Friendly Silence

A Meal at Google
When I visited Google, I shared a silent meal with some of the people who work there. Afterward, they wrote to me and said, “Never before in that cafeteria have I had a meal that wonderful. I was so happy. I felt so peaceful. Nobody said anything in that whole room full of people. Everybody was quiet from the beginning to the end of the meal. In the history of Google, that’s the first such meal we’ve ever had.” (55)

Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Eat (2014)

I understood by mid-January that the Spring 2024 semester was probably going to rise tempestuous and run roughshod over the time I had been devoting to more regular reading and writing rhythms. It wouldn’t quite be right to say that the reading and writing went altogether dormant; it just shifted, as it is prone to doing, to other things. Even as I had a mid-January deadline for a chapter and as I was tuning plans for the classes I would teach (one a first run, the other a second run), I said “yes” to reading for a book award committee, and “maybe-could” (interpreted as yes!) to another reading-heavy committee. Both sets of reading have lit up the mix board, so to speak. It still feels good to read and read widely, to experience that silent symphony of serendipitous this paired with serendipitous that. Clicks of comprehension are oftentimes almost clicks of invention.

Yet, piled up, deadline-driven reading blankets a semester with an even deeper entrainment. Entrainment, Jenni Odell explains in Saving Time, names the exteriority of temporal regulators in a life. Too much entrainment, though, begins to feel like all of one’s time is planned for you; and so we become busy-busy, and morning noon and night governed. Asynchronous communications, such as text messaging and email, can (and oftener and oftener do, in my experience) function as entrainment reservoirs, brimmed with extras to fill in so the endo-calendar is always chock full. Administering writing programs for a decade braced me for treading again into the brittle psychosphere, a not infrequently brainfogged arena machinated by entrainments which are backed up by reserve entrainments, as when I said yes to the committees, and as when I agreed to be interim director of the PhD program.

Yet, I did say yes. Was not coerced. And I had a pretty good idea of what was ahead. The known trade-off in this is a kind of self-regulated, inevitable quietude in other areas, for example, like having less of a say here, engaging only intermittently on Facebook or Instagram, responding more slowly to texts about social engagements, drawing less, and quietly waiting for sweet flashes of downtime to consider again saying yes to anything more. Another way to approach this would be to underscore that these rebalancings of time amount to sourcing one’s own equanimity; it does little good for me or anyone in my everyday orbit to witness any apparent suffering brought on by a set of circumstances I clear-headedly agreed to.

Now that it’s April and my song is getting thin, I am taking some relief in knowing that these committees are wrapping up, and my interim term lasts only for another month or so. The last day of classes is April 30. And the reading, piled so richly high and smartly wide ranging as it is, has given me a lot to think about, including a more refined sense of possibilities for a class I am due to teach in fall.

Under the quiet, busy din of the semester, though, I have begun to understand the trade-offs in one sphere of activity dialing up, while another sphere of activity dials down, and how, throughout these adjustments–both self-set but also heavily entrained–I am perceiving the silences, lags, intervals of evident inactivity as friendly silence. A decade ago, I would have instead felt some low-level stress marked by tidal entrainment. Friendly silence (and its corollaries in composure and patience) clocks a lesson slow learned.