In the video I posted over the weekend, David Foster Wallace talks about how our society doesn’t value the art of being quiet. He says we don’t take an hour to look at a painting; we don’t sit all day with a book. We are uncomfortable with mind challenges in complex music and writing. I agree with him. For some reason, long ago, I smelled this rat and decided to devote a lot of my time to stepping into the discomfort. I sought musicians who were pushing the aesthetic like Stravinsky, Nico and the Velvet Underground, Micheal Nyman…and on the page, Kundera, Calvino, Brautigan. I’d stand in museums and watch installation art-– watched a woman suck her toe for longer than anyone wants to watch another person suck their toe. I loved that Duchamp put a urinal in a museum and called it art. I loved German Expressionism. I liked the grotesque. I sat through the eight hours of Warhol’s Chrysler building movie, Empire–- one continuous shot. I loved Ingmar Berman movies. People called my taste in art and music “weird,” my taste in movies “boring.” I took it as a compliment, denouncing the saccharin pastels of Monet’s water lilies and the living room art people chose to match the upholstery on their couches. I wanted to know what it felt like to step outside the cradle of mainstream society and be in a place of shock, wonder, ugliness, confusion, boredom and thusly, to be wide awake in those places. That’s what I wanted most: to be wide awake.

Along the way, I wrote books and got married and had children and that was extreme enough. I didn’t need to force the issue. Life became full. Self-propelled. And I stopped taking time to look into my awe. Never mind my discomfort. The washboards of life bumped me along and I got used to it. It wasn’t that I was in the cradle, as much as it was that I was going too fast, not pausing enough when wonder struck. I didn’t like that about myself. I wanted that to change.

That’s when I started paying attention to things like breathing, mental pollution, emotional choice, horses, birds. I had these practices ripe and alive in my life for a nice long time.

But in the last few years since the moment I signed a book contract, my life went full throttle. The deliberate act of taking pause seemed like extravagance. Saved for a future rainy day. It felt ornamental. Decadent. Even juvenile. I had a BIG JOB to do. I had planes to catch. I had people to see. I’d leave breathing and birds for later when things calmed down. But that was just a story I was telling myself, because the truth of it is when you kick into high gear like that, there’s a strong possibility that you are afraid of low gear. You’re afraid of that frequency. Who would you be in it? What would the map of your mind look like? Sound like? And dear God, what would you do without any buttons to push? Without your email and messages to check? Without those planes to catch. Uh-oh. You have it bad. How on earth did this happen to you? Two seconds ago, you were happily and hornily watching an eight hour shot of the Chrysler building.

Something had to be done. So, I decided to dare the discomfort again. It looked a lot different than it did in my twenties, however. Here’s what it looked like:

I found a place where my cell phone wouldn’t work, where there was no place to plug in a computer, where there were as few people as possible. I didn’t need it to be gritty or edgy for it to be uncomfortable at this stage of life. In fact, I needed it to be beautiful– as beautiful as yes, Monet’s Giverny. I needed it to play out in the fields of embarrassing riches, in fact. You see, I was so full throttle, that I’d stopped seeing beauty. Worse, I’d stopped stopping for it. It’s one thing to recognize the discomfort in ugliness, but quite another to recognize it in beauty. And to sit quietly with it.

I’ll present this as a question: When was the last time you spent the better part of a day just sitting on a bench? Not in a city, but in a garden? An empty garden? Not talking. Not messing with your cell phone or laptop? Not taking photographs. Not writing in a journal or reading a book or a newspaper. Nothing blaring in your ears. Just sitting there? Watching. Breathing. It’s hard damn work is what it is. Whatever has become of our society that it’s hard damn work? I want to do that work.

Selfish, you say? Glut. No Pilgrim’s Progress there. Must produce. Must succeed. Must conquer. Must push buttons. That’s the cradle of society really needing you to go back to sleep. Get back on the conveyor belt. Sit on a bench in an empty garden all day? That’s for cats in windowsills. Old people in rocking chairs. But…if you think about it…we do sit in one place for long amounts of time. Watching. Just not flowers blowing in the wind. Not dragonflies. Not a robin with a worm. That story is…well, boring. Isn’t it? We’d rather someone had a gun in their hand or a hand on an ass or an ass in a fast car. And I won’t even get into our current obsession with reality TV. I mean…watching people living? Can we not even bear to watch ourselves live? We’d rather be able to turn the channel. It’s so uncomfortable to not be able to turn the channel–- or get up and walk to a different bench and see how the flowers blow there and if there are different bugs and birds. I’m talking about the art of staying.

Well I did it. I sat on a bench in an empty garden for hours. And I’m telling you: it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in years. I went back the next day and took this photo. I am both proud and haunted by it. Only because I know that there is no bench in my garden. And I’m not sure I’m brave enough to put one there.


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20 Responses to Quiet

  1. Laurie Szymanski

    I am in the process of moving from Folsom CA to Fredericksburg VA so I have a very long list to work through and felt anxiety rising in my soul this morning. I needed to read what you wrote today with my coffee and my music and my couch. I needed to take a breath and know that it will all come together. I have the kingdom of God within me and that kingdom requires being centered, grounded, striving for peace (not denial) and that requires bench sitting type time. Besides that, if I am all stressed out I look ugly and am annoying. I like looking cute better.

    • Kathy

      Laurie, I hope I am not breaking protocol by responding to your post.(sorry Laura!!!!) I know life changes and especially those that involve an uprooting are difficult, challenging and scary to say the least. The move from the West Coast to the East Coast is a big one, but I wanted to let you know that my daughter attends the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg VA. It is a wonderful area. So much to do and see!! It is rich in history , there is a sense of community in the Downtown area and any and every store and restaurant that you could ever imagine in the Central Park Area. If you need that “water” fix there is always the river!! My daughter loves it so much that she is staying there for the summer and working in Cracker Barrel!!! Good luck and all the best to you in your new journey!!!! Kathy

      • Laurie Szymanski

        Thank You Cathy. I am feeling good about this move after fighting it for a while. Like Laura Munson, my husband and I have had a separation but it has been physical. After I read her book, he left for a job in Virginia and the space created has done a work in restoring our marriage. It’s like God made us have a time out. The work , like in what Laura shared, is personal-taking the time to restore a groundedness. I am different and taking that with me. I am looking forward to a new lovely place to explore and new friends to make. I think I will enjoy the fireflies too.

        • lauramunson

          Kathy and Laurie– so nice to see this exchange between kind hearted women on my blog. Sending you both my very best for whatever migrations we take along the way, mind, body, soul. Being open to it is the work, I find. yrs. Laura

  2. Hey Laura,
    Just a short story and an observation. Because my counselling practice has a Zen-ish flavour, I (presently) have a lot of artists, actors, and yoga instructors as clients. Here’s a short dialogue with the latter:
    “I’m so stressed I don’t know what to do.”
    Me: “Are you sitting (zazen)?”
    Them: “How can I sit when I’m agitated?”
    Me: “What better time? why we sit daily. To prepare for when the wheels fall off.”
    Dar and I are getting ready to shift everything (she’s retiring from a 30 year teaching career, I’m in between books and breaking from a 30 year counselling career, and we’re going to Costa Rica for 3 months to talk about what’s next – we’re calling it our “New Reality.”) Big question came up: “Since we’re packing light, what will we sit (zazen) on in Costa Rica?”
    Because we find, while both scary (as in, what comes up) and a weird thing to commit to, 25 minutes a day on a “cushion” is key for us finding ground.
    So, maybe there is a bench calling to you, and maybe 25 minutes a day interspersed with marathons is also calling.
    And, you likely know all of this!
    Here’s a link to a couple of my videos on this very topic!
    I suspect “ass on cushion” will be a marvellous thing!

    • lauramunson

      I am so glad for this! Thank you! I was sort of hoping I’d get a comment like this from one who practices sitting. I will get to the link asap, and yes, ass on cushion… Have a wonderful time in Costa Rica! yrs. Laura

  3. Well said, Laura! Great to share some thoughts today via “these hills” and a “sunny room studio” — we definitely get the power of quiet. Its simplicity is often mistaken as “something less than” … when actually it is “more.” :)

    Wishing you a peaceful, poetic Montana summer. Love and all good wishes from East River Dakota … :)

    P.S. The art of staying … I really like the way you put that!

  4. I have many opportunities in my life for quiet and stillness now that I’m retired. I find however, that just like when I was working, 2 activities I practice regularly are my most consistent methods for actually practicing quiet and stillness: yoga and cycling. Cycling, believe it or not, is an excellent way to achieve stillness – mental and soulfull stillness – and quiet. Your body, though moving, is still in the sense that it is not separate from the bike or nature – it is all one thing together. Yoga is more obvious, but I achieve that same quietness and stillness on the bike. Not every ride, but many. Rides when I am not training but simply riding – moments of Zen. Those moments are why I ride.

    Great post Laura, thank you.

    • lauramunson

      Susan, I feel the exact way you describe when I’m on my horse. In summertime, there are so many cyclists on our stretch of country road touring the NW, and I’ll think of you the next time one comes along. yrs. Laura

  5. Stephen Taylor

    The world “outside” will make you completely insane if you behave like it’s all there is.

  6. I’m curious what happened on that bench….

    You really are a beautiful writer. Although I appreciate the content, and agree and resonate, I found myself admiring your skill. This, above celebrity writers and trendy topics, which seem to have a lot more pull in the publishing world, is the most pleasing to a reader’s eyes and souls, and the most inspiring to a writer’s work.

    • lauramunson

      NIKKI! I see that you wrote for Author! I’m going to read your piece later today. And as for that bench, things got loud in my brain. Scarily so. And then…they got quiet. yrs. Laura

  7. Kathy

    SILENCE IS GOLDEN!!! There are many answers in silence.
    Yesterday morning I attended a silent meditative hike with a group. We could talk prior to reaching the trail entrance. During that time the chatter, laughter and conversations were abundant. When we reached the trail entrance and zipped our lips I was amazed at what you COULD hear, all that we had drowned out and went unnoticed. There was the sound of the stream flowing over the rocks, the birds picked up were our chatter left off they were sweetly singing their song, the wind was playing a harmonious tune as it carressed the tree leaves, and then there was the sound of our movements. Our steps seemed to be in unison as they touched the gravel and the rock. Each step in time, with out a tune or count to guide us. It is wonderful to be silent with yourself, but it is amazing to be silent with a group. We have all be silent in church, at a play or ballet or any similar event, but to be in silent with a group that has no common entertainment or person of interest to follow is amazing, peaceful and freeing!!
    I am glad that you had that time on the bench, but remember you can carve out small moments of silence that can shift your thinking and clear your mind. Drive without the radio on, or take just a minute before you get out of your car and breathe deeply and sit in silence. You will feel the shift and that short moment will pay huge dividends!

  8. So I felt uncomfortable just being asked how long it’s been since I sat quietly on a bench without doing anything – I clearly needed to read this today! I know that I need a short period – even just a few minutes – of peace and solitude every day to produce good work. Yet at the thought of sitting quietly the first feeling I have is guilt – “I haven’t done enough work today to deserve a break”. Yet my work gets stale when I haven’t taken a break… Very insightful piece of writing, thank you!

    • lauramunson

      Rebecca– thanks for saying hi. I’ve been paying attention to the feeling of discomfort lately. I’m trying to stay with the discomfort. When I do, I find a great opening. yrs. Laura

  9. Love, love, love this. Especially “You see, I was so full throttle, that I’d stopped seeing beauty. Worse, I’d stopped stopping for it.” I have simplified my life in many ways over the last few years—prompted initially by a radical change in circumstances–but I continued on when it seemed to suit me. One result is that I do stop for beauty now. Sometimes with my camera but always with my soul.

  10. I find that I MUST SEEK quiet or I will not have it. Life crowds me in and before I know it, my shoulders are sagging and my feet are pedaling to keep up. Daily walks, cycling (yes, Susan, cycling brings me a mental and soulful stillness too), yoga, and regular silent retreats at a convent keep me “awake” in life. I am so grateful to hear how others find their quiet. Thanks for this discussion, Laura! I hope you keep finding your way to the bench.

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