Government house to toss into Switzerland’s Saxeten River gorge to commemorate the 14 Australians who had died there in the 1999 canyoning expedition that went so horribly wrong.

“It is still winter at home,” he said during the ceremony. “But the golden wattles are coming into bloom. Just as these young men and women were in the flower of their youth. And when we are back in Australia we will remember how the flowers and perfume and the pollen of their, and our, homeland was carried down the river where they died to Lake Brienz in this beautiful country on the far side of the world. May they all rest with God.”

The push to make the wattle our national flower emblem was started by Victorian ornithologist Archibald Campbell who founded the Victorian Wattle Club in 1899.

A few years later he delivered a lecture entitled Wattle Time; or Yellow-haired September,putting forward the case for the wattle to be Australia’s National Flower.

By 1912 we had our first truly national Wattle day, and in the same year it was first introduced into Australia’s coat of arms by Royal Warrant.

Wattle, however, didn’t have a completely smooth run on its way to the top – there was another, and some might say, more splendid, more unusual, more perhaps uniquely Australian flower that many wanted to adopt as the floral emblem – the waratah.  Botanist and musuem curator R.T Baker wrote: “The expression, ‘the land of the Waratah’, applies to Australia and no other; it is Australia’s very own. In the Wattle, Australia has not a monopoly like the Waratah, for Africa has over one hundred native wattles, and it also occurs in American, East and West Indies and the Islands….”

But the wattle got a head start when South Africa looked as if it might commandeer the wattle for its own patriotic purposes, which was enough to send Australia into a flurry of wattle support, although even so, as late as 1913, both waratah and wattle flowers were used as decoration on the three golden trowels used to lay the foundation stone for the commencement column in the soon-to-be national capital of Canberra.

In the end of course, the wattle won, adorning our medals of honour, our stamps, our tea-towels and anything else we could think of along the way.

It even has its own personal day of celebration – while the waratah had to settle for being anointed the floral emblem for New South Wales.

Which is probably a good thing, because it’s hard to imagine sprigs of waratah being attached to lapels, or brims of hats, or gracing small spring bouquets. Hard too, to imagine these days anything other than the green and gold as a clarion call for nationalism. And curiously, of course, the Olympics are always held sometime between July and the beginning of September – exactly the time the wattle begins to bloom.

Wattle did you say?

National Wattle Day is the first day of spring – September 1. The day was originally conceived as a day to demonstrate patriotism for Australia by wearing a sprig of wattle, but over the years it’s come to be a day in which we celebrate our natural environment.

Acacia you didn’t hear me…

Wattles are Australia’s largest genus of flowering plants – of the 1380 species of Acacia in the world, Australia has close to a 1000, ranging from creepers to tall forest trees.  Australia without wattle is unimaginable – we would be left with a much drier, less colourful continent.

The symbolism of yellow

Was it something as simple as the bright yellow colour that attracted the attention of our early settlers? Yellow is the colour of the sun, which is associated with our third chakra, the solar plexus – the house of our courage and will power. Its positive attributes are joy and delight, sunshine, happiness and summer, but negatively it can mean illness, or cowardice – as in yellow-bellied. Perhaps it’s why yellow was chosen as the mediator between red and green – somewhere between danger and safe.

Quote of the week

“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.” Iris Murdoch