How to find quiet in a noisy world

Modern life is noisy, frenetic and mentally exhausting, which is why “quietude” is so very golden, says Nikki Gemmell.

A year ago, I was drowning. I turn towards quiet like a plant towards the light, yet stillness and silence – a recalibrating stopping –were beyond me. I just couldn’t glean them anywhere amid the cram of mothering four kids and being a wife and full-time work; an agitation of the soul was swamping me. Quietude involves a fervent wish for simplicity, and I couldn’t simplify my life.

The word noise is derived from the Latin word nausea, meaning seasickness. I was drowning in noise. It felt like a time for risky living; to somehow carve out tranquillity or I’d go under. My family was suffering around me. I was shouty mum, snappy and stroppy, becoming someone I didn’t recognise and didn’t like.

Quietude felt like a necessary medicine – but first I had to recognise where to find it. It was the first leakings of dawn in the night sky.

The golden hour at sunset when the world was exhaling and the light was honeyed up. It was flicking an off switch on the great noise of life. The hand held out to someone, unasked. An eyelid kissed. A spiritual surrender. It was a house awaiting the return of the children, breath held. It was the roar of a seashell to an ear and the hum of silence in the desert. It was a necessary, listening pause, the observer and the listener. It was a gift.

Most of us exist amid cram, women especially. Of work in the home and the wider world, of family pressures and myriad social snares, of life. A search for quietude involves a surfacing into light, and lightness. I learnt to find it in the simple things around me.

A kitchen anointed by sunlight. A candle’s honeyed glow. The Sanctus in Fauré’s Requiem. Emily Kngwarreye’s desert paintings washed by rain. I gravitated towards people clean of agitation and anger and strop and found quiet in a guilt-free afternoon nap and the holy places; a fern-crammed glade, an abandoned church emptied of people, a desert’s vivid silence.

I needed the medicine of quiet because the noise of the city, of motherhood, of supermarket queues and road rage and work-stress and commutes was making me sick. The city I live in was never quiet enough to think in; and the jackhammer yabber of the internet constantly in my head and at my fingertips.

Are our smartphones eating our brains? Mine was the quietness-eater, and breaking news was breaking my equilibrium. Research shows that many of us are now spending almost nine hours a day logged onto our addictive screens – more than most of us sleep. For me there were sneaky screen peeks in the dead of the night, then a pouncing, first thing, upon waking. Not only did my smartphone addle my sleep and work but also my self-esteem, reminding me of unquiet worlds I didn’t live in, things I didn’t have and people I could never look like. Envy is noise in your head.

I learnt to detach myself from social media, to not do it so much, to un-look. For emotional survival.

I learnt to sleep with an eye mask because electronica’s sly insistence was too present in the velvety dark and it didn’t feel healthy; it felt like an ancient, long lost body within me yearned for something earthed, and silent. I learnt not to check my screen when I restlessly woke at 3am, and gradually my body trained itself out of fractured sleep.

And what of our children? It feels like we’re witnessing a digital drowning of an entire generation here. And so in the Cabinet of Extraordinary Purchases that make up a life, a new acquisition arrived in the midst of my drowning. It squatted in smug collusion under my desk.

It was a safe, purely for one thing only. The objects that, as a mother, turn me into a woman I don’t recognise with a voice I don’t like. The safe was for screens.

This steel box – $100 from a local office supplier, just like the ones in hotel rooms – was my children’s distraction stealer. My colluder in calm and quiet. Because I can’t bear the multiple screens in this house; what they do to my children. And I was heartily sick of battles over the blasted objects – and losing them somewhere in the house after hiding them away.

Now, for a large chunk of the weekends and nights, every childhood screen is locked away. Calm and creativity, miraculously, invade our world. Bowed backs straighten, little faces open to the world, tables host talk. Our family quietens, wondrously, and it feels soldering and strong.

So many demands of motherhood, so much to juggle and smooth over and correct. Many of us lose who we are because we’re giving ourselves over so completely to someone else and it’s hard to find quietude in that. I’ve learnt that it comes with letting go of what you cannot change.

The child’s will is like an eel, constantly slipping from our grasp. And letting go of them – to fail, to work it out for themselves – isn’t always a sign of weakness but its opposite, strength. You’re releasing the other person; but more importantly, you’re releasing yourself. Into quiet.

During the drowning time my husband recognised I was morphing. Calcifying into a woman he didn’t particularly want. One astonishing dinner he presented me with a gift box that had inside it a free pass, banishing me from the family.

He disappeared me. Insisted. For all our sakes. I went on a digital detox. It was the medicine of intentional quiet.

A writing sojourn with no internet or mobile coverage, a necessary stilling.

I was flooded by creativity and calm; got my brain back when I thought it lost. I remembered the person I once was, pre-phone. More disciplined and focused; more curious about my immediate surroundings. Screen removal gave me back control, serenity and calm. It felt like a huge and replenishing exhalation.

There was the bliss of a bed to myself. Mornings not rudely crashed into by a five-year-old addicted to dawn. Going to the toilet without an audience (even the dog, disconcertingly, has got in on that act!). Bedtimes by 9pm. A nit-free existence. Entire days without hearing, “Mum, Mum, Mum,” on wearying repeat. It was one big Get Lost, because my husband knew I’d come back stronger and calmer. It felt urgent, necessary. Essential therapy for any mother screaming inside to find the woman she once was.

What I’ve learnt on this journey into quiet: the only way to soothe an agitation of the soul is to acknowledge it, and to stop pretending that everything’s all right. I’ve tried controlling the sense of drowning by paring back my life – saying no more often, and not feeling guilty about it. By locking up my kids’ screens now and then, and by putting down that phone. Filching some restorative pocket of “me” time every day, somewhere in the day. And distancing myself from some friends who’ve flattened me, repeatedly; I’ve found the courage to say no, enough, I want to be surrounded by heart lifters, actually, not heart sinkers.

A quiet existence, turned like a plant towards the light, is about shedding. Simplifying. Listening.

By exploring it with my book On Quiet, I’ve slipped myself into quietude – and am released. Do you aspire to become a reaper of the quiet? It rescues.

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