Some people assume that because I grew up outside organized religion I grew up without prayers, or hymns, or prophets. Knowing what I now do about all those things, I can see why pity creeps into strangers’ eyes at the thought.
I could live without an explanation for how and why the universe works. I couldn’t live without the moments that made the universe beautiful. I needed poetry and magic, and they were everywhere.
All through my junior and senior years of high school, I would listen to Simon and Garfunkel while I got ready in the mornings. “The Sound of Silence” usually came on while I dried my hair, and for a few brief moments I would forget that I was doing something so mundane as preparing for another Tuesday at a suburban high school.
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dare
Disturb the sound of silence
My bedroom would fade away. The part of me that was a powerless teenager stumbling into adulthood would shrink to nothing.
I had a power that no one else had. I was the only one who could break the silence, and for a split second of revelation nothing else in the whole world mattered. Not the fact that I was awkward and shy, or that I was terribly unathletic, or that I was pretty sure no one in my high school knew I existed.
In the heart of my voice lay the seeds of revolution. A life of passion and courage waiting to be born.
When I started going to Quaker meeting I discovered a world of testimonies about bearing witness. I listened as life-long Friends enumerated the spiritual texts that led them along the short walk from the Meeting House to Washington Square Park, where we would stand in silence with a few signs that called for peace.
As NYU students and street performers strolled by, we assembled our upright bodies not in protest, or in anger, but in a simple gesture of witness. There is violence, we said. There is killing and war and tragedy.
In all the clamor of talk that filled the park, we inserted our bodies and pleaded: listen. I tried to think of Jesus. But I was always there because of Simon and Garfunkel.
“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grow
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
In Turkey, right now, hundreds of protestors are standing stock-still and silent. They are bearing witness in the only way left to them.
For some, this may be a spiritual act. And you may assume that, if it is a spiritual act, these individuals are chanting the Qur’an or remembering a Bible verse or imagining the Buddha in meditation.
But maybe they are softly humming some folk rock. Maybe witness is everywhere and everything, and we just have to find the poetry that makes us listen.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”