This song is a good example of rebirth. I have lived long enough to remember the original version and still retain all of the words. As a matter of fact, it brings back a wonderful memory. We were sitting in the huge crowded cafeteria of the University at lunch time. This was a mixture of people, traditional and non-trad, students, teachers, office personal, ranging in age from 18 to mid-forties and beyond. Two of the women were speaking about music, particularly the songs of our youth. One woman, a good friend who knew I sang, looked at me and said, “Yes, like the Sound of Silence”, and grinning, she said, “I’ll bet you know that one, Elizabeth.”
Grinning back at her, accepting the challenge, it was my intent to only sing the first and opening line. But, the young woman sitting next to me, and half my age, immediately jumped in to sing harmony. So, we sang the song all the way through, and that huge bustling room, went absolutely silent and listened. As the room slowly resumed it’s clatter and noise level of conversation and lunch consumption, my friend, the instigator said, ” I have never been in this room when it went so still and silent.”
And that was the day I knew that I was right where I belonged, doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, and that it was perfectly okay to just be me. A rebirth, if you will. Before that experience, I had always questioned myself, especially my own thoughts and subsequent actions. Had never really thought that I belonged, let alone, was acceptable.
When I was four years old, I slipped beneath the back wheel of my father’s reversing huge black Pontiac. My head swelled up and there were bloody scrape marks on the opposite side of my face. Mom and Dad took me to the doctor’s office. The doctor checked me over and asked if I’d thrown up. I hadn’t, so he released me. But, as we were leaving the office, I threw up all over the waiting room. And I was immediately taken to the hospital.
Once there, x-rays were taken, and it became clear that a piece of shattered skull bone was protruding into my brain and creating a blood clot. Emergency surgery was scheduled. My parents were told that I had only a fifty percent chance of survival and that if I did survive, I would probably have some brain damage, akin to Cerebral Palsy.
Those dire predictions haunted my life through the rest of my childhood and sometimes still interfere even to this day. You see, although the doctor gave me a complete and clean bill of health, even called me his little ‘Miracle Girl’, my behavior was forever under a microscope from that day forward. Although I did my fair share of “acting out”, unlike my siblings who were most often chastised in private, my “mistakes” were discussed at the dinner table. “Why can’t you be more like the others?” “Why would you say such a thing?” These were familiar phrases to me and became an internal mantra, constantly echoing through my own thoughts.
My entire family had gone through a life-threatening trauma. However, back then, it was not seen as essential that all of us might have needed some help. Especially me. My family didn’t understand that I’d spent almost an entire month, away from home, among perfect strangers who were very different from me and what I had come to know as normal. And some of those differences rubbed off. I saw and heard things differently. And still do.
And again, this was a type of Rebirth experience for me. One marked by a large and ugly scar that arced my left ear. All my hair had been shaved off. The doctor suggested that I wear a football type helmet, to protect my head during the slow recovery process. My Mother wouldn’t consider such a thing. She found other things to cover my head, but I hated all of them and to this day, don’t much wear any type of head covering.
The ‘Sound of Silence’ written by Paul Simon, was an iconic folk protest. And in that tradition, the words them-selves, were far more important than the music behind them. The newer version is quite different, although the words remain the same. It is grittier than that original version, to the point of being angry. And it exemplifies many of the changes we, as individuals, are seeing and experiencing.
We are not trained to be alone. Instead, we are taught, from young on, to make ourselves acceptable, to belong, to fit in, to be cogs in the machinery of what we call society. Yes, on occasion, a few of us might rise to some sort of prominence, even to what might be claimed to be adulation, but only a few and that position is ever changing. And those that do, very often are surprised at how quickly they become “Yesterday’s News”.
That all changed with the Pandemic and subsequent lock-down. Everything about our lives has been altered and we are suddenly alone with only the sound of silence for company. And we are threatened by that sound. The majority of us simply don’t know how to be alone with ourselves.
I thought I’d be okay. I’ve lived alone for many years, have even defined myself as a Hermit. But, that was a choice I made. Now, I’m told that I have to, must be this way. No choice in the matter, that’s just the way it is, for my safety, as well as others. Added to that, I find myself newly defined as a member of the most fragile and vulnerable among us. And the sound of silence has become the enemy, once again.
I used to be terrified of silence. It meant I was alone, with only my own person to rely on. And my own history told me that wasn’t a good thing. I was not an individual I could trust. Certainly not someone I could count to watch my back, or be there for me when I most needed her. And yet, I had come to trust her. It was a long slow process and the University had played a huge role in that change.
You see, I was 37 years old when I entered the University, and to me, it all seemed like some sort of fluke. I had gone to the Tech College, in town, to take a test that would perhaps tell me what I might be best able to study in my efforts to make myself employable. But the tests results only confused me even more. I was told that I would only be bored at the Tech College and that I needed to apply to the four year University in our sister city. And when I say that my path there was greased, I mean just that. All I had to do was show up for an appointment, and by the end of that afternoon, I was registered to attend my first semester there, with the promise of a grant that would pay my tuition and the cost of my books, and would see me through how ever long it might take to finish.
It would take me seven years to do that. That sounds like a long time, but statistically I fit right into the amount of time it usually takes a non-traditional student with other obligations (like family, job, and kids), to do the same thing. And, it was there that I found the real Elizabeth, I had only secretly hoped I could be. That one with a mind that worked well and even made sense to others. It was there that this North Wisconsin Hillbilly would graduate with two degrees and high honors in both. Perhaps, most importantly, it was there that I began to write poetry of all things, and began to learn that the sound of silence is not an enemy. But, a friend that allows us to explore those pieces and parts of ourselves that we may have lost in the bustle of being acceptable, of belonging, and of being afraid of being alone with only our own thoughts and feelings as our only companion.
The sound of silence can create a real sense of threat. It might lead to anxiety and eventually to fear and anger. Anger is a product of the human psyche. It is a natural adrenaline rush, a flow of energy that allows the individual to stand and fight, or run like hell. But that rush of energy might also be used to think through whatever action might be engaged in. There are only two choices in how we use that energy: constructively or destructively.
We are seeing a great deal of anger and rage on the news, and even on social media. And most of what we are seeing is destructive in nature. Dismissively calling someone an “asshole” certainly fails to invite them into conversation that could at least open the doors to a further exchange. It only invites retaliation in kind and worse. It has already become death.
The sound of silence shouldn’t be an enemy. It should be a friend, inviting us in to sit quietly, to breathe softly and deeply. To finally hear the sound of our own soul speaking to us, of what it knows about the journey toward wholeness. And how to heal what has definitely been broken. If we do not heed that invitation, I believe we are setting a course toward complete destruction. Not just in the present moment, but for all potential moments to come.
Elizabeth Crawford 6/1/2020
I so resonate with what you have written, Elizabeth, and that song was a significant one to me too. University was your watershed time of life, as the coffeehouse, and then Tofino, were for me. What joyous journeys. I have always required a great deal of solitude and quiet. So covid is just a bit more of it than usual. I find myself made more silent and tired by what is on the news…….so discouraging , and I hope your closing lines arent prophetic but, given all indications, they might well be.
Thank you, Sherry for your thoughtful response. And I agree that the song itself, what it says meant and means a great deal to a lot of people. I really like the new version, though I could not now sing it in that manner. My helper overheard me singing it softly and decided to use it as my ringtone on her phone, lol. She loves it as well. And again is quite a bit younger than I am. I told her the story of singing it in the crowded cafeteria and she loved it. And that story still amazes me. There were hundreds of people in that huge room. But, even as scared as I was, and so filled with self-doubt, that day I realized that in this place, I might be heard, instead of told to “shut-up because I didn’t know what I was talking about.” And yes, I totally agree with you about the news. It is discouraging, but also understandable on some levels. The lock-down itself has caused an incredible level of fear and fear very often induces anger energy. What I have seen is how people are coming together and making an effort to change the results of a lop sided societal contract. Especially black people and women have been on the short end of that decidedly patriarchal contract. We may very well be seeing the end of that patriarchal strangle-hold that places such a high value on money rather than that of humanity. Neither one of my statements, the one in the essay, or the one here in this response are a prediction, Sherry. They are only the hope filled words of a dreamer who continues to dream.
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Last year sometime, I came across this version of The Sound of Silence and wanted to use it at some point because I felt it was so powerful. Along with your words and the experience you shared here, it has taken on even more meaning. I too enjoy my time alone, and thank heavens my husband understands as he is much like me in that way. If humanity learns to embrace silence, they will begin to notice the life teeming all around them, and perhaps, God willing, they will begin to listen. For the trees, the earth, and nature is telling us to be still, to see, to understand the impact of our deeds.And if we don’t listen, we will surely perish long before this planet does.
Thank you Linda, for your thoughtful words. I agree with you. I too believe that nature is attempting to get our attention. To suggest that we slow down and perhaps smell the flowers around us. I believe that for many, the inner person they are has become a wilderness, completely unknown and thus the scariest place to be. Certainly not a place where one would go intentionally. Many, if not most, have lost a true sense of the unique individual they truly are. Have traded activity for definition, and as long as they are moving, they must be okay? When we lose the ability to hear our own person, we also lose the ability to truly hear others. When action becomes more important than thoughtful stillness only chaos and destruction occur. And that is what is happening now. What we are seeing is far from healthy for any of us. Our so-called “leaders” are incapable of leading by example. That concept seems foreign to them. So what can we as individuals do?