On the power and privilege of silence

Last week, my family and I were standing in a subway station when an express train roared by. My son and I instinctively covered our ears; Lou barely flinched. Lou has been here long enough not to mind it, notice it even.

“If I had invented subway cars,” I proffered, after the train had gone, “and that was the sound I heard when I tested it out for the first time, I would have been like, ‘Oops, guess it didn’t work. Back to the drawing board.'”

Lou rolled their eyes. “Oh, Stace.” My sensitivity to the sounds of the city is something of a puzzle to Lou. See, your ears stop hearing the minutiae of roraring subway cars once you have heard them enough. And I have lived here for more than three years now, but I still feel like a tourist, a foreigner. Whatever it is that makes a New Yorker a New Yorker, I am certain that I do not have it.

The hardest part of living in New York City, for me, is the constant presence of sound. It’s hard, in the midst of it all, to name exactly which factor makes life so painful for me there, but when I come out to the country – where I am now – it is clear to me that silence is like water for my spirit, and I get very very little of that in NYC.

I am in the country – the coal regions of Pennsylvania, to be exact – because my mother lives here, and this weekend is her birthday. So this morning, we gathered our stuff, hauled it down the four flights, hauled it to a car, and drove over the bridge and out of the mayhem. Very little feels as good to me as driving away from the city.

Yet it is where I live. We live. For now. For a variety of reasons. And so, I notice the presence and absence of sound and noise while I am in the city. I notice how wealthy areas are quieter. I notice how cabs are an expensive way to travel, yet we are insulated from the noise, just a bit, when we are inside. I notice how my neighborhood listservs are crowded with posts complaining about cars with loud music cruising down Broadway late at night, how all the white people live on the west side of Broadway because that part is residential and all of the industrial businesses – auto repair shops and the like – are on the east side, where the mostly Dominican families live.

I notice when I hear a car with loud music go down Broadway from my apartment, that the music is being sung in a different language than what I speak and is unfamiliar to me, and I wonder if I would feel as grouchy about the music if it was, say, Nine Inch Nails – just as noisy, but familiar and beloved to me.

I notice how the presence of sound is connected to power, and privilege. And I am uncomfortable with my own longing for silence.

And I notice how my heart relaxes, my breath smiles, when I wake up to the sound of leaves rustling in trees – a miracle in and of itself, that the world could be so quiet that rustling leaves could awaken me in the early morning.

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