It’s Saturday morning. I want to sleep. It’s been a rough week and all I want is a few extra hours of rest. But Saturday morning is the day my neighbor upstairs cleans house. She doesn’t just clean house…she cleans house to music…very loud music with a heavy bass that throbs through the ceiling. I give up and join the community of noise pollution. I turn on the TV to cover up her noise while I wake up, have my coffee and write.

It is almost as though, as a culture, we are afraid of quiet. We plug into our iPods, we turn on the television, we talk loudly, we gather where there is loud music. I have a friend who cannot stand being where it is quiet and falls asleep only when the television is on all night. My neighbor cannot have a girlfriend over without cranking up the stereo: he seems inordinately fond of Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Our cities are noisy. A few years ago I was in New York City. There is a tremendous energy in NYC. And there is also tremendous noise. The traffic is a constant background noise. From the ground itself the noise of the subways rattles up into the night. Sirens signal emergency, and trash collection is a loud activity. Each morning I was awakened by the sound of shattering glass as the trash collectors ground the bottles in their trucks.

Last week the office erupted into a veritable cacophony of chatter. The group on the other side of the partition kept getting louder and louder. On the other side the women were chattering about what they were going to do that night at the concert or at the bars after work. I was working on a relatively difficult problem and the person next to me was trying to take a corporate-mandated test while a third was trying to hear on the telephone. Concentration was impossible until I shouted out, “Hey, Guys!”

Less than three years ago I could not sleep at night. I had moved from one neighborhood where the night was regularly shattered by sirens and traffic was always on the move to a neighborhood where there is only a occasional siren (the police here use only their lights) when the emergency rescue team rushes out and after about 10 PM the traffic outside my door dwindles to only a car or two rushing out to the island.

Even if you have been out in the woods, you know that it is not quiet even miles from “civilization.” For those of us old enough to remember Happy Days there was one incredibly humorous scene when Fonzie was out in the woods and the noises irritated him. All it took was the Fonz’s “Heeeyyy!” and all the creatures of the woods were immediately silent. But we take our “music” even out into the woods and crank up the volume…no bear would ever come near. I was up at Lake Tenaya, nearly 10,000 feet high, close to the eastern entrance to Yosemite. It is surrounded by pines. A riot of wildflowers can be seen in the meadows. I sloshed through the icy water to a table away from all others, sheltered but with a spectacular view of the lake and meadows. But another group had the same idea, only they had a boom box that echoed across the placid lake. I left for a quieter place in the meadows.

So, what is it about us that we can’t stand quiet? I shudder to think what would happen if we were suddenly deprived of all that makes noise in our society. What would happen if we had to face ourselves in the quiet of the night? It is in the quiet of the middle night when I write best. It is in the silence of the woods where I can get perspective on my problems. My favorite time is when the snow falls and muffles all sound, before the snow plows get out, before people start to hazard venturing out, when I can hear my heartbeat in my ears.

Why is it that we are so afraid of quiet?

One Response to “QUIET!”

  1. Peter Clothier Says:

    I love it… For me, the more quiet I get the better off I feel. I’m headed for New York, too, in a couple of days, and look forward to that energy you mention. But I’ll be happy, when I leave, to leave the noise behind. By the way, I tend to define “noise” and “quiet” much more boradly than just sound. How about you?

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