like prayers / prayed back to the one who prays
I grew up in a quiet town, surrounded by woods and stars, with only the occasional zip of a car flying down our local tree-lined road. Despite this, my house always felt busy. We often had relatives stay over, and sometimes we’d have 9 people living at our house instead of the usual 5. Someone was always cooking, someone was always talking, the TV was always on. As a teenager, eldest of three, I ached for those rare moments home alone. In high school, I cherished my 20 minutes of tea time after I walked home from the bus stop and before my dad arrived home with my sisters, sitting in the breakfast nook and looking out at the autumn leaves in our backyard. When I started university, my class schedule allowed me to be home alone for much of the day, cooking in the kitchen and doing my homework at the dining table. Now I live in a loud city, in a quiet flat, despite its thin walls. The quiet is less cherished since I know it’ll always be there when I come home. I’m trying to navigate it, teaching myself how to bask in it without amplifying the sounds of my own aloneness.
Despite this, there’s always an urge to lean into it, to become a part of it. I went through a period of social anxiety in school where I would regret my words every time I spoke. My quiet was instilled more by low self-esteem than a willingness to listen or to simply appreciate what was around me. I spent more time in my own head, analyzing what I did or did not say. Even now, I listen to music or read on my way home from seeing people in order to avoid over-analyzing my own interactions. But that’s not the point of quiet, is it?
Ada Limón, “The Quiet Machine”:
I’m learning so many different ways to be quiet. There’s how I stand in the lawn, that’s one way. There’s also how I stand in the field across from the street, that’s another way because I’m farther from people and therefore more likely to be alone. There’s how I don’t answer the phone, and how I sometimes like to lie down on the floor in the kitchen and pretend I’m not home when people knock. There’s daytime silent when I stare, and a nighttime silent when I do things. There’s shower silent and bath silent and California silent and Kentucky silent and car silent and then there’s the silence that comes back, a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore. That’s how this machine works.
I like this piece because it insists on quietude. Whether we choose to or not, we will always have to face it, as much as we may want to drown it out. It’s multilayered. There are so many types of quiet — awkward silences, walking through a park on a weekday morning, the moments before falling asleep, waking up extra early. We can be so far removed from this stillness in our daily lives, so our minds stay rapid throughout. Often the good quiet passes without us knowing. How do we learn to recognize it? As Virginia Woolf said, one must learn to be silent just as one must learn to talk.
I’ve found that the best way to go about this is to compartmentalize. For example, this weekend I’ve had a lot of assignments and readings to do, which leads to a fairly busy silence. It felt almost suffocating. On Saturday morning I went on a long, two-hour stroll in Hampstead Heath. I listened to an audiobook for a lot of it, but I spent 30 minutes sitting on a bench, eating a croissant, and just listening to the wind in the trees and the distant sound of conversation. It was a clear quiet, the refreshing kind. I’m trying to make a habit of that, to prioritize these resetting moments of quiet. I’ve prescribed it to myself. I returned and knocked out half of my assignment in one sitting. I was surprised by the clarity of my thoughts.
Wendell Berry writes in the third stanza of “How to Be A Poet”:
Accept what comes from silence. Make the best you can of it. Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers prayed back to the one who prays, make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.
From this, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between quiet and attention. Yes, quiet amplifies the loudness of our own thoughts, but I also find it amplifies the loudness of the world — whether it’s sound or observation. Mary Oliver wrote that The Real Prayers Are Not the Words, But the Attention that Comes First. So yes, I long to be quiet, in the form of prayer, in the form of attention. I want to silence my anxiousness and turn it towards the outside world, only to return it back to my insides. like prayers prayed back to the one who prays. There is kindness in quiet, despite the worries of our rapid brains, because the beauty of the world becomes louder. We must also turn outward in the silence. I think that is the thing to recognize.
What I Enjoyed This Week
“Wondrous” by Sarah Freligh. This was featured on Ada Limón’s The Slowdown podcast. I teared up listening to this poem. Charlotte’s Web was likely the one book that sparked my lifelong love of literature. I read it in first grade, or rather, my mom read it to me. Even now, when I complain about spiders in my flat, she texts me It’s Charlotte ! I still find so much value and wonder in children’s literature. E.B. White is one of my heroes. So this poem struck me extra hard, in thinking about the way our first books stick with us for the rest of our lives.
“I Thought This Would Be My Life” by Yang Qingxiang. I’m trying to find more international translated poetry to read, and I really enjoyed reading some from this Chinese author, in particular this poem. I often am guided more to happy poems, drawn by their pleasurable simplicity, but this one still contains that despite being a heartbreaking poem. I love its beautiful language and gentleness, and how if you look underneath it all, it makes you want to cry.
Other Wonderful Things.
Taylor Swift’s re-recording of Red. Obviously! I have listened to nothing else since the early hours of Friday. I remember being 12, pre-ordering this album on my little iPhone 4, staying up late on a school night to listen to it all the way through. I think the thing I appreciate most about Taylor’s re-recordings is that she unashamedly celebrates her past self. I think we are all embarrassed by what we did 9 years ago, and I’m sure she’s the same, but it happened, and it’ll always remain a part of us. In a way, listening to this new version of this album as a new version of myself helps me honor my 12-year-old self, who I am often so embarrassed by. I’ve just been having so much fun with it. I’ve grown a new love for every song, and the vault tracks too.
Further — The All Too Well short film. It’s beautifully done. It’s always been my favorite off of Red, and this (and the 10-minute version) gives it new life for me, in my own new life. I was so impressed.
I went to the Noguchi exhibit at the Barbican last week. I had never heard of him beforehand and went in blind, but I was so enthralled and invested in his incredibly thoughtful use of sculpture and light. He often intertwines science and environmentalism into his work, far ahead of his time. I really enjoyed it (and thank you Mai for accompanying me <3).
Hope you can all take time for quiet this week, the good kind. Thanks for reading.