Trusting the Silence
“I’ve always liked quiet people. You never know if they’re dancing in a daydream or if they’re carrying the weight of the world.”
Around the same time Fran and I were cleaning, or, in my case, not cleaning, our homes, I met Sharon. She was also an educator, a speech therapist, and I worked closely with her as I started the very first special education class in our elementary school.
Initially, it struck me as ironic that she was a speech therapist, because she was very quiet and shy. This wasn’t an issue in her work with the students but was evident whenever speaking with her or in observing her interactions in the teacher’s room. There, she’d usually sit silently, often a bit out of reach, responding to any query but not initiating conversations. Most teachers, by nature, have to be outgoing, with a lot of social energy. Sharon was unusual compared to the rest of us. Though she was constantly in and out of classrooms, when she’d enter and remove a child for their therapy, it was as if a butterfly had fluttered in and somehow magically transported the human weight of a seven-year-old to another location. Her presence, as you can imagine, was very calming for the children. But whenever I tried to have a conversation that didn’t involve our shared students, I had to work hard to draw her out or speak at length. I knew she was shy but hadn’t figured out how to break through that social barrier. Drawn to her gentle presence, I kept looking for a way to connect.
Sharon had her first child before I did, and when her daughter was nine months old, Sharon mentioned that her mother-in-law was coming to visit. She seemed, in her subdued way, to be in a bit of a panic about the state of her housekeeping. She was working full time, and perhaps experiencing a bit of the chaos I would face in another year; how to manage it all. I had the sense that she might be a casual housekeeper like myself. Turns out she wasn’t; she was just an overworked professional with a child at home and the upcoming visit from a relative was a stressful situation.
I somewhat aggressively invited myself over to help spiff up the house and impress her husband’s mother. I hoped we’d be more comfortable around one another outside of school. That opening was the beginning of our friendship. The cleaning was the perfect ice breaker; we didn’t have to talk much, her daughter was very entertaining, and the shared tasks did its job of making us more comfortable outside of our professional environment.
We began spending time together with our children, gathering in parks and in one another’s homes and enjoying watching our kid’s interactions. I was usually the initiator, but Sharon seemed to enjoy our shared interests. She was a wonderful model of a calm and loving parent, providing her kids, all of them brilliant, with tremendous creative and open-ended learning experiences. While I tended, in perfect teacher mode, to constantly provide my children with more structured opportunities outside of school, Sharon’s home was a very different environment; more open, yet with stimulating materials the children could manipulate themselves. That inspired me to try different activities and opportunities for my own children.
Again, like Fran, when her kids were school-aged, Sharon moved out of the area. Whenever I could, I would visit her in her new home a couple of hours away. Some of my fondest memories of our times together were when our children were outside playing. We would sit in her sunny kitchen, drinking strong tea with fresh cream from a local dairy and eating just baked pastries. It seemed so European and indulgent to have both cream and pastries, but it was part of the treat of spending time with Sharon. It felt like I’d been invited into a small and secret club for special spirits who would speak softly and thoughtfully as a matter of course. The best of it was listening to Sharon’s carefully offered thoughts about parenting, marriage and the issues in our personal and professional lives.
Spending time with her was a very different experience than with other mothers; the pace was not free flowing, the laughter sometimes more halting. It was such a notable change, I found myself trying to entertain her, to speed up the back and forth, to have Sharon adjust to my way of communicating rather than stepping back and falling into her rhythm. Finally, over the years, I learned to relax into her pace rather than expecting Sharon to adjust to my much more frenetic style.
That was, and is, the gift of Sharon. She’s like a Zen master, and she has been a great life teacher for me. Her presence requires patience, and I have never been a patient person. Every time I am with her, I am reminded of the importance of breathing, of paying attention, of not focusing on what I want to say, but what she has to offer. That mindset of coming from quiet is one I should practice more, but it’s ironically easiest when I am with Sharon.
We’ve now known one another for well over forty years. She is still very quiet, and I assume, shy. In the decades we’ve been friends, I’ve never asked her if she thought she was shy, just as she’s never asked me why I always speak so quickly and bluntly. There is always a short period of time before a flow arrives in our conversation, and sometimes it never comes as quickly as impatient me would like it to. I’ve learned, over the years, to let Sharon set the pace, unfold her contributions, not needing a standard or typical rhythm, but to let the silences rest comfortably, and with trust.
Invariably, our time together is filled with discussions about the important things. Not just our children or grandchildren, but how we feel about family on the deepest level. Whenever I have a real concern about my kids, it’s Sharon I will turn to for advice or solace. Her wisdom and measured responses to my impulsive and overly emotional reactions calms me and guides me toward a more grounded reality.
She sets an example in other ways. A model citizen of her community, she drives medical patients off the island where she lives and into Seattle, spending whole days caring for strangers. She and her husband have a magical garden, and birdwatching has led to a leadership role in Audubon.
In my treasured circle of close friends, some are ‘noisier’ than others. All bring something different into my life. But Sharon remains like that silent butterfly who transported, a child at a time, those small souls out of my classroom. They always returned a little bit wiser, calmer, and with skills and insights about themselves that no one else provided. As have I.
New to the series?
Start with ‘Ellie‘, the first chapter in “Female Formed.”
Art by Lisa Jensen.
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