Quieting Down: Open Space for Thought

Childhood backyard, Ada, Oklahoma
My childhood backyard in Ada, Oklahoma.

I’m sitting here in my Logan Square apartment on a Sunday, and it’s fairly quiet. I can easily hear the ‘L’ every fifteen minutes or so, whooshing by in its subtle way, delivering people to or from the airport, downtown, home.

I just finished Meghan O’Rourke’s piece in the New York Times’s T Magazine, Lessons in Stillness from One of the Quietest Places on Earth, which is her account of finding silence and peace in Washington’s Hoh Rain Forest, within Olympic National Park. She comments on the noisy things in contemporary life that take away our quiet, and hence our ability to find peace; at least on a regular basis.

She says, “In quiet, it turns out, we perceive more — our senses spring to life.” She says that instead of finding herself in quiet, in an inward sort of way, she becomes more aware of her surroundings and that we all share these landscapes, together, on our communal planet.

She continues:
“Perhaps that’s because the park is a public space. A national reserve, it is meant for all of us, unlike commercial quiet spaces where the emphasis is on personal renewal. In my case, I was reminded of all the ‘countless silken ties,’ as Robert Frost wrote, that keep us bonded to those around us.”

Reading this and enjoying my own quiet time today, in the middle of Chicago, no less, I was reminded of my childhood backyard, in a small town in Oklahoma. I used to lay outside in the dry heat to sunbathe or read, or I would take walks through the little woods we had on our land and imagine I was somewhere else, lost but unafraid.

I wrote about my backyard in a class in graduate school several years ago, a class about place and what it means to us, both as writers, and as human beings. I have shared that short piece of writing below, as a way to remember how different my home was, how quiet it was, when I could step outside my backdoor and hear nothing. I’m lucky to have grown up in such a place.

May 14, 2013

The wind chime behind me reveals the gentle wind. A dog barks in the distance. Cicadas announce themselves in the oak trees surrounding the yard. Birds play a game of call and answer. My eyes are closed, and even behind sunglasses I scrunch my eyelids to soften the red from the sun. I feel my bare skin bake with each unprotected ray. Through the kitchen window come the clattering of pots and cabinets; my mother. The occasional car drifts by the front of the house, unseen, and it accelerates loudly to get up the hill just past our driveway.

Otherwise, quiet. My head is quiet, and I breathe deep with lungs used to tightening smog. I take in the smell of each flower that sit in the pots next to me on the deck—I picture the soft petals that emit such sweet and subtle aromas—though I don’t know which smell is from which flower. Geraniums? Lilacs? A rose? My mother would know. Her hands, swollen with arthritis from working in the garden, know the green texture of each flower’s stem and root, how each anatomy is different from the next.

It must be after five, because when the wind blows I can hear the marching band practicing, only bits, from the high school field a mile away. I knew I wouldn’t need my own music today. Once, I was in that band, the snare drum hammering out each step we took. Dut, dut, dut, dut. The drummer’s’ call. I wonder if they still do that before each song.

Trade this backyard for my Chicago porch. Sirens abound; kitchen staff make loud jokes as women pass; marijuana lingers in the air; endless honking—all overpowering the birds who have long given up the competition. Chicago vs. my childhood backyard. Noise and noiseless. City and nature. Both are a landscape, a way of being with the earth. But both can foster reflection—perhaps one reveals where you fit into the world, and one reveals who you are when you’re away. Alone. Here in this loneliness, I can shape who I want to be in the city. In the city, I use these inner revelations to interact with people and the landscape. A different kind of loneliness presents itself in either place.

The solace of a small town can never be found anywhere but a small town. There isn’t one replacement that would do to take the place of where I sit in my childhood backyard, remembering my first night in this house and how I came and ran along the deck, astonished that I had this new jungle to explore: trees and deck and field and green and space.

Perhaps open space is the best space there is; it is the only space there is. Perhaps those scattered in clumps in the country know most about open-mindedness, though they do not have great quantity of library, of technology, or of racial diversity. Perhaps watching, listening, smelling, tasting, touching, without physical hindrance, lend one’s best self to observation. Then come the emotional hindrances, which weigh on the insides heavier than sun on white skin.

My mother comes outside and speaks: dinner is ready. Your brother will be here soon. I pretend to sleep.


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