“There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it. Our culture is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.

Webb Lake wall panelsSteve Griffin, owner of Island Carpentry, has done much precise, beautiful work in our house in Middletown. We have come to know and value Steve’s friendship. Last year when he directed the installation and did the carpentry to install our gas fireplaces, he built a box over the mantle of one of them to mount our television. Bartering for our replaced electric kitchen stove, Steve’s wife, Mary Ann, created with Steve a four panel door to hide the box. Using old photographs Rita gave her, she painted a composite scene of our many summers spent in a rented old camp on Webb Lake in Weld, ME. This week she finished.

One of the many gifts Webb Lake gave us was solace and silence, especially early in the morning when the lake was mirror calm. I’m an early morning riser and have been for at least fifty years. Silence for private time, prayer and reading that leads to reflection and meditation is a before dawn activity for me, as it was on Webb Lake in the canoe. Here it is birdsong and sometimes the distant, muted foghorn in Newport Harbor which carries in the pre-dawn stillness. Is there anything more grand than that first cup of coffee in the sunroom looking out over the garden, the eighteenth century stone wall and Rhode Island Nursery across the lane? As Thomas Merton wrote, “our culture is geared…to help us evade any need to face (our) inner, silent self.” Yet this “inner, silent self” is where we most need to wander at leisure if we ever expect to find our peace, our self-knowledge, our connection.

“We live in a state of constant semi-attention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. We are more or less there.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.

To Merton’s constant semi-attention in the last few decades, we’ve layered on omnipresent emails, texts, Facebook, Snapchat, Tweets, YouTube, television with a thousand channels, Pandora, videos and video games on demand, the insistent phones on our belt and on and on.  And on.  We don’t have to do much to completely avoid our silent, inner selves and the meaning of our increasingly preoccupied lives. In truth, we seek commotion: for after all, within those distractions persists our ability to avoid what we truly need to engage. For the ‘unexamined’ life is frenetically busy, exhausting even, but on the surface painless, while vaguely troubling underneath is a deep discontent like a tumor without symptoms yet. Without recognizing our core, what is left wanting, and what change is prerequisite to peace, we are left without a center at rest. Human beings are born with restless hearts, with a hole in the center. Do we seek what will truly heal it or do we squander our time by obfuscating with the deluge of stimuli?

” A great strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire the sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard this, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold a voice came to him and said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  1 Kings 19: 11-13

“What are you doing here?” is the only relevant question we all must answer.

Garden 2016As I was going through the painstaking process of pulling the disassembled tomato support cages from the ceiling joists of the shed, straightening out the bent members, cobbling them back together for one more year and erecting them around this season’s hope for red tomatoes, Rita remarked to me that I was a patient gardener. I have never thought of myself as particularly patient; Type A, driving for perfection, impatient with myself especially. But times and souls change, especially when we spend the time to fill the hole in the middle.

I realized planting the last of the pole beans, the yellow bush beans and peas today with Gianna and Ellie, our two oldest granddaughters, that the hours pass quickly. We laugh, teach, learn and plant. They tell us where to put the pumpkins and sunflowers, their favorites. We can also be quiet together. Gianna is eight and now is the official reader of seed packets, discerning depth and spacing. Why are cucumber and the various kinds of squash planted in rings called hills? Why are some seeds planted an inch deep, and some only a quarter inch? Why is the squirrel eating the new corn and cucumber sprouts? If we see the baby rabbits out there in the garden, will I turn into Mr. McGregor?

I further realize that the overriding sensation of the garden in the sun with sore muscles, dirty feet, red knees and calloused hands is contentment, deep, abiding contentment. And that is enough.

“We are not fully present and not fully absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. We just float along in the general noise which drowns out the deep, secret and insistent demands of the inner self.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.


Filed under Culture views, Personal and family life

8 responses to “Noise

  1. Rita

    Thank you Jack… With the addition of the panels of Webb Lake and the kids and you enjoying the ambience of it all, I too have been thinking about inner quiet. I do hope that we gave our kids an opportunity to glimpse that inner quiet when they were little and enjoying the beauty and quiet of the West Central Maine woods and lake region. There were hikes and water falls and bike rides and I remember well the dark but beautiful night you and I were sitting on the dock and looking at the stars. We had put the kids to bed but we decided to wake them up and take them out to the dock so they could also look at the stars. There wasn’t a TV at the camp in those days so they were totally disconnected from outside noise. The younger girls would read books, play cards and have plays in the woodshed. Amy and Gabe loved to canoe around the lake together…rowing out to the ” big rock” across from us and pulling the canoe onto the lower ledge and jumping off the rock cannon ball style. Such beautiful memories… Thank you God.


  2. Rita

    I also remember Kathy Griffin coming up to the lake and visiting us. She would go out in the canoe and begin to sing Praise and Worship songs as part of her prayer. It echoed all around the area. Remember the times we would go picking blue berries with Kathy and the girls with everyone keeping an eye out for bears? We never saw any, but it was kind of fun thinking about it. We did see bears at other places a few times along with moose wading in the lake in the early morning. The memories keep coming…


  3. Anthony Vinson

    Nice! Thoreau listed similar sentiments among his reasons for retreating into the woods around Walden Pond, but you knew that already, didn’t you? In fact, when you wrote about carpentry and gardening I thought I was hearing echoes from the pond. 🙂

    Getting away from it all seems ever more difficult, which only makes it all the more important to try. Being self-unemployed (feast or famine; lots of both and so far nothing I’ve tried has resulted in any greater control over one or the other) I probably find myself with far too much “free” time. Problem is most of that free time is spent fretting over the fact that I have it and plotting what I can do to have less! Is this really the best use of that time? Not really.

    Over the past several years I have done my best to live deliberately, to be aware of the moment; of where I am, what I am doing, who I am with. Listening, looking, absorbing, being there… I have vowed to slow down so as not to miss any more than necessary. It’s a daily struggle to maintain these habits. Some days are easy, some are hard, and some don’t come at all, but I keep it up.

    I started meditating about six years ago and have found that it helps. Nothing mystical, just sitting still for 15 minutes and trying to empty my mind of thoughts. It was far tougher than I imagined it would be, but has proven to be an important component of my life. I feel it whenever I miss a day.

    Interesting: If I get distracted and miss several days in a row, my wife can tell from my behavior. “You haven’t been meditating, have you?” She’s almost always right.

    Thanks for sharing your memories, stories, and thoughts!


    • Thanks, Anthony. Hope your backlog fills up a bit. But not too much. Sometimes I long for a bit more time to do more of what I love, and less of what I must.
      A couple of years ago Rita and I spent an autumn afternoon walking around Walden Pond and visiting a replica of Thoreau’s one room cottage and furnishings. In nearby Concord is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. In addition to the grave of the sculptor of Sitting Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. His name escapes this old guy’s memory at the moment. There also is Author’s Ridge, permanent resting place of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, among others. I found it quite moving. Google it; I think you would like the history, if you haven’t seen it. The residents don’t mind you walking over them. In fact, even though Hawthorne was shy, I believe they probably enjoy the attention.


  4. Rick

    Great Post Jack ,Noise theres way too much…”What are You doing here?” really is the question.I too just finished planting(is it ever really finished?) and amid the concerns of this getting too much water or that getting too little.. Shuffling to help out family amid all the noise and clamor..What am I doing ,or not doing here ,Really is the question! as we age and try to have a little more positive Influence on all those in Our Life,I find the silent time of inner reflection the most valuable and the most fugitive. Sometimes we actually have to get away to reduce the noise etc… But that is equally difficult, considering all of our varied responsibilities


  5. Kathy Grffin

    I loved my vacation time at Webb was numerous years in the 80s and 90s, longer each year. Being just a kid in my 20s my memories are different. Great memories of teaching Gabe to drive a stick shift on the hills and finding my gears stripped 20 mins into the ride home, swimming with Amy in the lake..never wanting to come out…waiting forever for Meg to eat her peas so she could have a brownie sunday, and playing tennis with Angela who was determined to hit that ball..AND the time I taught Meg to set the table by telling her the fork goes on the right so you can grab it quick to stab someone if they try to steal your food..she never forgot where the fork went after that lesson.. oh yes Jack carrying buckets of water to flush the toilet during hurricane Bob…and Rita sneaking granola on baked macaroni and cheese. Was I at the same Lake as Jack and Rita.?? So many things have changed over the years. The only thing that has not changed is the God that we all prayed to during those days and now…He is the same.. yesterday, today and tomorrow…Don t know if I ever expressed the depth of my gratitude at the time..but thank you very much for the wonderful vacations and the bonds I formed with your children (AKA adults now). God has blessed me greatly through the Parquettes


    • Sure. Make the old guy cry. Amy is home from the road and we read your post aloud. Rita and Amy both teared up. Not me though. Real men don’t cry. Love ya, Kate. When are you going to venture over the bridge?


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