It started with this.

It started with this.

Then, there was this guy. Primo. Here he is at the beach.
Then, there was this guy. Primo. Here he is at the beach.

That lead to this: Primo's little cousin Charley.

That led to this. Meet Primo’s little cousin Charley.

And along came this guy

And along came this guy… and then!

tableful

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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.

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This morning The Cursing Mommy drifted into my thoughts and I tried with difficulty to dredge up some facts about her. Doesn’t she have a video on Youtube? She was caught in one of those Paparazzi style videos that reverberate around the Internet? She is actually a self-styled product tester? A sick self-promoter with her own TV show?

Ultimately I recalled that she is a fictional character I’ve been reading about now and then in a New Yorker column by Ian Frazier. She is amusing. And I only have to spend a few minutes with her. I don’t have to commit to following her on Twitter or a weekly show. I don’t have to fret that she’s ruining her life and her fictional children’s lives. Precisely because she is fictional. And also because I can choose not to read her now. But of course I do. It’s just one page.

Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes I think that free-associating is a wonderful thing; sometimes it’s a devil. That’s good fiction for you: It’s sticky. When you are not consciously thinking about it and it leaps at you – when it inhabits your thoughts, moves in and hangs out, overtaking the important stuff in your real life that you have to remember and keep track of; when it gets in the way. That’s when you know it’s good fiction.

I like to think there are cozy niches in my brain inhabited by the characters I don’t want to let go. It’s a comfort sometimes to imagine they are living with me. That they haven’t disappeared just because I have not read them into life lately.

And even though you and I may both love, say, The Little Prince or Heathcliff or Conor Larkin (See “Trinity” by Leon Uris), my Conor is mine and your is yours. Right?

Sometimes knowing The Little Prince is close by is comforting, even to an adult.

Just now, I hunted down my copy of “The Little Prince” to re-read it and make sure I am still sympatico with the winsome fictional prince. I am. And happy, too, to be reacquainted with him and with Saint Exupery, his creator.

A few digressions:

Inside the book, between pages 30 and 31, I found an index card bookmark. On one side I had written: Hat Day, Pizza Day. The other side was addressed to my daughter, in her own handwriting, and said: “bring invatiteions (sic) to school and don’t forget.”

My copy of the paperback was marked 75 cents. As an aside to this aside, my Macbook Pro keyboard does not have a visible cent-sign marked on any key.

I also keep a companion copy of the book in French. I must have read it in its original language once upon a time, possibly for a course, and it’s nice to see myself in my mind’s eye struggling over it in French, turning to the English version for translation. For the record the cover price on this one is 95 cents.

But back to the original topic: digressions. I had intended this piece to be about how I’ve been baking up a storm lately and how one recipe has led me to another to another and how I’ve made the following things, one after the other: Fruit cobbler, spicy brownies, ice cream, meringue cookies, frozen yogurt, corn muffins with strawberries.

But I’ll save all that for another time. I think Ian Frazier has a new installment of The Cursing Mommy. Image

The scene: Late summer night in a Blue Ridge Mountains town. People wander up and down the street, stopping to listen to groups of country musicians who gather informally. There’s an outdoor market area where weavers and painters and wooden bowl makers sell their goods. People carry and sip from cans of Mountain Dew or paper cups of coffee. 

Families exit the Floyd Country Store, where they’ve been dancing on the wooden floor much of the night. Little girls in tap shoes and stretchy jeans cannot stop tapping, even as they are ushered into their mini-van. Their little feet are still tapping in the air as Mommy cinches the seat belt. Granddad smiles proudly.

Twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings lean in toward each other, their guitars nearly touching. A tall girl holding a sheaf of lyrics, her voice like a bell, sings tentatively yet with conviction.

We ease ourselves onto a bench to enjoy the music. One of the guitarists, taking a break, sits beside me and smiles hello.

“Where ya’ll from?” he asks.

“New York,” I say. “The state, not the city.”

“You’re a long way from home,” he says.

Behind him I can see the softening shadows of the mountains, going gray-blue as the light fades. There’s an openness and an emptiness – it’s space unencumbered by extra buildings but it’s also the way this bench, this spot on the street is perched on a rise in the road so I can see up and beyond him – that makes me agree with him.

“You’re a Yankee,” he says in a matter of fact way, labeling me, like you would say to someone: you’ve got brown eyes or you’re bald.Image

All the while visiting in this area, I’d felt it was different from home — but not so different that I couldn’t recognize it as part of my world, my country.

There it was: until now, the unspoken difference. Something felt but not understood. Sure, there are the accents, but we have as many of them up here in New York that I don’t relate to.

My Yankeeness is just a fact. It’s a regional fact.

“Yes!” I say, realizing he’s exposed a truism I ought to own up to. “I guess I am.”

 

Another thing to love about September: cooler days = baking weather.

Summertime baking is a challenge. Not that I won’t labor over a cake in 90-degree heat. I will. Sweating and baking in a house without air conditioning is not the worst thing in the world. Especially when you imagine yourself working off ounces in advance of putting on pounds.

This Sunday was perfect baking weather, though. Summer’s on the wane. There’s just a hint of fall in the air. It’s nothing more than a feeling, a cast to the daylight and the sense that time is moving forward. Daytime feels more precious because there’s just a little bit less of it.

It’s a wordless feeling. Something that’s so familiar – this prelude to the change of seasons. And, so, like I said, it’s baking weather.

Bruised peaches from the farmer’s market at $1 a pound, so big that a few bruises hardly put a dent in their beauty. And, from the grocery store, blueberries – already out of season here and now expensive. Raspberries somehow on sale! These I mixed up in a fruit cobbler and set to bake and bubble in my oven.

But it was baking weather again so I could not be content with just one dish. I turned to Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s “Vegan with a Vengeance” thinking to find a cookie recipe that would somehow be a little more morally uplifting than say your standard Toll House. Even though most of her recipes are complicated, and even though I am not a vegan, still I knew I’d find what I wanted here. I have never made anything from her cookbooks that was not great. I just adapt the veganism as I want.

I found her Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe right beside her Sparkled Ginger Cookies recipe that I’ve made before and which is out of this world. But this time it would be chocolate chip. She starts the recipe with a disclaimer that it is in no way healthy. OK. Fine. I just wanted to bake something yummy after all.

It was!

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September always gives me hope. It’s a new season, a time for  beginnings. Even though it’s been a while since the school calendar ruled my life I still feel the tug of September and the promise of reinvention it offers.

Cheers!