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Elizabeth Slade: Bringing soft silence to family time

I have taken to weekly walks into the woods, often with my daughter and more recently with my sons.

On these hikes we are one behind the other on the trail, lost in our own thoughts, but stopping to share points of interest along the way. In my daughter’s case there is at least one stop that involves suddenly lying down on the trail edge, head back, taking in the tops of the trees as they reach high up into the sky.

On a recent hike, my son Isaac and I decided to do part of the walk in silence, communicating turns on the trail with hand gestures alone. The next week, with his younger brother Jasper along, we fell into this once again, moving along the snowy trail, each in our quiet thoughts. It had snowed the three previous days and the going was slow, the landscape entirely white and unbroken.

At one point we all stopped, Jasper with his binoculars scanning the ridge, Isaac with his eyes closed and me with my head tilted back. The silence was profound. There was not a single sound. The typical noises in other seasons — a bird calling, leaves rustling, an animal scurrying, water running in a brook nearby — were all stilled by the heavy blanket of winter.

We stood for the longest time without moving, captured and captivated, not wanting to break the stillness. Soaking it in as something nutritive that might restore us. Feeling our pores open to it, our minds collapse around it.

Eventually the wind stirred and the brittle bones of the tree limbs above us rattled against each other like ill-used chopsticks. The wind itself had a voice that brought us from our expanded silent states back into the here and now. Its cold whooshing set us back into motion and we trudged on in the heavy snow.

There is something about silence and being in the quiet with family that is altering in its depth and connectedness. Returning from this hike I am intrigued by the notion of the role of silence in family life and it has me thinking back into my own childhood, where, I realize, it had a whole different connotation.

There was actually something called the “silent treatment,” which involved not responding to someone as a punishment. My mother would enlist the siblings to participate in this until the sting of the family silence was felt in its full weight. Silence also meant the unspoken — secrets to be kept under the binding force of shame. So until now I hadn’t considered it in its positive aspect as part of being in family.

I call my brother Sam to sort through this. He’s a year older and has the shared experience of moving away from silence and into near constant activity, throwing himself into work until he had a stroke at 50. For the past few years he has been walking miles at a time with headphones blasting rock ’n’ roll, instead of always being at the office.

Now he tells me he signed up to take a beekeeping class and went to the first one to find there’s an unexpected component to the work.

“I’m supposed to sit in the quiet,” he says, his voice communicating bafflement. Given that we were raised to work, with no experience of contented quiet, I can understand how this may seem preposterous. I chuckle with him over the image of him sitting by his hive doing nothing but being quiet. In fact, we begin to belly laugh at the idea.

Then comes the first day of school vacation and our house has little quiet; rather a revolving door of exciting visitors. I decide to find out what my children’s friends think about shared silence. Isaac’s girlfriend, Emma Halper, a senior at Northampton High School, stops by and I ask her about the experience in her family. What comes to mind for her are the nights her family had “reading dinners” where they would each be lost in their own books while they ate. This was a kind of companionable quiet that allowed differentiation and connection at the same time.

Jasper’s friend Amos Shapiro-Thompson, an eighth-grader from Worthington, comes to sleep over and I ask him his thoughts on the topic. He acknowledges that there can be heavy silences loaded with tension. Then, after a moment of thought, he reflects on the happy silences, the unexpected quiet moments of synchronicity: “It can also be really powerful when there’s an unspoken understanding.”

Josh Dietz, also a senior at NHS, arrives to make a film with Isaac. He remarks on his expressive family and how little silence there is at his house as a result. “If my parents are silent then I know I haven’t done anything wrong,” he says.

Sunny Eiseman, an eighth-grader from Cummington, joins us. She shares Josh’s experience of a busy family, commenting that someone is always laughing or talking in her house. When pressed to think of quiet times, she says, “Sometimes if we’re in nature it’s more likely that we’ll have silence. We’ll just be listening to the birds or the snow falling.” Her voice gets soft and peaceful as she tells me this.

There we are, back again to our hike and the way nature facilitated our quiet shared experience — what Amos noted as an unspoken understanding. This seems a valuable piece to include in the arc of our life as a family.

I’m calling for this now, for bringing soft silence into family time, for cultivating moments of quiet that recreate the purity of the woods’ stillness, that unify the participants rather than splitting them. There is something remarkable about the power of joined, quiet reflection that can cultivate a feeling of deep well-being and that is something I want to add to my family’s experience.

It turns out to be easier than I expected. In the kitchen Jasper makes bread. He kneads the dough, turning it, dusting the cutting board with more flour. Bella reads a book. I sit with a cup of tea, looking at snow-covered Skinner Mountain in the distance, indulgent blue sky watching over it. It’s quiet enough that I can feel the far-off ice cracking on the Oxbow, and my brother’s bees getting ready to teach him how to welcome spring.

Elizabeth Slade of Northampton is a local author and columnist. She can be reached at egslade@newview.com.co.

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