When a surprise snowstorm blew through our area last October, and we lost power for several days afterward, I grew enamored of the  silence that enveloped my life. Afterward, I wrote this piece, a version of which was published in the newspapers I was working for at the time.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a similar topic: Slowing down and silencing the cacophony in my brain… No, I’m not nuts but there’s a lot of stuff vying for my attention in there and typically I fuel the fire with a continual stream of coffee. You can imagine.

Between those thoughts and the latest threat of strange late-October weather for our area, I’ve dusted off this column and made some changes so it’s a new piece. I look forward to hearing from anyone out there about how you tune out the noise now and then.

In Praise of Silence

Shortly after that crazy October snowstorm blew through here and well into our second evening without power, just as the novelty of doing everything by candlelight was beginning to wear off, I noticed another welcome novelty. It was silence.

A type and quality of soundlessness quite unknown anymore, it was remarkable.

I could almost hear the air. And a relaxing peace, like an exhale, took hold.

Quiet enveloped me as each ambient sound stopped. No more hum of the refrigerator, buzzing light bulbs, thrumming water pump.  No flushing, no phone rings, no answering-machine beeps, no clicks of the light switch, no printer clack. Even the purring of my computer’s inner workings, so vital to me, now temporarily silenced.

All of these sounds we live with; most we don’t even register. They are background noise. That it took me so long to recognize their absence proves to me how quickly I move through my life, how cluttered it is with chores, To-Do lists, yadda, yadda, yadda, blah, blah, blah. Noises that I don’t even hear.

This newfound quiet worked its magic. It said: Slow down. Think. Rest.

This must have been what it was like to live here 100 years ago. Just the sound of the wind, the creaking floorboards under foot, my own breath, in and out. The pace of life had slowed to “real time.” Really.

But then, the power returned. Life resumed where we left off.

And, though I sketched out a column about how much I appreciated the silence, well, things just got busy again. I was never able to marshal my thoughts around the concept. Too many must-do’s pulling me in too many directions.

But on New Year’s Day, an article in The New York Times pulled me back to this theme.  In “The Joy of Quiet,” writer Pico Iyer talks of the emergent need to escape information overload, and how some people have created technology sabbaths, specific days when they put aside the computer, phone, TV, and revert to a more primitive lifestyle: talking, walking, reading. That’s all in the name of disconnecting from our cultural pressures and reconnecting with ourselves. Iyer even mentioned a study done at Intel a few years back in which a group of employees were given “four hours of uninterrupted quiet time every Tuesday morning… They could not use the phone or send e-mail, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think.”

Iyer talks of those who go on monastic retreats, himself included, and savor the solitude, their distance from our fast-paced world full of sounds, noises and demands upon our thoughts. For me, this kind of quiet world holds great appeal. About a month ago I learned of a silent retreat: No one speaks. Instead, they walk, think, read, do what they wish, but silently. What a beautiful idea. This is something I’d like to try, if just for a few days.

If ever “Tune in, turn on, drop out” needed a revamping, it would be today. When was the last time you tuned out, turned off and dropped in to let yourself think, let your thoughts rove from present to memory to idea and back around again?

Just as I’d recommend a good book or a favorite author, a good recipe or a great restaurant, may I recommend a bit of silence? Unplug, detach and power down for a bit and breathe. If you can think of no place or time so free in your daily grind, here are a few suggestions:

In your car, windows up, radio off, even while driving.

The library.

A park.

The bathtub.

I wish that everyone may find time to reflect, to go noise-free, no sound bites, no iPods, ear plugs, heavy metal or soft rock, but peace and quiet.