On the fourth day of a five-day writers retreat, the message all around me is to welcome the silence.
Funny to hear that on a retreat that encourages finding your voice! But the real story, the story we haven’t yet been able to access, the one that is told from the depths of our soul and which will change the teller, and all who hear it, for the better, that story can only be told when we brave the silence.
It has been a wonderful retreat thus far, and I am so grateful to have the gift of creating such incredible space. We are on a northern island in the middle of a great fresh water lake, and the sounds are all around: of water lilting against shore, of birds in constant glorious song, of the stillness that is not stillness in the forest.
This morning, we hiked up to Arch Rock and through the pine-needle carpet of forest, winding around to visit two serene cemeteries.
We started by the waterside and lifted to the island’s elevations, enveloped by tall far-reaching forest, and spit out on the other side of the island, by the bustling activity of the Grand Hotel. That’s the Disneyland-esque part of Mackinac and the part I have purposely avoided in recent visits here.
What draws me to this island is the sense of repose and reverence that lives within its bones. The idea that wildlife dictates the days, and the people are simply stopping in.
Yesterday, we rode bikes around the eight-mile perimeter of the island, and on the first half, we passed cairn after cairn – stacked rocks precariously perched as markers on the trail.
Except, for a large chunk of the ride, that was all we could see. Too many cairns. Reminders that people had been here, left their mark, and after a very quick while, I no longer wanted that reminder. I wanted to fade into the background and let the landscape speak to me.
It was here first, it will be here last, and we are mere visitors on the journey of nature.
Do we sense that? It is humbling and important to be reminded of our insignificance once in a while.
This island is beautiful without me having to do anything to it. It does not need my careful castle of rocks stacked so others can exclaim in awe of what a human made.
No, the island needs my respect and my reverence as I seek to better understand my role in this world and the selective dance of all the living creatures on it.
This invitation of silence came first from our hike leader, Jaime, and I was grateful for the reminder that sometimes, we need say nothing to have an experience. And yet, not everyone was ready to embrace the silence.
In the forest, there were voices that resonated louder than Lake Huron’s lapping waves hundreds of feet below, more than the birds cresting above us in the treetops. The voices needed to be heard, they needed to fill the silence.
I understand that and have love for all. Sometimes we cannot bear to listen to the silence. Sometimes it is simply too scary, too aware of how alone each of us truly is.
Later, at lunch, after I’d trekked five or so miles under overcast skies heavy with damp, I sat at a table alone and was reminded to embrace the silence.
In Laurie Haller’s book Recess, she writes: “It is in silent prayer that we discover our relationship with God and can see God’s holiness…what I love most about worship (at Taize) is the silence.”
I found myself nodding, reminded, encouraged, chastised again for filling the emptiness to avoid the loneliness.
It is ok, I tell myself, to sit in the alone-ness and recognize my inherent vulnerability. It is ok, I tell myself, to feel fear, to yearn for connection.
It is ok, I tell myself, and frankly, preferred, to face the discomfort and reach beyond it, to learn where my soul lives, to commune with the holy.
While we are made to be in community with others, it is in our darkest, quietest moments that we come to understand our purpose. That is where we begin to live.