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Letter from Lost Prairie
Dec 16, 2007, 08:31

Montana Academy

Letter from Lost Prairie

Rosemary McKinnon MSW

December 10, 2007

In April 2007 the film, Into Great Silence, opened in New York City. Lines were unexpectedly long and the two week showing was extended indefinitely. This film documents the life of Carthusian monks at France's great abbey, Grande Chartreuse, in the Alps. Over a three hour duration it depicts the daily lives: meals, tasks, prayers and occasional outings of a small group of monks who live their lives in virtual silence. These scenes, shot in natural light through the windows, doorways and cloisters of the abbey buildings, have the luminous quality of Vermeer's paintings and are punctuated by the stark backdrop of the countryside surrounding the abbey: steep mountainside terrain seen through snow, rain and summer sunshine, ultimately returning to snowflakes once again.

This is the time of year when a great stillness and silence settles upon Montana. Skies are leaden, trees spectral, snowflakes fall and one's eye accustoms itself to the nuances of a grey palette. A few solitary ravens and small flocks of pied magpies fly across the white fields and pierce these quiet dark woods. The contrast inside the warm, bright lodge is dramatic. Green wreaths and boughs of fresh evergreens decorate the walls and stairwell, and the community is animated by the excitement of another graduation with its attendant aura of elation and sweet sad partings.

I, for one, have come to have a deep appreciation of the benefits of silence. Here at Montana Academy we unplug your children from the world of mass communication and networking that governs the lives of most teenagers and many adults today. We have grown accustomed to the constant flow of noise as entertainment and information washing over us and are rarely separated for long from those instruments which connect us to each other and to the broad world of market forces which shape our lives.
This always strikes me most powerfully when I leave Kalispell and enter the airways where I am assaulted by continuous television broadcasting from all corners, punctuated by announcements and self-important jabbering into cell phones. Most of us live in a society polluted by noise where we accustom ourselves to this background just as we would do if we had to live and sleep next to a busy road. And yet I believe that it is hard to hear ourselves think in such an environment. Space, silence and time have become some of the great luxuries of our age.

It takes time to accustom oneself to silence. One parent expressed her amazement about the silence of our world, noting that she became nervous and fretful without the usual accompaniment of sound. It takes time for our students, too, to settle into the silence of this unplugged campus. They naturally miss their social and musical connections to the larger universe. There is often a feeling of loneliness and flatness that accompanies the transition from urban excess to country quietude. But when our students do allow themselves to be still and quiet the process of healing begins. They stop struggling so hard to get back to the known world and begin to listen to the still, small voice within themselves that gives clarity to their own thought processes and to pay attention to it.

This voice reflects the core of the self. Skilled therapy respects this voice and helps to cultivate it. Our students slowly learn to know how they really feel, to articulate this and to search for its roots and branches in their lives. They begin to drop pretense and artificiality, to say what they mean and mean what they say. They learn to listen for the note of authenticity in themselves and are alert to it in others. They start to be able to have real conversations, first with their team mates and then with the rest of the group. They start to be able to bring their voice to the campus community. They make connections in relationships which depend on the ability to listen to others, to have empathy for them and to understand their points of view, which also depend on their own ability to have a voice and a language for self-expression.

At first these conversations must be mediated by adults, as so often the electronic world has not been. Conversations must be protected, supported and nurtured before they can be trusted to stand alone, but as the students and community mature the voices become strong and clear and the robust murmur of social time in the lodge reverberates with warmth, against a background of music from guitars or the piano. The community throbs with vitality and purpose. It has a life which is in stark contrast to the quiet stillness of winter outside and yet it is born of it. Such complex life, as always, arises from simple beginnings.
Those students who are leaving us will miss a community which knows them well, where they belong and can be heard. They often return to tell us that they miss both the quiet and unhurried life of the ranch and grieve the loss of community which they find hard to replace. They will discover, just as the transition into Montana Academy was hard, the transition out again into the world of noise, busyness and distraction will be equally hard.

I believe that at times we are all hungry for silence in our lives and that this may be one of the reasons that mediation practice has become so popular in recent years. We need the ability to hear our own thoughts, to manage our emotions and anxieties and also to be part of a community in which we can both listen, be heard or be silent if we wish. Several new students are arriving this week and we welcome them. We wish those who are leaving us, and their families, God Speed. You will be missed.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,

Warm regards,
Rosemary McKinnon MSW

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