Perhaps the most terrifying thing I can imagine is being alone — really, truly alone, in the dark, in silence. Despite my wish to be a different person, to be serene and calm and courageous and self-actualized, I check my email constantly — not once every ten minutes constantly, but once every minute constantly. I often feel like a hamster on a wheel in the quality of my attention, running running running, getting nowhere fast. I yearn for meaning and purpose, and I look for these outside myself — in the emails that hit my inbox with a satisfying sound cue; in the red numbered notation at the upper right corner of Facebook that alerts me to an e-human moment I can distract myself with; in the articles reporting news or entertainment updates that consume me for three or five or twenty minutes; in the flagged iPhone Twitter app that notifies me there’s a Tweet that I can fiddle with and pass along to distract other lonely, unanchored people.
There’s a Zen proverb: “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” The first time I read this I laughed a little bit, but it was with some pain. I go through long periods when I meditate regularly, and then I stop, not returning to it for months. I go through periods when I do yoga (meditation through movement) daily, and then I get out of the habit. I journal devotedly every morning and work on my writing in the evenings, until I take on so much work that I can’t possibly make time for that spiritual practice and still meet the tight deadlines for my growing list of projects, and I don’t write a word for weeks.
Since my friend Pete first introduced me to meditation when I was about 21, I’ve read books about mindfulness, meditated with others in periodic classes and workshops, listened to guided meditations at home, alone, sitting cross-legged on a bolster, hands open on my knees, returning again and again to my breath. It’s at my lowest, most broken periods that I come back to this practice, when I feel so hopeless and helpless that I recognize no distraction can save me, that my only anchor is my own, lonely, scared, insecure, uncertain breath. It’s then that I meditate with tears streaming down my cheeks, my breath halting and catching, my posture not regally straight-backed, but my shoulders hunched around my wounded heart, crumpled wads of kleenex at my side.
But I never want to do it. I don’t want to sit with my breath, in silence, with the discipline to not allow myself to be distracted. I don’t want to feel what I feel. I don’t want to be present. I want to escape myself, my fears, my insecurities, my constant struggle with faith. I don’t want to pay attention to what arises, to honestly label those thoughts “judgment,” “resentment,” “jealousy,” “anger.” I want to ignore them and push them away, to distract myself by playing the surface personality role that is vastly more comfortable and prettier and nicer and more acceptable — to me and to everyone else — the Tavia that is “kind,” “intelligent,” “responsible,” not the Tavia that is worried, lonely, anxious, insecure, full of heartache, indecision, fear.
What would happen if I didn’t have a choice? What if I couldn’t distract myself with my phone, with Netflix and Hulu, with surfing the internet — looking for something, anything to ground me with the connection and intimacy I crave and feel is so often out my reach? Where would I go if I had nowhere to hide?
Rebecca Alexander has nowhere to hide. Born with Usher syndrome type III, Rebecca has been slowly losing her vision and her hearing, bit by bit, for 35 years. While I habitually resist even surface-level darkness and silence, the seemingly terrifying stillness of sitting, breathing, with my eyes closed, Rebecca lives her life with encroaching darkness and silence that she cannot escape. And she has made friends with the silence, with the dark. She’s had to — or she would live in misery. Instead of being defeated by this devastating condition, she has accepted it, and allowed herself to grow and thrive, not in spite of it, but because of it. She has surrendered to the silence and darkness and used it to make friends with herself.
Rebecca is a beautiful young woman with a great smile and a firm handshake. She moves with purpose and confidence through the world, and she lives a very full life. She’s a spinning teacher, a psychotherapist, and a writer. She lives alone and has a counseling practice in New York, and she navigates this hard-edged asphalt city independently, even with diminished vision and compromised hearing. She dates, she goes to parties, she dances, she lives.
When I met her for lunch a few weeks ago, I was struck by how radiant Rebecca is, how self-assured and direct. Here’s a woman who lives in a state of being that I run from, and she’s at peace. She is no saccharine Pollyanna perfect angel; she’d tell you that herself. She swears a lot and she’s made decisions that have hurt the people she loves most and she’s struggled with things a lot of us have — eating disorders and deep insecurity and self-doubt and drinking too much and dating the wrong people or too many people. But what is amazing to me is how at home she is with herself.
Rebecca understands the fear and rage and sadness I think might consume me, were I in her shoes. “There have been, of course, times when I’ve been as furious and frustrated and heartbroken as you can imagine I would be,” she writes in her memoir, NOT FADE AWAY: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found. “I have been through times of profound sadness for the losses I have experienced, and for those yet to come.” She knows grief. She’s not denying that her condition is terrible and unfair. But because Rebecca is an optimist, because she is unwilling to surrender to the grief, to let it consume her and dictate her future, she has found that there are gifts in the quiet dark.
“Silence seems to scare a lot of people: We live in a world that never seems to slow down or shut up,” she says, “with a mind-boggling amount of entertainment and information right at our fingertips, and, if you stop to notice it, we are rarely in total quiet. Many of us have devices that create sound to drown out unwanted noise — noise to block noise. Perhaps silence should scare me, but it doesn’t. Or maybe I’ve just accepted it and can truly appreciate its value….What does it mean when there is nothing to listen to, when there is nothing to distract yourself with? When there is nothing but you and silence?”
Rebecca has so embraced the unasked for and unexpected offerings of Usher syndrome type III that she says she devoutly practices a “religion of Silence.” “I am truly able to be with myself wherever I am,” she says, “and without distraction, I can…simply luxuriate in my silence.”
Being invited to narrate Rebecca’s memoir for Tantor was a gift to me. In this still-new life in New York, I continue to wrestle with all the things that have always scared me, no matter where I’ve been — Idaho; Seattle; Vermont; Portland, Maine. I carry myself with me wherever I go, and the parts of myself I want to escape are always right there, at the ready. I have wavered in and out of a meditation practice, a writing practice, a yoga practice in the 15 months I’ve been here. But on the page and in person, Rebecca invited me to consider, again, ever more deeply, what I might find if I don’t panic and run away from myself, but sit with myself.
Tuesday night was my first rehearsal with The Choral Society, the choir in residence at Grace Church in Manhattan. After a bout of intense loneliness over the last many weeks, there I was, in a beautiful old church, singing Haydn’s Heiligmesse with 149 other voices. I could feel the vibration of all those voices in my chest and feet. It was a hot, muggy evening, so the doors to the practice room and the doors leading outside were open, and I could feel the cool breeze on my skin. Two large bouquets of flowers decorated tables in the entryway, and the sweet scent of lilies perfumed the air. I’d been struggling with sadness all day, feeling the distance from my family in the west and my beloveds in Maine, but I found during rehearsal that if I stayed present in my body, if I allowed myself to notice and really feel the sensations, my experience changed. The sadness didn’t magically go away, but it didn’t consume me, either. Rather, it became only a part of my experience, one of a host of things that made up each moment. And I realized that if and when Rebecca loses the rest of her vision and her hearing, she could be in the profoundly silent dark, and still smell the sweet perfume, sense the cool air on her cheek, feel the vibration of all our voices.
Years ago, on my bike ride to work each day in Seattle, the final crest of the trip took me down a steep hill that would level off at each traffic light, then plunge down again toward the city. When timed right, there was no need to use my brakes, and I could speed-swish through each green light from the top of the hill all the way to the bottom. I yearned each day I made the trip to yowl the whole way down, a thrilling, full body exhalation of voiced breath that would celebrate the freedom, the strength, the aliveness I felt. And I never did. Not once did I give myself permission. It’s important for me to remember that I had that opportunity — that I could have luxuriated in that cackling thrill. Would I yell at the top of my lungs, going down that hill, today? Why would I ever think to deny myself that joy?