The midnight oil: Sounds of silence

“I think we don’t realize how our lives are lived in sound.”

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Three times in my life I have experienced total silence. I think we don’t realize how our lives are lived in sound.  Inside our dwelling space, there are light bulbs, a refrigerator, a furnace, an air conditioner, a fan, a clock, an iPhone or your Main Man that makes noises, common, everyday noises that you pay no attention to.  They are simply background. They do not actually exist. Until they don’t. Outside there is wind, leaves rattling, a toad croaking, a quail sentinel keeping watch, or the house finches gossiping continuously about the neighborhood.  The natural world abounds in sound. Except for the rattlesnakes that move silently onto the porch next to the woodpile. Then, there is us.  We generate a kind of low hum of being.  I don’t know quite what it is – a pulse, a heart beat, could it be the breath?  A thrum of electrical activity goes on under the radar of our consciousness. Three times in my life I have experienced total silence. One day, perhaps twenty years ago now, I was sitting outside our house on the veranda, and suddenly everything was silent.  There was no more bird song, there was no more movement in the trees, there was no more wind. A raptor with a strongly barred tail had flown into the valley oak that flanks the corner of our house and alighted on a low branch.  All wild life, all birds, grew speechless, there was a silence of nature that I had never before heard. And never since. He or she flew away after a few minutes.. It returned only one more time that we know and sat on a fence post in the garden.  I always thought it was a merlin, but am not positive. I remember the silence this predator caused. All other living things in the vicinity knew there was danger nearby. A second experience I had with silence was in the few days after 9/11 when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and hijacked the rogue plane in Pennsylvania.  We were vacationing in Maine and could not believe what we saw on the television, along with the rest of the country. A few days later we left to drive to New Jersey where we would visit some friends before catching a plane at Newark Airport back to Sacramento.  Down the coast of Maine, across into Portsmouth, New Hampshire, skirting the Boston metropolitan area. All looked normal. New England in summer is all blue, white, green. The skies were brilliant blue, the ocean was subtle aqua, the clouds were puffy white cirrus, the terrain was green, green, green of grass and pine trees and maples.  But the skies were silent. There were no planes overhead, no contrails. No hum of airborne traffic. Even ground traffic was light. On the New York State Freeway, heading south, we were passed at high speed by an impressive motorcade – big limousines with state flags flying – Governor Pataki of New York was going to New York where he would speak on television that night.  The motorcade with a dozen highway patrol cars was black and fast and silent.  My third experience with total silence was a personal, internal one.  In my mid-thirties I was seeing a cardiologist twice a year because of  a slightly abnormal heart rhythm. The ECG was normal, normal, normal until one time I went in and it wasn’t.  He told me I had had a silent MI – myocardial infarction, aka heart attack.    In retrospect, I know exactly when it happened.  I had just finished preparing dinner and I was about to sit down with the Main Man at the dining room table.   I was wearing a white peasant style blouse with a large collar, a burgundy wool skirt and black knee-high boots.  As I was standing in front of the padded dining room chair, my whole body went silent. There was no hum, no sensation, no nothing.  I was just about to say something when the switch went back on again and everything felt normal. I don’t know if it was a second, a nanosecond, five seconds.  I sat down and started to eat. I never said anything about the sensation until, months later, the cardiologist told me my ECG was abnormal. Which it is to this day – forty plus years later, with exactly the same tracing. The sounds of silence are exactly that – the absence of sound.  How do you recognize what is not there?]]>

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