I first learned about silence through a man named Cliff. Not Cage.
Growing up in Renton, Washington, my family was in a new territory and without immediate family close by. This lead to our family growing a beautiful extended family, who became close and dear friends. Cliff is one family friend, who I would like to talk about. He is an African-American man from Texas and has a slow, thick, southern accent that one could get lost in and the most beautiful dark skin – that is a few shades darker than my Father’s. Growing up, my relationship with Cliff began through his various and exciting hairstyles. Sometimes it was tight curls, shaved, dreads, a big full afro, or half picked afro with a comb left in. There was one day where Cliff came over and had a beanie (or toque) on his head, covering his hair and new hairstyle. I was anxious to know what was underneath. He noticed me sitting in my agony and anxiety and said “Matthew, you want to know what my hair looks like don’t you?” and I immediately shook my head up and down in excitement. Cliff pulls off his beanie to reveal a beautiful head of corn rows, tightly bound and in detailed braids. “Satisfied?” he asked. “Mmmhmmm!” I responded, as I trotted back to my room.
I bring up Cliff because he taught me many things, but I am remembering one lesson in particular. One time after a dinner with the family, we were all sitting in the living room talking and discussing things as we usually do – perhaps politics, the weather, advertisements, sports, music. And then, there was this moment where a silence fell over the room. I didn’t quite understand what that meant at the time and I said “Oh, this is an awkward silence.” Cliff responded with something that I will remember for the rest of my life: “Actually Matthew, when you’re in good company, with people you love, and a silence falls across the room, this is called a comfort silence. It is a time to reflect, meditate, and perhaps digest what was just discussed (and eaten) together.”
I know John Cage is attributed to bringing silence to the concert hall with his piece 4’33’’ (which is, if you are unaware, a piece of music that is comprised entirely of rests and lasts a duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds); but I feel I learned about what silence was long before I even knew the name of John Cage. There are many ways to read Cage’s work and I feel his intention is quite literal, looking at and focusing on the sound of the space and bringing into focus how silence doesn’t physically exist, which is well and good, but I find this superficial and I want to go deeper. I like to think of the Cageian silence as a way of perhaps getting at a comfort silence: to be comfortable and just be with people, in a space, in a single moment in time. There is so much to revel in when we take part in these brief and silent moments. I am not advocating only for silence or quiet life, there is much to learn in joyful and noisy merrymaking, but I think there is a lot to learn from this idea of comfort silence.
I would encourage you to try and notice when you may be entering a comfort silence and revel in it, even for a second.
I will end with a little videoclip from the film, Pulp Fiction. (Fittingly titled: Uncomfortable Silence)