Retreat into Silence


“In Loving Silence.”

This is the pin I wore on New Year’s Day, which I spent at Kripalu, in the Berkshires. It was a most different way to celebrate a holiday known for excess, for shouting, for partying. As I’ve mentioned here before, I try to avoid any occasion during which I’d be expected to wave my hands wildly in the air and emit a “woohoohooo!”  New Year’s Eve is the ultimate whoohoohoo, and so it seemed the perfect opportunity for this writer to retreat as far as possible into something a bit more woo-woo.

I intended to go for the five days that surrounded New Year’s Eve, although it turned into six thanks to a blizzard. When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s, I was in a group meditation. The rest of the time, I did yoga for hours each day and ate vegetarian food.  I painted, and I wrote. (I also stayed in the cushiest possible accommodations at the center, and got a daily spa treatment and smuggled in wine in my suitcase, lest you think I’ve suddenly become allergic to life’s hedonistic pleasures.) And — while this was by no means a Kripalu requirement — on New Year’s Day, I went “on silence.” No talking to anyone.  And, far more challenging, no texting or emailing with anyone at home for that one day.

The idea of abstaining from speech is to get to understand how you use language and communication. For me, not speaking to the people around me was not a problem. For one thing, I’m pretty introverted in a group of strangers — it would be much harder for me if someone made me wear a pin that forced me to speak to everyone I saw. (So hard, in fact, that I doubt I’d agree to do it.)

For another, the condition felt familiar, because  it reminded me of traveling to a place where I don’t speak the native language. As I’ve reflected here before, it’s amazing how much you can communicate without words. You smile extra so people know you’re not psychotic, you use sign language and if all else fails, you write things down.

Still, it’s different to do this when you do speak the language, and understand, to make your reply merely a gesture towards   your “In Loving Silence” pin and a smile. And it’s different to agree not to communicate with the people you love.

On New Year’s Day at Kriplau, there was a sudden fire alarm and evacuation. I, along with many others, had left my coat in my room, so I wrapped myself in a yoga blanket to walk outside to a safer structure. It was cold outside. I walked silently and alone. I felt afraid.  I didn’t know what was happening. “This is real, not a drill,” I heard, and I had no way of dissipating my anxiety which I would ordinarily do by making a joke. I realized how often I distract myself through difficult moments, or moments where I might be overcome by emotion,  by thinking about how to make this moment funny to someone I know very well, and then sending that someone a jokey text.

I’ve been a professional writer for my entire career, which is to say, for nearly the past twenty years. I’ve written for international publications with large readerships, and  for tiny niche publications with smaller ones. But in that moment, wrapped in that blanket on New Year’s Day, I realized that the small group of people who would care if I got stuck in a blanket during a fire drill at my New Year’s yoga retreat, the people who would appreciate the joke I’d make out of anxiety an oblige with a good ol’ LOL, the people with whom I am the most intimate — they are my home. They are the people that make it possible for me to leave home and travel, and to tolerate being alone, and yes, lonely, on a holiday when most people naturally congregate with their beloveds.

I also saw how much the people around me whom I didn’t know wanted to talk in moments of confusion. How much I wanted to talk to them too, although I realized that I didn’t actually need to.  While I didn’t know what was going to happen next, I was really quite okay. And that I was scared by the unknown, and also, okay.

On that note, this is my 208th post here on Perceptive Travel, and my last as a member of this very fine blog team. On my very first post here in 2009, when I inhabited a different life, I wrote about texting a funny Chinglish sign home from Shanghai, before I was stopped by the notion of remembering old dreams. I’m now walking towards new dreams, dreams that I’ll confess that I can barely see at this particular moment. And that’s also pretty scary.

But it will be okay.




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