To love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weighs you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

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Every one of us knows the sensation of going up, on retreat, to a high place and feeling ourselves so lifted up that we can hardly imagine the circumstances of our usual lives, or all the things that make us fret. In such a place, in such a state, we start to recite the standard litany: that silence is sunshine, where company is clouds; that silence is rapture, where company is doubt; that silence is golden, where company is brass.

But silence is not so easily won. And before we race off to go prospecting in those hills, we might usefully recall that fool’s gold is much more common and that gold has to be panned for, dug out from other substances. “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence,” wrote Herman Melville, one of the loftiest and most eloquent of souls. Working himself up to an ever more thunderous cry of affirmation, he went on, “Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on of the Divine Pontiff’s hands upon the world. Silence is the only Voice of our God.” For Melville, though, silence finally meant darkness and hopelessness and self-annihilation. Devastated by the silence that greeted his heartfelt novels, he retired into a public silence from which he did not emerge for more than 30 years. Then, just before his death, he came forth with his final utterance — the luminous tale of Billy Budd — and showed that silence is only as worthy as what we can bring back from it.

We have to earn silence, then, to work for it: to make it not an absence but a presence; not emptiness but repletion. Silence is something more than just a pause; it is that enchanted place where space is cleared and time is stayed and the horizon itself expands. In silence, we often say, we can hear ourselves think; but what is truer to say is that in silence we can hear ourselves not think, and so sink below our selves into a place far deeper than mere thought allows. In silence, we might better say, we can hear someone else think.

Or simply breathe. For silence is responsiveness, and in silence we can listen to something behind the clamor of the world. “A man who loves God, necessarily loves silence,” wrote Thomas Merton, who was, as a Trappist, a connoisseur, a caretaker of silences. It is no coincidence that places of worship are places of silence: if idleness is the devil’s playground, silence may be the angels’. It is no surprise that silence is an anagram of license. And it is only right that Quakers all but worship silence, for it is the place where everyone finds his God, however he may express it. Silence is an ecumenical state, beyond the doctrines and divisions created by the mind. If everyone has a spiritual story to tell of his life, everyone has a spiritual silence to preserve.
Continue reading ‘The Eloquent Sound of Silence / Pico Iyer’


It was the seventh night and he walked out to look at stars.
Chill in the air, sharp, not of summer, and he wondered
if the geese on the lake felt it and grew restless
and if that was why, in the late afternoon, they had gathered
at the bay’s mouth and flown abruptly back and forth,
back and forth on the easy, swift veering of their wings.
It was high summer and he was thinking of autumn,
under a shadowy tall pine, and of geese overhead on cold mornings
and high clouds drifting. He regarded the stars in the cold dark.
They were a long way off, and he decided, watching them blink,
that compared to the distance between him and them,
the outside-looking-in feeling was dancing cheek-to-cheek.
And noticed then that she was there, a shadow between parked cars,
looking out across the valley where the half-moon poured thin light
down the pine ridge. She started when he approached her,
and then recognized him, and smiled, and said “Hi, night light.”
And he said, “Hi, dreamer.” And she said, “Hi, moonshine,”
and he said, “Hi, mortal splendor.” And she said, “That’s good.”
She thought for a while. Scent of sage or yerba buena
and the singing in the house. She took a new tack and said,
“My father is a sad chair and I am th eblind thumb’s yearning.”
He said, “Who threw the jade swan in the boiling oatmeal?”
Some of the others were coming out of the house, saying goodbye,
hugging each other. She said, “The lion of grief paws
what meat she is given.” Cars starting up, one of the stagehands
struggling to uproot the pine. He said, “Rifling the purse
of possible regrets.” She said, “Staggering tarts, a narcoleptic moon.”
Most of the others were gone. A few gathered to listen.
The stagehands were lugging off the understory plants.
Two others were rolling up the mountain. It was clear that,
though polite, they were impatient. He said, “Goodbye, last thing.”
She said, “So long, apocalypse.” Someone else said, “Time,”
but she said, “The last boat left Xania in late afternoon.”
He said, “Goodbye, Moscow, nights like sable,
mornings like the word persimmon.” She said,
“Day’s mailman drinks from a black well of reheated coffee
in a cafe called Mom’s on the outskirts of Durango.” He said,
“That’s good.” And one of the stagehands stubbed
his cigarette and said, “OK, would the last of you folks to leave,
if you can remember it, just put out the stars?” which they did,
and the white light everywhere in that silence was white paper.


After the college
reading,
the eager
students gather.

They ask me
what you need
to be a writer

& I, feeling flippant,
jaunty
(because
I am wearing
an 18th century
dress
& think
myself in love
again),
answer:

“Mazel,
determination,
talent, & true
grit.”

I even
believe it–

looking
as I do
like an
advertisement
for easy
success–

designer dress,
sly smile
on my lips
& silver boots
from
Oz.

Suppose
they saw me
my eyes
swollen
like sponges,
my hand
shaking
with betrayal,

my fear
rampant
in the dark?

Suppose they saw
the fear
of never
writing,
the fear
of being
alone,
the money fear,
the fear fear,
the fear
of succumbing
to fear?

& then there’s all
I did
not say:

to be
a writer
what you need
is

something
to say:

something
that burns
like a hot coal
in your gut

something
that pounds
like a pump
in your groin

& the courage
to love
like a wound

that never
heals.


What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? O parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost—a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don’t really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.