One of the loveliest things my husband and I share is comfortable silence. I have heard young people who are contemplating marriage speak fearfully of the silences that develop over the years between married couples. I can understand, this because I used to watch older couples in restaurants sitting quietly together, eating, with hardly a word passing between them. ''That won't ever happen to me,'' I'd tell myself.
Admittedly, some such silences must indicate emptiness, shallowness, barren mental land that was simply never ploughed and planted. But not all - not even many, I think. I didn't understand years ago what a release from the friction of the world, what a legitimate refuge, what a privilege it could be to be able to sit with another human being in complete and comfortable silence. John and I have only been married for eleven years, but I treasure the freedom we have to be quiet together and not feel compelled by convention to speak.
I have achieved this freedom to be silent with a few close friends. But with others - sometimes the effort to be quiet when I really don't have something worth saying is unbearable. Sometimes I know absolutely that humble silence in a particular situation will accomplish a great deal more than words. But still I say something.
I wonder why most of us feel compelled to fill the air with sound when we're with others. We know we're together to communicate, but we assume that communication means constant talking, or even moving one's body around in some way. When conversation dies I can always feel the tension in the air. It's as though a great vacuum has been created that sucks everybody's peace of mind into its terrible emptiness. And yet conversation, like music, surely needs the rhythm and depth provided by periods of quietness in order to be beautiful and full of meaning. Silence in music, sculpture, painting, dancing, is not emptiness. It's a rich, malleable substance, as vital to composition as the non-silences. Pauses create relationships, and are part of the finished piece. This is possibly more obvious in sculpture than in other art forms. If a sculptor doesn't understand that the positive forms he is creating are simultaneously giving shape to space, and if he fails to consider the shapes of space as part of the sculpture, the piece can never achieve unity. It would be something like an essay in which ideas are stated but not connected to one another. Inarticulate.
What I'm really saying, I suppose, is that since silence is not emptiness, it's possible to realize, at least intellectually, that it's nothing to be afraid of. This would be as true in conversation as in art. Unfortunately, when my friend Pierre and I first met, my intellect hadn't yet conveyed this message to my artistic sensibilities, and this nearly destroyed a lovely friendship.
Pierre, who was in briefly from overseas, was introduced to me by a mutual friend. After we talked on the phone, we decided we should meet at least once before he returned to his own country. This seemed like a good idea, although in retrospect I can't imagine why I thought so. Meeting in the flesh, as it were, has little to do with a relationship. So why Pierre and I felt we had to meet, I cannot say. But meet we did for an hour and a half over lunch, during which time we did everything we could to obscure that intangible but very real bond that we already knew we had in common. It was as though we were each desperate to prove we were worth knowing. There wasn't a moment of silence.
When we parted, I felt empty and embarrassed - and angry at myself. Not a word passed between us for many months, so I knew Pierre had felt as I had.
Suddenly I began to realize that the reason we can be so at ease with spouses and good friends is that we no longer feel we have to impress them or prove anything to them. We've stopped worrying about our self-image. Why couldn't one just start out this way, I wondered, trusting in one's own worthiness and letting others discover it gradually - as if they were opening a special gift very slowly and with relish.
Fortunately, Pierre and I gave each other another chance to do just that. One day a letter arrived from him, and in it was the friend I had almost lost. We both agreed in subsequent letters that nothing was more important in a relationship than the ability to feel comfortable together. To be able to be truly oneself. To be at peace enough and to trust enough to be quiet and communicate without words, if silence truly seemed natural.
And how utterly natural and nourishing silence really can be, particularly where there is love. I cannot think of anything less like emptiness than quietly feeling love for another individual. And the joy of seeing someone doesn't always bring with it the desire to speak. I remember, when we visited some friends in New England whom we hadn't seen for a year, how we all sat around after dinner in front of a small fire, saying absolutely nothing, and enjoying every minute of each other.
And then, not long ago, I opened my eyes in the middle of a moonlit night and saw John's profile outlined against the bedroom wall. Not even moving my head from the pillow, I basked in a loving, shared silence that was shaped only by soft breathing. And when I finally closed my eyes, I knew completely how substantial was any silence that cradled love.