from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 12 January 2014

the other face of music

... is silence. But not the 'other side of the coin' – more like 'both this and this,' not 'either music or silence'. Music and silence are in some ways the same thing.

I say this because great music also brings with it a great silence, a stillness, that fills up all that you are so that that most stealthy and insidious stealer-of-silence, your own eternal internal chatterer, gives way to a vastness that contains little of the thinking I, and few of the distractions that so often pass for thought – there is simply no space for them. When I listen to great music I slip the bounds of my separate self, boundaries and thoughts dissolve, and music and silence become the same vast 'everything' with which I, momentarily, merge.

The sound of the sea is another great silence, for me, as is walking by the stream in the many voices of the birds, or along the high top lane in a wild wind with the tossed trees and the distant view of the moor. Our encounter with dramatic landscapes is an entry into silence, too – whether or not they are composed of actual absence of sound – which must almost never occur in nature.

There's a quality of silence to my encounter with the bay pony along the lane, where we stand nose to nose and maybe just nudge each other, blow into each other's nostrils, a little, for long moments; or when I massage the dog's stiff and painful back.

There's tranquil silence when TM and I sit side-by-side in front of the crackling fire with the wind outside, the tawny owl who's recently come to the hazel bush hooting gently just a yard or two from the garden door, and our separate books.

Meditation, of course, is an inviting-in of the great silence – harder in some ways than walking out into it.

So it's not about an absence of noise or of doing; rather about a quality of sound and a quality of being that permits a sense of oneness.

And there is something in silence that encourages slowness; a blissful counterpoint to our rushed lives.

Yesterday, in beautiful sun after so much torrential rain, we went to the sea – I have longed to be there again: I was too ill over Christmas to get to the shore, the first time in many many Christmases that I've missed it. The sea washes something out of me: an accumulation, an overfullness, an acceleration, an over-saturation with all the demands of being human, and my own addiction to engagement with the human world – and fills me with a vastness that has no name, no defining features except a huge sense of wellbeing, and no limits.

After all the storms, the deep-sea kelp was piled metres thick and a metre deep on the tideline, and we gathered 18 sacks of glorious rich free seaweed for the garden. Today, just before the rain came in again, I spread it on the soft-fruit bed, the flower-and-herb bed, the bases of the new damson, plum and greengage trees, and then where I was about to plant the garlic. (If anyone knows of any reason why I shouldn't be top-dressing any of those plants with seaweed – please DON'T tell me – until next year!)

To the accompaniment of the magpies, jays, jackdaws, gulls, a robin, a thrush and a buzzard – the silence of the garden – as I plunged fingers into the cold soil for the garlic (too wet to plant at my habitual winter-solstice date) I realised again that this, these moments without thought but just being, in tune with greater forces, these days is what unadulterated happiness means for me.

When did my love affair with silence (and with the solitude and stillness that so often accompanies it) begin? I'm a talker; I love people; love engagement; love communication; love ideas (make my living, such as it is, from these things) – and cannot thrive without hefty doses of silence: something I've denied myself much of my life, acting as I have like an extravert.

Of course it also happens as people get older. The mediaeval model of the woman past childbearing age entering a convent is not as outmoded or outrageous as some people think. We do move towards an inwardness later in life, if we let ourselves – it balances out all that compulsive doing of the first half of life, and there is a certain relief in slipping off some of the risk-taking, adventurousness and restlessness that has characterised much of my life.

I've learned to listen: to this planet turning in space, to the growth in the soil, to the woodmouse creeping through the grasses, to the individual bluetits' songs to each other, to the snowdrop spikes poking through the wintry grasses.

'In our noise-obsessed culture' says Sara Maitland in her A Book of Silence, 'it is very easy to forget just how many of the major physical forces on which we depend are silent – gravity, electricity, light, tides, the unseen and unheard spinning of the whole cosmos. The earth spins, it spins fast. It spins about its own axis at about 1,700 kilometres per hour (at the Equator); it orbits the sun at 107,218 kilometres per hour. And the whole solar system spins through the spinning galaxy at speeds I hardly dare to think about. The earth's atmosphere spins with it, which is why we do not feel it spinning. It all happens silently.'

Now, I slip on silence as I might a silk gown, a night-sky gown spangled with stars. When I do this, I'm invisible and inaudible, even to myself. What a relief.


  1. From Miriam:
    I'm almost afraid to respond lest it create unwanted noise! But thank you for such a meaningful, beautifully expressed post. Some synchronicity, too, as I've just finished reading Sarah Maitland's Guardian Article (Saturday Review, 11.1.14) about living alone and the deplorable judgement it seems to prompt. Have meant to read her Book of Silence and mean to borrow it from my Quaker friend who – like us – meditates, loves music, walking, gardening and silence, aloneness and company etc etc. I wonder if you remember my Iona poem about the striking of the bowl? The sounding of silence I think I called it. For many years I've been aware of the wonderful silence after great music – the rightness of it, the fullness of it – but that fading sound of the struck bowl became revelatory. Never had I heard it quite like that. So, Roselle, all – as usual – close to my heart.
    And I do love that image of your silence being 'the night-sky gown spangled with stars.'!
    Love, M from at-last-sunny Worcestershire and the sound of birds.

  2. Hello Miriam - and thank you (again!). I'm just beginning Maitland's book - been meaning to read it for years - and love it.

    It takes me days to finish up the Saturday Guardian, and the last part I read is the Review which, synchronously, I'd brought upstairs just now before coming to the computer - but as yet unopened. What a treat to know that she's written in that. (I also found Sally Magnusson's wonderful article about her mum's dementia very moving - so reminiscent of my mum's way of being not long ago, though she was never hostile or blank, thankfully [understatement]. Been thinking about that in relation to therapeutic writing, on which I've had an article commissioned by a writing mag - long time since I wrote articles for that journal.)

    Yes - I remember that poem. The singing bowl has added so much to the courses - that was courtesy of Beatrice!

    With love


  3. Thanks Roselle – and yes, I too seem to take ages to read the Guardian and haven't yet read Sally Magnusson's about her Mum. Shall do. I'm relieved my Mum had no dementia and she died mercifully swiftly from cancer. I know people with parents like yours and can imagine how painful it is.
    Is the article for Mslexia? If so, about time! I loved your column and stopped getting it shortly after they stopped it. Crazy of them.
    Love, Miriam.

  4. You're a star, Miriam - and yes, it is! Thank you!


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