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5) Can I be quiet—even inside?

All of our great traditions, religious, contemplative and artistic, say that you must a learn how to be alone—and have a relationship with silence. It is difficult, but it can start with just the tiniest quiet moment.

Being quiet in the midst of a frenetic life is like picking up a new instrument. If you've never played the violin and you try to play it for the first time, every muscle in your body hurts. Your neck hurts, you don't know how to hold that awkward wavy thing called a bow, you can't get your knuckles round to touch the strings, you can't even find where the notes are, you are just trying to get your stance right. Then you come back to it again, and again, and suddenly you can make a single buzzy note. The time after that, you can make a clearer note. No one, not even you, wants to listen to you at first. But one day, there is a beautiful succession of notes and, yes, you have played a brief, gifted, much appreciated passage of music.

This is also true for the silence inside you; you may not want to confront it at first. But a long way down the road, when you inhabit a space fully, you no longer feel awkward and lonely. Silence turns, in effect, into its opposite, so it becomes not only a place to be alone but also a place that's an invitation to others to join you, to want to know who's there, in the quiet.

6) Am I too inflexible in my relationship to time?

In Ireland, where I spend a great deal of time, they say, "The thing about the past is that it isn't the past." Sometimes we forget that we don't have to choose between the past or the present or the future. We can live all of these levels at once. (In fact, we don't have a choice about the matter.)

If you've got a wonderful memory of your childhood, it should live within you. If you've got a challenging relationship with a parent, that should be there as part of your identity now, both in your strengths and weaknesses. The way we anticipate the future forms our identity now. Time taken too literally can be a tyranny. We are never one thing; we are a conversation—everything we have been, everything we are now and every possibility we could be in the future.

7) How can I know what I am actually saying?

Poetry is often the art of overhearing yourself say things you didn't know you knew. It is a learned skill to force yourself to articulate your life, your present world or your possibilities for the future. We need that same skill as an art of survival. We need to overhear the tiny but very consequential things we say that reveal ourselves to ourselves.

I have one friend who, when she is in a quandary, goes out for a drive in her car and sings. Whatever she's grappling with, she sings about it—to the windscreen, to the road, to the oncoming traffic. Then she overhears herself singing how she actually feels about something and what she should do about it.

Sometimes she pulls up to a stoplight, other people look over and she's singing, slightly crazed, into the windscreen, but that's her way of finding out.

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