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Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Sounds of Silence

The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence

Paul Simon is said to have conceived his famously poetic ballad in the middle of the night, in his bathroom, with the lights out and tap water running.

No wonder he had to closet himself like that in order to create. It’s about the only way to get away from the modern world’s ceaseless cacophony of noise, piped-in music and ubiquitous babble.

Even paradise is noisy.

In Vieques, for instance, roosters cock-a-doodle-doo through the night and dogs bark round-the-clock.

On Cape Cod, April brings the first crocuses, the first openings of shops and restaurants and the first arrivals of tourist mobs lugging their floofloovers and tartookas, their pantookas, their dafflers and wuzzles.

I served my writing apprenticeship in the City Rooms of daily newspapers, so I’m no stranger to noise. I learned how to block out chatter, shouting and cursing while putting together a news story accurately and succinctly (well, at least succinctly).

But wherever I go, I can’t seem to escape the latest madness-inducing caterwauling – the vapid pop music that saturates stores, shopping malls, airports and almost every other public space. I am forced to endure the wailing of panties-less Miley Cyrus even while I pump gasoline!

To seek a higher, truer -- and quieter -- paradise, I have been on retreat this week at St. Joseph’s Abbey, the Trappist monastery in Spencer, MA.

This monastery is Cistercian of the Strict Observance, the order founded in the 12th Century that was home to the late, famed, Catholic monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton.

In fact, I titled my second novel – Silently in the Dark -- after a quote from Merton’s The Monastic Journey:

“Monks must be as trees which exist silently in the dark, and by their vital presence purify the air.”


 At St. Joseph’s Abbey, Trappist monks listen for the “still, small voice.”

Silence is supreme here from the time the monks rise near three in the morning to begin their prayer and work day.

They speak only when necessary and not at all from 8pm to 8am – the period known as the 
“Grand Silence.” Meals are eaten together, but in silence. Visiting guests, like me, follow the regimen.

What’s the point of all this hush? To give God a chance to get a word in.

It can be puzzling at first, because if we read Psalm 29, it seems that we can’t escape the voice of God:

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire ...

The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh ...

The voice of the Lord makes the oaks to whirl and strips the forests bare ...

The God of glory thunders ...

It seems that the voice of God is earth-shatteringly loud.

And can be – if you listen for it in silence.

The prophet Elijah, for example, sought God in windstorm and earthquake and fire – all the places that the people of his time expected God would occupy. But Elijah heard God only as a “still, small voice.”

In Psalm 46, the Creator himself advises us to, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

For the Trappists, the quiet helps them maintain near-constant focus on God, whose language is silence. In silence, the monks listen for the voice of God.

In joining them this week, I sit quietly and try to rid my mind of its incessant interior monolog, and I turn my full attention to the present moment.

I am alone with my own measured breathing … the sharp knocking of hot water pipes … the drone of a passing airplane … the soft padding of monks’ sandals along cloister corridors … early Spring birdsong outside the window … the muffled flitter of a moth’s wing against a lampshade.

These are the sounds of life around me. I cannot help but hear them.

But what I listen for are the inner sounds of silence. The ones words can’t capture.

And in doing that, I share in a small way the monk’s quiet, lifelong quest -- a finite creature stretching inwardly to discover the infinite.

In my next blog, "Yellow Brick Road"

Friday, April 4, 2014

Another Similarity

The grandfather had become very old. His legs would not carry him, his eyes could not see, his ears could not hear, and he was toothless.

When he ate, bits of food sometimes dropped out of his mouth. His son and his son’s wife no longer allowed him to eat with them at the table. He had to eat his meals in the corner near the stove.

One day they gave him his food in a bowl. He tried to move the bowl closer; it fell to the floor and broke. His daughter-in-law scolded him. She told him that he spoiled everything in the house and broke their dishes, and she said that from now on he would get his food in a wooden dish. The old man sighed and said nothing.

A few days later, the old man’s son and his wife were sitting in their hut, resting and watching their little boy playing on the floor. They saw him putting together something out of small pieces of wood. His father asked him, “What are you making, Misha?”

The little grandson said, “I’m making a wooden bucket. When you and Mamma get old, I’ll feed you out of this wooden dish.”

The young peasant and his wife looked at each other and tears filled their eyes. They were ashamed because they had treated the old grandfather so meanly, and from that day they again let the old man eat with them at the table and took better care of him.

“The Old Grandfather and His Little Grandson”
Retold by Leo Tolstoy

My grandson, Connor, spent his Spring Break from Drexel University with my wife and me and came away smitten with the paradise that is Vieques.

We had lots of time together, and he and I talked of how we like to think of ourselves as out-of-the-ordinary personalities. When other kids in kindergarten built structures, for example, Connor knocked them down. When my kindergarten teacher passed around a large can of sugared gumdrops and told us to each take one. I took two.

Connor Joseph Schmitt

As Connor grew from a little boy to a fascinating young man of many talents and interests, we both discovered even more similarities.

Not only does he look like I did as a youth, but we both:
  • Tan easily
  • Drink our coffee black
  • Hate drinking soda
  • Prefer water
  • Like spicy food
  • Enjoy the taste of lemon
  • Hum to ourselves when preoccupied
  • Have a birthmark in the same spot on our right ear
  • Choose yellow when confronted with a color choice
  • Have had the quality of our writing acknowledged
  • Had identical chain-reaction car accidents on the highway -- with our vehicle totaled and no injury to ourselves
Each time Connor and I discover a common trait, we rush to be the first to pronounce, “Another similarity.” The line always brings us a laugh.

But … I’ve listed only physical similarities. I have yet to learn how much else I may pass to Connor in the way of perceptions and principles.

I may never know.

Erasmus Darwin, for example, died without knowing how much he influenced his more famous grandson, Charles, in their surprisingly similar theories of evolution and inheritance.

In a 2012 study of 5,500 grandparents in 11 European countries, Norwegian sociologist Knud Knudsen found that Europeans generally spend a good deal of time with their grandchildren. Grandmothers are more involved with their grandchildren when a couple is younger, he said, but with age, grandfathers usually show greater solicitude.

It seems to be all about time.

One’s time is one’s greatest gift to a loved one, especially for a grandfather -- whose inventory of it is running down.

Here’s writer John Clarke:

I think I know now why there can exist a special bond between grandfathers and their grandsons. I think it has to do with their perceptions of time. Somehow we in the middle have either forgotten or have become so world-weary that the slowness of time seems like a long-ago dream.

Einstein was the first to work out the math about time. He was able to mathematically prove something we all somehow already know: that time is not a constant. I personally believe that time slows then speeds up and then slows again over the course of our lives.

I remember well the long days of my childhood when I had nothing more important to do than to sit on the porch with my grandfather and hear him tell the story about how a beehive works or how to graft a branch onto an apple tree. He and my maternal grandmother were the only adults I knew who understood this slowness of time. They proved this by making time for me.

In my next blog, “The Sounds of Silence”

Saturday, March 29, 2014

My Bout with Gout

A 1799 caricature of gout.

One of the perils of Paradise is an insect bite. Here in Vieques we have the usual suspects that are common to the North – mosquitoes, bees and wasps, spiders. But in the tropics we have some big-time chompers – tarantulas, scorpions and the fleet-footed Puerto Rican centipede that can approach a foot in length.

I have adverse reactions to stings and bites. On my fair Ukrainian skin, a mosquito bite welts… a fire ant’s acid attack can blister and itch for a week.

So when the big toe of my right foot began to swell and throb recently, my first thought was insect bite. 

But instead of dissipating after a day or two, the swelling increased and the pain worsened.

Now, my wife’s sister is a registered nurse. My wife believes that the tight DNA connection between siblings gives her as much right to dispense medical advice as her sister.

“Soak your foot in water as hot as you can take, and it will draw out the poison,” my wife ordered as she poured boiling water into the bucket we use to mop floors.

By the second day of this medieval torture (in addition to the painful toe, my entire foot was now scalded), I made an executive decision that this was no insect bite. I couldn’t bend my toe at all, and pressing it down against the floor caused stabbing pain.

“You probably broke your toe,” my wife said, changing her original diagnosis. “I myself once broke a toe by wearing bad sandals.”

It was Sunday, and the thought of seeking medical help the next day plunged me into deep depression.

Like a miracle, however, Monday morning brought improvement in the toe. Yay! It’s not a broken bone. No emergency room!

That evening, we went out to dinner with our neighbors – who both happen to be retired doctors.

In the car, I mentioned my toe trouble – as casual chit-chat, not as a try for free medical advice.

Suddenly the two doctors morphed. They were two kids drawn to my troubled toe as if it were a piece of candy.

Mr. Doctor, a pediatric urology surgeon, said, “Could be gout.”

I laughed. I knew gout to be the “disease of kings" or "rich man's disease."

Mrs. Doctor, an anesthesiologist, agreed with her husband and recommended I spray Benadryl on the toe.

Mr. Doctor challenged his wife: “Really? Do you think topical application would have value?”

So there I was, enjoying a toe consult by two prominent medicos … in the car … on a dark Vieques road.

“I’ll come over in the morning to look at your toe,” Mrs. Doctor offered.

But in the morning, it was her husband who sneaked over to our house and made me show my toe. 

Gout is a recurring ailment, so in an effort to forestall future flare-ups, I turned to the Internet for information. Here’s what I learned.

Gout’s been around forever. Hippocrates in 400 B. C. wrote about it -- noting its absence in eunuchs and premenopausal women.

Gout is acute inflammatory arthritis resulting in a red, tender, swollen joint. The joint at the base of the big toe is affected in half the cases. The elevated level of uric acid in the blood that causes gout is also responsible for kidney stones.

Causes of the condition include the usual caloric culprits: not enough vitamin C, too much meat and seafood, overdoing alcohol and fructose -- and obesity.

In 1683, an English physician posited yet another cause:

“Gouty patients are, generally, either old men, or men who have so worn themselves out in youth as to have brought on premature old age -- of such dissolute habits none being more common than excessive indulgence in venery.”

If you have to look up the definition of venery, you obviously haven’t lived enough.

In my next blog, “Another Similarity”