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Jan 08
Monday
Opinion Pieces
In Appreciation of Quiet

A few thoughts on the delights and sufferings associated with the sounds around us

by Larry Barnett

I like quiet. I don’t mean the complete silence of any sound whatsoever, but the quiet of the natural world. I find the sound of leaves rustling in the wind comforting. The same is true of water running in a creek, or birdsong. My wife and I once stayed in a cabin on the shore of Tomales Bay and at night the chorus of frogs was absolutely symphonic. Going to sleep with the sound of crickets is to me nearly perfection.

To me what is not quiet is nearly every mechanical and electrical noise. The roar of internal combustion engines, ventilator fans, condenser motors; the beeps of microwave oven timers, loud television commercials, robocalls, and telephones in general. 

It’s not easy to escape what is not quiet; modern life in a small city, being what it is, necessarily includes mechanical and electrical noise. The price I pay by living in close proximity to others is interrupted quiet.

A legitimate argument can be made that one man’s noise is another man’s quiet. Each person, after all, experiences sound differently. There are those whose lives are constantly filled with music. Others find the sound of television or radio in the background soothing. I find my mind needs room to breathe, so to speak, to have some quiet space in which to move, undistracted by the commercial, manufactured sounds of others so often intent upon diverting my attention.

As I have grown older, my enjoyment of natural quiet has grown also. When it happens, or perhaps better to say when nothing else noisy happens, I take comfort. When at night the only sounds I hear through the open window are breathy sounds of Mother Earth, I feel most at home.

For those unlucky ones who live amidst the noise of conflict, or street-side in a huge, honk-filled city with blaring sirens, like New York, comfort comes not from quiet, but by other means such as brisk, clean fall air or a spectacular sunset. Gratefully, here in the safety and rural seclusion of this valley, quiet can be found more easily.

Craving anything, even quiet, creates suffering. I’ve accepted, mostly, that the world does not operate at my command, and that acceptance and equanimity go hand-in-hand. But I do appreciate quiet when it comes, and have learned to notice it.

I recently stayed at a hotel back east where my 50th high school reunion celebration took place. Given to rising early, I was the first one in the restaurant for breakfast at 6:30 a.m. Shown to a table, I sat down, and was immediately distracted by the sound of amplified music. It was not, I should note, calm and peaceful music, like Brahms or a string quartet; it was popular music, and it was very loud.

Being first and alone, I called the waiter to my table. “Is it possible to turn off or turn down the music, please?” I asked. “I’ll see, sir. The company makes us turn it on,” he replied, apologetically. The volume dropped by perhaps 10%. I ate quickly. Returning to my room, I crossed the lobby, where different music was piped-in, and then to the elevator, where yet more and still different music filled the space.

Sometimes quiet is relative. Once in my room again, I relaxed into the rushing sound of warm air passing through the heat vent.


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