7 December 2017
The leaf blower next door started at 8 a.m. scattering the birds. It also blew a line of poetry out of my head that I had been polishing over coffee. Lines of poetry are notoriously flighty before they are written down. Ask any poet. The best lines are the ones he fails to write down in time.
I had escaped a clamorous weekend in New York City, back to the relative quiet of the suburbs. But the truth is, I don’t mind noise…New York City was in the midst of Christmas season, the Sunday of Black Friday. At Rockefeller Center, the world’s gravitational draw for all the holiday faithful, there was a crowd hum, as selfie sticks by the thousands saluted the First Tree above the ice rink. If selfies made noise the din would have been catastrophic. Foot traffic was shoulder to shoulder and four-wheeled traffic on Fifth Avenue was stymied. Taxies honked for exercise, knowing it would have no effect and, predictably, an ambulance, caught in the web, tried to siren its way through the backup. But ten minutes and two blocks later, the siren was still chasing away all, but shouted, conversation. And then there were the halal food carts on every corner…the purveyors, shouting about falafel and kebobs and banging the stainless steel covers on warming pans to attract attention. Silence you can find, but a mélange of noise like this you don’t find just anywhere.
But, oddly enough, my escape to the suburbs was not to embrace quiet. The leaf blower’s unmuffled engine was more to my liking than any silent world…in a monastery, being under water, or on a mountaintop. I like the distraction of non-silence. And the suburbs, thankfully, have enough silence interrupters…lawn mowers, leaf blowers, buses, barking dogs, sirens…to make me comfortable.
The subject of noise and silence was fresh in my mind, having heard an interview with a Norwegian author/explorer who worked at finding silence…trekking 800 miles by himself over 50 days to and from the North Pole without even a radio, just to revel in the the sound of nothing. He repeated that trek to the South Pole and climbed Everest in pursuit of silence, so he would have only his inner voice to listen to (though Everest’s winds are anything but noiseless). Home noise (three children and a wife) and city noise in Oslo drove him to seek absolute silence, which makes me uncomfortable, after seeing the enforced silence at the French penal colony on French Guyana (in the movie “Papillon”). It makes me cringe.
On the other extreme, I have been assaulted by noise that is so unbearable that shepherds and green pastures and still waters start to sound really nice. The killer noise of a knitting mill…hundreds of looms, knitting huge rolls of wool and cotton…a friend, proudly showing me around his family’s business. Or another friend, whose son’s band was playing at “The Bitter End” in New York who gave us great seats up front…next to an enormous vibrating speaker…so we wouldn’t miss a note. What’s a little hearing loss among friends.