In her late forties, after a noisy upbringing as one of six children and adulthood as a vocal feminist and mother, Sara Maitland found herself living alone in the country and, to her surprise, falling in love with silence. In this fascinating, intelligent, and beautifully written book, Maitland describes how she began to explore this new love, spending periods of silence in the Sinai desert, the Scottish hills, and a remote cottage on the Isle of Skye.
Maitland also delves deep into the rich cultural history of silence, exploring its significance in fairy tale and myth, its importance to the Western and Eastern religious traditions, and its use in psychoanalysis and artistic expression.
Her story culminates in her building a hermitage on an isolated moor in Galloway. “Her book is probably unique in its subject, and timely, because good, healing silence is becoming hard to find, and we may not know we need it” (Guardian, UK).
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About the Author
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Growing up in a Noisy World
It is early morning. It is a morning of extraordinary radiance – and unusually up here there is practically no wind. It is almost perfectly silent: some small birds are chirping occasionally and a little while ago a pair of crows flapped past making their raucous cough noises. It is the first day of October so the curlew and the oystercatchers have gone down to the seashore. In a little while one particular noise will happen – the two-carriage Glasgow-to-Stranraer train will bump by on the other side of the valley; and a second one may happen – Neil may rumble past on his quad bike after seeing to his sheep on the hill above the house; if he does he will wave and I will wave back. That is more or less it.
I am sitting on the front doorstep of my little house with a cup of coffee, looking down the valley at my extraordinary view of nothing. It is wonderful. Virginia Woolf famously taught us that every woman writer needs a room of her own. She didn't know the half of it, in my opinion. I need a moor of my own. Or, as an exasperated but obviously sensitive friend commented when she came to see my latest lunacy, 'Only you, Sara – twenty-mile views of absolutely nothing!'
It isn't 'nothing', actually – it is cloud formations, and the different ways reed, rough grass, heather and bracken move in the wind, and the changing colours, not just through the year but through the day as the sun and the clouds alternate and shift – but in another sense she is right, and it is the huge nothing that pulls me into itself. I look at it, and with fewer things to look at I see better. I listen to nothing and its silent tunes and rhythms sound harmonic. The irregular line of the hill, with the telegraph and electricity poles striding over it, holds the silence as though in a bowl and below me I can see occasional, and apparently unrelated, strips of silver, which are in fact the small river meandering down the valley.
I am feeling a bit smug this morning because yesterday I got my completion certificate. When you build a new house you start out with planning permission and building warrant, and at the end of it all an inspector comes to see if you have done what you said you would do and check that your house is compliant with building regulations and standards. Mine is; it is finished, completed, certified. All done and dusted. Last night I paid off my builder, and we had a drink and ended a year-long relationship of bizarre intensity, both painful and delightful. Now I am sitting and regathering my silence, which is what I came here for in the first place.
Three minutes ago – it is pure gift, something you cannot ask for or anticipate – a hen harrier came hunting down the burn, not twenty metres from the door. Not many people have a hen harrier in the garden. Hen harriers are fairly rare in the UK, with slightly over a hundred breeding couples mostly in the Scottish Highlands. They are slightly smaller and much lighter than buzzards, and inhabit desolate terrain. Male hen harriers, seen from below, look like ghosts – pure white except for their grey heads but with very distinct black wing tips. They hunt low and glide with their wings held in a shallow V; powerful hunters, beautiful, free. I do not see them very often, but the first time I came to the ruined shepherd's house, which is now, today, my new home, there was a pair sitting on the drystone dyke. They speak to me of the great silence of the hills; they welcome me into that silence.
The silent bird goes off about his own silent business, just clearing the rise to the west and vanishing as suddenly as he came. Briefly I feel that he has come this morning to welcome me and I experience a moment of fierce joy, but it rumbles gently down into a more solid contentment. There are lots of things that I ought to be getting on with, but I light a cigarette and go on sitting on my doorstep. It is surprisingly warm for October. We had the first frost last week, light-fingered on the car windscreen. I think about how beautiful it is, and how happy I am. Then I think how strange it is – how strange that I should be so happy sitting up here in the silent golden morning with nothing in my diary for the next fortnight, and no one coming and me going nowhere except perhaps into the hills or down the coast to walk, and to Mass on Sundays. I find myself trying to think through the story of how I come to be here and why I want to be here. And it is strange.
I have lived a very noisy life.
As a matter of fact we all live very noisy lives. 'Noise pollution' has settled down into the ecological agenda nearly as firmly as all the other forms of pollution that threaten our well-being and safety. But for everyone who complains about RAF low-flying training exercises, ceaseless background music in public places, intolerably loud neighbours and drunken brawling on the streets, there are hundreds who know they need a mobile phone, who choose to have incessant sound pumping into their environment, their homes and their ears, and who feel uncomfortable or scared when they have to confront real silence. 'Communication' (which always means talk) is the sine qua non of 'good relationships'. 'Alone' and 'lonely' have become almost synonymous; worse, perhaps, 'silent' and 'bored' seem to be moving closer together too. Children disappear behind a wall of noise, their own TVs and computers in their own rooms; smoking carriages on trains have morphed into 'quiet zones' but even the people sitting in them have music plugged directly into their ears.
We all imagine that we want peace and quiet, that we value privacy and that the solitary and silent person is somehow more 'authentic' than the same person in a social crowd, but we seldom seek opportunities to enjoy it. We romanticise silence on the one hand and on the other feel that it is terrifying, dangerous to our mental health, a threat to our liberties and something to be avoided at all costs.
My life has also been noisy in a more specific way.
Because of an odd conjunction of class, history and my parents' personal choices I had an unusually noisy childhood. I was born in 1950, the second child and oldest girl in a family of six; the first five of us were born within six and a half years of each other. If you asked my mother why she had so many children, she would say it was because she loved babies, but if you asked my father he would say something rather different: 'Two sets of tennis, two tables of bridge and a Scottish reel set in your own house.' We grew up in London, and in an enormous early-Victorian mansion house (my father's childhood home) in south-west Scotland. My parents adored each other. I think they adored us, though in a slightly collectivised way. They were deeply sociable and the house was constantly filled not just by all of us, but by their friends and our friends; my mother's father lived with us for a while; there was a nanny and later an au pair girl. What was perhaps unusual for the time was that they were very directly engaged as parents; there was none of that 'seen and not heard' nursery life for us. We were blatantly encouraged to be highly articulate, contentious, witty, and to hold all authority except theirs in a certain degree of contempt. I am appalled now when I think back to the degree of verbal teasing that was not just permitted but participated in: simple rudeness was not encouraged, but sophisticated verbal battering, reducing people to tears, slamming doors, screaming fights and boisterous, indeed rough, play was fine. (You don't grow out of these things – my son's partner has since told me her first encounter with us as a group was one of the most scary experiences of her life – she could not believe that people could talk so loudly, so argumentatively and so rudely without it coming to serious fisticuffs.) We were immensely active and corporate; introspection, solitude, silence, or any withdrawal from the herd was not allowed. Within the magical space they had created for us, however, we were given an enormous amount of physical freedom – to play, to roam, to have fights and adventures.
It worked best when we were all quite small. In 1968, when every newspaper in the country was bemoaning the outrageous behaviour of teenagers, my parents had five of them. I think retrospectively that they lost their nerve a bit. I am not sure what they imagined would happen. If you encourage your children to hold authority lightly, eventually they will work out that you are 'authority' and hold you lightly too. They were better with smaller children – we had fairly traumatic and very noisy teens.
There were good moments. One thing that is hard to insert into this account is just how sophisticated and politically engaged my parents were. I remember the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, for example, with great vividness because one of my parents' closest friends was an admiral in the US navy. He was staying with us, we went on a lovely sunny day trip to Cambridge and as we walked along the Backs, a very young man from the US Embassy appeared. He had been searching for Uncle Harry personally; he had to fly home immediately to Defend His Country against Communism. The following year I knew about the Profumo affair too, though rather lopsidedly. It was the cause of a rare fight between my parents, who usually managed to maintain perfect solidarity against their children's activities. My father taught me a bitter little limerick about it, which he encouraged me to recite at a cocktail party of his Butlerite Conservative friends (several of them eminent) and which rather accurately reflected his own politics.
There was a young girl called Christine Who shattered the Party machine.
It isn't too rude To lie in the nude But to lie in the House is obscene.
The fight between my parents was not, interestingly, about the content of these lines, but about my father encouraging me to 'show off '. A bit of me still wonders what on earth they thought would come of it, especially for their girls. You bring them up free and flamboyant, and are then totally surprised and even angry with them when they don't magically turn into 'ladies'. It was, for me at least, a strange mixture of upper-class convention and intellectual aspiration. There was a good, and noisy, example of my father's confused vision a few years later. I was expelled, fairly forcibly, from the House of Commons in 1973 for disrupting a debate on the Equal Opportunities Act, then a Private Members' Bill. I was pregnant at the time. The Times (my parents' daily, obviously) made this a front-page item including my name. I was rather anxious about how my parents would react. My mother was appalled that I should do this while I was pregnant, but my father was entirely delighted. Not because he favoured such actions or had any particular enthusiasm for Equal Opportunities, but because the person responsible for 'Order in the House' was an old friend of his, whom nonetheless he found both prissy and pompous – he was much amused by the embarrassment that I would have caused this friend, having to deal with 'one of us', with someone he actually knew. He may also, of course, have admired my boldness, without admiring the way I had chosen to exercise it.
We were inevitably sent off to boarding schools, the boys disgracefully at seven or eight and my sisters and I a little later. I am just about prepared to acknowledge that there might conceivably be children whom public school, under the old boarding system, positively suits and that there are homes so dire that boarding is a relief or even a joy, but it remains for me one of the very few institutions that is bad for both the individuals it 'privileges' and our society as a whole. In this context, however, all I want to do is point out that the entire ethos depended on no one ever being allowed any silence or privacy except as a punishment; and where the constant din inevitably created by over two hundred young women was amplified by bare corridors and over-large rooms. I found it a damaging, brutal experience, made worse by the fact that in my parents' world not to enjoy your schooldays was proof that you were an inferior human being – you were supposed to be a 'good mixer', to 'take the rough with the smooth' and enjoy the team spirit. If you are feeling miserable and inferior the last thing you are going to do is tell parents who think that the way you feel is proof that you are miserable and inferior.
Perhaps the stakes were too high; perhaps they were too proud of us. At home we were supposed to get into Cambridge, and wear long white gloves, a tartan silk sash and our deceased grandmother's pearls, and dance at Highland Balls. I was expected to have my own political opinions, and have them turn out the same as my parents'. We were expected to be sociable, active and witty, and hard-working, industrious and calm. We were meant to be sociable and popular and bizarrely chaste. At school we were meant to be educated, independent, self-assured, and totally innocent. On Saturday mornings we all had to kneel down in the assembly hall so that the mistresses could walk along the rows and make sure everyone's skirt exactly touched the ground. I am still not sure what the terror of the miniskirt was about, really. It all got pretty intolerable and very noisy.
In 1968 I escaped. These were the days before the Gap Year was a well-organised middle-class rite of passage, but if you stayed on at school after A levels to do the then separate Oxbridge entrance exams, you finished school at Christmas and had an inevitable gap until the following October. My father filled this gap by packing us off to any foreign continent of our choice and leaving us to get on with it. It was probably the first time in my life that I had been on my own and responsible for myself; it should have been a time to break out. My skirts were spectacularly shorter than anyone in America had ever seen before – hippies and counterculture and the politics of protest and feminism itself may have been US imports, but the miniskirt was authentically British – and my class accent was less immediately identifiable, but I was not really up to it. It was six months of being the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong moment, just. I left Washington the day before Martin Luther King was shot and arrived in Los Angeles a week after Bobby Kennedy's assassination. In San Francisco I did go to Haight Ashbury, but I went as a tourist. From that perspective it seemed sordid and scary, and I left at once.
I do remember, though, one bright hot dawn in the Arizona desert when I stared into my first huge nothing: it was the Grand Canyon. It was red and gold and vast and silent. Perhaps I should have sat down on the rim and stayed for a while, but it was too soon. I gawped for a bit and walked down a little way, then I turned round, got back on the Greyhound bus and went on to somewhere else.
Then, that autumn, I went to Oxford. I became a student at exactly and precisely the right time – for then 'to be young was very heaven'. What more joyful and lucky thing could happen to a privileged public-school girl than to find herself a student at Oxford between 1968 and 1971? It is fashionable now to decry the astonishing, extraordinary period in the late sixties – to dismiss it, or to blame it. I refuse to go there. I am with Angela Carter:
There is a tendency to underplay, even to devalue completely, the experience of the 1960s, especially for women, but towards the end of that decade there was a brief period of public philosophical awareness that occurs only very occasionally in human history; when, truly, it felt like Year One, when all that was holy was in the process of being profaned, and we were attempting to grapple with the real relations between human beings ... At a very unpretentious level, we were truly asking ourselves questions about the nature of reality. Most of us may not have come up with very startling answers and some of us scared ourselves good and proper and retreated into cul-de-sacs of infantile mysticism ... but even so I can date to that time and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the summer of 1968 my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman.
Everything interesting and important that has happened to me since began in Oxford in the three years that I was an undergraduate. There I discovered the things that have shaped my life – the things that shape it still, however unexpectedly, as I sit on my doorstep and listen to the silence: socialism, feminism, friendship and Christianity; myself as writer, as mother and now as silence seeker.
It was not instant. I arrived in Oxford more virginal in more ways than now seems credible. I felt like a cultural tourist, unable to connect directly with the hippies, with their drugs, mysticism and music; or with the politicos and their Parisian excitements, though I went like a tourist to hear Tariq Ali speak at the Student Union; or with the 'sexual revolutionaries' who whizzed off glamorously to London and complained about the repressive college, which expected us to be in bed, alone, by 10.30. I had to cope with the realisation that I was not the cleverest person in the world – a mistaken belief that had sustained me for years. It was culture shock; I had a strange, nagging sense that I was where I wanted to be, but I wasn't quite getting it: an odd mixture of excitement and frustration. I wanted it. I wanted all of it. I did not know how to have it. My life could have gone horribly wrong at this point.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Book of Silence"
Copyright © 2008 Sara Maitland.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Growing up in a Noisy World 1
2 Forty Days and Forty Nights 34
3 The Dark Side 80
4 Silence and the Gods 116
5 Silent Places 154
6 Desert Hermits 189
7 The Bliss of Solitude 223
8 Coming Home 258