I love the quiet.
In our apartment building there is very little noise. When I’m here by myself it feels like a retreat, kind of a clean white canvas that I can fill up, or not. It feels restorative and conducive to reading, writing, creating – and napping.
The computer sitting on the kitchen table has an energy that is electric and immediate, one that comes spooling out as soon as I open the screen. It gives me a jolt, like a buzz of caffeine or a stimulant drug. It can be informative, thought-provoking, even inspirational.
It’s also my tool to write.
But most important, the computer is my connection to my family, friends, my home on Watts Street. E-mail, Twitter, Instagram, Tumbler, news sites, instant messaging – all of it is part of some fantastic pipeline running between us. I have no idea how it works, just that it contains vital stuff – conversations, images, pieces of life, kernels of wisdom. Or something like that.
But the internet also feels like static. Like a scratchy sound that keeps grating. And it can easily sap my energy. It’s like white noise, not really positive or negative, just taking up weird space, like the party guest invited for a few specific jokes and anecdotes, but now you want gone. And even though it’s mostly dormant, it can still feel like a distracting presence in a quiet room.
There are many kinds of silence. Soft and light, perfect for coaxing out secrets. Heavy and awkward, hiding difficult things unsaid in the room. The distilled silence when someone’s concentrating, not talking, and there’s the genuinely listening silence that is so powerful.
And then there’s the deeper silence of the woods.
To hike into the woods is to encounter a silence that saturates all thoughts, all senses. At first, it can feel uncomfortable. At home it’s safe, but here it’s so large that it seems to need a voice-over, a narrative, a filler for the emptiness. But I walk on.
Something might be written on the brittle sticks of branches, as they click together, covered in frozen snow. Or gouged on the thin birch trunks, or reflected in the morning light between the wet leaves overhead.
And when I get to the top of the hill, I slow down, and my breath quiets, and I really start to open up, and it’s so still that I imagine I can hear vibrations, and echoes. Snow becomes an interesting kind of conductor.
I think the trees have their own voices, ones that I strain to hear. Their shingled, sticky trunks have seen one hundred winters or more, deriving from seeds that go back to the beginning of time, like human ova.
Both exude a rapid-fire energy that splits open and feeds and blossoms and reproduces. And both will slough off their casings and disintegrate, eroding back into leafy, black earth, somehow, undead.
Up ahead is a small pond. Beneath the brown, ice-cracked water, small fish are dormant, but poised for movement amid aquatic plants that somehow manage to stay alive and charged with bright color. How is that possible?
Everything seems smothered, iced into paralysis, empty of anything warm or vital or life-sustaining. But here in the water, a mismatched neon-green.
There is a brown hawk that watches. And as I move along the path, it dips from branch to branch, hunting for a small animal. It knows I don’t belong here. It’s breast feathers are striking – creamy white, dappled with intricate black markings like smudged fingerprints. The huge, tapered wings beat silently in flight, without disturbing any little thing in its vicinity.
Because of the storm, the forest seems particularly serene. Tiny sounds are magnified. From somewhere hidden, I hear the click and scratch of a black squirrel as it unlocks a nut.
But underneath the apparent calm, there is an energy that pulsates. Even the evergreens dripping pats of snow on my head are full, bending and shifting, as if inhaling, and then sighing.
There is so much life here, even in the frozen, dying things.
In his bestselling novel, All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr tells the story of a poor German boy during World War II, who is fascinated with short-wave radios. He can build them from scratch, repair them.
And he fuels his curiosity and passion for science and the cosmic universe by listening to a weekly science show. In his bitter poverty, he clings to it, as the only real thing that makes sense, that gives him faith.
The boy eventually goes into war, and the gifts he possesses turn out to be his ruin. But throughout the story, it is clear that the miraculous invention of radio, with its tiny, complex particles that travel across the world, is a vital connector between people and the larger world.
It becomes a key instrument in battle, in delivering Nazi propaganda, but also in transmitting hope to civilians and prisoners.
Many years later, another main character, an elderly woman, who survived the war, and now lives in Paris, sits on a park bench with her grandson. The boy is playing a computer game on a hand-held device.
And as she listens to him gaming, she contemplates her loss, and the events of her past.
She thinks of her beloved father, and she wonders where his soul is now. She remembers her great-uncle’s homemade short-wave radio, transmitting its beautiful music and transformative stories. And she concludes that this modern-day digital world must be even more miraculous, more powerful than anything she can fathom.
And she wonders why, if humans can grasp, and completely believe in, the genius of the internet, with all its technological properties, why they somehow can’t believe in the human soul’s existence in the universe.
And why it is such a stretch for us to believe that our souls, as energy, can’t flow through the network of the universe too:
That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating with it.
This morning, when I listen to the silence in the woods, I think about souls flying about. I think it’s a fascinating idea. I want to believe in it.
And here, amid the pulsing frog eggs in the mud, the quivering spores stuck to curled up fronds, all of the microscopic manufacturing taking place in the millions of cells, silently, energetically. Miraculous.
I remember getting an educational plastic frog hatchery when I was a kid. It came with a thick magnifying glass along with a packet of tadpole eggs. And when those tiny specks hatched they were no bigger than dust particles. And when they started swimming in the dome, I was astounded. How were they frogs?
But the magic faded, I guess.
Over the holidays, I had a conversation with my dad about aging. He told me that he thinks age is translated into energy, the spark in your body that moves you. It’s not about linear years.
And I think about younger people I know who seem old for their age, not their bodies, but their spirits. And I think of Dad, almost eighty, and I honestly can’t see him as that much older than me. In his brain, in his body, in the energy that’s housed like a robust furnace inside his sturdy frame.
On New Years Day, I turned fifty-two, and most of the time I have the same energy I’ve always had. Where it comes from, where it goes, I don’t know. But I believe that energy creates energy. And it exists inside of me, and it also exists outside in the charged, winter air.
These forces exist, woven in the atmosphere, in a way that scientists can measure, but only to an extent. And I believe that the intuitive strings of something more mysterious quiver and play when we breathe the air, when we laugh, hold a hand, enter a chapel, step into a birthing room, sit beside a dying family member.
I don’t understand much about science, or linear things, but I know what I experience. When the connection is made, it’s like being spliced to the fresh greenness under the black ice, or staring into the black bead in the eye of a hawk.
But I still cling to what’s certain, the body: the rivulets of salty sweat in the dip of my lower back, the soft sore tendon under my knee cap, the pulsating electric throb beneath my breastbone.
And, even my hyperactive brain, that’s popping neurons like pop-rock candy. I can almost hear it being washed in the juicy chemicals that transmit from one failed synapse to the next. Inside the darkness of this skull, is another unsolvable mystery, an alien thing, but in some weird way, familiar, mine.
I’m a wire with a current, connecting all of my systems together, firing my body. Underneath my damp skin that tingles and shivers, as heat makes its way across my back, up my neck and to my hairline, I’m a single, closed circuit. The spark and the ash.
And my soul?
On the walk back home, I fantasize about how amazing it would be if, after death, I could become an endless spark of light and energy, able to shuttle across the universe, as fast as the internet.
Over oceans and across continents, traveling wherever I wanted to go, to Paris, Montana, or to North Carolina. And I could change instantly, into whatever form of energy I wanted.
Tiny, unobtrusive, but real. A night-light for a child, a reading lamp over a good novel. The adoring sparkle in a lover’s eye, the warm comfort of the dog at end of the bed.
A candle flickering at a dinner table, a flashlight on a hike in the Alps. I could witness babies being born, listen to gossip over tea. I could be a new, blue bulb on a Christmas tree.
And in that way, I could be with all the people I have ever loved in my life, connected to their bodies, forever. Able to experience all of the joys and sadness, the fear and loneliness, I’d touch it and hold it, make it bearable, make it more alive, make it burn even more brightly.
And my spark would have the capacity to send out tiny clues, puzzles pointing to the miraculous complexities of the universe. With light to attract eyes,and magnets to exert a pull on the senses. So that curious people, people who are searching for a story or a narrative, might actually be able to see and hear me. And there could be a connection.
I would be present, deep in the woods, in the chickadee hushed by the wind, in the light in the trees from the pale winter sun. I’d be waiting in every bit of plant matter on the forest floor, on the path where people trek, to leave microscopic hints of my existence.
I’d whisper: remember me?
… and the words would echo.
Across the frosted pond and in the shadows of the grey birch trees, through the late afternoon sun, melting the hard crust of the ice, I’d reverberate deep inside the silence of the woods, resounding in the stillness and the quiet, for anyone who’s really listening, to hear.