Listening to Silence: A Wisconsin Retreat

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

“Silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening.”

Wisconsin, lake, Susanne Skinner, silenceThere are over 15,000 lakes in Wisconsin. I am paddling a kayak on one of them, surrounded by 68 private acres in the middle of nowhere. It is a quiet and serene morning, broken occasionally by the call of a loon or juvenile bald eagle.  Sometimes deer come into the clearing, and herons camouflage themselves in the grass.

The sky is brilliantly blue, and the surface of the water is smooth and still. I feel the rhythm of the paddle, first on my left, then to the right. The water makes a hollow sound against the boat gliding across the lake. I am the only person on the water this morning, a perfect opportunity for listening to silence.

The Rhythm of Life

My days have a certain cadence to them, defined by a part-time consulting job, volunteer work, projects and hobbies, and the million things that make up married life when the kids are grown.

This is a new and different rhythm for me. A few big life changes led to a smaller home, a new neighborhood and friends, and a shift in routines for both of us. We have more unstructured time and enjoy finding new ways to spend it.

One thing that is not changed is my role of care giver to my Dad and sister. Increasing health issues demand a great deal of my time as they near the end of their journey.  Two a.m. phone calls, emergency room visits and hospice consultations are a reality I can’t escape.

I decide to take a break from it, and boldly plan a trip to a family cabin in Wisconsin with two favorite cousins and a week with no cell service. That’s right, I am so remote my cell phone does not work here. It’s a big disconnect and one I quickly adjusted to.  By default, there is also no TV and that is a welcome relief. There will be silence.

During this much-needed respite I look forward to relaxing, reading, and collaborating with my cousins on a family cookbook. Dad ends up in the ER two days before I leave, and I almost don’t make it. I prepare for a change of plans and a trip to Maine, but the medical staff assure me it is not life-threatening. I breathe out, hoping there are no further setbacks.

Change Happens

Trees are harbingers of change. They surround the lake like sentries and speak to the passing of time, evident in Wisconsin’s distinct seasons. On this lake rimmed with deep green trees one stands apart, giving me a hint of fall colors. It is just enough to remind me that change happens without my permission or planning. I am not in control.

Wisconsin, red tree, autumn, changeSoon the beauty of this summer day will be replaced with leaves in all their autumn glory and, come November, the cabin will close until next May.  This week is an oasis filled with conversation and quiet time, holding change at arms-length while my cousins (also care givers) and I let go of this burden for just a little while. We worked hard to carve out this time for ourselves and make the most of each day.  Even the weather cooperates.

We remind each other of the ongoing need to create space in our lives for silence, listening and acceptance. Letting go is not giving up.

Cucina Provera

We spend hours in the kitchen, poring over old family recipes and preparing favorite childhood dishes. My grandparents came from the southern part of Austria, known as Tyrol, which was ceded to Italy after World War I. The dishes we are making are called Cucina Provera, or food of the poor, and they have their culinary roots in this region. It means simple food made from what is at hand, often leftovers and scraps—a necessity during the depression. It is some of the best food I’ve ever eaten.

Wisconsin, apron, cooking, cucina proveraWe’ve made these recipes before, from handwritten recipes handed down through our grandparents and parents. We trade tips and shortcuts, laugh way too much and relive memories of Wisconsin family gatherings.  But there is one dish none of us learned to make. It is a wonderfully seasoned dumpling made from stale bread and served in broth.

We have a stained, hand-written recipe card with ingredients, vague measurements (some, a few, to taste) and no instructions. We enjoyed this meal as kids; and each thinks the other learned to make it and will know the details.  When we discover none of us does, it becomes A Cooking Project. Our moms would have been proud!

With my husband’s assistance, I create a celebration gift of our time together. I scan a collection of hand-written recipe cards in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ handwriting.  My husband designs a collage that is printed on the front of personalized matching aprons, inviting ghosts and memories to join us as we cook together.

The Bench at The End of The Dock

At the end of our dock is a built-in bench, perfect for early morning coffee and late afternoon wine. It also lends itself to reading, reflection, napping and a profound appreciation for nature and silence.

Wisconsin, lake, bench at the end of the dock, silenceSilence has its own energy. Here at the end of the dock I can feel it, inviting my mind to enter into a place of rest and recuperation. Silence cultivates healing, creating space to filter and let things go. It is essential, yet often dismissed simply because we can’t or won’t take the time to find it.

Four years ago I wrote about Finding Silence in a Noisy World  and my week on a lake in northern Wisconsin offers a gentle and silent reminder to seek a place of peace and quiet in each day.

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