Kahil Gibran wrote, “A seeker of silences am I, and what treasure have I found in silence that I may dispense with confidence?” I discovered many years ago I need silence like I need oxygen. It wraps me in a cloak of wellbeing. If I do not sit quietly for a short time each day I become more easily agitated – wound tight, as my husband would say. I am fortunate our home by the river provides me with the blessed calm I need.
A writer friend described an exercise in sensory deprivation designed to prepare our military for imprisonment and torture. Silence, like an icepick or cattle prod, can be so painful a prisoner gives up secrets to escape it. Our justice system uses solitary confinement as punishment. The acts, seems incongruous, when I see quiet as a saving grace. I wonder, then, how people in a Covid-19 world register the dramatic change in the level of sound in their lives.
Pre-covid, many commuted daily through the noise of rush hour traffic or hectic subways and joined dozens of other workers in a buzzing hive of productivity. Now you work from home, in solitude and silence. Or perhaps the opposite is true. Where once you had a quiet drive through a small town, the restful isolation of your corner office, now you have children squabbling and clamouring for your attention, as you put together a legal brief at your dining room table. Or children used to the noise of classrooms, now study alone, minus their classmates. Do you welcome the change or wish it away?
Where once you exercised at a gym, music pounding, barbells thumping, treadmills running endlessly, now you walk or bike alone in a park. The sounds of a busy retail store and merriment of a full restaurant are replaced with the quiet voices of take-out and online shopping. I face the noise of yelling repeatedly into a drive-thru speaker, instead of the peace of five star dining.
One of the most dramatic locations for the change in sound levels I noticed is our hospitals. I found them noisy night and day, filled with rushing steps, alarms, beeping machines, floor polishers running in the hallway, metal wash pans clanging into drawers. In contrast is the empty hush throughout the labs and ER of our local hospital as surgeries are cancelled and people avoid going for tests. In contrast we see the scenes on television of workers pushing patients through hallways narrowed by extra beds lined up along them, doctors yelling for aids, nurses responding as patients call for help. I can only imagine the hellishness of the noise level, as chaos replaces order, and the number of health care workers and patients soar.
Rod McKuen wrote: “If diesels and dump trucks and gossips were words I’d feed them like kernels of corn to the birds and then all the thumping and bumping and pounds would come out forever like pretty bird sounds.”
I embrace this image, remembering all the times I’ve visited friends and family in cities. I’m good for a few hours, then my sense of being imprisoned in an intolerable world of noise and action increases until I feel like I am jumping out of my skin. My travelling days are diminishing as my dislike of the boisterous pushing and shoving of crowds increases.
A waiting hush has fallen over the world. Those who fill the hole in their lives with people and parties experience this emptiness with the same terror of sensory deprivation. I am among the lucky ones, who will take all the silence I can get, for as McKuen says, “silence is golden and soft as a tear. The soft sound of empty is the next voice you’ll hear.”
One of the women I interviewed for Chronic Challenge had Multiple Sclerosis. When she went shopping she used a wheelchair. Her daughter would take her, but sometimes leave her in the mall to run an errand. In a quote from the book, the women said, “I don’t want help unless I ask for it. Don’t grab my wheelchair and start pushing me down the hall, without my asking. I try to make sure others don’t take control, like carrying me when I don’t want to be carried.” Can you imagine her discomfort? The people picking her up or pushing her chair probably feel they are being helpful. Giving help requires first asking if it is wanted. Many people with limitations cling to their independence fiercely. Usurping that is a huge hindrance.
My older sister is a wonderful helper, but sometimes it becomes an obsession, even interfering, as when she tries taking over every task when I start cooking dinner. I enjoy making tasty meals, but her ‘help’ throws off my timing and neutralizes my pleasure. Definitely hampering! However, when I tried to put up my tent in high wind as sand blasted my face, her help proved invaluable. She’s also great on the other end of my loaded kayak. But only if I want her there.
My husband has had an ongoing struggle with guests and the dishwasher. Thinking they are helping, they will start putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher, messing up his method. He asks them to leave it, is ignored, and so dreads the next time they come. His nearest and dearest now know to “stay the hell away from the dishwasher”. His idea of the best help is respect for what he wants.
Several older friends, still living on their own, appreciate the help of their son or daughter, when they ask for it. “Could you please change the lightbulb, carry that heavy box in.” However, one friend found her daughter had reorganized her entire kitchen. “Look Mom, I put everything you use most often where you can reach it easily.” Seems like that would be great help. But this woman had cooked in that kitchen for forty-five years. She used muscle memory to prepare her meals, yet now has to stop and search for everything. And with short term memory diminishing, food prep became much harder for her. Her daughter’s idea is a high fence she can’t hurdle – a hindrance.
An artist I spoke with described an amateur painter she knew who proudly posted a photo of her latest painting. Several experienced artists jumped online and gave what they considered helpful tips around improving the piece. Their comments totally demoralized her and killed her joy in painting. The same thing happens with literary critiques. Constructive help must be worded carefully if it is not taken as criticism. I appreciate a good editor and haven’t worked with one who didn’t improve my manuscript. However, I have given my work to family or friends for input and found their enthusiastic ideas took my story so far from the original I couldn’t recognize my work. In their creative fervour they hindered me.
I like using my initiative by first asking the person if my idea of help is theirs or acting on something I’ve heard them say. While visiting with a friend, we became too hot on the deck and decided to move into the shade of some trees. “There are cushions in there I can put on the chairs,” she murmured as she went into the house to refresh her coffee. I cleaned off two chairs lying in the grass and got the cushions out. She exclaimed in surprise when she saw I’d done it. Surprised, in turn, that she would think I’d stand and wait for her, I asked her about her reaction. “Nobody does those things for me,” she replied. “I guess I don’t think to ask.”
It took many years, but I learned to ask for help. The bigger lesson, finding the patience to wait for the helper to do the job in his/her timeframe not mine. When I began accepting help, I discovered most people take pleasure in helping. Accepting their help becomes a gift from me to them. And, by giving them clear guidance, I make it easier for them to help without straying into hindrance territory.
I confess I have my moments of backseat driving. I question the route the driver chooses and point out when my husband doesn’t signal soon enough. I also flap my hands in the air and make moaning noises if you come up too fast behind another vehicle (the results of a bad accident years ago).
My husband is an excellent driver, who has saved us from many a potential danger with his fast reflexes. His driving record is clean, and his flaws are minimal. But, when he’s the passenger it’s another story. It’s all about saving the vehicle. “If you slowed down half a mile before the hill, you wouldn’t be so hard on the brakes,” he suggests. Never mind I’m in a rush for the bathroom. “Climbing a hill at a slower speed,” he advises, “will be easier on the engine.” But not my stress levels as a big semi chases me. His worse crime, though, is clutching the door handle if I turn a corner fast — like I’m going to roll the car or something! (I roll my eyes, instead.) Intense scrutiny makes me so nervous my driving skills deteriorate in equal proportion to the distance I drive. Not liking the feeling of sweating armpits, tense jaw and rigid neck, I opt for sitting in the passenger seat. I’m better at being annoying. He’s better at driving while being annoyed. It works for us!
There is a big drawback to this solution. I’ve driven myself to many parts of western Canada, through cities to visit families, up mountains to kayak hidden lakes, into the back country to ski. Once I began relinquishing the wheel, I realized the experience I’d gained didn’t stick if I didn’t practice. I remember sitting at the stop sign, where my side road meets the highway and looking left, then right, then left. Pulling onto the highway frightened me because it had been so long since I’d driven, I didn’t trust myself to see something coming. Driving through a city became a stressful ordeal again. Handling a gravel road, or icy highway in a snowstorm a shaky experience. Relinquishing the wheel for so long had eroded my confidence.
I have a friend, whose husband insisted on driving everywhere, and had an argument for every time she suggested taking the car. Then he had a health problem that gave him blurred vision. Suddenly, he needed her to drive him into the city for doctor’s appointments, to the hospital for tests. Her fear level was so high she broke out in hives brought on by inflamed nerves. It was a good lesson for them. He recognized she needed time behind the wheel, and she realized she’d lost her skill by not insisting on taking the car out on her own. Avoiding conflict prevents many women from driving.
I can get in my car and go, whenever and wherever I decide. It is I who chooses the passenger seat when we travel together. I minimize my tension by giving up control. My back seat driving is an obvious – though mostly failed – attempt to stay in charge.
I value my independence. Driving is a huge part of that. I watched my mother reluctantly giving up her place behind the wheel as her vision worsened. On one of our ‘girl’s trips’ she failed to see an oncoming grey car on the grey highway, which almost resulted in a head on. She knew she could no longer take the risk of hurting someone and by relinquishing her license, faced yet another limitation of aging.
In the country my vehicle is my lifeline to food, medical aid, company, adventure, even for a short time, to potable water. Driving is freedom, the way I transport myself to the people and places calling my heart. I will fight as long and hard for that independence as my mother. Keeping my hands on the wheel is a conviction.
As is his habit, my husband walked into the room where I sat reading and said, “Guess what I just saw on TV?” I wait. He waits. Assuming it’s a rhetorical question, I wait for him to tell me. He can’t possibly expect me to guess amongst millions of permutations. He’s waiting for me to ask him. “What?”
We are the salt and pepper of opposites attract. Our communications move from humorous to irritating as we attempt understanding. A bystander, hearing us bicker, pointed out we were both saying the same thing, in different ways. It happens when an ASKER and a TELLER talk and neither one listens.
After many years of being together, and many pleas on my part that he just tell me what he wants me to know, I recognize the situation won’t change. Maybe a psychiatrist could explain how asking serves him best. Is it an act of politeness, a plea for attention, a passive aggressive mechanism?
Likewise, what would an analyst say about my TELLING technique? Does it give me a sense of control, feed my ego, come from my enthusiasm for passing on information? Years ago, my husband flew some clients to Vegas for a business meeting. Just before they took off, he told me he would look for some antique jewellery while he was there. When he returned and handed me a small velvet box, I anticipated a gemstone ring. A cheap pin shone up at me when I lifted the lid. “Everyone’s entitled to my opinion,” it read. It wasn’t meant to be hurtful, just his idea of a joke. But it did express what he thought about my ‘telling personality’, and his expectation of changing me.
Telling is the method I take into a meeting, a family gathering, a social situation. I don’t ask if they want to hear what I have to say, I assume they do. Streamlining my words is something I do instinctively. Because I am task oriented, I focus on getting the job done expeditiously. I don’t waste time circling the point, asking questions or adhering to the niceties. Often this makes me come across as brusque, impolite, even bullying. Hurting someone’s feelings or talking over them isn’t my intention. I’m like a SCUD missile programmed to hit the target. I won’t say the collateral damage is necessary, because nothing excuses leaving casualties in my wake. What time I gained by being direct, I often lose when I apologize. It would be so much better if the injury weren’t inflicted in the first place.
Askers on the other hand see time as limitless. They can stretch a second into a minute without effort. While they wait for someone to respond to what is often an ambiguous question, people go off topic. The conversation lurches from “Guess what I just saw on TV?” to “A shark documentary.” “No, but I saw one last week and guess what they said?” Yikes! Suffocate me now! Other askers might get into the spirit of guessing, but tellers become frustrated – not the best scenario for communication.
I can’t conceive of a time when I won’t find both types of people around me. A retreat organizer who tells (dictates) without asking how I feel about his plans; or a physician who asks me for the answers I expect from her. How do I know if an ultrasound is the next best step?
The key is awareness. If I stay aware, I know when I’m telling and sounding abrupt. I can curb my enthusiasm or impatience and soften my approach. When I’m aware someone uses an asking style, I can prepare polite and practical ways to move them along and keep them on topic. I found saying, with humour, “But we digress,” gets people back on track. Askers awareness come with the cues of tapping fingers, grimaces, someone circling their finger in the air. When they read these tells and limit their questions, they enhance communication.
Understanding why a person is an asker or a teller isn’t important. More imperative is accepting they are, recognizing why communication is going amuck and using awareness to pull the conversation back on safe ground.
I’m from a generation of women who grew up believing their worth was in what they produced. I remember a writer friend saying she felt judged by her family if they came in and found her lying on the couch. “I’m writing in my head,” she explained. But why did she need to justify the appearance of lolling about?
When I did the interviews for Smart Women and my book Chronic Challenge, I noticed a recurring pattern. The women entrepreneurs put everything ahead of their wellbeing. The people with invisible diseases did as well. The only way they could justify taking the down time they needed to re-create and rest was under a physicians order to do so. They literally made themselves sick so they could justify what they considered lolling about.
There is a school of thought that women’s menses is nature’s way of giving them downtime. I haven’t quite bought into the theory, as my parents never allowed me to test it. They expected me to perform at 100 % no matter what ailed me. Suck it up and get the job done was my Dad’s motto.
My lolling about began as lying about when illness made functioning normally impossible. My hospital bed formed my world, and when I returned home, lying about was all I could handle. Nobody expected me to leap up and produce. I got a pass.
Living with a chronic disease, I learned the life-saving skill of listening to my body. Until I mastered letting my inner voice dictate my needs, I pushed past my limits many times and paid for not listening with a major setback. Being productive proved greater motivation than good health. I jumped back on the treadmill and ran until I slid off backward and landed on my butt — that being my payback for not listening.
More frequently, I recognized the damage incurred when I forgot the script lines. I heard the whispered cues reminding me, “back off and rest.” Once I started remembering my lines, I found a balance between meeting my need for productivity against harnessing my energy, so I didn’t run out. Taking an afternoon nap became acceptable — to me. I was the only one judging.
Occasionally, in a low energy period I took a day off, did whatever I wanted. I occupied myself with what felt right in that moment and moved from making a puzzle, to reading, or watching TV, maybe going for a walk. Over time spending a day this way became acceptable, even preferable as I felt the benefit in improved health of body, mind and spirit.
As I am just energy within this mortal form, of course my energy level ebbs and flows depending on how much I put out. A battery used long enough must be re-charged. The sensible thing, then, is topping up my battery before it runs dry. Lolling about is the way I power up.
I am now at the point where I take the day without justifying it is good for my health. I loll about because it gives me pleasure. There is a freedom in enjoying whatever occupation I choose in that moment. I do have one rule when I give myself the gift of a day or a few free hours. If I take it, I must relish it fully. I can’t fall back on feeling guilty, chide myself for being lazy, judge myself as wasting time. Incapacitating illness taught me time is precious. Use it well. Fill it with joy.
My friend called the other day and expressed guilt that she’d given herself the morning off, when a huge project glared in unfinished rancour from her desk. She used the time to nurture herself, but received no enjoyment from doing light housework, taking a walk, having a meal, because her inner judge kept telling her she should be working. “I’m really good at lolling about,” I told her. “It comes with practice and it feels great! I have an advanced degree.” I hope she signs up for an online course.
I’m heading to the city for an MRI. One thing I know I must take with me in large supply is patience — begged, borrowed or stolen as I have little of my own — probably one of the reasons I need an MRI!
Health experts tell us patience increases our chances of a long and healthy life, by minimalizing stressors, limiting anxiety, and reducing the harmful chemicals we inject into our bloodstream with the flight and fight response.
Research shows people, born with patience, or who have developed it over time suffer less depression and negative emotions, are more successful in their work, better able to develop a skill set, make more rational choices and experience better mental and physical health with a ‘wait not worry’ attitude.
Studies all show patient people are kinder, remaining calm instead of reacting. They exude a sense of peace that attracts others. This is certainly a state one would wish for oneself.
I don’t know why I lack patience but can certainly recognize when I lose mine. I emote, adrenaline rushes into my bloodstream, bringing a large supply of cortisol with it. My mind is in turmoil, my heartrate accelerates, I get flushed and overheated. I’m the first one to ask, “What’s the holdup?” in traffic; or suggest, “Maybe you can call another clerk and open a second line.” I’m the one who taps her toe when the plane is delayed, or sighs when the person ahead of them takes too long in a buffet line. As you can tell, my patient threshold is so low you can’t even trip on it. How high is yours?
Much of my impatience is self directed. I wonder if you are equally setting yourself up for failure with false expectations. “Why isn’t that person getting back to me, I emailed ten minutes ago?” “When will my children visit?” “Will life ever grant me the success I deserve?”
Recognizing I’m short of patience isn’t enough. I work at patching small pieces of patience over the aggravating moments in my life. I use conscious breathing, taking long, slow breathes when I feel that first adrenaline spike. I practice coping techniques such as focusing on the NOW and by so doing removing the past or future reason causing my impatience. I make peace with the words accept, submit — seeing them now as a good thing not a weakness. By adopting an “It is what it is” attitude, I come from a strong position — a position that eases me through any trial.
Experience taught me the great lesson of distraction. You can bet I’ll take my e-reader into the Imaging centre. However, the opposite – awareness – is probably the best curtailer of impatience. Being fully present stills my tapping fingers on the steering wheel, stifles the deep sigh when someone goes off topic at a meeting. I sense my impatience rising and search through my collection of patches for the most effective coping strategy.
Patience, it is said, is also a way we practice faith. For what is faith but waiting? When I gather the sturdy pieces of my learned patience into a compact pile and applique one of them to an exasperating situation, I see and feel immediate good results. I have manifested my best self – and benefit from the calm and power that brings.
Hopefully, one day I won’t need a patch because all the holes are covered. My patient waiting has paid off.