Outside on the street, a car alarm is blaring. It’s not exactly a suburban neighborhood, but quiet enough that a random car alarm is more than background noise to a spring night.
I’m in the rocking chair I’ve adopted as mine- having trash-picked, thoroughly sprayed, cleaned, and draped it with an afghan. I’m sipping some rye whiskey while my wife alternates between her keyboard and piano, writing assignments for students. There’s some random “quiet time” music from Spotify playing, but it’s getting a little too happy and janky. I’m trying to write.
I need quiet, but with a little noise mixed in- like even the best whiskey needs a little drop of water to open up everything it has to offer.
Back when I was in college, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology that taught me a lot but didn’t go anywhere, I took a class called “Psychological Aspects of Death and Dying.” The professor had a creepy intensity about the subject- the kind that would be entertaining if it didn’t make students nervous. He arranged a field trip to a funeral home where the manager described some of the last wishes they’ve had to accommodate. He borrowed a casket to stage a funeral service and eulogy in the classroom (no one wanted to look inside.) An in-class assignment was writing our living wills. It was educational, enlightening, sobering, and morbid as fuck. Every afternoon after that class, I felt like I needed to stand in the sunshine for an hour.
One of the very first assignments was “Describe in detail your perfect way to die.” As I recall, mine would take some planning and logistics:
“I’d like to outlive my wife. After I retire from whatever work I do, I’d like to leave my business and everything to my kids if I have them, and then get on a boat and sail down to the Carribean. I’d find a small island, build myself a beach shack, and live there alone.
One morning, I’ll wake up, fix myself a cup of tea, walk outside and look at the sunrise. I’ll sit down in my door, doze off, and never wake up.”
Chill out, I’m fine. As dire and fucked up as times are right now, I don’t think this mortal coil is quite done with me yet.
The other day, during my session, I told my therapist that story and he asked why that appealed to me so much- beyond being an exit that you’d find in a Jimmy Buffett song. I told him, “Because I feel like, at the end of a long day, or a long life, or a busy and frantic whatever- all I want is a moment of perfect quiet.”
I don’t actually find those moments of quiet during the things you might think I should. Almost never in meditation, because meditation isn’t actually about “quieting” or “silencing” the mind- it’s more about separating yourself from your thoughts, and watching them whiz through your consciousness. Kind of like watching cars pass by, and trying not to jump into the street and chase them.
I don’t get them from substances either. Alcohol is fun, it tastes good and makes a nice addition to a moment like now- but getting drunk isn’t quiet. It’s oblivion.
For me, the best moments of quiet are when I’m running. Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal calls it “the Void.” It’s this point where your thoughts stop mattering. The world around you stops mattering. You can duck and dodge and weave around people and jump over dog shit easily, because all that matters is how I can stay there forever. I just need to keep my legs moving.
After that is my work in the bakery, especially when I’m doing something like rolling pie crust. It’s different from being “in the Zone,” and it’s more like a side effect of wei wu wei than the actual state. It’s the experience of shutting my mind off, and knowing everything will be alright. At a certain point, the thoughts buzzing through my mind just turn into blurs, and I can surrender to the motion. The vibe of the kitchen. Warm hands on smooth cold dough and rough warm wood. Fingertips that can find bumps and thick spots without needing to ask my brain for a double-check.
When you are an introvert- a thinker, a writer, an artist, a cook, a teacher- your thoughts are loud. If you deal with anxiety and depression, the amp in your brain is kicked up to thirty and the knob has been hurled out the window.
That’s part of why I write. To get those words out, so that they’ll leave me alone without having to lose them. Unless I want to, of course.
It’s not something I want all the time, of course- even if I could switch it on and off like some great machine. Quiet is boring. I love loud music. I love conversations that wind like miles of tangled cable. I love jumping into that busy street in my brain and doing my best to direct traffic.
But everything ends sometime. The ending is part of the whole, and like that far-off fanciful terminus, or the last drops of a glass of bourbon, I should get to enjoy that too. So long as my legs move, and the sun sets, and I can anticipate the next sip.
Quiet ends too- so I enjoy it while it lasts.