The boys are spending too much time in front of screens this afternoon. They are. I know it and am consciously ignoring the good-parent voice in my head because I desperately Do Not want to interact. I love my children, and to be their mother, I sometimes need to do a screen-for-all afternoon because, quite simply, I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to answer questions. I don’t want to get juice or help initiate an activity (or provide oversight of said activity, the lack of which would result in physical harm to child or home or the loss of the child all together). I want Quiet.
Unfortunately, my handy screen-sitters don’t necessarily mean I will experience Quiet, not even when mandatory headphones are involved. Having told the boys I would no longer be available, that I was in the grey chair and for all intents and purposes did not exist for the next two hours, that they needed to use their headphones And go to another room where the grey chair was Not, they began to talk to each other with their head phones on, turned up (I imagine) just about as high as they would go. Talk isn’t the right word to describe the volume level. It wasn’t quite a yell either. More like that voice you use when talking to someone whose hearing aid is on the blink. Hearing an eight and four-year-old do that is kind of hilarious, even when I’m past frazzled.
They eventually settled in and settled down, during which time my heart rate slowed a little, the racing in my chest abated. I dug into a good book. (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.) I might have preferred a novel as I almost always prefer a novel, but I’m finding the premise of Quiet to be good medicine. Having long recognized my self as a member of the introverted species, I had to make myself dig in. What was I going to learn that I didn’t already know? Also: books devoted to the study of a multitude of studies make me want to skim, skim, skim.
I must now mention that the boys have exhibited self-limiting behavior, voluntarily plugging the screens back into their respective charging stations. Quiet no longer exists. Gabriel has opened the musical instruments box and is shaking a rattle and some bells while taunting his brother, who is doing math problems on a thirty-year-old adding machine, accompanied by all manner of vocal (I can only call it) stimming. Might this be the time to share a passage describing the open-plan office?
Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol, the body’s fight-or-flight “stress” hormone; and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others. (Quiet, 84)
Well now. That just about describes me. Cortisol crazy, I want to run away. Sustained exposure to constant noise puts me completely on edge, my temper igniting at the smallest of small infractions. I have no desire to help anyone but myself. Because I cannot abandon my children I think we will go for a walk.
But here I am still: an introverted woman with two intense, quite extroverted younglings. To survive them, not to mention care for them and make some contribution to raising them up in the way they should go—as well as maintain (and grow) a relationship with my husband who is probably more introverted than I (but better, it seems, at ignoring the chaos)—I periodically revisit the subject of my identity. But first I must answer G’s existential question: Mama, what is a sock?
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Now night, the only sounds I hear are the tapping of my keys, Sophie snoring behind me, the furnace kicking on, and the muffle of the boys’ sound machine through a closed door. Not quite Quiet, but more so. Enough to be like food or sunlight or walking—my other best/necessary fuels. Though Kafka might not agree: “One can never be alone enough when one writes…there can never be enough silence around one when one writes…even night is not night enough.”
Back to that open-office plan breakdown. It’s got me thinking about family life, about cohabitation and identity, about contemporary culture, about self and the giving up thereof. Many times at church today, Fr. Nicholas spoke of quiet, particularly joyful quiet, and how difficult it can be to find. Or does he mean cultivate? I’ve had the same question over the last few days. I certainly feel an absence, having/trying to abstain from—or at least cut down on—sugar and wine, beer, cheese, meat, serial dramas, chocolate, and the listening to of music 24/7. I feel a hole those pleasures did fill, and I’m not comfortable with it yet. Makes me a little edgy, a life with fewer distractions—which is how I prided myself on living for the first ten years or so of my adult life. So it’s not that it’s unimaginable, it’s that the conditions have (obviously) changed.
I come from a tight, lively family. My mother is an extrovert par excellence—enough so that God saw fit to make everyone else in our family introverts, in varying degrees. But even my mother craves quiet and peace and works to create space for it these days. Growing up, and living on a farm as we did, it was pretty easy to get away. Quiet was more the norm than not. I could hole up in my room and read for hours. I could wander around our property, my sisters my only playmates for many years. But even then, in that relatively quiet environment, I needed to get away sometimes or I got cranky. It is a wonder to me how well I function now with only a minimal amount of silence and solitude. O wait! I’m on anti-depressant/anxiety medicine. Nevermind.
All of this to say, a little more cultivation and prioritizing is in order on my end of things. The hole fasting creates—okay, let’s call it space—helps me see myself more plainly, throwing into relief who I am and who I think I need to be, primarily for my children. A simple, physical example: as Gabriel and I sat on the pew today (J was braving it with the altar boys back behind the iconostasis), I found myself curving my body in a rather uncomfortable way so that he could use me as a human recliner. I instinctively reacted to this realization by straightening my spine, causing him to reorient himself to get comfortable again. In that small moment, I felt the pull between making someone (I love dearly) more comfortable and protecting myself from not only pain but also (more instinctively) subsumption. Convergently, I thought: I need to be the straight one. Whatever that means.
Gets messy, doesn’t it? And what’s the point, you ask, of my analyzing this seemingly simple action? It’s the way I roll. It’s quiet at work in me, amplifying my attention to my thoughts, environment, and actions. I notice things; it’s one of my gifts. Having neglected it, I am grateful it is still there, and that quiet, by God’s grace (a phrase I do not mean to use as mere vernacular or jargon), makes me empty enough to receive it again.