The theater was dark and comfortable. The quartet had just lulled us into a state of relaxed bliss with a Mendelssohn medley, and was now shuffling through pages to begin their next piece by a modern composer whose name I didn’t recognized.

The youngest member of the group, the violinist, rose to address us. “When we first began to learn this next piece, I wasn’t sure that I would ever like it,” he confessed. “It was dissonant and disjointed, and the silences were jarring. I couldn’t make sense of it until I realized that the silences and the tension were the keys to the whole piece.”

He lifted his eyes to us earnestly, “Each of the seven movements is its own quest in a larger journey—there is a movement about falling in love and losing love, and a movement about coming to the edge of a ravine and leaving behind belief and unbelief and dogma of every kind, in order to become. It is a remarkable piece, and I hope you will settle into these seven quests and into your own journey ahead.”

The violinist sat and tossed his hair, raising his instrument—it melded to the top of his shoulder like another part of his body, and he was instantly more at ease. The four made eye contact and raised their bows. They breathed in together. The concertmaster tipped his chin slightly, and they began.

He was right—it was shattering.

The cello, viola, and violins wove artfully and drew us in—then, as he had promised, the bottom fell out, and we were plunged into silence. The musicians froze, alert eyes trained on their leader—waiting. Again and again, the music stopped, until he nodded, and the silence was ventured into haltingly, as if it were ice that might be too thin to support our weight.

It undid me.

It was the kind of pregnant silence that pushed words away. The kind that followed a malignant prognosis, and accompanied folded flags, and filled the room just before a final parting. All grief and angst were held in these silences. We could not run from them here. They were the pause after the exhale where the lungs must decide for the millionth time that day to expand again, and carry on.

That was the real question, after all, that threaded through the silences—could we keep carrying on, now, knowing what we know?

For twenty minutes, we traveled this poignant journey together, past the voids, past the countless decisions of whether or not to continue, and past the doubts of if we could. It was a quest that would be carried out, through love and loss and death and grief.

Finally, in the seventh movement, rays of resolution began to filter through, becoming a slow settling into peace and acceptance of what had been and what was. A meaning and beauty within it all began to surface, and the tension relaxed and faded behind. The journey ended in quiet triumph, its closure a summit that we reached together as if in the golden hour, where all was peace as far as the eye could see. There was no chaos, no fanfare in the end, just a simple drawing together of all the threads of the story as the instruments found each other in one long and perfect unison.

We sighed out the breath we had been holding and rose together to applaud. It was a courageous thing to live, as the composer recognized, and as we cheered, shoulder-to-shoulder, I saw not a few tears in the eyes of those around me and wondered how many there were in the midst of their own silences.

There is a journey ahead. So breathe in. The path is exquisitely beautiful, full of wonder and pain, and at times it will take every ounce of courage you possess and more to find your way and to keep loving. But walk on through the silence, and you will discover that the world walks with you.


Breathe in.

Willa Grey