My second apartment in New York was on the upper west side, in a neighborhood I couldn't possibly afford now. My studio was the parlor of a brownstone between Columbus and the park, just four houses away from CPW. The neighborhood was transitioning from boarding workers from the south to harboring up and coming soap stars and journalists. The streets had been nicknamed after the states from where the boarders hailed--Mississippi Street, Alabama street... In my little piece of west 88th street, I had wooden shutters, a built in fireplace and a loft bed. Convenient to Columbia where I was in grad school and the subway that took me to my job at the public theater, it was perfect for walking riding or biking. My dog Rebel and I ran the park; life was NYC crazy and quiet at the same time.
The upper west side felt like a haven in at the crush of the buses, taxis and tourists that were south of me. I whizzed by them on my bike. The city was mine. In 1981 on the advice of a palmist at Gaylord’s I went to the Midwest to study for my PhD. The sense of silence expanded. From NYC to Lincoln Nebraska was a move from shadow to sun, from a corrugated skyline to miles of visibility. Now a more dedicated bicyclist I traversed the plains, the rolling hills, the hayfields right out of Monet. Seduced by landscape and sky I knew breathing had become easier, the load was lighter.
When I finished my degree and headed back east, a friend put me up in her apartment in the same building where I lived before. She pulled out the couch on the fourth floor of the same brownstone. All night long, I tossed and turned on her couch. A shrieking had kept me awake--this insistent scream in my ears. I couldn't believe it.
What had happened? I asked wearily at breakfast.
What are you talking about? She asked.
Another metal outcry tore through the landscape. That, I indicated
Don't remember? That’s the subway.
The same subway that ran under the street when I lived on the block back in the 70's. The ambient noise of the neighborhood was my version of silence and serenity. A New York version anyway. I lived with the drone of traffic, the screech of the subway, electrical buzzes from the street lamps without even hearing them. Until I landed in the Great Plains I hadn't experienced real silence.
Perhaps the noise of NYC and of my busy childhood home programmed my current habit of having some soundtrack in the background of everything I do from writing to doing dishes. Still I find myself seeking quiet more and more. The walks through the hills, like this morning, are without the I pod. We travel the lower trails where we are less likely to run across other dogs or bikers. I listen for nothing. Not the birds or the wind through the trees or even my own thoughts. I just walk and throw the ball to Brewster. He doesn't talk either by the way. Or bark or whine. Good boy. The last hour of my day, right before I go to bed, no computer or TV or music. I read, page through magazines, work a puzzle.
Of course we can say it's a function of age that I’m seeking silence more and more but that's too easy. For one thing, I am dedicated music listener. I set aside time to review tracks of my latest download. I also depend on the noise of the television while I write-- it keeps me in place and on my task. Low volume mysteries are my favorite. But sometimes I do wish for less noise deliberately floating in my ether.
The car wash this morning blasted eighties rock over the crash of the machines. People yelled at each other trying to have conversations. Where I stopped for coffee, the grind of the espresso did not harmonize with the Banda Mexican country music.
It's not a love/hate relationship with background sounds. I want sound, like music and talking, just not in the background. The energy of sorting out what I want to foreground and background delays what I really want to get to. It’s yet another way to pile tasks into my plate or in my mind. Pay attention to A not B, listen to the clerk, not the lyrics to Be Without You.
The time for thrilling myself with overkill has given way to performing single tasks one after another. To focusing on something until I complete it. Soundtracks should enhance a movie, a life, not overwhelm it. The noises from the other room, from the street, the neighbor are most clarifying when they are actually related to a task, a person or an exchange.
Noise for the sake of disguising other sounds is a racetrack blur. The sounds cancel each other out and we descend into a white static. In my current city I live with a yard and not far from an airport. Occasionally flight paths rumble through the clouds, kids yell out in the street. But at night, right before I got to bed, I hold that hour or quiet, no TV, computer down, music off. A lamp glows beside me and in the circle of light I listen for silence, true and uninterrupted, the Great Plains, and a silent night.
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports