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JOHN DeMONT: A hymn to the silence

John DeMont
John DeMont - The Chronicle Herald
HALIFAX, N.S. —

On Christmas Day, my son, the family hound and I were walking, by my reckoning, southeast, past some old fish sheds, when I said, “just listen.”

We stopped moving, because that seems to be the right response to such a request. The hound pricked up his ears, not because of an unfamiliar sound, but because of the absence of any.

We heard some light surf breaking, and the trace of wind in the treetops. 

Other than my adenoidal breathing, at 11:22 AM on the seventh-last day of the decade on Bear Trap Road, in Broad Cove, in the province of Nova Scotia, there wasn’t a sound — that wasn’t made by nature — detectable to the human ear. 

At that moment, it seemed like there maybe wasn’t a noise, made by man, animal or even machine, anywhere in this world.

It was a wondrous notion. 

Right then and there I thought, as I sometimes do, that there is too little quiet in this life of towns and cities that most of us lead. 

I may be biased in this regard: despite having to keep the TV volume perpetually at a Nigel Tufnel-ish 11, I’m so bothered by sound that I’ve taken to wearing ear plugs to quiet the noises of the night.

Though home is Halifax, which is hardly Mumbai, I sometimes get up early in the morning and wonder about the far-off hum I hear even when the automobiles, occasional siren and human voices have gone quiet.

My feeling — because I have so far lacked the enterprise to actually go out and investigate — is that the noise emanates somewhere around the container pier. 

The source didn’t really matter. It is the thrum of city life, a sound that is getting harder every day to escape.

Maybe that is why it is so thrilling when you do. 

Every class at my karate club is filled with memorable moments: exciting, insightful, just plain fun. But one of my favorites is when we bow in or out to start and end the training. 

At that point, eyes closed, kneeling as a group, we meditate for a few short moments, some shorter than others depending upon who leads the ritual. I have to tell you that there is something very powerful about a group of people, just breathing together.

This, of course, is old news to seasoned meditators and people of religious faith, who regularly lower their heads in prayer. I have no elevated thoughts during these moments. I am just happy to be there with these people, in our noisy 21st-century lives, sharing the silence. 

It’s easier, of course, when the population thins out a little, out in the countryside, where the quiet allows the thoughts to slow, and the awe to get in.

I am late to this revelation, which may explain why it seems to have hit me so hard. 

For a time, being alone on an empty beach or in an open field used to weird me out. Not agoraphobia, just a vague unease, as if walking down a country road in the dark was simply not where a person like me is meant to be.

The landscape was new to me. So, was the silence. Now I’ve come around. 

There are times, while inside, when I will turn off the music that is going pretty much all of the time back in Halifax. Then I will simply open the window and listen to the lack of sound, like a birder who thinks they’ve heard a mourning dove.

Night, of course, is the best.

Sometimes, when the weather is warm — and even when it is not — I will turn out all of the lights. I will step out of the door, lean back and look up into the sky where the images of long-dead stars make me feel small. 

The silence, which seems reverential, magnifies the effect. You can imagine, for a second, what it was like before humans walked the Earth.  

I am actually writing this in the dark in a house where people sleep upstairs.

At precisely this point in this column, the 682-word-mark, I stand up and go outside.  

Just a few stars are visible in the sky, although, for all I know, one of them is the same one the wise men followed 2,019 years ago.

But that isn’t so much what I notice, standing here in the blue-dark. What I notice is what I hear. And what I hear — and, at this point, I would like you to imagine me whispering these words — is absolutely nothing. 

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