Smoothing dirt

With all the construction going on in Keene this summer, things at home have been pretty loud.

Main Street with steam roller

I’ve always been more sensitive than many to sound. When I’m teaching, I’m easily distracted by talkative students walking the hall outside my classroom, and when I’m in a closed-door meeting, I notice sounds coming through open windows. Once at break-out session at a writer’s conference where we huddled in a crowded conference room, the session leader and I were the only ones who noticed the obnoxious, unending drone of an air-conditioner in a nearby building. Other participants were able to screen out the sound, but as we sat silently writing, I was acutely aware of a dull throb emanating from the walls: distracting.

Perhaps I’m sensitive to sound because I feel as much as hear it. One night at the midpoint of a week-long retreat at the Providence Zen Center, I suddenly felt the ticking of the head Dharma teacher’s hitherto silent watch sitting on the hardwood floor at her feet as she timed our meditation. It was as if my mind itself had become a vibrating crystal pulsing with a tiny sound sent through the floorboards beneath me. Another time on retreat, I heard rather than felt an earthquake rumbling like a freight train as it raced from the center of the earth into my own spine. Once at the Cambridge Zen Center, I sat chatting with friends in their third-floor room and felt the sudden, bone-thrumming rumble of a truck thundering down a nearby street. “Aren’t you distracted,” I asked, “by loud noises such as that truck?” My friends replied, “What truck?”

Saint Bernard's with steam roller & curbstones

It is, of course, possible to become acclimated to ambient sounds. When my ex-husband and I were first married, our apartment bordered a railroad track, and the train clattered by every morning around 4:00. After the first few nights of waking, noting the noise, then falling back to sleep, I learned to sleep through the train. In college, I was famous for my ability to sleep through my roommates’ sometimes blaring stereo: once I fell asleep on a mat on the floor right next to the thing, and my roommates repeatedly stepped over my oblivious body to switch stations. In college, I also trained myself to sleep through my roommates’ alarm-clocks but to wake to my own, differentiating in my sleep between the particular tone of my own alarm and the ignorable sound of theirs.

Sleeping soundly is one thing; noticing sound when you’re awake is another. Although I’ve trained myself to be a sound sleeper, when I’m awake I find myself noticing sounds that others ignore. It isn’t so much that I’m bothered by these sounds; I just notice them. While others are able, it seems, to be selectively oblivious, tuning out monotonous sounds like the drone of air-conditioners or passing traffic, I can’t help but notice them, finding them to be non-ignorable parts of my sonic landscape.

Curbstone cement-mixing

The only time my sound sensitivity proved to be practically problematic was when I was married to a musician who practiced at home. In any marriage, there’s a delicate dance as two individuals try to establish and maintain their own private space in the midst of their marital togetherness, and for me, this separate “space” was necessarily sonic. As a teacher, scholar, and writer, everything I do requires some semblance of quiet: it’s difficult to read papers or concentrate on research if you can hear the laughter on a downstairs TV or the distraction of an overheard conversation.

During the summer I was preparing for my PhD comprehensive exams, my ex-husband played drums in a rock band that recorded a demo CD in the basement of our rented house in Randolph, Massachusetts, and it was a constant challenge for me to concentrate on my work while listening to a seemingly endless loop of a handful of songs as the band practiced, recorded, and mastered. When I was finishing my dissertation in a two-bedroom apartment in Keene, I was perpetually aware as my ex-husband, having abandoned the drums for a lute, meticulously practiced what seemed to be the same three notes day after day. Although earplugs helped to dampen the sound of perpetual practice–and although listening to a lute isn’t as annoying as listening to, say, construction traffic–it was cumulatively exhausting to spend so much energy not listening to something so omnipresent. When my ex-husband and I separated, one of the first things I noticed was the blessed silence that came with living alone, my sonic space no longer invaded by someone else’s passion.

Cheshire Historical Society with steam roller

Being sensitive to sound isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I was in high school, I began birding by ear, listening to audio recordings of bird-songs and going on walks with veteran birders so I could learn to identify birds by their sounds and calls. These days, I rarely bother with binoculars, birding almost exclusively with naked eyes and ears.

When I walk or go about my daily business, I’m not looking for birds, but I always have an ear out. It’s possible, I’ve learned, to peel back layers of sound like the transparent encyclopedia pictures of anatomical systems I perused as a child: here’s a body with skin, here’s the muscular system underneath, and here’s a skeleton beneath that. Walking in a morning woods, I’ve learned to do something similar with sound: from the cacophony of blended bird-songs, if you peel back the insistent chatter of a nearby ovenbird or the bold burble of a soloing wood thrush, you might hear a far-off tanager or vireo, that softer, more distant sound shimmering from the sonic backdrop like unearthed treasure.

Yesterday morning, when I let Reggie out to sniff and pee, I peeled back the sound of passing traffic to focus on a shrill, insistent peeping in a low hedge. Zeroing in on the sound, I discovered its source: a squat-bodied, wren-sized cardinal, barely fledged, that teetered its tailless body on a slender branch. Nearby, an adult male cardinal sounded a staccato chip, and the peeping fledgling quieted, staring at me with one shining eye beneath the first sprouts of a feathered crest. Later in the day, after I left father and fledgling to their own business, I heard the same shrill, insistent peep as I sat reading on the porch. Who would have thought a bird so small could be so loud?

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday topic, Loud.