The Joys Of Silence

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By: Liz Colville

At this moment, my thoughts are competing with the music in my headphones, the music coming from the speakers in this coffee shop, the conversations of the other people in this coffee shop, and the cars inching (and honking) their way down the busy avenue outside this coffee shop, which happens to be one of the more old-fashioned of its kind in the city (no WiFi accessibility, and it serves alcohol in addition to caffeine).

This collage of sound is not necessarily detrimental, though I make it sound as if it is. The truth is, I am capable of reading a hundred pages of a book in one sitting while listening to all these sounds. I do it all the time. And I’m capable of writing thousands of words per day, capable of editing them and revising the results. But the human brain is undoubtedly suffering under conditions like these. Namely, loud and visually complex conditions. At least, I think the mind is more busy being vigilant, more aware of potential threats, which are buried deep beneath the sounds, forcing us, I think, to turn to other senses to make sure we’re OK.

The problem with so much sound is that it is undoubtedly accompanied by a lot of other things: stuff, things to look at, things that can’t be looked away from. I add sound to the sound in attempt to block out the sound, which of course doesn’t work. Instead it just splices my attention further.

So, when I feel as if I’m about to tear my hair out, I travel to the arguable exact opposite of New York, a 700-square-foot cottage perched on a muddy cliff in Nova Scotia. There are no traffic jams there. There are no lines out doors, or ridiculously tall people staring at their beautiful reflections in store windows while they smoke. No honking, no speaking too loudly into cell phones to be heard over competing noise.

Stepping into this void is shocking at first. There is actually a vacuum-like effect, as if my brain is being very slowly sucked out of my ears through two tiny straws. This is the feeling of the brain settling down, re-configuring itself, adjusting to a lack of stimulation. It is a kind of withdrawal and may, at least intermittently, be accompanied by a sense of panic. What to do with all this static in the air? The instinct is to fill it with something: people’s voices, music, some talkshow on CBC Radio. If you resist that urge, at least for longer than you’re comfortable doing, you will start to hear — that is to say, listen to — other things, less expected things: crows, straggler songbirds at the honeysuckle where the hummingbirds usually hang out, if they haven’t already all gone south, which this time they have. It’s fall; there is far less to hear. Less people, less birds.

The odd thing is you start to appreciate all sounds, even the unnatural ones. One afternoon my neighbor puts on some Daft Punk song; I can only recognize it by its bass-line. Listening to it, realizing that I knew the song, I felt like a plant responding to the sudden reemergence of the sun from behind a cloud: I woke up a little more, I leaned imperceptibly toward it.

A few days later, on a tiny plane on the way home to New York, I was talking with the flight attendant, whom I know by name now, because I’ve taken this route three times this year. She says she knows a lot of people from New York City who go to places like Nova Scotia to “re-calibrate,” as she puts it. “To take a breather and then dive back in.”

Then she asks, “But why dive back in?”

“Good question,” I said. “Because that’s where the work is.” I am sick of this, my standard response. But there seems no better way, for now, than to live in two opposing worlds and let the one flatter the other. An endless and fascinating exercise in compare/contrast. The only trouble being that there is a withdrawal in going from one to the other, and the withdrawal coming back to New York is more painful, because it is the move from under-stimulation to over-stimulation, from tranquility to chaos. I’m sure some personalities find tranquility more traumatizing than chaos. But not mine.

I can count the things that came into my mind for any substantial length of time during those twelve, mostly stormy days I just spent on the sandy cliff in Nova Scotia. Or, at least, I can count the categories of things that came into my mind:

-Words and phrases from the books I was reading: highlighted passages, unfamiliar words, relatable ideas
-Words exchanged with my friends there, particularly the funny words, the clever words
-The voices of various CBC radio hosts and the words of their more memorable interview subjects
-Birds
-Dogs

In so much silence words are, of course, more appreciated, but in an almost primitive way, as if they have nutritional value. Because the words have less to compete with, they are absorbed better, recalled more easily, and have more influence over future words, future thoughts. They seem to form a chain reaction. In New York, on the other hand, I feel my thoughts amount to a number of broken chains of various lengths. Having multiple chains going seems promising, I suppose, but I would much rather have one continuous chain.

It’s still hard for me to argue that the quality of life in that cottage is somehow better than the quality of life in New York City. I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s just the cadence of life that’s better in the cottage, and only to me personally. Oddly enough, the pulse of life spikes and falls more in rural Nova Scotia, whereas in New York, it moves steadily along at (of course) a palpitating pace. In New York, so much happens and therefore nothing happens. In Nova Scotia, nothing happens and therefore a lot happens. A reduction in sound means also a reduction in sights, in events, even, but that also means the rare sights and events that do happen can be focused on more attentively.

I claim, though I can’t yet confirm, that I would prefer to settle in the country. My mother cautions this by saying, “The days are awfully long.” As if this is a bad thing. This is the reason I go to Nova Scotia as often as possible: whatever is happening there seems to get at the essence of life. It is the main attraction. As my grandmother, the person who brought our family there in the first place, liked to say, “Ordinary things are important.”

The days are long, yes. Blessedly long. A friend of mine said recently that I seem to like to do “things that involve sitting”: reading, writing, knitting. This is true. But I increasingly feel that a quiet place is the only place that gives room enough for sedentary and quiet things. It is technically possible to live any way you want to, anywhere. Geography shouldn’t be blamed for the culture that emerges in a place. But in quiet places less judgment seems to be passed on people for living modestly, quietly — boringly, you might say, but only by youthful, modern, urban standards.