Sound. What does your house sound like? I can tell you what mine sounds like: a dog barking as he monitors the front window. A teenager chatting with friends over Skype as he shoots down an enemy in a videogame. Another teenager watching election news on CNN. The occasional chirp of a cockatiel. A laundry machine swishing around. A dryer buzzing.
It’s amazing how we become so accustomed to the sounds around us. What might seem like a cacaphony of chaos to someone else is normal to me, even soothing. I’ve learned to work and play, read and write, with a variety of sounds. When any of them are taken away, it becomes unsettling.
Many years ago my beloved dog Susie died. I missed her companionship a lot but what I most noticed was how quiet the house was. There was no clicking of nails across the hardwood floor as she ran around. There was no barking when the mailman approached or someone rang the doorbell. The whole atmosphere of the house changed without her sounds. Several years later we got a new dog and it was interesting how quickly the house became full of dog sounds again. I welcomed it.
When I moved to Madrid for a year in 2011 I experienced big changes in my “soundscape” as well. Transitioning from suburban Northern California to urban Madrid meant I heard more horns honking but less birds chirping. Our apartment came with its own collection of beeps and buzzes. We quickly learned to tell the sound of the dishwasher cycle ending apart from the washing machine ending. The apartment walls weren’t thick. We could hear animated arguments in Spanish from our neighbors next door who had teenage children. (We once even heard plates smashing.) On the other side, we would hear an elderly couple’s cuckoo clock regularly sound. In the quiet of the night I would hear the elevator going up and down and wonder who in the building was out so late. On Sundays we could hear the shouts of the Ecuadorians and Columbians playing soccer on the sand lot down the street. I would say it took me a good month to get used to all those new sounds.
Some sounds are so engrained that they even show up in our dreams, years after we have encountered them. When I was growing up, I could often hear the fog horns on the San Francisco Bay at night. I don’t know why I noticed the fog horns more at night. Maybe there was more fog then? Maybe the horns stood out in the quiet of the night? In any case, one night in college, when I was living thousands of miles away from any fog horns, I stayed up late studying and fell into a half sleep. Suddenly I woke up, convenced I had heard a fog horn. Was it a dream or was there maybe a truck outside that reminded me of the sound? I’ll never know for sure but I was convinced I heard a fog horn.
I have to admit, pure silence is difficult for me. This week my kids both started after school sports teams and for the first time in many years neither of them is home or needs a ride anywhere after school. This means the house is quiet for several more hours than normal. It’s uncomfortable. I like the sounds of other people, even if we aren’t interacting. I find I turn the radio on more frequently. I know the NPR schedule like the back of my hand. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start listening to podcasts. On the other hand, silence could be good for me. It’s Lent after all, and maybe my discipline this Lent can be to embrace the silence.
Last night I attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service. The atmosphere was solemn and prayerful, with candles and soft music. Several times our pastor asked us to prostrate ourselves (kneel) on the floor. At the end of the service we received ashes on our forehead as we were told, “For dust you came and to dust you shall return, for God gives life.” It was and is a reminder that we owe our existence to God. He gives us life and allows us a short time on this earth to enjoy the wonders of living. I appreciated the quiet service to stop and ponder that thought and I look forward to more quiet this coming season.