Wednesday, May 27, 2009

R Is for Retreat, Part Two

This is the second of three posts about my chaperoning experience at a youth retreat this weekend. The first was about static; the second is about silence.

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There have been a handful of times when the youth of my church have shushed me. The most memorable was while my wife was being ordained as a deacon; I tried to change the setting on my digital camera from its loud shutter-like sound to silence, but as it turns out, there is no silent option, only a catalog of options including a voice shouting "All right!" It also turns out that the camera offers a sample of each option as you click through it; my camera shouted "All right!" about seven times in response to my increasing panic, before an exasperated high schooler grabbed it from my hands and shut it up.

The most recent time when the youth of my church confronted my noisiness was during this past weekend's night hike. We walked into the pitch black at around 10:30pm, assured by our guides that there were no wild animals out to get us, and that in fact the largest wild animals in the area were a flock of wild turkeys. This reassurance caused me to giggle and make repeated jokes about zombie turkeys gobbling menacingly in our ears, and ultimately offered the group a flock of its post-trip catch-phrases: "Gobblicious," "Viva la gobble" and other variants. But I digress.

We were invited by our guides to keep silence as we walked. I held up the rear of the train of sixteen people trudging through the wet grass and mud, tripping along uneven paths and stumbling over loose gravel. That size group, in those circumstances, will not shut up: this I know for sure. The further into the woods we got, the more surreptitious hand-holding I and the other adults observed, the more suppressed shrieks and cocky claims of assistance shouted back and forth, the more funny the whole thing became to me. Two of these kids, I would estimate, are temperamentally predisposed to go forty-five minutes in the dark without talking. The rest were unreservedly loud. And yet, by the end of the trip, they blamed me and the youth director for making all the noise. Some of them even said that the night hike was the best part of the trip, but would have been better if he and I had kept our yappers shut.

I will admit that I can get a bit chatty, and in situations I find humorous I can find it particularly difficult to stop making jokes. I just think the whole thing was doomed to failure from the beginning. Too many people; too wired from a day of stealing flags from one another, listening to poignant power-pop songs, and climbing ropes far above the surface of the earth; too clustered together along a path that was too narrow for the group's size and too unkept for a hike in the dark: all these factors conspired to make a loud night hike a foregone conclusion.

That doesn't matter, in my opinion, because the forest was loud enough on its own. I had observed that by myself already, in the early morning hours before breakfast. The hike guide rightly observed that much of our experience is attended to by manufactured sounds--my carful of high schoolers' trip-long search for static provided ample evidence of that cultural fact. We have become accustomed to ambient noise, so much so that silence is uncomfortable, a problem we subconsciously or even consciously set out to solve. But once we embrace a period of silence, once we start to consider that maybe it's not so much a problem as it is an opportunity, our ears adjust and we begin to hear the ambient noise that the world beyond us is already making.

I discovered before breakfast on the first day that the camp is--or at least seems--louder than my homelife, when the TV and the iPod are off and the dishwasher or clothes dryer aren't running and the phone isn't ringing. Sitting by myself at camp I heard the sonic backdrop of birds in the air, bugs in my ear, a donkey in the distance, probably the occasional "Gobble gobble" of any number of turkeys. The hills were alive, it seemed, with the sound of living, breathing things.

The camp seemed louder than home at least in part because I didn't control the volume: I couldn't turn it off or on, up or down. I was subject to the camp's ambience, possessed by it. There's no great profundity buried in that observation, other than perhaps that I'm not alone in the universe, nor am I the center of it. That donkey wasn't braying to get my attention; those turkeys weren't gobbling to find out how I was doing. They were living their lives, making their way through their existence, sounding out quite naturally in conversation with their immediate environments. Quite honestly, none of the noisemakers who called the camp home ever seemed to shut up.

One of the values put forth in taking a silent night hike is that you'll hear the sounds of the woods and come to appreciate them differently. In other words, you walk in faith that while you will yourself to shut up, the woods will not respond in kind. It may be one of the uniquenesses of being human that we can choose--not out of survival instinct or general exhaustion but as a matter of will--to keep silence. And maybe that discipline of practicing our humanness, of keeping silent from time to time just because we can, is itself worth the effort.

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