Thinking about our Great Wide World
BEING NEEDS NOTHINGNESS
Thank god, everybody’s writing about it. In today’s NYT articles on “Groupthink” and Doug Wheeler’s Light And Space movement. Or reports of the recent takedown of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. I’m sure you heard: 89 minutes into a 90-minute musical journey, the New York Philharmonic is quieting into its final adagio and a cell phone starts. And doesn’t stop. So the orchestra has to. Yes, the conductor has the players pick up where they left off. But does that mean the concert-goers can simply “pick up where they left off?” No. We all know the answer is no.
Because it’s a spell, people. Mahler’s casting a spell. Over us. In this concert hall. And, increasingly–sadly!–we just don’t seem to value such experiences anymore.
How is it that there has to be a Quiet Floor in my local university library? It’s a library, for god’s sake. And how is it that I have to be the crazed Harpy asking pods of phone-talkers or student-chatter-ers who have chosen to work on the–wait for it!–Quiet Floor–to find somewhere else to talk? Yes, for just two sentences. Yes!
Because it’s a spell, people. And spells are fragile. They are unbelievably powerful. In a single measure, a stepping through a door, they transport us completely. They are the wormholes through which all creativity flows. And yet they pop at the first pinprick.
In the arts, quiet moments are intended. They hold space open for us. They’re not to be filled. Or, rather, they most certainly are to be filled. But not superficially. Not reflexively, with pulp, trivia. With our monkey-mind nonsense. Rather, they make room for “it.”
That’s exactly how creatives describe inspiration. “It comes” to them. So important, that phrasing. “It” comes. Never “I.” An idea isn’t me. A vision visits. A design emerges. It is Other, at least that’s how it feels. It comes from beyond, transcendent by nature. We could be talking about Wozniak or Picasso or an Ah-Ha we have at the end of the day between bathing the four-year-old and rocking the two-year-old.
“It comes” because it is invited. Because space is made for it. We say, “it speaks,” but the fact is, it may be speaking 24/7. This is what the mystics say. It is speaking, but we aren’t quiet enough to hear. You know the metaphors: We need quiet, not simply as a void but as an active medium through which we are tuned, like radio, to the frequencies of ideas and insights. We must walk into a clearing, give our eyes a moment to adjust to the light, in order to see that which we have been looking for, that which has, so often, been right in front of us all along.
When was the last time you went to a movie, even a fine art movie, and not had to listen to the couple two rows down chatting through the movie as if they were in their living room? “We’re whispering!” they hiss when you beg them to stop. “You can’t hear us!” Well, let’s see: if I’m asking for quiet, I guess I can. But more important, much more important, you, my fellow movie-goer who’ve paid a pretty hefty price to sit in the dark and watch, say, “Melancholia,” you’ve missed the point of seeing the movie not in your living room. You’ve paid hard-earned money–as have I–for the privilege of entering a bigger-than-most-living-rooms, empty vault of space, to have the lights go down and then to be bathed in a volume of blackness and flickering image-after-image and surround-sound so that you can surrender to an experience carefully crafted for you of music and silence, of jolt and quiet, a rhythm of fullness and emptiness that is meant to transport you to somewhere else. To the world of the movie, not that of a whispering neighbor.
Here’s my prayer: may we notice how difficult it’s become for us–you and I–to tolerate emptiness. May we change up something in our lives to help us remember how good emptiness can feel. May we choose to sit unwired. May we practice breathing through the fermata rest, through the pianissimo passage, through the turn in the film when the heroine collapses wordless on a park bench. May we breathe, waiting for something to speak to us, for wisdom from beyond. May we honor such moments with each other in public places. May we prepare but postpone discussion. May we notice, as we go, not just bright-noisy things, but that which surrounds. The nothing that defines something, all things. May we invite and protect the spell.