In search of silence

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever visited a place so quiet you could hear yourself digest?

For me, it was a ranch in southern New Mexico, land owned by friends of ours, land so wild we ended up confined to quarters because a mountain lion was on the prowl nearby.

We’re now in a spot almost as quiet, the “northern neck” of Virginia, about two hours’ drive southeast of Washington, D.C., a city where the sound of airplanes seems almost constant.

I sat on the dock in the sunshine here and heard only gulls squawking, a dog barking, a distant lawn-mower and wind in the trees.


English: SHO "Little Wonder" leaf bl...
English: SHO “Little Wonder” leaf blower in action, Washington, D.C., USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We live in a town 25 miles north of New York City where two specific, unwanted and frequent sounds drive me mad — the leaf-blowers and the constant buzz and roar of helicopters and airplanes taking off from a nearby airport. They’re constant, the routes changed since I bought our place, making our top-floor balcony less restful than it once was.

I’ve lived in much noisier places — downtown Toronto, (constant sirens from a nearby fire-hall), the edge of Paris (right on the peripherique, ring road, constant traffic) and Montreal (snow-plows in winter.) Then I moved to small-town New Hampshire and enjoyed the change from non-stop noise.

My appreciation for silence really blossomed after an eight-day silent retreat that Jose and I took two summers ago. Like everyone there, some 75 people of all ages from around the world, we were forbidden from speaking, and only occasionally whispered a bit in our room. Mostly we wrote on Post-It notes to one another and shut our traps.

It was a very powerful way to realize how exhausting it is to be chatty and charming and social, (even civil), with the many people we typically encounter every day in normal life. Here’s my post about the sounds I heard there when everything else was still.

The retreat also showed me how pleasant it is to remain silent while surrounded by others equally committed to a break from wasted words. Try it for a day and you quickly realize how much we speak, yet how little we really say, (some of us), that we truly feel or need to communicate from the depths of our heart.

Here’s a story I wrote about that experience that ran in Marie Claire.

Here’s a brief, recent lovely post from Beijing — with photos — by an American copy editor living there, describing his search for peace in that crowded and burgeoning city.

What’s the quietest place you have ever visited?

Did you enjoy it?

19 thoughts on “In search of silence

  1. Putin Bay, Ohio. We went there for my senior trip in high school. Honestly, it was one of the nicest times of my life, quiet and relaxing. Just 4 days of fishing, mini golf, and hanging with friends. Loved it.

  2. Whatโ€™s the quietest place you have ever visited? The afternoon after Thanksgiving, in the town of Fairplay, Co., Fairplay is about 50 miles southwest of Denver, Co. at about 9900 feet. Outside of town, way up on a mountain side, I sat on a horse, surrounded by the most beautiful sun filled, snow covered valley and forest God ever created. Except for my head slowly turning to take it all in; the horse and I didn’t move. That stunning and beautiful silence, that day, will always be one of my most cherished memories.

  3. Hello there … long time no see ๐Ÿ™‚
    I recall a family holiday in winter in West Virginia when my folks were posted in Washington. We were staying in a cabin with huge icicles and about a meter and a half of snow on the ground. I was standing outside and it was quiet … truly quiet. I remember it began to snow and the sound of it snowing remains to this day one of the most delicate I have ever heard … I can recall it vividly it’s so clear in my mind.

  4. I once did a “solo” trip at my former camp where I went out in the Colorado mountains and sat alone for 24 hours. (Of course there were counsellors nearby, but I felt alone.) It was really interesting to be out in mountains, away from everything social and crazy โ€” to just sit with my own thoughts. Come to think of it, that camp was great at giving us quiet, we would have a quiet hour everyday after lunch, and vespers on Sunday evenings. Miss that stillness, especially now that I’m in a college dorm between noisy, neighbors, the lounge, and above a popular hangout for kids who are drunk. Enjoy every second of it!

  5. Loved this post, and loved the Marie Claire article! The Buddhist / silent retreat sounds equally heavenly and torturous. I am absolutely fascinated by this idea, though, and would love to try it. I can imagine the first few days would be quite difficult, but I think that, after I learned to embrace the silence, it would be calming, therapeutic and enlightening. I love the practice of yoga, for this reason. It’s 60-90 minutes of my day in which I am completely silent except for the sounds of my breathing and body movements. I love this chance to silence my mind and I turn my focus inward.

    Glad to hear you’re enjoying your vacation and getting some much needed silence! My escape-the-noise-of-the-world place (in the US anyway) is my mom’s house in Northern Idaho. Surrounded by alpine trees, pristine lakes and everything nature, it’s always a welcome reprieve from city life. In Wellington, it’s walking to the top of Mount Victoria or one of the many other hills surrounding the city. With spectacular views of the city, the bay and the lush, green hills, and no one around and no sounds except the melodic singing of the tuis (a native New Zealand bird with a beautifully soothing song), it’s a little piece of heaven on earth. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. It IS torture for the first few days — and several people bailed quickly. By day 3 or 4, though, you’re into it and by the end reluctant to leave. Fascinating.

      Your mom’s house sounds amazing. Lucky you! So does Mt. Victoria.

  6. Your quiet place sounds like heaven to me too. I’m an all or nothing person. When I’m around people, I try to be very engaged and interested…giving others my best. On the flip side, when I get home I just want to escape sometimes. My favorite activity after a long day of work is to retreat to my back deck with a glass of wine while I stare into nothingness. Heaven.

  7. Wonderful post.

    As I age I get more and more interested in silence. Just being in a paddock, all the emptiness (though, of course, it’s not empty at all). Sometimes it’s just great to be in the house, no music (I love music, but I love silence too), and just take it all in. Except have you noticed that a house is never quiet: there are clicks and hums and drips of all kinds.

    Perhaps the quietest place possible is where we go when we stop thinking?

    1. The silence of where we just were — now back north listening to rain on the roof in Maryland — was broken only by birdsong. It was lovely.

      Being alone with one’s thoughts. Hmmmm. Rare to have none. But worth trying.

      Glad you liked it!

  8. A previous poster listed “Put-in-Bay, Ohio” as a quiet place, and when I was a lad I too shared that view. Put-in-Bay is an island in the middle of Lake Erie. I remember the lack of train whistles about that place. Sounds from the mainland were muffled by the deep blue waves.

    My own recent quiet place was on stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington. I used to perform with a chorus. A concert hall is usually not a quiet place, but there are moments where in a room filled with thousands of humans, not a sound will be heard. I once performed a Beethoven choral work there, and in the last bars on the page, the orchestra and chorus created those spine-tingling transcendent moments in music, drawing the piece to a silent close. Upon the last note being hit, the entire room was silent. No one seemed to be breathing. Then, ex nihilo, came the roar of appreciation.

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