NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Silence” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Silence: Outside in
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
About silence I am tempted to say, “I have nothing to say.” And yet I do.
I have always had an ambivalent relationship with silence. Initially, silence was a haven, although not a happy one. As a young boy, I retreated into silence to get away from the literal and emotional noise of my family. I spent most of my non-school time either holed up in the basement, performing chemistry and electronic experiments or making model rockets, or up on my top bunk, reading science fiction and comic books.
Beginning with my senior year in high school, radicalized by sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and the War in Vietnam, I tried to break out of silence. This process of engaging continued through my time in New York City, where I became a reporter, a photographer, a teacher. I remember a Catholic priest with whom I had become friendly observing that I came alive in relationship. Yes, that’s right, I thought. How could I have failed to notice?
Yet even then, I often craved silence, which was in short supply in Manhattan. I relished my time in the darkroom making prints and at my 1909 L.C. Smith typewriter, grinding out newspaper articles, short stories about the street people I encountered, and a book about American folk music. I fantasized about my long-ago dreams of the silence of space and wished I could shut my ears as easily as I could my eyes.
It was a noisy world and I was noisy inside.
Q: What do you get if you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic?
A: Someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a dog.
I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn to get away from the screech of the elevated subway, yowling cats, blaring sirens, but the improvement was marginal. Dogs barked, sirens still blared, garbage trucks growled, and after a while, in the background, I noticed a burbling rumble punctuated by high-pitched yelps.
A year past deadline for the folk music book, I was busily drafting a chapter on Blues and Gospel when I first noticed this almost subliminal but insistent sound. Once it registered, I couldn’t tune it out. It penetrated closed windows, snaked past ear plugs, and even the white noise of Reverend Blind Gary Davis singing “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” over and over failed to drown it out.
The sound seemed distant, yet it carried like a shout across a lake, its volume and pitch rising and falling at irregular, disturbing intervals. The next morning, I hurtled down the spiral staircase and out onto the street. Like a dog sniffing out a trail, I perked my ears and stalked off down the block.
I was on a mission. Neighbors and passersby moved about as if in slow motion. Three houses down, I noticed two men struggling to transfer a heavy sofa from a U-Haul truck into an upper flat, the billowing cushions jammed in the doorway. Next door, a small boy slid down the railing of his stoop, shouting “Look at me!” Just ahead, two dogs wrestled; I stepped around them. The babbling grew louder as I approached Fulton Street, calling to me like a homing beacon.
Then I saw him: A large, dignified-looking black man, perhaps 50 years old, standing in front of a brownstone across the street, leaning on a cement birdbath as if it were a lectern. His suit was dark gray, shoes a highly polished black, white shirt open at the collar. His face was beaded with sweat.
The tiny front yard was strewn with large sheets of paper, on each of which appeared to be writing. Also on the ground, within easy reach of the birdbath/lectern, were several large books, stones holding them open to particular pages. The man, whom I would soon come to think of as “the Speaker,” orated in a loud, variably pitched tone, in an accent so sharp I was not quite sure the language was English – his vocalizations sounded more like water pouring from a jug than human speech. I watched, half-hidden behind a tree, unsure of what to do.
The Speaker abruptly stopped talking, dropped his arms to his side, and turned 180 degrees to face the small window in his front door. He stood there in silence, then started to rock gently back and forth, as if he were a wind-blown sapling. I could see his face reflected in the door glass, a pained expression distorting his mouth, eyes, and brow. I wondered if he could see mine reflected there, as well, but if he did, he showed no sign.
For perhaps three minutes, the Speaker remained still except for his gentle rocking and a continual mutation of his facial expression. Then he turned and walked directly to the concrete birdbath near the fence. He stooped to pick up a heavy black book, examined it for a moment, and set it on this makeshift pedestal. He raised his eyes to the late morning sun. Squinting, arms crossed at the wrists, face twitching, he stepped slowly backwards two or three paces, stretching his crossed arms skyward. He stopped, twitched his nose, blinked his eyes, and slowly crossed and uncrossed his arms. He rotated another 90 degrees and repeated this ritual. Then he stepped backward, palms outstretched, until he came to within a foot or so of his stoop.
By this time he had gathered an audience of two young girls and a smaller boy. They leaned on the Speaker’s fence and watched, the girls with mild and intermittent interest, the boy more intently. None of the adults paid any attention. The Speaker continued his ritualized movements for several more minutes. Then, abruptly, he marched past the birdbath to the iron fence at the front of his yard, gripped the tops of two adjacent fence posts, and leaned forward, his eyes open and transfixed. The children ran off, giggling.
I’d felt transfixed myself, but his sudden movement shook me out of my trance and I crossed the street. As I reached the curb opposite his house, he began to speak again, his tone even more shrill than it had been earlier, a squeaky-chalk-on-the-blackboard sound. Although I was now only a few feet from him, he still seemed unaware of my presence.
“You see it? See there? Over your head?” he shouted. “Three suns he has made! Three suns!” He lifted his head and arms, stretching his palms skyward, embracing the sun. “I have to show you how to pick one!” His voice cracked with each exclamation. “That’s to show you I’m different than you. That’s to show you I’m different than anybody.” His face twitched again, then he leaned forward on the fence, as if addressing an unseen audience. His voice deepened. “My work is honorable. My work is from the days of old, from ancient times. From everlasting, I was sent up.”
I felt frozen in place, unable to leave but equally unable to respond. He turned his head from side to side and declaimed: “That is how I am! I could stay inside my house and walk in the wall and see the light shinin’ through my skin! I could stand right up at night and show the light in my body! And in the glass in the mirror! And the window! That is how I am!” He raised his arms to the sky as if in triumph. “I am perfect! I am light!” he shouted. “I don’t have to be a dream!” He closed his eyes and again began rhythmically rocking forward and back, forward and back.
I went out to observe him for a couple of days, always from a distance. My annoyance gave way to curiosity. Sometimes I tried to catch his actual words, but most of the time I could make out only the pitch and timbre of his voice. I noticed that he was ignored by passers-by and by anyone who walked into his building. Only the children seemed interested, and then only sporadically. I wondered what he was trying to communicate, and whether, if someone were actually to listen to him, he might stop talking.
Finally I approached him. For several hours a day, over the remainder of the week, we had a kind of conversation. He alternated between ritualized periods of silence like the one I had observed on the first day, reading from the many Bibles he had placed strategically on his slate-covered yard, and a kind of exegesis of these passages.
Much of what he quoted was from the laws described in the Book of Deuteronomy, and from Luke, where the harsh consequences of disobeying them are defined: “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake.”
In time I understood that he did not believe he was a preacher or a prophet, as I had first surmised, but thought himself the Son of Man, come a second time, and that he was letting us know, as a courtesy, that we had sinned against Him too many times, and the End of Days had arrived. Like Don Quixote, he’d read the signs of the Second Coming and then attempted to enact them, later pointing to his deeds as proof of his claim to outraged divinity.
During our several days of talks, it seemed my strategy was at least partially effective. He had longer periods of silently performing his rituals, and shorter ones of shouting. Then one day he was gone.
Weeks passed. I learned from neighbors that he had entered his “landlord phase” when, as the Son of Man and thus the creator of all things, he tried to exercise his rights of ownership by going house to house, demanding rent. He’d been doing this for years. Each time, after enough complaints, they had locked him away. These institutionalizations were, I realized, what he had meant by the sins of Man against God which had brought on the impending Apocalypse. He had, by his reckoning, been more than patient.
After a few months I more or less forgot about the Speaker. Then came the great New York City blackout of 1977, which left me stranded overnight in Manhattan. It took most of the next day to make my way back to Brooklyn, which was still without power. The nearest bus route left me off on Fulton Street, but deep into Bedford-Stuyvesant. As I exited the bus, I heard behind me a familiar burbling/yelping sound. It was the Speaker, released from bondage, once again declaiming his final warning.
He recognized me immediately. We chatted briefly about the old neighborhood and where he was living now. The move, he said, had given him more power. “More power on Heaven and Earth,” he elaborated. Then, with increasing vehemence, he repeated: “More Power on Heaven and Earth! MORE POWER ON HEAVEN AND EARTH!” He gestured around him at the looted stores, the traffic still disrupted by the blackout, and I knew what he was saying without saying: Here is yet another sign, in case there’s any doubt, of who I am and what I have come to do.
The silences I sought in my younger days – of the basement workshop, the darkroom, the writing desk – are still important to me, but more essential is entering, when I can, an internal world free of interruption. This remains a challenge. Sometimes I meet it with meditation, which helps me return to center when I get off track. Or with curiosity – why is that noise, that thought, that memory, that emotion drawing my attention? What is it stirring? Sometimes, simply directing my focus toward one clear task, such as making a mandala, brings the busyness to rest.
My experience with seeking to silence the Speaker was an early step toward finding enough silence inside to neutralize the noise of the outside world. Over the subsequent 30 years, I have continued my dance with noise, with each encounter understanding, more deeply, how most of what I “hear” is self-created. As I increasingly find quiet within, I build a refuge from which I can pay fuller attention to the still, silent place in others that is secreted inside the noise of their lives. Because it is that silent inner place, rather than the absence of sound, that encourages acceptance and presages positive change.
My quest is to revisit the silence I felt in my near-death experience, which remains the most still, silent place I have ever been, a place of true emptiness, where I was momentarily stripped even of the noise of a conscious self, and only awareness remained.