Can You Hear the Loss of Silence?

It was a day in the summer-like early autumn. The morning sun of the backyard sent me an invitation to step outside. Sometimes I meditate there instead of reading. But a “nothing” that was “something” arrested my attention.

Silence.

The once commonplace ambiance startled me. Daytime silence has become a strange occurrence.

Living in Chicago as a child of the ’50s, silence created the background for the first daylight hours. My family lived on a side street in the West Rogers Park area. Talman Avenue led nowhere in particular, nowhere of importance.  Cars parked on either side of the single lane, one-way thoroughfare. Little traffic passed through.

Their movement wasn’t rapid, and horns remained muted most of the time. Bicycles traveled on the sidewalk only, but we didn’t need them to walk to school. Most kids came home from Jamieson elementary school for lunch. Nor did the small shops in the area require automobiles to get to work or visit. Buses did the job your feet didn’t, along with their connections to more distant elevated trains if needed.

Libraries were still, too. We respected the librarian’s unstated role as a pseudo police officer. Conversation didn’t occur unless you needed help to find a book. The dear lady in charge enforced the atmosphere by her presence and the readers’ ingrained discipline. The woman ruled but not as a ruler.

Jet aircraft rarely flew overhead. A plane flight was unusual. I didn’t take one until college, by then on a jet.

Propeller planes moved in discrete slow motion and one at a time, so it seemed. Only skywriters, a dying method of advertising, claimed exceptional attention.

The neighborhood offered modest two-flat residences and newer single-family homes, though not many of these.

Lawnmowers depended on boys and men muscling up to the task of pushing and pulling. Winter in the neighborhood insisted on snow shovels, no plows or blowers.

No one thought these conditions exceptional. It was the way we lived, and nothing about that mode of living changed until after I finished 12th grade, maybe later.

Of course, on the recent day I mentioned, birds engaged in conversations and announcements. No electric or gas-powered mowers did their dirty work of beautification. Trains couldn’t be heard in the distance, though a low-pitched drone of human movement came from a few blocks away and its four-lane street.

Skyscraping jets sped elsewhere, not overhead. I tried not to think about any of this and enjoyed the tranquility while it lasted.

Ah, but the moment disappeared too soon. Employees of multiple lawn services disturbed my reverie, making a simultaneous assault with riding mowers as their weapons. The O’Hare airport flight path altered too, with the up top passenger travel bringing war between the grasscutters and the skywaymen to dominate everyone’s ears.

All this is common in a summertime town 26 miles from Chicago and 18 miles from the airfield. They call it progress.

I left the yard for the quieter inside, an artificial thing but better than the punishment.

I realize more distant places are quieter most of the time. Moving to such spots, of course, brings losses too. Many restaurants, theaters, and museums exist only in imposing cities. The distance from my children, grandchildren, and friends would establish a further cost.

I sometimes think about those much younger than I am, those in a metropolis which never allowed any period of prolonged outdoor quiet except perhaps at night, if they were lucky. Nor did the inhabitants enjoy the once blue and true everyday sky. They don’t know what they missed.

When walking in any heavily trafficked, citified downtown, one notices young people wearing headsets or earbuds. These luxuries keep external noises out by topping them, superimposing voices to outshout twenty-first-century loudness with sounds more pleasing.

I imagine there would be no persuading the youthful ones of what has disappeared, that is, creating my emotional response to a vanished time. One day, however, those kids will make hearing aid manufacturers rich. Then they will know something similar.

For recognition of a change, one must watch and listen for the incremental theft. Like all the things we lose, the loss is informative of the person’s value, environment, opportunity, or freedom one used to have.

Youth and beauty are like that: temporary. What is customary is taken for granted. A shame we must learn this way.

I sometimes wonder if the silence fled with the honeybees, monarch butterflies, and houseflies. Weren’t they supposed to say thank you and shake my hand first? Rudeness, I guess.

Keep your eyes and ears open, then. Life is a precious thing with no guarantee of a second chance. You can think of what I’ve said as a dark perspective, but I hope you focus on what remains in the world, the better to enjoy and save all that is marvelous.

Make the most of all your senses and your possibilities. Keep the world a habitable place, one that offers kindly invitations from the sun, the moon, and the stars; the wind in the trees, and the birds and the bees.

If you decline such invitations, you won’t continue to get invited to their party.

Reclaim the best of the world while disposing of the worst for yourself and others. Maybe that’s the meaning of life.

==========

All of the photos are those of Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

The first offers Butterflies at the Chicago Botanic Garden in September of 2020. Next comes a photo taken Outside Moab in September 2021. The last picture displays the Slot Canyons Enroute to Lake Powell.

25 thoughts on “Can You Hear the Loss of Silence?

  1. Life is a precious thing…. I’ve just buried my fourth and last sibling.

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  2. When I started reading your post I thought of the morning after 9/11. Can’t believe it was so long ago already. Time slips on by if you don’t pay attention to her I suppose.
    I also find myself escaping the white noise of “progress” as I mature.
    Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Laura. It is probably no accident that some of your art comes from places that are quiet or relatively so. I imagine you have lots to say about how the presence or absence of silence informs what is observed with your eyes and how you capture it. The conductor Carlo Maria Giulini used to say that the silences within a piece of music created the effect of background and foreground for the sound. Thank you for what you wrote as well as the beauty of your work.

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  3. Beautiful post, Dr. Stein. Our youth have found ways to block out the noise as well as what’s going on around them. Those who are paying attention are now anxious about their future on a warming planet. When the Great Silence comes, there may no longer be the trees, the birds, and the bees that we now take for granted.

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  4. I had a heartening conversation with a young woman who lives in in my neighborhood today. Without any strenuous comment from me, she had already taken steps to change her purchasing behavior in light of the growing loss of our country’s shorelines. She realizes her young family’s well-being depends on everyone. Thanks for the part you play, Rosaliene.

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    • Poignant and moving, thank you. I am reminded of the ‘silence’ and splendour of my childhood night sky. It was swarrming and humming and filled with a 1000 stars. I imagine the stars are still there, but they’re not visible any more. The losses pile up. It is painful. Especially so when old and alone in the world, as apparently I am.

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      • Your response is also poignant and moving, jaymo. I imagine the thoughts we are sharing are more available to those of us who have lived long enough and are open enough to know where we came from — a world that moved more slowly and where safe places, depending on your race, didn’t seem imperiled. Yet the young woman I mentioned to Rosaliene and others like her offer some hope.Thank you for sharing something of yourself.

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  5. As your essay and the comments illustrate, silence can have many meanings: Being one with nature, or being all alone in an indifferent universe; being with someone when words are unnecessary, or being with someone when words can’t bridge the gap, etc. “It is better to remain silent at risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.” Thanks for an interesting piece.

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  6. I remember when stores were closed on Sundays, and a certain quietness settled upon the small mill town where I grew up. Sundays were for families and 2 PM boiled dinners after Sunday mass, and then pile into cars to drive to a neighboring town to visit widowed great-aunts. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s I feel I experienced the end of the Great Depression type of culture when it was old-fashioned in values, culture and technology. Not necessarily a good thing as we can romanticize our memories, but as I am trying to grasp the quietness and solitude we had during the lockdown, I will take quietness any day over the mayhem we are presently experiencing.

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  7. I’d never quite conceptualized the notion of experiencing the tail end of the Great Depression. Yes, for many of us, our families were still living in the psychological space you described even into the early 60s at least. Perhaps it lasted longer in some places, as you suggested. Certainly the WWII belief in service to the country was around during the Vietnam War, and fueled the misunderstandings between the generations. Thank you for your eye-opening comment, Nancy.

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    • The cities were far ahead culturally than the small towns and rural areas. I remember old-fashioned stores that were a time warp from the 1920’s, popsicles that cost a nickel, admission to the movie theater was a dollar, our doors were left unlocked at night (did we have a lock?). I started working at the age of 13 (babysitting), had to pay board immediately when I left high school (maybe that was a good thing) and even many of the cars were from the 1930’s. This is all romanticized by me though as there was blatant racism, misogyny, sexual abuse, poverty, alcohol abuse and physical abuse. There was no help for people who were victimized as these were secrets to be kept within the family, as it was not the business of outsiders.

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      • You might want to watch two episodes from the first season of the original Twilight Zone: “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby.” Both feature small towns of an earlier time looking back from 1959 when these episodes were filmed. Neither is scary. Both, especially the first, are tender and nostalgic. Thanks your your own sweet reflections, Nancy.

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  8. I’m glad to hear it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a thoughtful post, and another great one, Dr. S! 🙂 It’s been a while since I went online to read. I’m dealing with a lot, including having gotten the full-dose Moderna jab #3.

    Silence is something that I miss. I live in a downtown area where I occasionally hear protests, where I constantly hear vehicles at night with their loud muffler sounds, and where I constantly hear some sort of noise. Who would have thought that in order to drown out noise, you would need more noise (as in “white noise”)? I struggle with tinnitus, among many other things. I’m homebound most days with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis. I’m now prediabetic and have abnormal thyroid readings, so I have to go in for more tests. The noises I hear between the hours of 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. largely comprise vehicles outside and my air purifiers inside. I use my air purifiers as white noise for both the vehicles outside and the tinnitus in my ears. What I’d give to hear silence, which is never truly silent, in my humble opinion.

    I loved your recollection of the old days of Chicago. That sounded really nice and peaceful!

    I recall the beach in Hawaii in the middle of the night, back in the early 1990s. I often drove around Oahu in the middle of the night to look up at the stars on the beach – by myself. That, to me, was the most pleasant silence I’ve had in my memory banks. Today, I’m too afraid to go out alone, and I don’t drive anymore. Back then, there wasn’t as much crime either, and we didn’t have as much anti-Asian hate or pandemic-related illnesses.

    It’s harder to enjoy quiet/silence these days. It’s like our bodies are used to noise. Without it, we wonder if something’s wrong with our hearing, or we feel awkward when mingling with others. It’s strange how silence affects mood different these days, when compared to those describing silence from back in the day. Or has it changed? I’m guessing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to hear you got the booster, but sorry to hear you continue to struggle with multiple medical challenges. As to tinnitus, I’ve long had it and found I’ve accommodated to it most of the time. I do know, however, some people who don’t seem to adjust. I hope you do.

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      • My tinnitus is mild, so white noise like my air purifiers help. I mostly hear like air sounds in my ears. I only occasionally hear ringing. I am so sorry you struggle with that too! I am glad you manage it or adjust to it well. 🙂

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  10. Thank you, Dragonfly!

    Liked by 1 person

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