Sound, Noise and Quiet—and Why it Matters
One morning before sunrise not long after we moved here, I was standing outside when I heard the faint crowing of a neighbor’s rooster, about a half-mile away. It wasn’t a generic, half-noticed morning sound; I’d met that rooster. He had a name, a personality and idiosyncratic quirks within the social structure of my neighbor’s chicken house. I smiled to realize how specific my connection was to this sound that traveled unobstructed across the valley floor. Over time other sounds revealed the specificity of their sources: the distinctive engine timbre of a neighbor’s car, another neighbor calling her dogs.
Noise and Sound
Our premodern ancestors—the forebears of all humans, not only those with a fraction of certifiable aboriginal blood—never knew noise; they heard sounds. It wasn’t because they lived in a world hushed in silence. They lived in a world where daily life had an auditory aspect, as it has throughout time. But noise and sound, as I think of them, are not the same experience.
Noise tends to be undifferentiated, often unnamable, sometimes unwelcome, existing on the periphery of our awareness rather than as the focus of our attention. It is unconsciously muted, filtered, muffled, shunted into that peripheral space so as not to interfere with the focus of our mental activity. Our modern life at the top of the food chain, in a relatively unthreatening environment, allows contemporary humans in much of the world the luxury of dulling our ears.
Sound, on the other hand, even when it originates from the same basic source as noise—the internal combustion engine, for example—is experienced as discreet (separate and distinguishable) against a background of quiet or other discernable sounds. Often, sound is namable, at least in a general sense. And in our auditory experience, it is directly and inherently connected to its source. We hear a single car as it travels in our direction on a dirt road—that is sound. We live with the continual dull roar from an interstate two miles away—that’s noise.
Why does the distinction matter?
The Rare Gift of Quiet
Living in the vast quiet of the San Luis Valley can teach us why it matters. In this kind of quiet, our personal and collective psychic space is able to expand, comfortably and naturally, into the fullness of geographic space. It fills the distance between here and the rocky ledges and peaks in one direction, and outward across the openness of the valley and upward into the sky.
In an exquisitely subtle way, our psychic space takes on the shape of the landscape; it slips into the spaces between branches in cottonwood trees, sinks gently into the infinitesimal vertical vaults among tall grasses; it flows unstopped, unimpeded, unbounded by human-made noise that in other places defines the edges of mine and someone else’s space.
In more populated places, with the noise of traffic, sirens, construction, voices, and the constant undifferentiated din of public commerce, our personal psychic space bumps into the overlapping acoustic boundaries of other peoples’ lives. In that world of noise—which is most of the populated planet, to whatever degree—we automatically learn to transform human-made sound into background noise. We learn to not listen to it.
And what is lost in that learning, I wonder. It’s obviously a common loss, an unacknowledged loss. We adapt and adjust and life goes on apparently unaffected; our psychic space takes on the ever-changing shape of our own activities and thoughts, overlaid upon a layer of subconsciously muffled noise. It’s not clear the specific ways we are subtly affected by this act of stifling the natural human capacity—the ancient survivalist need—for remaining continually open to and aware of sounds.
Touching Each Others’ Lives
But I want to turn the question around. Rather than asking what’s lost when we unconsciously pull the edges of our sound-space closer in, I want to ask: What is gained by the freedom to psychically stretch out and live, day after day, in the expanse of a collective sound-space covering miles and miles?
We are unusually privileged in this gift of pervasive, profound quiet. And of course, with privilege comes an inherent responsibility to do whatever we can to protect and maintain the quiet in this valley. But also, on a personal spiritual level, we are living with an unspoken mandate to contribute positively to this collective psychic space and shared sound-space, by each working to become as deeply, strongly, and continually peaceful as we can.
This is what we need to do anyway, anywhere, all the time. But here I can see that this way of being is essential—it is essential that we live with awareness of how we affect and contribute to our collective psychic field as well as the material and auditory realm. Through the act of consciously listening we become increasingly open, accepting fully that we live in overlapping, interpenetrating worlds. Even by simply not muting the sound of a passing car, we can live as if we cared personally about every other creature sharing this space with us, even if we will never meet some of the people or ever see most of the animals that share this space.
This gift and responsibility of quiet gives an added dimension to the gift and responsibility of community. We’re not walled off from each other by the unconscious act of tucking ourselves into our own acoustical bubbles, with all else assigned to the dulled edge of awareness. Our sound-space is one, which is the true nature of reality—and we can embrace that reality when we don’t overlay it with the defenses, filters and structures of the mind.
Which of course brings us to the crucial element in all this. Living here, sooner or later we necessarily realize (or we don’t), that we must become much quieter and more still inside in order to hear and feel and appreciate the magnitude of this external quiet in which we are blessed to live.
A Space Apart
…The birds have vanished into the sky/ and now the last clouds drain away/ We sit together, the mountain and me/ until only the mountain remains. ~ Li Po (8th-century Chinese poet)
I’ve had an image in my mind, a fantasy I return to from time to time of a place where I go to be alone and reflect and write. It’s an attic room with a small wooden desk in the light of a deep dormer window. I reach it by way of a narrow staircase hidden behind a never-used door inside a centuries-old, white-painted clapboard house, shaded by ancient oak trees. It’s a secret place where my (imaginary) great-great-grandmother may have gone to put her thoughts on paper if she had been able to take time away from her family and chores.
I imagine that the door to the narrow staircase is completely unknown to anyone else, perhaps tucked behind musty coats in the back of a small closet. The stairway bends as it rises, the steps steep, the walls painted white, lit from somewhere above. In the small room at the top, with its low angled ceiling and view of treetops and maybe a glimpse of the sea, the air is warm and very still.
When I’ve wondered why this place appeals to me, I realize it’s the sense of being utterly hidden from the world—no one knows how to find me, even if they were inclined to look—yet in a space that is comfortable, welcoming, and all my own. It’s a place where my thoughts are free to take the shape of poems or prose or disjointed phrases or single words, or no words. There is no clock, no time. I envision touching my fingertips to fingerprints my great-great-grandmother left on the smooth wooden desk and seeing what she saw around the spare room, or out the same window with its panes of bubbled glass.
Out of the hidden room
I’ll go back to that room again, no doubt. But now there’s another place I can go to be alone, and this one is real. It’s close by. And it doesn’t have to be hidden or unknown to allow that same timeless feeling of a space apart. Spending six days and nights of quiet solitude in a serene, one-person-sized house at Nada Carmelite Hermitage not long ago was like walking into my dream—except three-dimensional, solid and clear. And the person who stayed there was more clear, too, than the romantic version of myself who thought she needed dust motes glinting in the long evening light in order to feel poetic and real.
This person (that I am today) was delighted to find herself not restricted to a small upstairs room no one can find. Instead, that space apart became enormous; it expanded to unfathomable visual distances up toward the mountains, across the valley, into the vast open sky. It was concrete—under my feet in the smooth-packed adobe floor that was warm or cool, depending on the sun’s daily arc; in the window seat where I gazed out for stretches of time; in the food I fixed for myself, the bed I made up each morning, the mop I pushed across the floor when it was time to leave.
Touching the world
I didn’t bend over my foremother’s writing desk but I did feel another bond, this one stretching immeasurably farther back in time. Severed from all news or awareness of goings-on in the rest of the world, absorbing only what my senses took in, for a moment I envisioned my own impressions superimposed upon the experience of someone standing in this same spot many centuries ago. It was a rooted, almost physical sense of connection with primal ancestors in whose bodies the curves and folds of these sandy hills were imprinted, people anchored by the roots of piñon trees, who felt without touching the warmth or coolness of rocks in the arroyo and meaning in the constantly changing sky.
For those premodern people, the boundaries of the directly experienced world were expanded and shaped by imagination, by explanations and knowledge passed down in stories from the older ones, or recountings of those who journeyed elsewhere and returned. But the seemingly solid contours of their universe would not have been continuously punctured, as ours are today, by countless bits and pieces of distant people’s disasters and painful events, or trivial behavior, or the latest political storm—all of which so often remain in an abstract realm beyond our heart’s reach.
I thought about Dearing’s grandfather, the first James Dearing Fauntleroy, whose experience reflected the opposite of this phenomenon of disconnection by overload. Some years ago I transcribed Capt. Fauntleroy’s journals dated 1911 to 1913. At the time he was working as an engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, building Elephant Butte Dam in central New Mexico, living in a dusty camp in what he considered the netherlands of the civilized world. (He being from the green and fertile lands of Virginia, pining for hearth and chickens and his country gentleman peers.) Reading his journals I was struck by how, although aware of far fewer circumstances around the globe, he recounted the distant events he heard or read about— political unrest in China, war in the Philippines—like the tales of someone who had traveled there, cared about the people he met and returned to share what he had learned. The world was vast, but it was real.
Which is one more reason to remove ourselves occasionally from the world: to paradoxically feel its true dimensions and solidity, its roundness extending into the mystery of unknown waters and lands. We know and feel that those who live beyond the curving horizon are the same as us—when chattering, arguing voices aren’t telling us otherwise. This space apart makes room for the diffusing of countless shifting and overlapping boundaries: of geography, politics, history, ancestry, opinions, perspectives, fears. The gift of solitary retreat is a trilogy, in fact—space, quiet, and time, which meld into one experience of spaciousness, silence and timelessness.
But the silence isn’t silent, of course; it means hearing more. It means absorbing quietly satisfying sounds that otherwise might get lost. Like the voices of the wind after three days of almost absolute calm. Sitting outside one morning I noticed a dramatic shift in the soundscape I had become used to. Like shades of color, varying velocities and directions of breeze began to create a subtle symphony: an occasional sonorous wooo around the corner of the house, a soft sifting through the grasses, a higher-pitched continuous whuhnnn in the piñons farther up the hill, like the drone of distant traffic. When the breeze picked up there were intermittent small poufs against my ears. When it suddenly intensified more it drew my attention and quickened my breath the way energy quickens as excitement moves through a crowd—something’s happening! Then, just as suddenly the intensity dissolved into a hush. At one point I heard talking and laughing and car tires crunching on the gravel in the distance as people emerged from Nada’s chapel and drove away after Mass.
After a meditation one afternoon I took a bath, a rare event and a treat. I made a cup of green tea; the house was warm from the sun. The quiet of the meditation followed me into the bathtub, where I pulled the pink shower curtain closed and set the cup of tea on my belly as I lay in the water. The house made faint creaking sounds from the wind and I felt cozy and content. Later I made myself a delicious supper of potatoes covered with black bean chile, broccoli, Dearing’s kim chi and a little coconut milk. My mind kept telling me I should be writing something profound, but I said, no, I don’t think so right now, thanks. I’m sleepy and satisfied and there aren’t any threads of deep meaning I need to pull on and gather into a net of words right now.
Finally came the time for transitioning back into everyday life, hoping to return with invisible souvenirs. A fuller sense of being, maybe, which holds the vital energy of my attention on a shorter leash and keeps it directly connected to my core as it explores and interacts with the world. Integral with that, perhaps, more skill at putting on the brakes—not racing ahead of the moment—in an intentional and consistent way. Of course that didn’t all happen. Of course I still react when I should pause and breathe. But experiences slide into spaces within us we don’t even know are there. And they stay. One thing at least I can say came home to stay with me: a greater depth of gratitude.
I’ve been reading old letters written to me, circa 1974-78, when I was at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Va. and at school in Paris, letters that were saved in the attic at my parents’ home for decades.
With each letter I read, randomly pulled from the box my brother mailed to me, whole galaxies of memories immediately envelope me: letters from Mom—paper letters that traveled days by mail to say mundane little things like ‘I hope you found a winter coat’ and ‘Please let me know what day you’re coming home for Thanksgiving,’ messages that today would be sent and answered instantly by text. Letters from a distraught close friend when she was pregnant and unwed in high school; from a former boyfriend bouncing between depression and excitement at his parents’ S.C. home and later at the N.C. School for the Arts; from an even earlier boyfriend in southern Ontario recounting escapades of selling furniture and wielding his powerful charisma; from an ever-dour friend reflecting on the European philosophers he was reading; from an “old” (60-year-old) bon-vivant on the back of whose motorcycle I rode as a teen in northern Ontario; from a Platonic male friend with whom I had serious front stoop discussions on the meaning life when we were both 15.
Letters from my “little sister,” my little-boy twin brothers, my older brother and his girlfriend/wife, my grandmother and great-aunt—although none from my father, who like many men of the time left correspondence to his wife. What I read reflects the specifics and larger picture of my life, as well as my relationship with each letter writer, at particular moments in our lives. And since many of the letters include responses to what I’d written to them, they also second-handedly reveal details from my life at a moment in time.
I also found a handful of letters in that box, in thin airmail envelopes, from me to my family, written during the nine months I spent in Paris in my college junior year. I’d forgotten how much I packed into those letters, which often took hours to write—but I remember enjoying it. It was my way of spending an afternoon or a whole morning in long-distance connection with people I loved and missed during my first period away from home. For almost a whole year I didn’t once speak by phone with anyone on this side of the Atlantic; it would have been too expensive. Paper letters were our only means of communication.
What I see when I read those letters now is the excitement and wide-openness of a young woman experiencing life in another country, culture, and language for the first time in her life. (I had lived with my family on an air force base in Japan and later in Canada, but that was still within the cocoon of family and native language.) I am struck with this young woman who was so endlessly curious, naïve, trusting, adventurous, self-disciplined, and just barely wise enough to get by. I see in the things she noticed and thought about how her conception of the world and people and life was expanding exponentially, by the day and week. It’s a special gift to have that young woman and some of her experiences handed back to me all these years later when I’ve forgotten all but the largest details from that time.
But there’s also another kind of powerful memory that emerges as I read: the collective and now virtually extinct experience of writing, receiving, and reading paper letters. I re-experience the receiving/reading part—from the fascinating vantage point of 40 years later—and I also viscerally recall the writing and sending parts. I’m reminded of the qualities that make paper letters so intimate, of the inherent slowing down of activity in order to write or read them.
The receiving part: first quickly noting the handwritten return address and date-stamp on the envelope and envisioning the writer; savoring the feeling of anticipation while seeking out a quiet place and time to read the letter; opening the envelope (carefully or not) and unfolding paper whose sometimes seemingly random folds reflect the idiosyncrasies of the letter writer and the size and kind of paper and envelope; the slow pleasure of reading the letter. Then putting it back in the envelope and setting it aside to re-read later, once or multiple times, and anticipating writing in answer.
When a certain activity is the only way you’ve ever known of doing something, there is nothing to compare it with. Back then, the special qualities of writing and receiving letters never registered as noteworthy; it was just the way it was. Still, I know I appreciated the depth of communication and all the details that went into recounting experiences, describing places, and relating feelings in long paragraphs on pages and pages of paper, either as the writer or the receiver.
Back then when I read a letter, I imagined that the totality of my emotional response was directly related to the contents of the letter and the person who wrote it. But there have also always been much more subtle experiences inherently produced by this mode of communication, which touched me, I’m sure, on mainly unconscious levels: being aware of holding the same paper the letter-writer held; reading slowly and re-reading; noticing the distinctive handwriting, the size and hurriedness or sense of order in the way letters and words are shaped on a page; little doodles or drawings in the margins; following the letter-writer’s thoughts in “real-time” as he or she wrote, scratched out, wrote over, or even when they wondered—as some of my overly-serious friends tended to do, in existential angst—whether what they were putting down was comprehensible or even worth reading at all. Obviously they decided it was, or they decided not to worry about it.
This is an elegy, a sad honoring of a means of communication that continued around the world over many, many centuries with very little real change aside from types of paper, writing utensils, and modes of transport. It was an ingrained human experience. It is part of our collective memory. The time frame between sending and receiving grew shorter as we moved closer to modern times: taking months, later, weeks, later, days. Yet regardless of how long a letter spends in transit, when it arrives it still carries the intimate qualities of shared touch over distance and time, the same ability to encapsulate the feelings and circumstances of another moment and place and offer those to the receiver to be viscerally experienced, second-hand, yet with a very real sense of connection.
Now, after all those centuries, in much of the world the hand-written letter is virtually extinct. And those who were born too late will never know that experience, will never know the paradoxical sense of intimacy that comes from receiving a letter from someone you love with whom there is no way to have frequent communication because of geographic distance and the logistics and costs of telephone and travel. When there were no cell phones, no email, no Facebook or any kind of social media, no texting, no internet, no websites—when we felt the real span of distance between us in time and space, letters brought us to each other and connected us in a visceral way that has no full replacement in the digital age.
Reflections on tiny home and not-so-tiny home living (Nov. 12, 2017)
I’ve been binge-watching videos on tiny homes, maybe six or seven videos in a row, a couple of times in the past couple of days.
I just realized that part of what I love about watching them is resonating with the feeling of living very intentionally. Having a space no bigger than you need, having only things that you really care about or really need.
But then I was struck with the realization: the feeling of living intentionally can happen anywhere. Right here, I can move more intentionally into appreciation of this place and this moment. I just trimmed the plant in one of the south windows (the unidentified plant that moved in with the elderly geranium and they lived together in one pot for quite a few years before the geranium gradually disappeared.) I swept up all the tiny dried leaves and hair-like stems, giving the deep, white windowsill back to itself, to its inherent beauty. Then I came upstairs to my seating loft and there were four (live) flies on the windows. So I went downstairs and got the bug-catcher and came back up and caught one big dark-black fly. I closed the clear plastic box, which is held by a long handle, and carried it downstairs, out the south door, and released the fly. I did it three more times, once for each fly. That made this seating spot considerably more tranquil, without four loud-buzzy flies moving around on the windows.
This morning I cleaned the downstairs bathroom. It’s a task that is easy to automatically shuttle into the drudge department in the mind. But if I’m not rushed and don’t need for everything in the house to be clean at the same time, taking time to clean the bathroom is another way of paying respectful, loving attention to the physicality of this house and everything in it. It’s another way of giving whatever forms of beauty are there the opportunity to be exposed. And it’s a reciprocal relationship: I unveil the beauty from under a fine layer of dust or daily life wear, and whatever I give that kind of attention to immediately and very generously gives me back beauty.
* * *
One aspect of many of the best videos on tiny houses are well-shot close-ups of aesthetically-striking details, especially inside the house. If the camera lingers for a few seconds on a handcrafted mug of tea with a subtle curl of steam rising from it, or the grain of beautifully oiled wood, what’s implied is the pleasure of just being in the space, the huge gift of feeling gratitude. I can do that here, I can sink into the fullness of being in a space I appreciate and love. At the same time, for me right now in this not-at-all-tiny house, one bonus is the amount of body movement that comes with going up and down the stairs, and back and forth, back and forth along the long counter from sink to stove and fridge. Another bonus: during the day, all my movement when I’m downstairs is accompanied by an awareness of outdoors—changing light, birds, the breeze in grasses—outside the wall of south windows.
Part of opening up to the beauty that can hide in everydayness, including the beauty that hides behind my two-dimensional concept of the winter landscape, is letting go of my summer habit expectation that beauty requires color. Beyond the idea of winter, with all the color “sucked out” of the landscape, is the reality of subtle beauty in many shades of tan, brown, grey, rust, muted gold. There’s a transition I have to make each year when winter starts, the shift from mainly seeing the lack of recently-departed color, to actually seeing what is there in its place.
Ironically, connecting with this more subtle kind of beauty involves stepping back to a more interior place of seeing. You’d think that if visual gifts are more retiring you might have to reach out more insistently to catch them. But as wise people over the millennia have understood, it takes refined energy to match and connect with refined energy, regardless of what the energy represents. On the other hand, meeting the energy of full summer or intensely windy late spring requires a stronger energy, a much more outward-directed focus.
That’s why for me, the seasonal transition periods can provide a challenge—to allow the movement of an internal shift that accompanies, but lags a little behind, the outer change in seasons. I get quite comfortable in the physical feelings and daily routine of winter in this house, or summer in this house. So starting to revise layers of clothing, for instance, requires a parallel revision inside. It’s mostly not conscious, but I am aware of the need to nudge those habitual, last-season expectations out of the way—expectations of temperature, clothing, length of daylight, quality of light. Once winter or summer is fully on, I’m comfortable in either one.
* * *
It’s mid-November now and still warmish every day and not very cold at night—up to the upper 50s and often lately only down to the mid-20s at night. Still, with the early dark, I’m feeling a pull toward starting to put the panels in the windows in the evening, although I haven’t started yet. It’s the pull of coziness, of feeling sheltered and comforted, of the psychological warmth of a wall of beautiful, muted green canvas-covered window panels, rather than the black, reflecting, hard coldness of darkness outside a wall of windows. Soon, I hope, it’ll be cold enough that I’ll add that morning and evening routine back into each day. And every year when I restart that routine, I also physically remember the pleasure of walking multiple times between the windows and the laundry room where the panels stay—the feeling of lifting, carrying, and placing each lightweight but (in some cases) tall panel where it goes, one at a time. That movement is what I miss in the spring, even when I no longer need the panels in the windows for physical or psychological warmth.
* * *
It takes intention to live intentionally. That would seem self-evident, but it’s not necessarily so obvious in a house that doesn’t automatically require it, as a tiny house would.