"A friend has invited me on a silent retreat. Relatively silent. After all, the birds would still sing and call, the leaves rustle, the cicadas scrape, the wind sough. Exclude them, leave the galaxy even, and there's still the background hiss from the Big Bang which radio telescopes record as a sort of hoarse streaming sigh. I mean human silence, which on this retreat also includes turning off the wordless communications, what the Japanese call haragei (pronounced ha-ra-GAY), body language, gesture, facial expression, a telling glance.

" 'Soon silence will have passed into legend,' sculptor Jean Arp warns in Sacred Silence. 'Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation. Tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego.'

"Once a year, on a changing day in April, people in Bali celebrate Nyepi (pronounced nn-YEH-pee), a national day of silence that follows the dark moon of the spring equinox and ushers in the Balinese New Year. On this Hindu holiday, both car and foot traffic are prohibited (except for emergency vehicles), radio and TV must play low if at all; village wardens keep people off the beaches; work, socializing, and even lovemaking stops, as a nation sits and falls silent together, for one day of introspection in an otherwise hectic year. Not only does the dawn sound different, it smells different. Without the reeking exhaust from cars and trucks masking subtler scents, the air smells naturally floral, and it's enriched by the green aromas of vine-clad forests.

"During Nyepi, surrounded by the incense of wildflowers, one mulls over values, beholds the balance of nature, meditates on love, compassion, kindness, patience. Dogs bark, cicadas call shrilly, but the streets breathe a quiet rare for that clamorous island, a silence framed like a painting. Not the silence of deep space, nor the hush of a dark room, but an achieved silence, a found silence that's refined and full. The Japanese word for silence, mokurai, combines moku, silence, with rai, thunder, creating a sense of silence as a powerful force, a reverse thunder. One doesn't fall silent when tasting impermanence — the sting of everything appearing, disappearing, and changing from moment to moment — but undergoes silence, creates silence, becomes silence.

"There are many forms of silence: the silence after raindrops fall on the metal roof of an old corn binder pickup truck, the silence just before the word silence, and just after, the silence of light cutting through the pool water to stencil giraffe hide onto the bottom, the silence that exists when your dead mother no longer calls your name, the silence inside manicotti-shaped sleeping bags when the sleepers have left, the silence of one's DNA when one is scattered dust, the silence of neurons sparkling in the lens of a scanning electron microscope, the silence inside the ear when a phone call ends, the silence thick with the silences of loved ones, the silence of other paths one might have taken, the silence of recluse firmaments glimpsed through a telescope, the silence between one's hands cupped in prayer, the silence that water striders leave in their wake, the silence of a yolk-yellow sun running atop the horizon at dawn, the silence that we package into seconds and minutes, the minute silence of all packages, the silence of the crying baby one never had, the silence of swimming in thick furry ocean, the silence of snow pressed against one's closed eyelids, the silence that hung in the air after you said: 'Will you write those thoughts down?' when what you really meant was 'Will you write those down for me?,' the silence of the fog left by one's breath on a chilly morning, the silence of your name before you were born, the silence of slow-motion memories, the silence of quaking aspen leaves viewed through a window, the silence of wandering thistledown, the silence of igneous rock, the silence of mirrors, the silence held by the b in the word doubt, the infinite silence reflected in all silences, the silence of an inactive volcano, the silence of the heart's stilled motor.

"Death is the silence in an invisible valise carried under one arm. As we walk, an elbow leaves room for it. Through a window I see quaking aspens fidgeting silently (the glass baffles noise) in a dumb show of shivering leaves. Surely my death will dawn like that: first the aspens will flicker; then the scene will fade to black and white; leaves will spin even faster in the wind, but silently, and I will have been."