Thursday, January 7, 2016


[Not sure why, but Blogger is wreaking havoc with my fonts today. Kindly ignore this, if you can.]

A weed, it is often said, is a plant out of place.

This morning, as I sat in the living room, the cats were sleeping -- Sundance in my bed, Cassidy in my chair in the study -- and Tom was reading in his room. Outside I could hear the sound of traffic, people on their way to work.

Was it traffic noise?

Some people have asked if it is hard to adjust to the noise of living in close quarters in an apartment building after a large house all to ourselves, or to the sound of steady traffic after living on a quiet country road for ten years.

I have to say at this point, the apartment building is quiet. We have a corner apartment on the top floor, but we hear little noise from the adjoining apartments. The people we have met so far tend to be folks we encounter as they are taking their dogs out for a walk or returning with them from such a venture. Yet we hear practically no barking. Put this down to good insulation or to well-behaved animals or the fact that it is winter and all windows are tightly closed, whatever. I am concerned that Cassidy's early morning yowls to get out the door to the hallway may disturb people. But so far no complaints. Again, maybe good insulation. Or tolerant neighbors.

But back to traffic noise.

I suppose I sometimes think of noise as sound out of place. And by out of place I mostly mean sound I don't want to hear. Someone playing classical music at loud levels when I am trying to nap would be producing noise as far as I am concerned. 

For some reason, at least so far, the muffled sounds of the traffic do not intrude on me. They are background sounds and pretty much in place. Even the occasional siren of an ambulance or fire truck is in place. They bother me no more than when we had the house and I would hear shots from the hunting club down the road or the traffic on the interstate a mile away, hidden but not silenced by the woods. Such sounds were ... sounds.

I know this is not always my point of view. I recall in Mexico City once, when loud all-night traffic sounds/noises were funneled directly into my room at the monastery by the placement of an underpass entrance, I wanted to throw open the window and shout, "Shut up!" Or perhaps, "¡Callarse todos!"

Most of the distinction between sound and noise, in the sense I mean here, is my own perspective. Years ago, a social worker friend told me that when one finds oneself in difficult circumstances (I think we were talking about intolerable situations, actually), there are three options: 1) Get out of the situation; 2) change the situation; 3) change your perception of the situation.

A couple of stories to illustrate:

A friend of mine had put a lot of energy into making arrangements for a retreat. This was coming at an important transition in his life, and naturally he wanted everything to be perfect for himself and his companions. They would have a peaceful place in which to ponder the voice of God speaking in the depths of their hearts. 

Imagine his dismay when he discovered that another group would be using the same facility – a group of girls and young women, whose activities were suitable for energetic children and adolescents, but which created more noise than my friend had been expecting. He ran the risk of being able to hear nothing of God but only the laughs and squeals of little girls. 

As we talked about it, we came to see that he could try to think about changing his perception of the situation. After all, I suggested, if the sounds had come from flocks of songbirds, it would have been noise/sound but he would feel differently about it. What if instead of hearing noise, he tried to let it be music, the song of joy and delight of children, beloved of God and blessed by God’s creation. (Needless to say, this was in my monastery days and that was how I talked!) He might have to hear something, but he could decide how he would hear it. 

I admit this was a lesson I had learned from a similar experience I had at a retreat house in California. It was located on an old estate, once in the center of an orange grove on a hillside. Although it was not visible from the retreat center, an interstate highway had been constructed below the hill, and traffic streamed up and down the highway at all hours of the day and night, along with its concomitant noise. The noise was not deafening, but it was noticeable and for a while I let it annoy me. What a shame, I thought, that such a beautiful location had to be ruined by traffic noise! 

As I grumbled in my mind, I began to think of better places to be on retreat, places near the ocean perhaps. There I would not have to listen to cars and trucks buzzing by, but I would be lulled by the sound of the waves. That’s what a retreat house should have: Waves! 

And then it hit me. I couldn’t see the cars and trucks, and if I listened, the noise rose and fell. It was in fact not unlike the sound of waves. All I had to do was let the sound be what it was, and it could have been the waves on a beach as invisible to me as was that interstate. 

It was a silly thought, perhaps. But I didn’t waste any more time on that retreat fuming about car noises.


Bob Slatten said...

Having lived in a city before, and hearing traffic noise, after a while it becomes less noticeable and, in fact, kind of soothing.

Ur-spo said...

I liked this post. I guess I don't say it enough but one reason I drop by so is I think you have a lovely way with words.

Toni said...

Excellent insight. I lived in the country for 34 years, raised my kids there and all the neighborhood kids, so my house was always full of laughing, joking and different genres of music fighting to be the loudest. Mt. Lassen and the Cascades were my view. I found living there so peaceful including the teenagers.

I moved into town 10 years ago. We have a train trestle over the river about a quarter of a mile down river from us, there are sirens, helicopters, small airplanes, traffic. The noise drives me crazy, except for the train. I find the sounds of the train soothing. I realized after all this time that it is not the noises that I find unsettling, it is the energy of living 'in town'.