I hate quiet moments.
This isn’t a problem for me in my every day life- silence, that is–because it’s so rare that I am surrounded by the deafening quiet anyway. With a busy career, a husband that works 60 hours a week, an energetic toddler and our two equally as rambunctious dogs, my house is rarely still enough. Yet even at night when the world is finally restful, I plug headphones into my mobile and listen to a book on tape or, let’s be honest, a rerun of Law and Order.
Car trips are not immune to my silence aversion; I switch between Top 40, Country and lately, our local public radio stations–while also holding a conversation with my daughter.
The root cause of my aversion is not founded in some sort of distaste for peace and quiet. Instead, I believe it derives from an extreme desire NOT to be left alone with my thoughts. Because, when left alone with my thoughts, my mind wanders freely and I lose sight of present goals. Of course, this is all a control issue: I find order in the chaos that keeps my brain on track.
Which is precisely where I found myself while sneaking in an errand between work calls. You see, despite loving my silent-free universe, I have concerns about how it is affecting my daughter. Am I really present in her life if I rely on constant noise? And, despite my best efforts, have I allowed this technology that transmits hundreds of thousands of calculated images of perfection and strength to influence me?
I’d like to think the image that I’m putting out in that technological world is one of haphazard happiness. I’m not crafting it consciously, in fact, I’m trying to do the opposite: I am uncomfortable with the idea of perfection and even more so of those who try to replicate and enforce it as status quo.
‘Or am I?’
While listening to the public radio station on my way between one big box store and to another, I overheard an interview between the host of the show and author, Ann Patchett. When asked what gave her such ambition in life, Ms. Patchett took a moment to respond and then said (and I’m paraphrasing here), that she grew up attending Catholic schools wherein she was surrounded by nuns. They were, she noted, the first examples of career women she had ever encountered; all had given up the idea of a ‘traditional’ family, to focus solely on their career-a religious vocation that also brought them into the schools.
Ms. Patchett’s response was a simple and sweet anecdote, but it absolutely blew me away. Never in my eight years of Catholic school education had I taken a moment to view the nuns that taught me as ‘career women,’ despite the fact that I would have easily and quickly labeled priests as individuals who had given up family in the pursuit of a career. In fact, I had taken these women in my life entirely for granted. Even worse, my sister in law is a nun. She holds Masters degrees and speaks multiple languages, she lives abroad and works with children; her entire life is dedicated to the service of others and I had totally, unconsciously and completely ruled her out.
The revelation was akin to holding a mirror up to my heart and not being very satisfied with what I saw inside.
You see, I realized that in my boisterous, technology driven world, even in my haphazard happiness, I am guilty of creating and selling a false image of strong and capable-of the perfect woman– if only to myself.
And it is a very, very limited profile.
How many conversations have I had with close friends and even strangers with whom I have unequivocally stated that a singular definition of perfection is boring, impossible, and is actually quite snobbish?
How long have I been fighting a relentless war against the media’s (society’s?) unyielding definition of ‘strong and capable,’ of perfect woman, or perfect parent?
And how many times have I gone home at the end of the day and said to myself, ‘you know all those times you have counseled against trying to fit into a mold, have encouraged your friends and even strangers to take a deep breath and just be who they are in all their uniqueness? Remember all those times you reminded them that they are wonderful and that they should never be afraid to ask for help?’
Well, that advice, that profile, doesn’t apply to you.
Instead I told myself:
YOU must have a full time career, but you must also work from home. You must spend 100% of your day picking sunflowers in meadows with your daughter and painting pictures, and building clay models and the television should never, ever be on. You should spend 100% of your day also working because you want to be a positive role model for your daughter and as woman in society. You should also be available at any point-day or night-to handle a work emergency. You should host a perfect dinner and it should probably all be organic (but you shouldn’t brag about that because that’s just obnoxious).
You should never ask your husband (despite his willingness) to do anything around the house because only naggy women do that and you are, above all, not a nag.
You should be funny and entertaining at all times. You should never, ever neglect a friend in need, even if there are crazy work requirements or your kid is crying because in perfect world every minute is planned out and there are 36 hours in a day.
You should never be vain or insecure, but at the same time, you should be effortlessly beautiful. If you’re having a terrible, awful day, you should not feel sorry for yourself, you should, instead laugh because life is short and precious and some day you will look back at those moments when you were upset and see them as wasted.
You should always be steps ahead of everyone; you should always have a witty response in your back pocket.
You should never, ever ask for help.
You should fight against the stereotype of woman and the misogyny in the world, and then you should go home and expect things of yourself that would be outrageous (and anachronistically hilarious) if demanded by another.
Anything short of that, and you’re a failure. And kid, you better not fail.
Day after day of celebrating all the beautiful, glorious uniqueness of your friends and strangers, you go home, plug into the machine and feed yourself all those narrow-minded images of strong and mold yourself to fit.
The worst part? No one is asking you to be this way, except yourself.
It was the moment when I heard of the nuns that I realized how empty my celebrations had become, how much I was demanding of myself, and how much louder I had turned the volume up not to revel in the beauty of life, but to drown it out.
Much like I used to as a child, my daughter struggles to fall asleep without a distraction. Despite my overwhelming love for her, her lack of a daily nap and nightly fights to stay awake leave me frustrated and concerned about her health. This afternoon, as work emails rolled, a cursor blinked incessantly on a blank word document and my daughter wailed her routine incessant protests against sleep, I lay my head down on my desk.
Amidst the cacophony I prayed for the silence to hear my thoughts.
And I saw the nuns.
I walked into my daughter’s bedroom and lay down with her. This time, I didn’t bring my phone, didn’t look at my watch, and didn’t nervously move about. We snuggled up under covers. Ten minutes later, she was fast asleep, her rhythmic breathing the only sound twinkling in the air.
I didn’t move for an hour, but instead stayed wrapped in the quiet that surrounded us and listened to the wisdom I’d silenced for so long.