As a teenager I was infatuated with rock music. Headphones weren’t an option on my budget, so to hear the nuances of my favorite songs, I would lie on my bed with the stereo speakers next to my ears. After that I spent years playing electric guitar cranked up to 11 while standing in front of an amplifier with six 10-inch speakers. As I grew older, (but not wiser) lawn mowers, chain saws, loud cars, modern life in the city and 30 years of teaching noisy seventh-graders shaped a large part of the background noise of my life.
Considering all that, maybe it’s not so surprising that these days I have become somewhat obsessed with the pursuit of quiet.
It’s partly due to the place where I have found myself living: a somewhat remote house surrounded by trees that muffle the few sounds of civilization that manage to make their way through the leaves. I’ve grown accustomed to the quiet of this place in the same way I used to be inured to the constant din of crowds, the incessant roar of machinery, and the unceasing chatter of media.
My desire for quiet is also due no doubt to the fact that I don’t hear as well as I once did. More and more I find myself saying, “I’m sorry; come again?” My wife will begin a conversation on her way up the stairs and the farther up she goes, the fainter she sounds. I pretty much have to be in the same room with her to get what she is saying. And that works best if I am facing her.
I don’t want to make light of anyone’s hearing problems. There are many serious reasons for hearing loss. But in my case, I am pretty sure my early ear abuse is a factor. Of course, I am also getting older which is a factor. Many of my contemporaries already are sporting the latest in hearing aids. The last time I saw my doctor he gave me the name of an audiologist. I need to make that call.
What prompted these musings on hearing is an essay I read in the January/February issue of Organic Life. The author, Edward Readicker-Henderson, was diagnosed with a bad heart and was given less than a year to live. He decided that too much noise in his life was part of the problem, so he went looking for the quietest places on Earth. He went to Mongolia, the South Pacific and Antarctica in his quest for quiet.
He considered the premise that “sound is a side-effect of movement” and reasoned that if he wanted to find absolute quiet, he would need to find a place where nothing moved. Eventually, he found himself at the bottom of Haleakala Crater, a dormant volcano on Maui. On windless days, the silence there is hard for scientists to quantify because “the inner workings of the microphones ruin … measurements.” When he made it to the bottom, he found he couldn’t hold himself still enough, nor could he stop the ringing in his ears long enough to achieve the total silence he was seeking.
After the volcano experience he accepted that he was not going to achieve absolute silence. Instead, he decided, “Maybe I needed to learn how to listen.”
That seems right to me. When I think of the times I have felt the quiet around me, I realize that in fact birds are singing or leaves are rustling. Or maybe my wife and I are are having a conversation on the deck in the evening after dinner. Maybe quiet is not the absence of sound, but the calmness that comes from the comfort of pleasant surroundings. Maybe silence comes from within.
I am probably not going to get to Mongolia or the bottom of a Hawaiian volcano anytime soon. But I believe if I try, I can find quiet in the place where I am: right here in this present moment.