Silent Night

Silent Night


I remember what I was doing when it happened. I was sitting with my family listening to Yo Yo Ma’s  rendition of Bach’s E flat major for cello. The elegance of his interpretations always nurtures my soul and I was particularly soothed that particular evening amidst the frantic holiday season by the timbre and resonance of his cello. I later learned that a good friend was watching a favorite

night-time soap on TV. Another was working on his computer. A third remembers exactly when it happened because he had just ground fresh coffee beans, filled up the electric percolator and settled down to await the five minutes until the pot was filled. He was looking at the digital clock on the coffee machine when it happened. Ping! and all of south Whidbey was enveloped by the sound of silence and embraced by uncontested darkness. No more Bach. No more evening soap opera. No chance to save the computer work and no fresh coffee. No more electricity. Welcome to Island living.


(I’m just now beginning to understand why there are no traffic lights on South Whidbey. Why, it would be a public health and transportation hazard with them failing all the time due to frequent power outages! Especially with the volume of traffic unloading from the ferry every 20 minutes…)


The first thing I noticed was the quiet. The silence was lovely. It overwhelmed us like an old friend. My experience was similar to how we all feel when we finally take a vacation and after two or three days turn to our companion and sigh: “I didn’t realize how much I needed a break”. Certainly our appliances offer us convenience, but at what cost? Only when finally muted did I notice how loud, let’s face it -intrusive and obnoxious- is my refrigerator. Why do we tolerate such dissonance? And that infernal pellet stove. Would not an extra sweater and a throw rug be preferable to its rattling pellets and relentless, noisy fan? We are assaulted by noise in our culture. Malls with programmed music, cars with radios, TVs left on yet unwatched “for company”, “cocktail” conversation. Opportunities for silence thwarted at every turn. It doesn’t have to be this way. I remember a dozen years ago Christmas shopping in England. No white noise there.


The second thing I noticed was that the loveliness of our candles’ warmth and light were exceeded only by my amazement that we don’t use them more often. I wondered whether my family might agree to having one night a week lit only by candle light. It was precious.


When the lights did not come back on immediately, I decided to venture our into the wild and unplugged night. I went for a walk and felt marvelously refreshed by the stillness. I especially delighted at the lack of buzzing from those irritating streetlights. Lacking interference from electric lights, I was not surprised to marvel at how bright shone the stars. No need for a flashlight. In addition, whereas before on my evening walks I would catch glimpses of families sitting mute and incommunicative in front of TVs, what I now observed as I passed along darkened streets were family members working together to solve various problems. Engaged and cooperating with each other. They seemed to be having fun.


The third thing I noticed was the sense of peace. It felt a bit like grace.  Thrust upon us was a pause that wrested us off our schedule. Without warning, we were tossed into a period of uncertainty and of indeterminate length during which we were all excused from our appointed tasks. It felt a bit like childhood. Like recess. Like, for once, the dog really did eat our homework. We were thrown back upon a pre-industrial revolution pace of life which felt wonderfully un-frantic. Did you see it? Did you look out your window and see no light save for the modest (and adequate) flickering of candles? What a profound way to relax into the evening; as if to take our cue from the sun who plainly says, “This is enough light for you today.” as she sets behind our majestic Olympic mountains.


I had recently been to the malls and felt overwhelmed by the bright lights, the noise and the frantic pace of good people distracted into trying to buy Christmas cheer, charge Peace on earth and bargain for Joy to the world. The irony of Silent Night’s lyrics wafting over the shopping frenzy was disheartening. It brought to mind how sardine fishermen hunt by the dark of the moon. Only in this darkness can the lookout person spy the shimmering pools of phosphorescent light created by dance of fish and plankton. Slowly and quietly the fishing boats encircle the school with the purse seine net. Then, as the net is drawn close around the sardines they, realizing they are caught, accelerate from wall of net to wall of net frantic for escape. But Alas, to no avail. They are trapped. Many of us were so trapped in the feverish holiday activities. Stress, not joy, was on the face of most holiday shoppers.


How many times have we moaned “Give me a break” over the past year? How many time over the holiday preparations? And here it “came upon a midnight clear”, because of the loss of one kind of power, the rare opportunity to cultivate another kind, an inner or spiritual power, through pausing and reflecting in the silence.


Were it not for the electricity failing, I might not have had a silent night, a holy night. I might have not had the clarity of vision and purpose to create the requisite inner stillness to appreciate the reason for the season.


The loss of electricity may have amounted to nothing more than an inconvenience for many residents but for me it was just what I needed for Christmas: a pause from the hectic pace, a recess, a silent night. A night that made room for what is holy. If ever the hosts of angels would deign to sing again from on high, I suspect that they would wait for such an opportunity when they wouldn’t have to compete with MTV or rattling pellet stoves or buzzing street lights.


I don’t recall there being much in the way of wind that night the electricity failed. The usual reasons for loss of “power” didn’t apply. I like to imagine it was some angel’s wing that toppled the tree but I can’t know for sure. What I did notice though, was the fourth thing. And the fourth thing I noticed was that we, devoid of our usual distractions at the end of a long day, went to bed early – ’nuff said.


To your Health!


Bradford S. Weeks, M.D. © 1993


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