Friday, April 20, 2012

On silences and empty spaces

I'm reading Terry Tempest Williams' new book, When Women Were Birds. Extraordinary, as are most things she writes. This one is about silences, about absence, about what is not on the page, as much as what is on it.

I'm in Manhattan this week, not a place of many silences. I love this city, even as I mourn so many of the recent changes, the 'corporatization' of it, the loss of so much of the old personality of neighborhoods and small communities within the larger mass of humanity. I mourn the loss of a city in which such a variety of economic classes could once afford to live. You have to be rich to live here now - or rent stabilized.

And yet, it stimulates, right? My sister and I walk down E. 26th Street and find the site where Herman Melville lived for 28 years, where he wrote Billy Budd. It is marked with a plaque. A couple of blocks away is the site where Henry James lived, and on the way back towards the subway we pass the location where Edith Wharton once resided.

I love this stuff. I wonder if kids read any of these writers in school anymore, and then I wonder how we can claim to be American if we have not.

Photo: Margaret Swedish
But Williams has me pondering the silences, the empty spaces, and how we mostly try, as a culture, to avoid them at all costs. It's so easy now because we can take all our noise with us wherever we go. Rather than intently observe, rather than pay attention to what is actually going on, we can put all that noise into tiny hi-tech gadgets that you can stick in your pocket, put the ear phones on and retreat from the world.

I have this fabulous apartment in Tribeca to myself just now and I can sit here at the enormous windows and watch the building of Liberty Tower, the monstrosity that is being built to replace the World Trade Center.  The former owner of the square footage insisted on getting back the same amount of square footage, whether or not this new building will ever be fully rented. Just in the few days I've been here, I have seen it rise a couple of floors. It is an in-your-face statement to - to whom? and who even cares anymore?

How much time did we take for silence and emptiness in the wake of a tragedy that begged both, that wanted both, if we were to learn anything from it?

"I fear silence because it leads me to myself..." something that strikes terror in most of us, I believe. If we are led to ourselves we may not like what we see, and that may be more than we can bear.

In great writing, as this is, there is as much truth and beauty in the empty spaces as in the written word. The silence gives resonance to the words. Without space for that resonance, there is only cacophony, which is what much of the culture sounds like these days - noise, just a lot of noise.

But she also says this about silence, that in times of war (and other great sufferings and horrors), "survival depends on listening to that suffering....the unexpected action of deep listening can create a space of transformation capable of shattering complacency and despair."

How critical it is in these times to create these spaces. There has never been so much noise as now, so many ways to avoid dealing with the ramifications of our collapsing cultures, our hubristic denial of human limits and moral failings, our intentional fragmentation into small monocultures of like-minded people where narcissism reigns and rage towards 'the other' seethes.

We know what it takes to be a writer - intense silence and solitude. If you can't handle those two things, it's not a good life choice. And yet precisely because this is what writing and art require, they have become more necessary than ever.

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