“In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive resolves itself into crystal clearness.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
One of the things I find myself pondering daily is how life with my three boys seems to be one continuous boundary against ‘treats,’ screens and rushing from one place to the next. Sugar has infiltrated every crevice of American life such that now we consume on average 130 pounds of sugar each year, or about 3,550 pounds of sugar in the average lifetime (in case you are wondering, that’s enough to fill an industrial sized dumpster). And kids generally eat more than adults – averaging 32 teaspoons of sugar a day (which happens to be three times the amount recommended by the American Heart Association). Don’t get me wrong – I do love sugar myself, even though I try to limit how much I consume. But in spite of my best efforts, sugar seems to be everywhere – and at kid eye level to boot.
The same goes for screens. As with sugar, I’ve decidedly aimed to set limits and hold boundaries. On average my boys watch less than an hour a week and yet they go through periods where they whine for it daily. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids under age 6 watch an average of about 2 hours of screen media a day, and kids and teens 8 to 18 years spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a TV screen and almost 2 additional hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games. Even when trying to avoid conforming to these statistics, the screens can infiltrate the back drop of daily life, just like the sugar. At dinner out last week we counted six viewable screens. And there they were again at the coffee shop, and there they were again in the waiting room at the car wash. (The car wash waiting room also boasted Oreo cookies, candy cars and a wide variety of colorful gum drops in plastic bags). The opportunities for participation in screens and sugar are endless. Eat a little here, watch a little there. When I confront this daily reality coupled with the constant transition to and from school, often with the rush to get there on time and avoid a “tardy,” I want to crawl in a hole.
How did the dominant culture in America get to this place? A recent week of spring break at home with the kids reminded me of the slower rhythm possible in our mornings when we aren’t bound by the clock or getting in a car. Time could slow down a bit, more mindfulness prevailed over meal times and food choices. In general, there was a bit more silence. I liked it. Immensely.
Jean Arp says, “Soon silence will have passed into legend. We’ve turned our backs on silence. Day after day humans invent machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation… tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster the ego. Anxiety subsides. The inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.”
It is this gray vegetation that I’m trying to reckon with as I raise my children. Its the gray vegetation of too many treats and the glorification of screens. Its the gray vegetation of the cars in traffic on 28th street as I switch lanes in order to get Rowan to his 1st grade door at 8:20am sharp. Its the gray vegetation of a life with too few pauses and too much stimuli of all kinds. All of the sudden the experience of life can become the blur of scenery flying by on a road that looks the same everywhere you go because you aren’t close enough – or slow enough- to notice subtlety, or the quiet, simple beauty of the lone flower peeking out in spring under snow.
The absence of silence feels intimately connected to the influx of sugar and screens. The rushing, the noise of city life, the extreme sweet foods and the screens everywhere you go combine to form a cocktail of madness that swirls like a hum underneath it all. I choose to live in this swirl with as much slowness as possible, even while making a practice of setting boundaries. I say “there is no rush” over and over again to remind myself, and my boys, that we don’t have to live like a dog on a leash being flung around by an unknown owner (even though I am indeed worried about being late and daily wishing for a more flexible system). When I’m with my children the phone goes on airplane mode. In the car, the radio is always off. I practice taking deep breaths while driving and make a point to notice the details of the trees along the road. We play ‘I spy’ as a way to connect to our surroundings, even when in transit.
Perhaps the pining for more silence and stillness was what prompted my husband and I to begin sitting with the Quakers this past year. Those hours spent in absolute silence are often the most restorative and grounding in a week. Young children are welcome to join for the first 15 minutes of silence, and even though mine have yet to top 8 minutes, I know that this gesture of inviting them into a world of stillness is a rare gift. So I focus on what gifts I can give as a parent – the gift of quality time, full, engaged presence, silence as the backdrop as often as possible, and the freedom of no agenda most afternoons after school and work.
Prioritizing simplicity and silence feels like the antidote to a culture gone nuts. I am constantly tracking how I can integrate more time outside, more time getting lost in the small details of nature, more art and movement, more quality time with friends and less running around on the fly with granola bars gobbled in the back seat. I am doing more contemplating before saying YES to anything – and trying to be more mindful of how the grams of sugar pile up. Perhaps most importantly, I’m trying to remember that I do have agency in how I live my life and how I raise my children. Even though I feel pulled into a very fast stream, I can still swim like a turtle – carrying a home where there is always the possibility of finding stillness and silence in a world full of noise.
*Note to readers: It has been awhile since I’ve posted – but the things I want to write on swim in my mind every day. This past year I’ve focused my bits of spare time into writing a book based on the themes of this blog. I’m now focusing my still scant spare time on finding a publisher for said book. (!) Thank you for bearing with the silence and the long stretches! – Deborah