I read the other day about a church in England — an 11th century church in Sussex, it was — where the parish had recorded and then sold out of a CD they made of the silence that lives in their small village church.
That’s all. Just silence.
Apparently they set up some recording equipment and just let it run. You can hear some soft rustles, one or two discreet footsteps, but that’s all. The rest, as they say, is silence.
Of course, if you’ve ever spent any time listening to silence, you know that it’s never “just” silence. Silence isn’t actually the absence of sound. In fact, it’s those weird, indistinct noises unique to a place that, rather than disturbing the silence you might otherwise find there, somehow manage to give it a name. A density, a molecular mass of its own.
My tiny house on Cape Cod, for instance, has a very different silence than the silence that can be found on the bike path a mile away where I run. And these are both quite different from the silence of the ocean beach a short drive from here, where the murmurs of wave and wind can sometimes rise into an actual roar, yet still manage to sound quite undeniably like silence.
You’d recognize the silence of your childhood home. In a heartbeat, you would.
Before we moved here, I used to spend my vacations in this house. Not all of my vacations were on Cape Cod, to be sure, but this is where I’m from, and it’s where all my family still live, and so I came back fairly regularly for this and that as the years went on. And after a while, I started yearning less for my own bed in whatever adopted town I was living in off-Cape, and started wishing more and more that I could just stay. And it was the silence that I wanted to remember, when I left. I’d walk out into the road in front of the house in the middle of the night, sit down and stare up at the stars, and listen. Store up as much of the sound of this little plot of land as I could. Open my ears up wide and let the silence just pour right in.
When we did finally decide to move back here, after I’d been away for almost a decade and a half, and my father — whose house this is — had agreed to let us roost here on a more permanent basis, it took us about a year to tie up all the loose ends of our lives on the mainland before we could pack up the moving vans and make it official. By then I was flat-out desperate to be living here again. I took out a box at the local post office months before we moved. Every week, I’d mail my future self a post card from me-in-exile, apologizing for the delay and explaining just how hard I was working on coming back home. How much I was looking forward to seeing me again.
“Wish you were here,” I’d imagine me writing back.
I used to think about this house at night, sit and think about how still it must be right now, the canvas-covered chairs in the living room lying empty and waiting, the knotted pine walls softly lit by the floor lamp that was always left on. I used to sit in my apartment in upstate New York, trying to imagine how the silence would be sounding here at that moment. Remember the way that the wind had roughed up my ears the last night I’d sat here, arms wrapped around my knees, my butt getting cold from sitting on the rise in the road between house and woods.
Of course now I know more about the different silences of this house. I know how the owls take up residence outside on warm, moonlit nights, conversing for hours about their murderous plans. I know how distant, yet close, are the calls of the coyotes that roam the streets at night, sending the squirrels who sometimes nest in the crawl space under my bedroom into paroxysms of fear and dismay. I know that the hum of the refrigerator would not have kept those canvas chairs company on those long-ago nights, as it was always prudently unplugged, its door left a careful two inches ajar by my father when the house lay empty. The mutterings of my cat as she grooms, the rumblings of the tea kettle as it cools, the incense on the mantle falling from ember into ash — each of these is part of my own contribution to the silence that lives here now, the silence that enshrouds me and warms me like woolens, that cools my skin like cotton sheets on a hot summer night.
I learned the other day that my grandmother’s chair sat where I sit now, every day and every night, working or reading or knitting or typing. It’s my favorite spot in the house, tucked by the window beneath the floor lamp that always stays on and warms the knotted pine walls. I expect that the silence she heard here is quite different from the silence that keeps company here now.
I’ve lived here ten years now, and still I sometimes feel like it’s my job just to listen to the silence of this place, writing it all down in my head so that its stories are all heard. So I stay up late at night, listening, waiting, taking it in.
Taking all of it in. Getting all of it down.