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'90S FAMILY

Silence is Golden

Sometimes you think you need to be alone, when all you really require is quiet. And sometimes the proof comes in the form of an anniversary gift.

September 07, 1997|LOUISA ROGERS | Special to The Times

The night before our 18th wedding anniversary, Barry and I sat in our living room, wrapped in our afghans, sipping mugs of tea and discussing my need for solitude. My business as a speaker and training consultant had been thick with clients, audiences, proposals, phone calls and engagements. All I wanted was time to myself. I didn't want to go anywhere or talk to anyone, Barry included. I just wanted to be alone. The timing couldn't have been more ironic.

"Maybe I should go to the beach tomorrow for the day," Barry said from his afghan. "Maybe this is the anniversary present you need." His voice sounded like he was trying to be brave, and my heart went out to him. I didn't like the idea of exiling him to the beach on our anniversary. Yet my heart leaped at the thought of the house all to myself.

By the time he had finished his tea, he had changed his mind. "Why should I be the one to go?" he said. "You're the one who wants to be alone. Why don't you go?" We negotiated. Maybe he should go half the day, and me the other half. But what about our anniversary?

We went to bed, murky and unresolved.

For the last two years, Barry and I have operated our separate businesses at home, on the same property but not in the same building. I love working at home, but occasionally I feel constricted. Although we are very respectful of each other's work spaces, sometimes I yearn for long stretches of time at home by myself. When I'm in this mood, I can live with the company of squirrels, birds, fish, and the neighborhood cat, but no humans, please.

The night of our discussion I slept restlessly but woke with an idea. Why not both of us stay home on our anniversary--but in silence? Not silence as in formal meditation, but just each of us engaging in our own respective activities and not with the other?

Over the years we have often experimented with silence. On camping trips, we have sometimes decreed a silent day or a silent morning. More recently, we have started meditating together. But most of our experiences with silence have taken place away from home.

I posed the idea to Barry over coffee and he was willing. I'm fortunate to be married to someone who, like me, loves silence. It was 8 in the morning. We decided to be silent until 10 a.m. and then see what we wanted.

I took my coffee mug and my journal and part of the Sunday paper up the staircase to the rooftop deck that we built. Sitting on one of our garden chairs, overlooking the neighborhood trees, I sighed with pleasure. I could see Barry down on the bench below, reading the comics, partially in sight but out of earshot. Occasionally he would get off the bench and crouch down near the pond, inspecting our goldfish. Safe behind my hedge of silence, I enjoyed watching his movements.

Oh, the relief from the exhaustion of the spoken word. Oh, to hear my own voice again, after the crowdedness of other people's words, comments, questions, thoughts. Finally, I could hear myself.

In my journal, I wrote: "I've missed myself! I need room." I kept writing, and went on to sort out a number of entanglements with people that had been snarling around my mind for days.

I savored it all: my rich brew of coffee, the sound of the commuter train in the distance, the laziness of reading the newspaper. I took a special pleasure from an article about a musician couple--he's a conductor, she's a pianist--who had learned how to tune each other out for hours at a time.

The story told how in a tiny one-room apartment they rented in Lyons, France, she would practice Chopin and he would lie for hours in the bathtub mentally inventing musical scores for his orchestra. They would say to each other, "I need to go study," and be gone for 15 hours at a time--but remaining in the same physical space. Amazing. This was what I wanted to cultivate--the ability to be around Barry but serene within my own sphere.

Sitting there, breathing in the fresh morning air, I knew I needed to be silent more often. And I needed to restrain myself from going to Barry with impulsive questions. When we remodeled and moved my office into our home, I was worried that he would encroach on me. But I reluctantly noticed that it was often I who consulted with him, before consulting with myself.

The next hour and a half I spent reading, writing and gazing out at rooftops.

*

At 9:45, I started feeling nervous. Only 15 minutes left. I wasn't ready for the violence of speech. I remembered a word a minister I heard had used, describing speech during a sacred moment: "vulgar," he had said. Yes, I thought. Sometimes speech is vulgar.

I wrote Barry a note and took it down to him: "I feel protected by our silence. It's giving me a chance to recollect myself, remember myself. I'm not ready to talk. I'd like to reconvene at noon."

He nodded vigorously. Oh good, I thought. He's enjoying this too.

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