My daughter and I received the delightful but daunting request to read an author-friend’s 294-page manuscript. I agreed to write a thorough review, and Michelle said yes to creating an original poem to be placed in the back of the book. We set aside one weekend to complete our tasks.
With no quick or inexpensive way to print the entire work, we settled for reading on my computer screen, sitting side by side atop my bed. Well-written and engaging, the pages found us sometimes laughing, pausing and rereading, and sometimes just looking at each other, eyes wet with heartfelt understanding. Hours passed. We looked at our page count so far: only 70 of 294. We both exhaled deeply.
We stopped to eat lunch. We needed a longer break. We agreed upon a fifteen-minute break. Then we would resume work. Neither of us wanted sound. (We had already asked my son, Michael, to stop composing on the piano.) Michelle went out to the backyard. I cleaned the kitchen. No talking. No radio. No words.
When we resumed reading we embraced the necessary act of concentration. We dove in for hours. Afterward we sensed an even more intense desire for silence. I needed to ponder suitable words for my review; she needed time to contemplate themes for her poem. Tempted to hasten our pace or, worse, plop words onto paper ahead of finishing the assigned reading, we knew that rushing either the reading or the writing would be foolish. What to do? The pace was mentally relentless that first day. We had had no time to reflect upon what we were reading. Michelle said it best: “I need space—thought space.” We decided to call it a day.
The next morning, refreshed, we resumed our reading. We accrued 100 more pages, but this time we knew to predict our need for quiet. During longer breaks we went outside, and we remained separate and silent. This is unusual for us, so the very need for quiet made me reflect upon that need.
That afternoon, warmed by a mug of tea, I soaked up rare January sunshine while she sat silently by her gray tabby on the porch swing. We said nothing. Our minds were already too full of words. We had absorbed and considered the thoughts on those pages. We returned to the book.
Near the end we began to realize with astonishment that the author had woven Michelle herself into the final pages of the book. The author named her Mary. We were in awe, and both of us felt tears rise as we finished the story.
When we read the last lines we closed the book. We smiled. In another of our unspoken agreements for sustained quiet prompted by necessity, she slid off the bed, trotted off to pick up a legal pad, slipped into her room, and closed the door. We do not interrupt Michelle when she writes. She plunged into what I knew would become a strong, edifying selection of poetry.
I wanted to write, but my writing would need to be postponed. My husband’s out-of-town best friend was staying with us, and I still needed to make dinner. As I did, warmly animated conversation with the two of them quickly submerged my thoughts. I enjoyed the time of company and trusted that silence would come.
In the wee hours of the morning, I awakened. I usually rise early, but not this early. Desiring not to stir, open doors, or squeak floors and wake our houseguest, I remained in bed, my mind brimming full of the 294 pages. Words composed slowly in my mind. This happens often for me. Turning thoughts into phrases and phrases into sentences, I became ready to write. There in the dark I had found my bits of thought space.
By 6 a.m., a more respectable time to arise with company in the house, my first draft was ready to place onto paper. I crept downstairs. On my desk, I found the captivating poem Michelle had penned in the quiet of her room the day before. My reflections added to hers.
We had completed our tasks. We finished, not merely by reading 294 pages of words, but by protecting the necessary absence of words, the silence that enabled us to create. The power of thought space seemed a marvelous revelation to me, but the power of silence is nothing new. In The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges tells us:
When silence takes possession of you; when far from the racket of the human highway the sacred fire flames up in the stillness; when peace, which is the tranquility of order, puts order in your thoughts, feelings, and investigations, you are in the supreme disposition for learning; you can bring your materials together; you can create; you are definitely at your working point.
As Sertillanges concludes, “Silence is the hidden content of the words that count.” The truth of this impressed me. I vowed to allow more thought space in our everyday work and life.
This is not to say that we seek isolation above all else. Perpetual silence is not good for us. Sertillanges clarifies,
Too much solitude would impoverish you. The man who is too isolated grows timid, abstracted, a little odd: he stumbles along amid realities like a sailor who has just come off his ship; he has lost the sense of the human lot.
We engage in our work, in our play, and in companionship as we seek those who need us and those we need. In the midst of this, we may need some silence, and so may our children. In a clattering world of relentless words on screens and airways interrupted only by more hollow, manipulative words of advertisement toward consumerism, we need some silence.
Your thought space may come when camping under the stars, in the stillness of a museum, or while ambling through a library. Your thought space may spur you to make music, create art, or solve a problem with renewed insight.
In our house the awareness of a need for thought space arose from a deadline and resulted in published writing, but we need not wait to respect silence. We can determine not to yield thoughtlessly to whatever careless chatter, gloom, or clamor that tries to distract us. We can take care not to cause such clatter for others, especially for the sake of our children. Let us give each other, ourselves, and our families some thought space. Who knows what may happen?