Falling Silent

The curtain seemed to be in a corner, above a rumpled, unmade bed, in a seedy motel room. From the quality of light streaming through it, and from the brisk smell of salt, I sensed an ocean just beyond the veil. That's what I kept seeing: a diaphanous, translucent, faded curtain gently wafting in an ocean breeze.

This image came to me again and again, in sleep and in daydreams, any time I had a moment to myself. At 44 my life was full. Parenthood, with its imperative to care about someone else more than myself, had overturned my midlife crisis. I loved being a father. But part of me was still restless, straining against a leash, wanting to escape and run away to... where? That seedy seaside motel room spoke to me of simplicity, a sweeping away of clutter, of emptiness - a good kind of emptiness: an empty pocket free of keys and coins and responsibility, a cup drained and cleaned and ready to receive the next draught.

The image gradually became so real that I began to look for it on a map. Where was this motel room? How could I get to it?

For my birthday I made a bold request. I asked my wife to let me disappear for a few days, no questions asked. I called it a "retreat" and said I wanted it more than any material possession I could think of. In return, I would give her the same gift. Somewhat to my surprise, she willingly agreed.

The rule was that there be no plans, no advance reservations. Not only would I tell no one where I was going, I myself would have no idea. I would simply start driving. I would leave on a Friday morning and come back by Sunday evening. What happened in between would be anyone's guess.

When I got behind the wheel my first decision was north, east, or south? I was looking for an ocean, so there was no point heading east. I briefly considered north - pine forests, rocky coasts. But no: the sunlight coming through that diaphanous curtain had an almost tropical feel. I headed to the coast and turned south.

When I got to Big Sur I knew I was on the right track. I had forgotten how spectacular that drive is, how vast, how mystical. This was the feeling I had been missing for so long: awe. Now it enveloped me. I swooped around the curves of Highway 1 like a seabird, gasping at each new vista, losing myself in the crashing surf. How sweet it was not to have any thing I had to do, any place I needed to be!

The motel room I found, over a little general store and gas station perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean, was not the room of my dreams, but was close enough. I basked in the silence and the absence of luggage: I had brought little more than a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and a few books. I fell asleep feeling that I was finally close to something important.

The next morning was one of the best mornings of my life. I awoke to blue skies, a fresh sea breeze, and a feeling of absolute freedom. There was nothing I "had" to do, no chores, no appointments, no schedules, not even any decisions to make. My road was already laid out before me - I had merely to get in the car, open my pores, and fly.

After a very pleasant drive along the cliffs, I paused for brunch at the Ragged Point Inn. At the next table was a chattering family of tourists, a mother and three kids. I was silent and serene in comparison. A little further away I spotted another silent and serene diner, an older woman alone at her table with a book. We exchanged a knowing glance, companions in our shared silence, both of us perfectly content to be part of the background. I could have struck up a conversation with her, or with the mother and her kids, or even with the swooping gulls, but at that moment I thought: "what is there to say, really?"

I reflected, then, on the silence of my father in his later years. He was a great listener and often positioned himself in the corner of a room of talkers, only occasionally interjecting a question or comment at an inflection point in the conversation, nudging a change of topic without drawing any attention to himself. This accomplished, he would sit back and listen some more.

Often the room would be discussing something my father knew more about than anyone else present. Yet he made no attempt to dominate the conversation, or even correct misstatements except perhaps to ask an innocent-sounding question. I sometimes found this frustrating and wondered why he was so fond of silence.

That morning, sitting there at my table on Ragged Point, I too became fond of silence. I tried it on and it felt good. "What is there to say, really?" - I asked myself that question sincerely, without a trace of despair or resignation or frustration. If you no longer have anything to prove, if you have already said all the things you felt impelled to say in your youth, if you recognize how oblivious the gulls are to your latest opinions, if the ignorant cannot understand and the wise already know, what is there to say, really? The sun is magnificent, profound, and all-illuminating yet moves soundlessly across the sky.

Later that day, wandering aimlessly through a bookstore in Cambria, I suddenly felt like a stone thrown skyward, weightless at the top of its parabola. From that moment on I began to sink, to watch the clock and wonder about turning around. At dinner that night in San Luis Obispo I became lonely, a feeling I had not known in years. I was a traveller again, disconnected from the people and places around me. I had been so completely connected - to my family, my work, my daily routine - that the boundaries between me and my world had grown faint. But now, for this brief time, the boundary was sharp again, a not entirely pleasant sensation. By the next morning I wanted nothing more than to return to my wife and daughter by the shortest path.

In the five years that have unfolded since my weekend retreat, the dream of the diaphanous curtain has not returned. I have grown more silent than I was, ever more like my father. I am content now to be part of the background, and am grateful to be connected to my family, even if the boundaries between me and the world grow faint. There may come another season when the world seems new again and I start chattering like a monkey, but for now I try to move soundlessly across each familiar day.

Readers of my essays "36" and "Mid-Life Crisis" have asked me how you get past the moment of crisis or, more simply, "What comes next?" The short answer is that like a child tugging at your sleeve, life sooner or later insists that you get back in the game. In my case I became a father and was soon too busy for a midlife crisis.

But looking back I see that I needed that weekend retreat to finally quiet the last remaining rumblings of my crisis. I needed to step fully outside the cage of my obligations, experience freedom, silence, weightlessness, detachment, and loneliness, and then return, gratefully, not to a cage, but to my home.