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Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Sounds of Silence

Silence is golden, or so the saying goes.

Silence also is a rare commodity these days. Sound -- and especially noise -- is all around us, especially in today's fast-paced, urban world.

Sound can have a profound impact on my mood. Certain things -- traffic, yiping dogs, screaming kids and blaring televisions -- drive me crazy. There are other sounds that I really enjoy, such as the sound of a whale exhaling as it surfaces, a tennis ball hitting the sweet spot on a racquet, rain on the roof, and the sound of birds singing.

One of the things that bothered me about living in Moscow, even on the 12th floor of my apartment building, was the noise. I lived just a couple of blocks from a 12-lane road that circled through the city. Known as the Garden Ring, it is always full of traffic and impatient drivers. Russian street crews used to work on the street in front of my building in the wee hours of the morning, jack hammers echoing off the surrounding buildings. One night I had to move to the small bedroom on the other side of the apartment to escape the clanging of snow removal equipment. This wasn't a snow plow, but something called the 'crab' that moved the snow into a dump truck for disposal.

When I lived in California, my house was near a city park that was home to kids' baseball seven days a week for eight months of the year. In addition to the traffic and incessant beeping of car horns as people locked their vehicles, I was subjected to the never-ending drone of the announcers. A couple of blocks in the other direction was a major expressway, complete with noisy mufflers, lots of emergency sirens and racing motorcycles.

Now I live in a place of quiet. I still hear dogs barking sometimes, but not a lot. There is virtually no traffic on my road. I do hear the howls of coyotes sometimes, or the funny noises of the neighborhood quail. But these sounds are enjoyable. And I love hearing the quiet when I wake up in the middle of the night.

I am not one of those people who have to have the television on "for the noise." Sometimes during the day, I will listen to a CD, but generally the house is devoid of artificial noise. My daughter, on the other hand, always wants to have the television on.

Unfortunately, due to tinnitus -- a persistent ringing in my ears -- my world is never completely silent. The ringing doesn't bother me most of the time, except when everything is still.

A few years ago, a sudden ear infection caused my ear drum to rupture. Due to significant hearing loss in the other ear when I was 10 years old, I was left with very little hearing at all for a couple of months. This was a frightening time, as I waited for the ruptured ear drum to heal, the fluid in the ear to dissipate, and my hearing to return. In the meantime, I was unable to hear approaching cars as I walked, to hear my daughter walking into my room, or to hear the television without the volume cranked up to a very loud level. Eventually, everything healed, and my hearing returned to normal.That experience made me very conscious of how important sound is.

People these days seem afraid of the quiet, as if they use the distraction of noise as an excuse not to think or contemplate. I am quite happy driving without having the car radio on. I enjoy listening to the quiet breathing, even the snoring, of my elderly dog as she sleeps in her bed at night. Silence is something to be enjoyed, not avoided.

Perhaps it is time for us to seek out periods of silence, when we can focus on the sounds of nature, our own breathing and our thoughts. Whether we use times of silence to pray, meditate or just 'be,' silence is nonetheless something to be cherished and enjoyed.