TAoN No 97: In praise of moments of silence. Plus: A new Missing Word, and more
“Silence,” by Tomasz Baranowski on Flickr, some rights reserved
Happy New Year! I hope you managed to give yourself a break as 2021 wound down. I enjoyed some time off — but I’m also happy to be back. I have lots of fun TAoN plans for the weeks ahead.
Today, some useful thoughts and ideas about listening that I happened to hear over the break through the rebroadcast (or repodcast?) of an episode of On Being from way back in 2012. The guest was acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. What he had to say remains relevant — and feels like a nice note to start the year on.
“I grew up thinking that I was a listener,” Hempton explains, until he paused during a long drive in his grad school years, to grab a bit of rest, and a thunderstorm ensued.
“While I lay there, and the thunder echoed through the valley, and I could hear the crickets, I just simply took it all in. And it’s then I realized that I had a whole wrong impression of what it meant to actually listen. I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was ‘important’ even before I had heard it, and screening out everything that was ‘unimportant.’ …
“In other words, I had been paying a lot of attention to people, but I really hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to what is all around me. …”
Paying attention and listening well to other people is a good thing. But what Hempton, who as an activist is concerned with protecting the world’s silent/quiet places, learned was the value of listening to the natural world in particular. And he has some ideas about how — and why — to get better at that.
“We’re all born listeners,” Hempton argues, so try to adapt a child-like listening mode, set aside expectations, and “really just be here.” Later in the episode, host Krista Tippett1 points out that sometimes there can be “something scary” about a silence: “We’re kind of trained to fill the void where we meet one.” Hempton readily agrees — and it turns out this is something he believes can be converted into a positive.
“I take a moment of silence, every day in my life, that I don’t try to fill with thoughts, that I turn everything off — and sometimes that even means going over to the master breaker switch on the wall [laughs] and clicking that. … There’s no purpose, but there’s a great deal of joy. I’m then able to go out into the day.”
Throwing the breaker sounds a little nuts, but at bottom Hempton is suggesting a ritual of comfort with silence and listening, and a sense of treating this as an opportunity. “Anything can happen,” he says.
Add a moment of silence to your day — for a week, a month, the rest of the year, the rest of your life. Consider what you hear; perhaps keep a list. See how this changes the way you listen.
Check out also these earlier TAoN posts on listening:
The Art of Noticing is Rob Walker’s reader-supported newsletter about creativity, curiosity, work, and staying human. You are reading the free Monday edition; paid subscribers get a Thursday issue, too. Subscribers make all this possible! Thank you!
Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, concepts, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.
This week’s missing word is from reader Phil Britton, in the comments:
That feeling in the half second between when you've stubbed your toe and the pain arrives.
I’m familiar with this sensation — somehow I always hope there will be no pain, by some miracle. (Although I guess if that ever happened, I’d be alarmed.) Anyway, it strikes me as a clear example of the “infrathin” moments (to use Duchamp’s term) that inspired this series. Thank you Phil!
What else should we add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion — or respond to this one — in the comments.
Next issue: a new icebreaker. (The Dictionary of Missing Words series alternates with Icebreaker of the Week, and, more sporadically, the Something to Notice series.)
In Thursday’s post for paid subscribers, an ambitious but fun New Year challenge from Mary Potter Kenyon, author of Called To Be Creative. Plus a fresh installment of The Heard, sharing music that’s caught my attention (in a good way) lately.
In Other News
In my recent Your World Is Your Museum post I referenced what I remembered as a prankster at the Los Angeles Times putting up museum-style labels pointing out stuff that needed to be fixed around the office. But I couldn’t find the details anymore. Massive thanks to reader BikeWalkBarb for digging up this Twitter thread (above) that confirms my memory and has multiple fun examples!
I want this chair.
There’s a shortage of blue.
I enjoyed Kottke’s list of 18 Things That Kept Me Going In 2021. I also liked this Times list of 72 “Favorite Facts” of the year, 52 things I learned in 2021 by Tom Whitewell, and Austin Kleon’s 100 things that made my year (2021), each of which I felt had a kind of commonplace book feel. And a different kind of list, also excellent: Seventy-one reflections on 2021 from an array of smart writers & thinkers, collected in Sasha Frere-Jones’ terrific newsletter. And one more still, in keeping with today’s aural leitmotif: Disquiet Junto collects participants’ responses to the challenge to create a “sonic diary of the past year with a dozen (or more) super-brief segments.” It all makes me want to get started on a 2022 list! Did you see any 2021 lists you loved?
Okay that’s it!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: email@example.com. Or use the comments!
—> Or just click the heart symbol. That always makes my day.
And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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