A quiet place to think
I remember lying on the cement floor in the center of the room. The dryers lined the walls like sentries.
It was a combination of things then. The bleach, the pieces of clean fluff on the floor, the snowflake patterns of frost on the windows, the warmth of the dryers and knowing that my mother was near.
Each day of my wintertime youth, I walked down marble stairs with my hand on a wide marble rail that was much too wide for it. The rail was smooth and cool, my hand slid easily across the surface, but it was impossible for small fingers to grasp. There were windows that let in light, but were too high for a view that might let in ideas. That wasn’t their purpose.
The walls were painted a peculiar shade that later in life I labeled, “depression green” and there is no color like it. It actually isn’t a color at all, it is a hue of control used to capture and subdue. Depression green is a mood.
There were echoes everywhere. Malicious whispers, small and constant invading your mind. It was a place void of true color or sound, always somehow there but not. Like a void that stood between worlds, it was formless.
I left the school in a line of others, exchanging the cold of the building for the good outdoor cold, the kind that chilled your body instead of your heart. My body could easily take the cold, but my heart was another matter.
I began by trudging my way through five blocks of deep, drifting snow. Mother wanted me to wear a hat, but who looks good in hats? After the second block, I could usually break free of the crowd, though I could still hear them in the distance, talking, laughing and sometimes calling after me. The snow smelled clean, and I was fascinated by the way it squeaked under my feet. I kept my head down so the blowing snow wouldn’t get into my eyes or sting my face, and noticed the sparkling on the pure white surface as the sun struck. And I heard nothing.
There were sounds; the wind, distant traffic, sounds that were always there. But stepping away from the crowd and turning down a different road felt like switching off a radio. No loud voices in rushed and chaotic conversation, no minds pressing in on mine, only the snow and my own squeaky steps.
I crossed the parking lot and went in through the back door. Sometimes there were many people, but usually only a few in winter. How many didn’t matter. The important thing was, they were all doing quiet things. Folding, reading, waiting.
Mother was so predictable. She would see me and ask where my hat was. I would quickly reach into my right pocket and produce the hated garment, proud that I’d obeyed her command to “remember to take your hat.” The scolding never lasted very long, but I always suspected it might have been longer if she hadn’t been working. She simply shook her head and ushered me into the room to wait for her. The dryer room. And for two hours of every day in the winter of my childhood, I was there. Alone. Content and warm.
There is a special feeling when you’re allowed to be in a particular place, a place where others are not. I felt a certain pride at being able to mingle a bit with other children whose parents were busy folding, before being invited to pass through the small half-door marked “employees only”. It changes your perspective, makes you see yourself with more value. It opens your mind to other possibilities.
I craved that privilege as any addict would. The more I passed beyond the restricted border, the more I needed to do it. I discovered almost immediately that outside of the room I could never be the same person I was when I was alone with the dryers. Each time I passed beyond the half door, I felt a surge of excitement. I felt stronger, more successful. I’d discovered my way, in baby steps, to privilege. Once there, I would lie on the floor and wonder.
My mind was pure thought unlimited, and uncontrolled in this place of complete and absolute security. I would lay on the cement and watched how the colors moved in and out of varying shades of gray and how the wax gave parts of the floor a strange yellowish-gray tone. Like patches on a horse, the cement was almost marble in its own way, and it felt warm beneath my touch as I traced the pattern of imperfections with a finger. My mind drifted.
The hum of the dryers and the snap of a button on a barrel became a language to me, as I lay swaddled within myself. And I learned then, that there is whispering everywhere. In languages you must have stillness to hear. And there is a difference between quiet and stillness.
Quiet places are easy to create. You do it by controlling your environment and diminishing the influences around you, it’s a mechanical thing; structured, controlled, in a box. But the stillness is everywhere. It’s free, spreading itself over everything and all you need to do is listen. Stillness, I discovered, is rarely quiet. It is filled with many things; thoughts, ideas, dreams and ambitions, crisis and resolution.
As you enter, your mind passes through echoes of conversations past and yet to come. You are haunted by potential, greeted with untainted dreams. Like a bare electric wire dancing on the ground, it will move you, shock you, rip the foundation from beneath your feet and scare you to death sometimes. And that’s what makes it so good. It’s all in the stillness. And I learned how to hear it, in the winter on a laundry room floor.
I became adept, jumping in and out of the stillness at will. In crowded places and in places where the noise was too much, on the sidewalk, with a frenzy of ricochet words filling the air around me, and the many minds pushing in on mine. I listened for the stillness, and soon there was nothing but the crunching, squeaking snow beneath my feet. Soon, there was only me, preparing for whatever journey my mind would lead me to next.
Eventually, it took less and less effort for me to be exiled to paradise. I’d pull the hat from my pocket and hold it out proudly, smiling, but just a little. And she’d frown and shake her head and immediately point me to my room. The room where potential was only hindered by my own thoughts, and where the world was as rich with possibilities as my mind could make it. A place where I was defined and confident, where all control and responsibility were mine. And I became everything then.
As I peek through the cage I call my grown-up life, the dialogue in my head swirls in every direction, telling me all I could have been… should have done.
Voices of others, full of need and desire, clutter empty canvasses that my own mind has struggled desperately to keep blank. And I am on the sidewalk again, crowded and shoved and all pressed in.
Suddenly I find myself walking down a strange hallway. The building is new but the floor looks worn.
It is made of concrete and imperfections show.
Heat blows through vents at the base of both walls.
And the smell, it’s a combination of things. Things that seem foreign to this time and place.
It’s the dryers again. I can smell them, and I remember.
There is always a way to find the stillness. Sometimes we forget, often move away from it, but it’s always there. And once you find it, you can use it to change your life.