Somewhere, holding a mobile phone to his ear, he waits another moment then asks cautiously: “That’s your thinking silence… right?”
I think about stuff. It’s perhaps not fashionable to do so. The person who thinks about stuff is also the one who asks the awkward questions, is unapologetic for caring about getting it right, is not afraid of saying that someone has got it wrong (whether others, or yourself), and who won’t be hurried. I am not a snap-your-fingers sort of person. I don’t go along with things that I don’t believe in. I don’t rush to give advice about things that I don’t really understand. I mull over my own experiences and those of the people who I’ve been fortunate enough to know, to work with, to live alongside.
But I don’t hesitate to share something that I know unshakeably, from experience. Understanding is one of the best things to share.
I believe in choosing the right words. The written word, the spoken word, the gesture – the ways in which we disturb the Universe – it all matters to me. No-one gets it right all the time. We chuck words out into the world that we can never take back, words that don’t always land in the right place (or sometimes, as Mr Morcambe would say, we may choose all the right words, but not necessarily in the right order). I try not to. The stamp-through-the-world, empty-vessel, be-loud-in-word-deed-and-clothing attitude is quite alien to me – offensive, even.
I’m the one who stopped to think about it. My bookshelves, my dusty corners and my mind are full of things that I’ve taken the time to find out about, to drink in, to imagine. Sometimes you’ll be talking to me and there’s a long pause, because something that you’ve said has suddenly set my neurons aflame. Do not be alarmed. I’m just fathoming. Making connections. Weighing up. Pinning down. This is my thinking silence.
“Like all good poets, she knows that silence and empty space are just as important as the words.” [Simon Armitage in “Walking Home”, describing Katrina Porteous]
When I was little, my mother could always take me with her to meetings, whether in community halls or in people’s houses. So long as there were crayons, pencils, paper, a table and chair. I’d be the one sitting quietly in a corner, creating, oblivious to the treasurer’s report or event planning or school curtain measuring or whatever was the order of the day. I was no bother, because I’m the quiet one. I’ve spent a lot of my life not saying very much. It’s earned me various allegedly ironic nicknames along the way, such as “the talking clock” – this from an uncharitable teacher who disliked my habit of wearing four watches at once (none of which worked) and who disliked his own inability to get a response to his many attempts to wind me up even less. No pun intended.
As a grown-up, I find myself sitting quietly in a corner working with bits of wires and light, creating. It’s not unusual for there to be a day of the week when some of my colleagues fail to notice that I’m there. If I were a different person I might feel the need to draw attention to myself, but I don’t. I’m the one just getting on with it, without all the nonsense. My safest place at University was at the other side of my studio manager’s desk, sitting still in the presence of someone I trusted. He’d carry on with his day regardless, knowing that I just wanted to sit there. I didn’t get thrown out very often. I’ve learnt to value people who can just let me be.
My favourite thing about gardening is planting seeds. Give me my little greenhouse and potting bench any day, or a patch of grass to sit on, or a corner of our allotment, a bit of warm compost and a packet of seeds. Fingers are nature’s best dibbers – make a row of planting holes and drop a pea seed gently into each one, then cover carefully and water. It’s the beginning of creating something, quietly in a corner, with bits of muck and a shrivelled seed. Simply and with wonder. No need to say “You’re quiet today”. I’m content. This is just my natural silence.
“Silence is a stone in my mouth”
Sometimes the silence is longer and deeper. You’d only know it if you were really listening. It’s the silence of someone who has given up saying things that nobody wants to hear. The daily-grind debilitating silence of feeling undermined and trampled-under-foot, collateral damage of other people’s headlong stampede towards self-justification. It’s as if someone rang a gong. I’ve become a dumbfounded witness to apparent epiphanies, sudden U-turns. Are yesterday’s views now today’s chip paper or are they just temporarily filed under lock and key? It’s hard to tell. Hard to know where you are. The elbows grow sharper as the days grow darker. Or is it the other way around? I can’t tell any more. I live in the crossfire and it leaves me lost for words. This is my sunken silence.
“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
There’s a lot to be said for listening. Never forget to leave a space for others to speak. Sometimes my silence is just your words. I’m not saying anything but I’m listening, reading, observing. I haven’t stopped being part of the conversation – there would be no conversation without my silence. Someone once told me that amidst the room full of people she was addressing, she could sense me listening. Someone once told me, standing on an Underground platform whilst the train thundered into the station, that my work is like something that blows along with the wind. I haven’t thought about either of those moments for a long time, but I remember them. Because I was listening. This is my standing back silence. I’d have missed so much without it.
I walked into St. Mary’s Church in Krakow in April 1994. I heard the silence in that space – I felt it. Both an absence and a presence. It was extraordinary. The church is 600 years old, and built on foundations older still. Somehow it holds its memories. It’s a building with a voice. A place of loss and a place of life. The people coming and going over the centuries step into that hushed space and carry a bit of its stillness away with them. I accumulate such silences. It is the silence of loss and memory and voices that you will never hear again and moments that will never leave you. The silence of actually being there. This is a palpable silence. And it’s not just mine.
In trying to fathom my quietness, I’ve realised that I have many silences. It’s one, or more than one, or all these five and others besides that have kept me away from my writing.
And I’ve realised that it takes someone who is really listening to be able to tell one kind of silence from another. Especially on the receiving end.