The Sound of Silence

With the familiar bump of the ferry settling into the dock, I gathered my bags and started down the ramp. The cool night air hit my cheeks and nose all at once, and I breathed in the saltiness. I closed my eyes for a moment and just listened: the lap of the waves, the clank-rattle-clank as the cars drove off the boat, the laughter of family and friends scooping up loved ones after a long day of travel.

sunset sky

The house was dark and empty as I walked in; the bags made a soft thud beside me in the hallway. It was nearly ten. I turned the television on and off, walked into the kitchen, and rattled around the jars inside the fridge just to hear the noises. I had two hours left of talk and distraction.

Four months earlier I’d started a yoga teacher–training course outside of Boston, near where I live, and to graduate, I had to complete a silent weekend retreat. Over the course of the training, I turned in all of the nearly forty papers on time. I held practice classes and read books on everything from the history of yoga to the science of breathing, but – three weeks away from the final exam – I could not bring myself to tackle the retreat. With the exam date looming, I booked my ferry home.

Having grown up on the Island year-round, the Vineyard was the only place I considered going, but not because it is “home.” I went because the Vineyard is my place of worship, and the point of the retreat was to study the Self (capital S), to meditate on life and all it entails. As I’ve never been a church- or temple-goer, the Island is my sanctuary. In the same way that some go to a mosque or a cathedral, I go to the Vineyard – to find inspiration, community, gratitude. To find signs that there is something out there bigger than me. And those signs are everywhere: in the sweet stain of Aquinnah’s cliffs, in the way the trees arch together high over Middle Road, in the way we talk to each other here – with understanding and support, with an unwavering sense of place.

But a weekend on the Vineyard in silence would be a challenge. The Island is inescapably full of sound. It’s the noise of conversation: the talk of presidential vacations and local elections, of beach erosion and new books, of the secrets to keeping bluefish moist on the grill. It’s the noise of nature: the crunch of leaves and twigs underfoot, the murmur of waves washing over rocks, the cry of seagulls. It’s the everyday Island noise: newspaper pages turning at breakfast tables, the distant sigh of a lighthouse on a foggy day, the creak an old house makes when the mood – or wind – strikes it. The Vineyard is audibly alive.

The rules of the retreat were to avoid interaction – no conversation, no e-mail, no television shows to watch or newspaper pages to turn. The purpose was solitude. Over the next forty-eight hours I slowly met a new Island, one without that familiar Vineyard chatter. Without anyone else in the house, I listened to the birds go on in their jabbering way. The noon Chilmark whistle and the measured tock-tock-tock of the grandfather clock reminded me of the passing morning hours. When the light began to fade, and the people who were out and about started to return home for the afternoon, I went to Menemsha Hills for a hike. Head down, I walked and listened to the wind tickling the branches, to the sound of my own breath, in and out. In the absence of interaction, the Vineyard seemed to speak louder, to shout even, and I wanted to take up more space – to spread out so I could hear every note.

By the time I got home it was dark. I settled in for the evening and felt the length of each passing hour stretch a bit in the absence of the daytime sounds. I found myself missing the comforting vibration of community, all of those hellos and thank yous at the bank and grocery store, but also the disagreements at town meetings, the difficult questions we ask of each other. I missed the comforting background noises of sharing a space with family: the shuffling of slippers, the laughter, a quiet hand patting a head in wordless greeting. By 10:30, a full moon sat high above the ocean. I grabbed a sweater and went outside to listen. There was a rustle of leaves, the crash of waves, the rush of a car in the distance. But that was it. All else was silent. And in the silence, I could hear home. I could hear myself.