written by Kevin Max | illustration by Michael Williamson
I’m in hot water, sitting on a submerged stone bench, self-conscious, naked and uneasy in a silent pool at a hot springs resort. The other campers are off to the vegetarian feed at the lodge—after the dinner bells rang them in from their cabins, tents and saunas. Birkenstocks, flip-flops and Crocs are the norm. Sandals exhibit more of an effort.
This whole experiment was a logical impossibility from the start. Silence is a vacuum. Nature hates a vacuum. My nature hates silence. Q.E.D.
I’m trying to acclimate to this overtly natural state of being—my own being feeling exposed and vulnerable in this setting—when a meteorite-tattooed woman drops in across from me, as if at least part of her had fallen from the sky.
I’ll call her, Venus. Venus perches directly in my aura’s path to the river. She smiles almost imperceptibly. I may have imagined this, but who’s to say? By the looks of things Venus is thirty-something. In a different setting, she could easily drop a couple years with a trucker cap and lip gloss.
A (perhaps) unintended consequence about hot springing al fresco is that I’ve become privy to some of the most personal body art over these couple of days. Some of it seems as though it were created expressly for public consumption. There’s the tired tramp-stamp that looks like Chrysler has reserved ad space perpendicular to and above the crack. There are the Celtic-y or barbed-wire-y inked arm bands for those who have shapely biceps for show. For the creatively challenged, the errant butterfly always seems to make home somewhere close to the ham hocks or bikini line. Thankfully it’s past its larval stage.
Venus’s tattoo, however, is a refreshing departure from the conformist norm. It takes the shape of a flaming orange comet and encircles her left nipple, as if just one breast flitted around in space. If nothing else, it’s a creative engagement of a body part that typically doesn’t get a lot of engagement until childbirth. I try to mask my amusement and endorsement with boredom as though I’ve witnessed dozens of flaming nipples splashing into earth’s silent hot springs. I’ve lived in Oregon for more than fourteen years, but this is my first comet breast. So many questions. So few words.
I had spent the past two weeks losing sleep in anticipation of this excursion, a three-day forced silence, punctuated with full frontal nudity. My managing editor, Tricia Louvar, got me into this with a laugh (hers). She had come from the L.A. scene of universal vibration, tepees, chakras and mindfulness all in the backyard of a well-architected glass house of a prophet in Malibu. Mine is a world of modesty, minivans, actual travel and talking over people by channeling universal wordfulness.
I wouldn’t have lost a wink if she had told me to get on a bike and ride across the state, or put on a pair of boots and hike across the snake-ridden southeastern Oregon desert. But here I am, silent, mindful and bare, with a splash of self-consciousness.
Around me are pines and firs of the Willamette National Forest. I console myself with the absurdity that they, too, are unadorned, though leaves and needles hide their nether-regions. Below me and down the hillside meadow, a river does its level best to calm my restlessness—shhhhhhhh, Kevin, shhhhhh. Two curious swallows spring from the river and flit across the tops of meadow grasses, landing near the edge of my silent pool. They avert their eyes and look away, as if they’d settled on the meaning of the resort mantra—“mindful”—a word too ambiguous for my wordful mind.
Someone once explained to me that the concept of mindfulness, in part, means to set yourself free from and to eschew judgement. That part was put to rigorous test on my first foray. The first person I encountered in the lodge wore a green felt cap with a feather in it and a leather vest, looking as if he’d just emerged from Sherwood Forest and without his merry men.
On Reading as Silence
One of the overlooked strategies for silence is a good book. Not all of them need be on meditation.
On day two, I take up residence in the lodge’s library—essentially, a living room with a stuffed sectional, wicker chairs and one wall of books. Light fills the room as if radiating from the river. A woman stretches face up on a couch, ignoring the “silence” sign as she snores with disdain. She must have booked the relaxation package, escaping shrill teenage daughters or perhaps a husband’s poker night that’s gotten to be all too regular. More likely, like me, she forgot to bring her own coffee.
Another woman in a wicker chair seems impervious to this basso continuo and reads in a curled cat position. She must be from a family big enough to take the edge off of petty annoyances, or she’s done this before at a similar resort. The retreat’s three bookshelves hold volumes addressing poetry, women’s studies, men’s studies, gay power, spiritual life, dreams, religion and Christianity.
I fold under the cover of Le Carré’s The Night Manager as inconspicuously as possible and keep my head down.
“Reading is cheating!” my wife later protested. “Any idiot can grab a book and go off in a tent for a couple of days. That’s just reading a book by yourself.” In the last syllables, she caught herself, slowed her speech, softened her tone and admitted jealousy was clouding her mind. “Well, I might book a couple of nights, too,” she challenged.
It’s not that I’m against silence, per se. I wish its bounty on all of my mortal enemies, some of my friends and select family members at varying times. For me, silence is less a form of “being present”—another commune term that struggles for meaning—than a form of escape. When I put silence into the context of escape, it warms my mouth like bourbon drawn down inside a snow-covered cabin. It’s the recurring Present itself, now that I think of it, which drives me mad. Even in writing this piece, I am recurrently and presently surrounded by media—typing on my computer, phone within reach and a notebook alongside.
I’m trying to be present, but finding it difficult. (Your friend Robert made his first post on Instagram. Welcome to 2014! Your passive-aggressive friend Sharon just shared her son’s latest middling athletic feat on Facebook. Yawn. Someone gave you a top to bottom on LinkedIn but wants to remain anonymous. Coward!)
Silence as Meditation
I finish the spy novel and feel somewhat accomplished and refreshed. The watchful protagonist had weathered an awful shitstorm of deceitful mega-millionaire arms dealers, torture, failed love and came out the other side with a remote cottage, a woman and relative peace on a spit in Ireland. These are not uncommon outcomes in a Le Carré novel.
After the book, but novel in this setting, I think I should try stillness as a path to silence. I’d seen short bursts of intense stillness on YouTube and conflated that with meditation. There is no one to share my embarrassment in my tent as I light the meditation candle. Embarrassment without an audience is pointless.
The flame grows and steadies itself, forming a perfect orange gourd. I look deep into its blue center and, for a moment, try to dump the files of my mind and sleep with my eyes open. This flame ultimately does nothing for my present self. Flames almost always march me into the doleful past to remember my dead family members, then fast-forward me to my own mortality and the well-being of my family.
So I put on my running shoes and look for a trail, any trail, and run with silence.