Painting Spaces

Yeah, sort of like that.  But let me explain...
Yeah, sort of like that. But let me explain…

There are times when you can’t shut me up.

Sure, I am an introverted soul – I am more apt to sit quietly amongst the Giants of Gregariousness and soak in the ambiance rather than holding court amongst semi-strangers.  But get me one-on-one and tickle me with a topic that wets my goat, and I can easily go off to the races.  It’s like all my words are exacting vengeance against the silence that preceded them.  Put a bounty on their head and is now giving them a horse whoopin’.  If it weren’t for that peaky breathing part of our biology, I would probably skip that to get an extra word or two in.

Nothing wrong with being a little animated or excited about something, but I have certainly been more aware of how I can bombard myself and others with endless chatter when a good does of not chatting can be just as useful and beneficial.

Last night I went to see the Soweto Gospel Choir.  Beautiful, powerful, uplifting singing and playing.  They could hit huge highs, rumbling lows and belt it out when needed.  But what got my attention, for some reason, were the times when they held silence.  There was a respectful restraint at times, inter-played with roving soft tones and hushed semi-quavers.  With all the vocal majesty and power at their command, they sat in the silent moments.  And said more there than they could when raising their voices to the heavens.

So what’s that all about?

Okay, I am not that bad, let me explain further using some hand puppets and a bassoon...
I can sorta be like that, but with more plaque build up and yoga pants instead.  Just sayin’

I recall reading about how the great musicians learn when not to play the notes.  Let the silence breathe and give a certain cadence to the music, a counterpoint, a way of giving it texture. Ukelele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro speaks of letting the brush that he holds being used to paint spaces…paint silence.   What an image to clutch onto as I sit back and think about how I am in this world, how I am with others, how I am with myself.

Painting silence. A tough call for someone who used every available empty spot to park his Yap-a-Mobile and vent toxic exhaust for everyone within range to suck in.  Not pleasant.  Silent spots were always a tough one for me growing up and even into early recovery. I couldn’t sit properly with silence.  It was threatening, it held me captive, it didn’t allow me to engage as a way of compensating for the unease I felt.  Silence was for churches, for temples, for those weirdos who meditated.  Why have awkward silence when bellowing fodder could edge that out easily and neatly?

In high school, playing in the school band, we learned about all the notes – whole, half, quarter, etc. We also had these strange symbols that denoted rest points.  Rest?  Why rest?  Why not sustain things, keep the ball rolling, getting our funk on?  Sure it was useful at the beginning, to give my novice woodwind jaw a break, but once I got past that, I wanted to keep at it.  I resented those breaks.  I wanted to keep blowing hot air (a motif in my life, yes?)

In other words, shaddap a you face
In other words, shaddap a you face.

It wasn’t until my final year that I started to understand the reason for the rests, for the silence.  In art, they speak of negative and positive spaces.  Aspect ratios.  Even in my culinary trade, when putting food on the plate in an artistic manner, we use those concepts of space and non-space.  Rule of odd numbers.  There has to be that negative, or silent, space to balance things out.  To allow for the eye, ear, mind and spirit to equilibriate.  To give dramatic pause, and to allow the light of the non-being to shine.

And that is how I have seen how I am in this world.  How I am with others, how I am with myself.  I saw that for all those years, I was the horn that wouldn’t stop trumpeting.  I was the car alarm (they still have those?) that wouldn’t shut off.  I was the air raid siren that persisted even at the absence of any inherent danger.  Or was that a real danger, in fact?  That’s important, because when I was drinking, everything was a danger or threat to me.  Everything.  How you looked at me, how you spoke to me, how you didn’t speak to me, how you held your coffee when near me…everything was a threat against my well-being.  So off I went like a sprinkler at first whiff of smoke.

That’s how I stumbled through life – yammering and barking my way through things, afraid that if I shut off, that I would be overwhelmed not only by you, but by me. My thoughts of worthlessness, guilt, anger, fear…all these things would bubble up and I would get swallowed up.  So I would drink them away while I created a marching band around it as the soundtrack.   Keep talking so they don’t see your pain, Paul.  Doesn’t matter who you talk to – the cat, the tree, the bald lady that lives across the street.  Keep at it, keep blowing those pipes, keep that glass full, keep the lies and drama up, keep beating yourself up, keep blaring that death metal, keep the white noise on at night, keep the radio on full blast, keep keeping on.

Full noise.  Full stop.

The Dewey Decimal Hoedown
I thought libraries needed silence.  I guess y’all just too busy doing The Dewey Decimal Hoedown.

You see, it wasn’t the talking so much as it was the noise level.  I matched the noise around me to the twisted, terrifying noise in my head. No silence and reprieve within meant no silence and reprieve without.  The sheet music would be almost black with the amount of notes jammed on there.  I couldn’t find a rest stop even with a AAA map and GPS.  Because silence meant pain, pure and simple.  Pain.

The turning point for me in slowly finding the value of silence was about a year into my recovery.  I was still uncomfortable (understatement) with the idea of silence.  Sometimes in meetings there can be one, two, three minutes of utter silence, as we wait for the next person to share.  For some (including me), it would be torture.  We weren’t used to sitting with our thoughts, and to do it with a group of strangers?  Madness!  Someone just start blathering, please!  And someone would…just to break the silence.

What I learned was that it was in the rest notes, the silence, that I was able to process things.  I was able to take things in more.  I was able to just be and to take in the moment.  I learned to actually occupy my mouth by breathing and not forming useless consonants and vowels. I learned to listen for the first time in my life.  Coming from a serial interrupter like me, this was gold.  Instead of thinking of what I was going to say next, and forming that lovely Oscar speech in my head, I just forced myself to listen.  What a concept.  And I do my best to practice that today, in the here (hear?) and now.

Stop mocking me Ted.  My other hand is showing a different finger that I can show ya.
Stop mocking me Ted. My other hand is showing a different finger sticking up, if you’d like to see.

Improving on that silence brought me to a place of now being one of those weirdo meditation dudes.  Sitting in stillness doesn’t necessarily mean burning incense and chanting.  Not at all.   I sometimes sit in the park and just gaze out at the children playing or the people skating or people hanging with their dogs.  Or watching the wind rustling the leaves. Other times it’s when I am running and I just focus on my breath, or the sound of my feet slapping pavement. There is a rhythm and pace that brings me to a deeper place.

This has brought me many rewards in my interactions with others.  Working with others has also taught me the value of shutting my trap and taking things in, as is.  Learning to not play the notes.  Painting silence.  Taking in what others say, hearing their own pauses in speech, listening for what they aren’t saying and reading between the lines – the things I would miss if I were using my own words to plug in the holes of silence.  Tapping into the unspoken brings me some greater clarity in my own inner landscape and in connecting with others.

A solo is not in your future, give up on that dream.  Smoke 'em if ya got 'em.
A wailing solo is not in your future, Hans…so give up on that dream. Smoke ’em if ya got ’em.

I was talking to a friend about this not to long ago, and he mentioned something along these very lines.  “Sometimes the best solution is doing nothing at all”, he said.  And I understood that.  And to carry that further, sometimes the best thing to do is say nothing.  Sometimes people want to be heard and nothing else (I learned that one from my wife), so yapping off about this and that and giving advice and offering solutions is not what they want.  Sometimes I just need to sit in their pain and stay quiet.  Keep painting.

In the end, it’s the balance of said and not-said that anchors me to the sense of well-being and being connected with others.  When I just stop ego from wanting to be in the spotlight, when I just filter the noise from the necessary, when I just shed the shawl of showmanship, when I just take in the moment and not soil it with unnecessary verbiage…then I am taking in more of the negative space, taking in more breathing room.

Sometimes I just need to put my instrument onto my lap, breathe, and listen the music around me.

20 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve detected that I talk too much at times too. Posibly for some of the same reasons you do sometimes. I have always had voices in my head telling me that silience sucks but the reality it’s good to take a breath once in a while.
    I too was and still am afraid of silence, when I don’t know what another person is thinking and what they’re going to say gets me panicky.
    Thanks for the post.

    1. Not knowing what someone is thinking or what they are going to say is constant…so I wonder how I can react to that or sit with that. I guess it took me time to realize that since I can’t control others (huh? What do you *mean* I can’t!! lol), I might as well try to control how I feel and react. And that was part of the work. Still do that today – gotta rein myself in sometimes and realize it’s not about me…so I sit. In silence. And sit with that uncomfortableness. And it passes. I realized that the world didn’t fall apart, that I was still living and breathing…the end was not anywhere near. I made it, so I get to do it again and again.

      I think some of us are more quiet than others and some more chatty – that is personality for many of us. But I know when I am trying to fill space. And so I hold back and just let it be as it may. Takes practice and patience though 🙂

      Great having you Nelson…really mean that 🙂


  2. I really enjoyed this and I love that-“painting the silence”. Beautiful. The last part reminded me as my work as a hospital social worker. So many times I’d sit with families after their child died or during and I always felt like I should be saying something. But I knew there was nothing to say, that I just needed to be present. I needed to be available and there was nothing else I could do. Silence can be quite powerful.

    1. Thanks Deanna…and thank you for sharing what it was like when you sat with those families. I can’t even fathom the grief and the pain that hovered about and weighed in that room. Especially when a child dies. Ugh. I can’t even think about it, and yet, there you are, just being with them. I mean, what could you do other than just be there for them. The power of that is immeasurable. And I bet the families really appreciated it, even if it was after. Just to have someone there.

      That must leave quite an indelible mark on you, Deanna. Muted voice indeed.

      Thank you for being here and showing another side of this.


      1. Deanna Herrmann says:

        Exactly. It maybe wasn’t the best example because there isn’t anything else to do but be there, but let me tell you, not being able to say anything when you want nothing more than to be able to is painful. I kept wishing I had something meaningful or heartfelt, but usually I just remained present and if they were alone, I held them or their hands. It does leave a mark, one of gratitude for the blessings in my life. It was a hard job, but I definitely miss it. But I know what you were saying is more about finding and accepting silence in the every day moments of life. Being still. I definitely agree that you have to deal with your demons before you can do that. I had to and still do, but once you do, you can surely see the beauty in silence. I really, really loved how thought-provoking this was!

        1. I think it was a perfect example, Deanna. Reading Marius’ example below too solidifies what you said perfectly. You have added tremendously to this small idea I presented…and really extrapolated on it to show the bigger picture on this. Because sometimes we find ourselves in some not-so-everyday moments, and there is something to be said about resting and being in silence at moments there too. And you showed a beautiful, heartbreaking example of that.

          You rock 🙂

          1. Deanna Herrmann says:

            Aww, thank you! So do you!

  3. Oh yeah. Once again, I can totally relate, my verbal gerbil soul brother. For the longest time I felt that my only purpose in life was to jump into the breach whenever an awkward silence came over a social gathering. I don’t know why I thought it was my responsibility, but I took it seriously, being the keeper of conversation ball-rolling. Marius to the rescue with some pithy and witty remark. Or wildly inappropriate observation, one that I can fondly recall later, while curled up in a tight ball of embarrassment.
    I too need to constantly remind myself that silence is not something I have to run from with off-the-top-of-my-head jabbering. Especially when I feel uneasy. Or while somebody is hurting. That just sitting there quietly in the feeling is okay. Like Deanna said, just being available.
    For example, this week, a guy I know with 28 days sober, went home after our Tuesday night meeting and found his estranged wife had come over and killed herself.
    Oh man. Oh shit. Not good. At all.
    He called his sponsor, a pal of mine, to come over and be with him while the police and paramedics did their thing, which my buddy did right away, because that’s what we do.
    The next day, this poor newcomer had to tell his wife’s mom that her daughter was dead, then later that afternoon tell his two kids. Heavy enough shit to deal with ever, but an especially monstrous load at 29 days. What do you say to the guy when you see him?
    In the past, I would have unleashed a torrent of well-meaning verbal diarrhea in the hope that some part of it would make him feel better and maybe help him stay sober. This time I just said, “I’m sorry,” and hugged him. That’s all.
    Yesterday, he had to go to the mortuary and ID her body. His sponsor called me and asked if I’d go with the guy, since he couldn’t make it. He thought it’d be a good idea for somebody to be with him. I said no prob. Any of us would do it. It’s what we do.
    As I was driving to the funeral home, I had to tell myself, “Don’t talk too much. Just sit there with him in the pain. That’s enough. Don’t try to ‘fix’ anything.”
    I did okay, I guess. I could’ve trimmed some of my dialogue, but at least I didn’t go Ted Talk monologue on him. Instead, I sat back and let him go through it, which he did with dignity and grace. Without any of my verbal coaching or encouragement.
    I did talk a little more with him this morning on the phone. Happy to report he’s now got 31 days and doing as good as you could hope under the circumstances.
    And no thanks to motor mouth me, either. Something bigger than my pie-hole is keeping him sane and sober. Like maybe his pie-hole praying.
    Anyway, I am constantly in awe of your topic selections. They’re always thought-provoking, and eerily timely and apropos. And, of course, a total joy to read. So thanks for doing what you do, Pauly boy. Nobody does it better. Nobody.
    Okay, time for me to shut up. Putting my auto-harp on the hood of the car and backing away, fingers laced behind my head.
    PS- Savored the sweet Soweto sounds, S,

    1. Marius – do you know why I love this blogging thing? Let me lay it out like kitchen tile here: I come up with my little airy-fairy topic (made from scratch from bellybutton lint and a dream), I type a few words about it, I attach silly pictures to it, and I then I release the hounds out to the cyberinterweb. Then you (and others) come around and BLOW MY MIND with real, grown up examples of my airy-fairy dust and then I think to myself – jeez, I feel like a boy in a bubble compared to all that. How amazing is that? I get my mind blown repeatedly. It hurts sometimes. Travels down the the aortic area of the chest and aches there too. Especially what I have already read here in the reality section of the blog (otherwise known as “comments” – so quaint a term, yes?)

      I don’t even know what to say about that poor guy. I don’t know about you, Marius, but I couldn’t even tie my own shoes at 28 days sober. For realies. i was a zombie wrapped up in a mummy wrapped up in deer-in-headlights. And to have the grown-upness and brass ones to call his sponsor and then do the sad deed to his mother-in-law and children? Oh man, Marius, I don’t know if I would have had the juice from my HP to get me through that, to be honest. And that you went there with him – magical. Because that is what we do, right? We do that stuff for one another. Broke my heart when I read this, Mr. G. Really did. Been reading a lot today about this illness and the death and destruction it tosses about like floozies at a Caligula bash. Ugly stuff, brother, ugly stuff.

      But there is beauty in all this too, isn’t there?

      I loved the Ted Talk line…that brought me out of my doldrums there. A fine court jester bloodline you must have. Bring out the tears and then give ’em a chuckle. Let them know the yin-yang exists in our lives still. Make ’em feel alive. That’s what you bring, kind sir.

      And that fixing thing we like to do – like we’re Bob the Builder or something. I love how you circumnavigated that and went for the crushing blow of a hug. Good for the soul.

      Glad the chap is still keeping on keepin’ on. That’s fellowship. That’s unconditional love. Silence has nothing on that. Nothing. Unconditional love…that’s the real meat and potatoes. Brings things up from a simple soft gruel, doesn’t it?

      Big squeeze to you,

  4. big mike says:


    I hope the Nobel folks are paying attention to your blog because you are the go to guy for good orderly direction and deserve the Prize.

    I’m glad you have become self aware and are learning to hold your tongue, early in sobriety. Some are not so lucky.

    1. Ego strippin’, not ego trippin’!! But that’s mighty kind words from you, Mike.

      I am doing my best to do the whole “restraint of pen and tongue” they mention in the 12×12. It’s taken me a while to get here. Get involved in online recovery forums, etc. and watch how the fur can fly sometimes. Get the AA haters out and watch how people get frothy at the mouth. I would get involved in those kinds of verbal skirmishes, but have cooled down considerably. Whatever works for you, works for you. No need to get myself all hot and bothered for my ego to be “right”. Do I want to happy or right?

      Thanks for being here, Mike, as usual 🙂


  5. Mrs D says:

    Wow what a wonderful track to end this post on.. I just so love that music! Thanks my friend for sharing xxxx

    1. Thanks Mrs. D…glad you liked both. You should see them live…fantastic!!

  6. My mom always told me, “Silence is golden. Shut up and get rich!” For a long time, I expected the literal golden goose to start laying eggs as I bit my lips forcing myself to be quiet. It’s that damn black and white thinking my alcoholic mind was trained to believe in since my toddler years.
    But seriously, I find such pleasure in this thinking. being quiet to gain; giving up and surrounding to gain control. It’s all so freeing to me. In doing so, my mind opens, my heart extends, and healing continues. Thanks for the most excellent thoughts.

    1. Us? Black and white thinking? all or nothing? You don’t say?! ha ha…that’s one of our trademark ways of being, isn’t it? Yapping a mile a minute, or brooding silently in the corner. Nothing in between. Yikes!

      I love what you say about “giving up and surrounding to gain control”. Heart extending…wonderful metaphor and experience there. When I actually stop and listen, and not formulate responses in my mind, I do get to extend. And my patience extends too. And the healing…off the charts sometimes!

      What lovely words of encouragement and inspiration, Linda…thank you so much for this. I am indebted 🙂


  7. Beautiful piece. Peace.

    1. thank you Tricia…glad you stopped by 🙂

  8. Paul, reading this is just what I needed tonight… thank you for all of your thoughtful insights on “painting the silence.” What an eloquent way to portray how silence is desperately need at times; however, never fully attained because of our loud or egotistical ways.

    During my prime or my drinking days, I was always the loud, outspoken, wild and crazy party girl. And it’s funny because when you take away the drinks, you take away the chaotic persona which coattails along with them. Most times, especially when I am meeting someone for the very first time, I am shy and quite reserved. And if I ever choose to open up about my past with those I cross paths with, they simply cannot believe I was ever capable of acting like such a nincompoop.

    Silence is my right hand man now. It allows me to venture around my head or be one with the Almighty. My favorite part of the day is waking up and writing in the wee hours of the morning when it’s dark and everyone is still sleeping. It’s almost like my thought process feeds off of what I was once most fearful of… my own mind… and confronting my ideas head on… sober.

    I checked out the Soweto Gospel Choir and I really like it… like A LOT. I’m definitely going to download some of their songs. Since I was a child, I have been captivated by hymns which remind me of African deserts and people or some far away places. This group is truly a gift to the world as are you, my friend=)

  9. Glenn says:

    Three things
    1. Working in a kitchen
    2. Working in a kitchen listening to death metal and the likes of it
    3. Working in a kitchen listening to death metal and aggressively chasing altered states
    I have working knowledge of this not-so-uncommon story.
    Never again.

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