Our Quiet Places

I remember the silence of public libraries before they became places where people talk in normal tones of voice or even chat on cell phones. In summer, the only sound may have been the gentle whirr of an oscillating fan. In winter, there may have been the hiss of a steam radiator. People spoke in whispers when they had to ask the librarian something. It was a quiet place, and in that way it was holy.

I remember the country church that my mother took me to when I was a boy. Sometimes it got so quiet, I could hear the whisk of the tissue-thin bible pages as people searched for scriptures. I could hear a woman’s pocketbook clasp shut as she closed it, having retrieved a handkerchief. I could hear the cellophane wrappers of cough drops being undone and the sound the cardboard fans made as people waved them through the air.

I remember a cemetery deep in the country (I still like to go there) where sometimes the only sounds came from a bobwhite’s two-note call, or from a hickory nut dropping from a tree to land in the grass.

As an only child growing up in the country, I developed an appreciation for solitude and quiet. I walked into the woods and listened to the creek water trickling over sandstone and shale. I moved through prairie grass, lost in daydreams, startled only by the clacking of wings when a covey of quail took flight.

A quiet place is necessary for a writer; at least it is for this writer. I fear it’s getting harder and harder to find those stretches of quietude that allow our imaginations to deepen. I’m also well-aware of the irony of this post that adds to the “noise” around you—noise from social media, e-mail, blogs, etc.

I seem to recall that John Updike said that much of his work began for him while sitting in church. I’ll confess to my own daydreams and flights of fancy while in the midst of a service. “What art offers is space,” Upkike said, “a certain breathing room for the spirit.”

It’s the “breathing room” of the creative process that we have to protect, and that breathing room comes from our quiet places. I fear, though, that modern technology is making it difficult. We are expected to be “connected,” and, therefore, we become part of the noise.

So here’s a simple assignment meant to reclaim our right to shut out the clatter around us:

1.         Go to a quiet place.

2.         Get comfortable with being alone.

3.         Let your mind wander.

4.         Let it go where it wants, but pay attention to where it goes.



  1. ruth ann zwilling on February 24, 2014 at 10:52 am

    So true. I do the same; set in church and my mind wanders back to that first little country church north of the route 50 and then to the little country church south in Lukin where Grandmother cleaned the oil lamps hanging on the wall and we would “play” the piano and dream of lazy days of summer. Oh that we could do that again.

    I use to walk and hide in the woods out north of town here. As the oldest of a host of 10 kids solitude was hard to find.You have a way to connect with all of us~~~~some of us more than others.

    • Lee Martin on February 24, 2014 at 4:12 pm

      Thanks, Ruth Ann. I knew you’d know exactly what I was talking about.

  2. Sharon Short on February 24, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    So true. I do that too in church (although I rarely go these days.) I find having access to social media so readily is a distraction. On the one hand, it leads me to wonderful articles like this. On the other, it’s so easy to be twitchy and self-distracting. I wonder if this is a personal issue, a malady of our times, or a bit of both?

  3. Lee Martin on February 24, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    Sharon, I really do think it’s a malady of our times. I love how you describe it: “twitchy and self-distracting.” I try my best to carve out some silence, but it gets harder and harder.

  4. Silence on February 25, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    Well said. Silence has been the mother of most of my inspirations, thoughts, memories, and the understanding (sometimes) of my dreams. My favorite place for years was the cemetery at the Jesuit seminary in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. I also duck into a church here and there, small country churches if I can; my favorite is the Basque Catholic Church in St. Jean Pied de Port, France. In California, where I live now, alone on a long strand of Pacific beach is often the place.

    • Lee Martin on February 25, 2014 at 7:59 pm

      Carl, thank you for sharing some of your favorite places for meditation. The quiet is so important not only to us as writers, but also to the people we are and are becoming.

  5. sarah corbett morgan on February 26, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    I loved this post and it reminded me of libraries from my childhood: the rustle of pages, an occasional cough, and the echo of people climbing the marble steps. Silence is a wonderful and healing thing, and standing still in places where we find solace can open so many memories. For me it is the wilderness. There is even a special word in German that describes the feeling of being alone in the woods: Waldeinsamkiet. I believe it has no direct translation. Wherever it is we find it, we don’t get enough of it.

    • Lee Martin on March 3, 2014 at 5:06 pm

      Sarah, I love that German word for being alone in the woods. We all could use a bit more Waldeinsamkiet these days. I very much miss libraries the way they used to be.

  6. Robert Sykes on March 2, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    Our compulsions around distraction and addiction to consumerism make solitude an absolute must to combat these powerful conditioning forces…fortunate are those who can write at all in theses times…access to hiking areas (particularly the Appalachian Trail) has done wonders to restore the precious energy required to maintain the practice…thanks

    • Lee Martin on March 3, 2014 at 5:08 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Robert. You make a fine point about the value of hiking. I think of an essay by Wendell Berry, the title of which escapes me now, about his weekend hike into the wilderness and the restorative nature of that activity.

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