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.

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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.

The Simple Beauty of a Power Outage

Powerless.

They said it would be over by the next day; the Commonwealth Edison recorded message said so, that is, about the power outage that began at about 9 PM Tuesday night, June 21, 2011.

It would be over by Wednesday. An estimate? A guess? A hope? Of course, there was the caveat that it could go on until Friday night or maybe even longer. Storms, tornadoes, fallen trees, and downed power-lines had done it. Nothing to do but wait. And so we did nothing, my wife and I.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6f/Bright_Darkness.JPG/500px-Bright_Darkness.JPG

The first thing we noticed was the quiet. Quieter than the usual quiet, which, it turns out, isn’t really still. No music, no TV, no radio, no computer (with its “You’ve got mail” greeting), no air conditioning; just the low-frequency chugging of a few distant gasoline powered generators. Everything by candlelight and flashlight. Time to sleep: earlier than usual, more dictated by the sun than by the clock.

Wednesday morning. Still no power. It is still still. How dependent are we on electricity? What about the food? The stuff in the refrigerator and the freezer? It is cool out, not to worry — yet. We will get ice, pack it in the freezer and refrigerator if we need to.

Things are slowing down. Listening to bird sound and song — pretty nice. The quiet seems to simplify things. The rooms look different by candlelight. The shadow of a lamp, not the usual light-giving object itself, but the elongated, misshapen outline of the object on the other side of a candle, cast against the wall.

Easier to think. Easier to read: no distractions. And then there is the pleasure of sitting in the dark or in the half-light, just listening to the small squeaks and creaks of the house; the small sound of footsteps, your breath and your heartbeat — all the things so easily missed, so meditative.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/86/Remiz_pendulinus_-Estonia_-singing_by_partly_built_nest-8_cropped.jpg/500px-Remiz_pendulinus_-Estonia_-singing_by_partly_built_nest-8_cropped.jpg

The latest Edison recording said that the power was expected by 10 this Thursday morning. “Check that,” as Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse used to say — now the prediction is 2 PM. And later a real person at Edison tells me that we should be back to normal by 11 PM tonight, still Thursday. Maybe another trip to get ice will be needed.

Bored? Not at all. It is remarkable how interesting little things can be: the perspiration accumulating on your upper lip after you’ve lifted weights; the physical sensation of your feet as they touch the floor; the feedback from muscles and joints simply doing their job, if you are paying attention; the tiny sounds your neck makes when you turn your head; the air around your fingers as your open hands extend beyond the touch of the chair’s arm rests.

In T. S. Elliot’s words from Burnt Norton, I arrived

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…

Friday morning, 6:03. The power company’s message now says that they think we will be back in business by 5:30 PM. Over 440,000 “customers” have been without power, meaning that many more people have been affected than originally reported. One-hundred-sixty crews from other states are working on the problem, along with the Illinois contingent of 440 repair groups.

By now I’ve finished Sissela Bok’s Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science and am on the home stretch of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. Thank goodness for the Light Wedge battery-powered reading accessories provided by my youngest daughter. Much better than candlelight.

The planned week off from work is stretched, but not by impatience; rather, by the ratcheting down of the slave-driving electronic grid and its attendant, inessential distractions. I have less to do, but more focus in doing it. A bit like an earlier time, I suppose — most of human history, after all, was lived by nature’s tempo, not according to man’s technologically created stopwatch. No electronically calibrated exercycle to use, so I walk more.

Remember how, when you were a kid in the car with your folks and a train stopped the traffic at the railroad crossing? How neat it was to look at all the different cars going by? How it made your eyes crazy with back-and-forth movement? How if the train was long enough you started to count the cars, all of them or just particular types like box cars or cattle cars? How some of the names on the sides of the cars suggested far away places — different states that you’d never been to? When did being “stuck” at a train crossing become an inconvenience and not a delight, something that slowed you down, something to get angry about?

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/53/Gundelsheim_-_Class_50_and_Freight_Train.jpg/500px-Gundelsheim_-_Class_50_and_Freight_Train.jpg

Two-thirteen PM Friday afternoon. The dishwasher is whirring! The lights are flashing! The power is back! Wow, electricity! The dazzle of a working computer, of artificial light, of TV!

That won’t last, of course. It didn’t even literally last because we lost power again one week later, again at night, although only for a few hours.

The long powerless interlude was pretty nice, partly because it wasn’t a flood or a tsunami; partly because we had hot water and motorized transportation; partly because it wasn’t too hot. Happily, as little as it was, it didn’t go on forever. Just long enough to give some perspective.

Take nothing for granted.

The photo reproduced at the top is called¬†Old Bottles of Wine Aging by Candle Light, by Steffan Hausmann. The second photo is Sky at Sunset from Brancoli’s Crux on December 26, 2007 by Luccio Torre. Next is A European Penduline Tit in Estonia on June 19, 2010, the work of Alastair Rae. The final image is of a Class 50 steam locomotive near Gundelsheim Station, Germany taken on April 4, 1970 by Roger Wollstadt. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.