“I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.” — Chaim Potok, The Chosen
Friends who have visited my new place have all commented something to the effect of, “Wow, you’re right in the city here!” It’s true, I live at a busy city intersection, minutes from the heart of downtown, surrounded by high density housing and next door to what must be the busiest gas station in town. At certain times of the day, traffic makes it a real adventure to pull into or out of the parking lot of my building. There is a fire station a few blocks away that roars into action down our street multiple times a day. Sirens, flashing lights, honking horns, shouting people and barking dogs…there is always some kind of street noise entering my ground-floor windows.
It is an interesting contrast, therefore, that within my apartment, silence reigns supreme.
Silence, it appears, is relative. As I sit here, I hear the quiet click of the ceiling fan, water running down the pipes as my upstairs neighbor showers, the 18-year-old in Apartment 3 high-tailing it down the stairs. I have become accustomed to the laboring motor on my refrigerator, the white noise of the box fan in the window, the occasional clack of window blinds stirring in a breeze. In the mornings, my coffeemaker gurgles and pops like a symphony until the coffee is brewed, then lets out a long, slow, humid sigh as it finishes. Until I moved here, I didn’t realize that my computer, my Kindle, and my phone all ding at me constantly, day and night.
“Silence is so freaking loud” — Sarah Dessen, Just Listen
When I say silence reigns supreme, what I mean is that my apartment is mostly devoid of intentional noise. I left my television behind when I moved here. My stereo is an anachronism that remains packed (does anyone listen to CDs anymore?). I am not computer savvy enough to have Netflix or Hulu, though I do stream music occasionally or, if I remember, “This American Life” on Public Radio. I discovered that the local news streams its 10:00 broadcast and I catch that when I can. All of which is to say that there are huge blocks and swaths of time when I am home and it is quiet.
I vividly recall a friendly argument I had with my mother when I was in college. (I recall the content, but it probably stuck in my mind because our arguments were rarely what you’d call ‘friendly’.) We were housecleaning, and I had turned the stereo up as I dusted in order to hear it above the vacuum cleaner Mom was using in the next room. After yelling to get my attention and to “turn that racket off”, Mom said, “Right now, you think you need noise all the time, I was like that at your age. But when you get older, you’ll learn to appreciate silence. Besides, that music just sounds like noise to me.” My response was typical of a snot-nosed late-adolescent know-it-all. It went something like, “I’ll never let myself be that old.”
In this, as in so many things, my mother was right. Its been true often enough that saying those words no longer even sticks in my craw. It turns out, Shirley has known a thing or two all along. For example, that silence allows you to hear your own thoughts. At 18 or 19, my thoughts may not have been worth much active listening, but these days they’re full of interesting things, some of which are worth hearing. That silence allows for attention to the task at hand, rather than distraction from it. That silence is a void into which, given enough time to gestate, creative ideas are born.
Right now, being new to the city and having few established relationships here, silence is my default mode. I usually take it with me when I leave the house, as well. No companions and no ear buds mean I notice more. The aromas of the city: car exhaust, international cuisines, flowers, hot asphalt. The hidden art (mosaics on the alley-facing sides of two buildings, for example). The faces of my diverse neighbors, their rude stares or shy smiles, often a quick nod as if to say, “Yep, we’re both here, in this city, and that’s all good.” The feel of a lake breeze stirring the hair on my arms. Both the sunshine and the rain are an explosion of sensations, sounds, scents, sensations on my exposed skin.
I won’t say that silence and I are always easy comrades. One night I cried like a baby when I couldn’t get the news to load and play on my computer. I just really needed to hear someone else’s voice in real-time. Just needed to know what was going on someplace besides in my own head. But for the most part, silence and I have become pretty good roommates. We hang out, we read, we think, we communicate through both thought and words (written words-I haven’t yet begun speaking aloud to myself). And we are busy discovering new frontiers together: a new city, a new living space, a new head space. Which leads me to something I never understood when Shirley (Mom) talked about silence: it can be an adventure.
In this city, where silence is mostly found on the internal plane, I have good and bad days. Mostly, though, I am having the adventure of a lifetime – an opportunity to discover new places both out and about the town, and within myself. I am learning that my capacities for inner happiness and for calm are both much greater than I would have believed six or eight weeks ago. That my tolerance for change and “newness” is higher as well. I am learning that constant chattering – whether in the form of radio, television, my own voice – serves to drown out the vital gifts of silence: awareness, presence, and deep listening.
“The world’s continual breathing is what we hear and call silence.” –Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.