I am not by nature a quiet person.
Third child in a household of six, I had to speak up loud and clear to be heard. An extrovert par excellence, I am compelled to fill awkward silences in awkward conversations. A social butterfly — who works in a library – I am often shushed by the Head Librarian. In fact, last year at my stellar annual review discussing “room for improvement” my boss told me:
“Joani, you need to remember to use your library voice.”
Yes, my library voice.
As the noisiest person on staff I am positioned in the perfect place – at the circulation desk. I love getting to know whoever comes through those front doors — studious students, various visitors, crazy clergy, fastidious faculty, steadfast staff.
Checking books out — I deal in public relations. Checking books in — I do a fair amount of pastoral care. We talk church politics. We talk reading assignments. We talk family. We talk churchmanship. We talk theology. We talk mental health. We talk small talk. We even talk a little bit of trash. (Shhh!)
I am a noisy and priestly librarian want-to-be. An Anglican who LOVES the OUT LOUD prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, I would make a very lousy Quaker.
A very lousy Quaker indeed.
Yet even in this loud mouth beats a somewhat contemplative heart.
I am no stranger to quiet. In fact, I love quiet. I live on my own and all alone and very rarely am I lonely.
I live in a third floor walkup. Two bedrooms and two baths — it is my sacred and solitary space. Alone in my cell, I am free to walk around in my skivvies and turn up the volume on my Spotify. I love to light my gaslight fire and curl up on my couch with a good book and a bowl of cereal.
It is my sanctuary.
I walk alone. An Olympic walker, I constantly check the stats on my Fitbit. I have taken 6,011, 861 steps — alone. I have walked 2546 miles — alone. I have burned 1, 387, 139 calories — alone. Well mostly alone.
Walking — my head is freed up to think about everything or nothing at all. Silently walking the streets of Capitol Hill, the Old Town waterfront, the wetlands at Huntley Meadows Park, St. Theo’s Holy Island –I think, I write, I fantasize and pray. While walking, I meditate, negotiate, and investigate. I regulate, navigate, and instigate —
silently walking alone.
Stopping along the way — I go coffee shop hopping — alone. Silently sitting, nursing my latte, watching people come and go, I catch snatches of conversations – little bits of meaning – in all kinds of languages – haikus of wisdom. I pull out my notebook and write and write and write.
In high school, I’d go — alone — to THE LIBRARY – the Library of Congress reading room. A hushed sanctuary, it smelled of wood polish and old books. I’d do my homework and write my essays on those lovely wooden desks lit by green shaded lamps. Here in this holy of holies, I first read Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.”
Journal-like it is not a journal. Theological, it is not the least bit systematic. Seemingly random, it is deeply reasoned. Mystical, it’s down to earth meaningful. A monk in a Trappist monastery, Merton writes as a man of the world.
A man alone — a man who practices sacred silence — he has much to say. And what he says — he says in a few paragraphs, with a few sentences, and with a few well chosen words. (All the better for that long ago high schooler to understand.)
“Above all, these are the day-to-day impressions, the simple conjectures of a man in his own world with its own challenges. It is a monastic world, and doubtless strange to those who have no experiences of such a thing. Yet it is, I think, open to the life of experience of the greater, more troubled, and more vocal world beyond the cloister. Though I often differ strongly from the ‘world’, I think I can be said to respond to it. I do not delude myself that I am still not part of it.”
I am in no danger of entering a monastery anytime soon. But Merton does teach me that I really do have monastic moments. These monastic spaces help contain this manic brain. These mindful and meditative places help expand this melancholy soul.
“One has to be alone, under the sky before everything falls into place and one finds one’s own place in the midst of it all…a spring morning alone in the woods…the ceremonies of the birds feeding in the wet grass.”
Silence, quiet, shhhhh!