This essay was originally published on Medium.com.
My husband and I are on a road trip this winter. With freedom heralded in by an empty nest and working from home, we loaded the car on New Year’s Day and began driving west. We’re keeping to ourselves, preparing and eating our meals in hotel rooms, and doing everything possible to stay safe and remain socially distanced from others. The destination was Colorado Springs where we bought some serious snow tires for our car and then headed into the San Juan mountains.
Of all the things chilling me out in Colorado, the biggest has been its soundtrack: quiet. Spending an extended period of time in a remote town, I couldn’t help thinking about noise, or the lack thereof. Here, people drive slowly and they don’t honk. I haven’t heard one big truck straining uphill, one motorcycle revving at a red light, one lawnmower or leaf blower. Instead, as I walk the dogs I’m accompanied by the sound of a river flowing around moss covered boulders, of wind through the pines, of my boots crunching atop dry, hard-packed snow, the tinkle of the dogs’ tags, and sometimes their low growl warning of someone’s approach.
Maybe I’m just a sensitive creature, possibly even bordering on Sensory Processing Disorder, but I’ve always resented loud noise and its imposition. You see, I grew up in a household with many televisions. Nothing big and high tech — it was the mid ’70s and early ’80s and we had about six channels to choose from. Our TVs had antennae, no cable hook ups, and small, rounded monitors relative to their chunky plastic casings. We had an RCA color set that held a place of prominence in the family room and a couple little portable black and whites my mother would stow on her bathroom counter or by the kitchen sink. She puttered through the house to the sound of the Today show, Bob Barker and the Price is Right, and an afternoon marathon of soap operas. At 5pm, the local news announced it was time to start making dinner (and socially acceptable to pour a first glass of wine). Later when we got cable, my father kept a TV on his desk with the monotone voice of news and markets keeping him informed.
Maybe a background of TV voices was my mother’s antidote to loneliness, or a preference for the voices on TV over her own internal chatter. Maybe it was even a way of manifesting prosperity to those who entered our home — after all, her generation clung to the memory of which families on the block were the first to purchase those shiny new things called TVs. Whatever her motivations, those transistors made an imprint one me. As soon as I became the master of my own domain and later a parent of young children, I put a value on silence, on peace, and on being careful to not disturb others. And no gratuitous television. My children would not have to compete with Al Roker to be heard before leaving for school in the morning.
I first became really aware of my sensitivity to sound when my husband and children and I moved to Switzerland. In Zurich, there are laws against making noise on Sundays and in the middle of the day (like a nationwide observance of nap time) to the extent one could be fined for running a washing machine or cutting one’s grass. It seemed a little over-reaching when we first arrived, but I quickly became a fan. Just as with my time in Colorado, I appreciated the silence like the missing ingredient I had been searching for all along. And when we returned to Boston, I noticed with even more acuity how much sound is thrown into the atmosphere.
Some of this noise is unavoidable: lawn mowers, snow blowers, construction, the byproducts of industrialized life. But there are also car stereos that blast bass to the point of vibrating the street, Harleys designed to let everyone within a mile know you’re accelerating, and those little pocket-computers we call smart phones, some of which don’t seem to come with a mute button. I’ll readily admit to being sensitive. But when my husband suggested I purchase an expensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones as a cure, I thought of my mother-in-law who, at the end of her life, opted to stick with her malfunctioning hearing aids, admitting to me she was happier in a cocoon of quiet. Not really the solution I was looking for. We live in a world, for better or worse, where quiet is a rare commodity and maybe its not just quiet I’m seeking…