by Lillian Beach
I find myself constantly listening to one thing or another. The only time, it seems, when I am not listening to something is when I am in the shower and forced to be alone with my thoughts. Even then I sometimes turn on a podcast or music, distracting myself from the quiet that feels so claustrophobic. There is a need to listen to something. My thinking is done for me. I don’t need to consider what is going on outside, or what I am stressed out about on a particular day.
Needless to say, not listening to anything was hard. Everything seemed so quiet. The first day of the challenge, I went for a run like I usually do. Except this time, there was no music to keep me going, no podcast to help me keep track of time. I set my digital watch to twenty minutes, and took off. I was hypnotized by my own breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In. And out. My feet hit the pavement, a rhythmic thwap. I was more in tune to my pace, which is more often than not decided by the tempo of whatever song I’m listening to. I tried to keep my breathing in check and my pace constant. I could hear where my body was, judge how much I could push myself. In the area where I live, Cleveland, Ohio, we have metroparks that divide the city, areas of forest and river tucked away between the skyscrapers and houses. This is where I run, the winding path of what is locally called the Emerald Necklace, following the flow of the Rocky River, and in some areas, the Cuyahoga. I often take in this path visually, the green trees providing much needed shade, the blue line that runs through the center of the path keeping me on the right and those going past on the left. From time to time I’ll see a deer just out of sight, still and waiting for me to go past. My headphones are noise-canceling and when I put them on it’s just me and the music, everything else an after-thought. But this time I can hear what is around me, as well as see it. Those green trees hold birds, robins, bluejays, the Ohio cardinal. The forest is alive with a secret music only the birds can understand, a call from one to the other. “I’m here,” I imagine them saying.
Because the footpath is right next to the road, the birdsong is interspersed with cars speeding past. Everyone goes fast in the metroparks, it’s like some unwritten rule. I’ve never seen a cop down there stopping someone for speeding, although I’m sure it’s happened before. Go fast, the forest seems to say. There is something about the open road (one lane, nature on either side) that makes people want to speed. I am more aware of how fast they are going now that I can hear them come and go. I suppose I knew this before, but now that more than one sense is in tune, it becomes increasingly apparent. I can hear the river too, rushing over the rocks, and the shouts of kids as they swim or fish, I don’t know which because I don’t turn my head, only listen. Turning my head requires energy I don’t seem to have at the moment. My heart beats in my chest. A glance at my watch tells me I’m almost done. A couple walks in front of me. “On your left,” I say and I hear my voice loud and clear, I hear the exhaustion in it. Finally, I can see the parking lot where I left my car coming into view. The tempo of my feet speeds up, then slows as I hear the beep of my watch indicating that I’m done with my twenty minutes. I breathe hard. I put my hands on my head, opening my chest and allowing me to take deeper breaths. The run seemed harder than usual. All I had to keep me going was the birds and the cars. I’m sure I could get used to the silence if I consistently put my headphones away while running, but it would be a hard habit to break. For now, I have this one experiment in silence.
Nighttime is hard too. I have an anxious mind, I can’t help but think of everything worrying me as I go to bed. Did I answer all those emails? When should I start studying for my graduate school exams? What am I doing tomorrow and am I forgetting anything important? And always the smaller voice in the back of my head, what if I did something wrong and I don’t know it? The podcast that I listen to before bed and then the “Relaxing Music– Three Hours” I put on after that help shove the thoughts to the back of my brain. It’s so mindless to just let myself focus on something else. It’s like a release from all the thinking of the day, although I listen to things then too. I would rather be distracted than stressed. I learned that a long time ago, when I was in high school and faced with sleepless nights. I never learned to cope with my racing brain, only to silence it. This is an experiment.
My phone now tucked away, my headphones on my bedpost, I listen to the night around me. The darkness is fuzzy and seems to have its own sound, the constant whir of machinery. The air conditioning kicks on. My fan drones on, the air conditioning not enough on its own in my hundred year old house. Through my door, I hear my brother snoring in the next room. Has he always done that? I really can’t be sure because I don’t think I’ve listened in a long time. My window is open and I can hear that a storm is coming. First a few drops fall, and then it pours all at once. The wind causes the door between my room and my siblings’ to rattle so I get up and close the window. The rain is muffled now, but I still hear it. It’s calming because it’s consistent. I have a book open on my lap, Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. Even while reading I’ll put on white noise or something similar. I suppose this is because I want to concentrate completely on the book, although this is not something I have always done. Either way, the book sucks me in and for a little while all I can hear is the thoughts of Atwoods’ main character, Elaine. Then I shut the book, and consequently shut out Elaine. I go back to listening to the night. I hear people yelling outside. This is something I hear both nights I do the challenge and I don’t know if it’s the same people or not. My house is on the edge of the high school’s field, where local kids, including me when I was a teen, hang out. I think that is what they are doing although why are they there so late? Hearing them is sort of creepy because I can’t place why they are out there. Maybe someone is in trouble. But this isn’t really a concern, so I turn my mind back to falling asleep. I find it interesting that I go back to thinking of things I used to when I was a kid and had nothing to listen to. I would always think of the next story I wanted to write, or I would create a world in my head. It’s a habit that allowed me to write a book and to start working on another one. So I think of my characters and what I want them to do next, where I will take them. This helps to stop myself from thinking of all the worst situations. It’s calming too, with the fan going and the rain falling. I finally fall asleep and for the most part stay asleep until I wake up the next morning.
The day that follows is not as hard as I thought. It’s the weekend, so I don’t have to go to work. Instead I am content to read and draw and take a walk with my dog, Daisy. It is such a nice switch from the busy days of London, where my family and I had just been on a trip. I need a disconnect from the busyness as well as my family, who keep to themselves as I keep to myself. I feel productive, creative. I would listen to things as I read and draw and write, but something about not having that sound draws me deeper into whatever I am doing. I take a nap in the middle of the day, and it is way longer than I would have liked. Groggily, I go down to dinner and afterwards drive the half hour to my partner’s house. I stop him from turning on the music that we usually listen to. “Why not?” he asks me, looking confused. This is not what we usually do. “I’m doing a challenge,” I say. So instead of listening to music and talking, we just talk. I don’t think the conversation is all that different, but now he and I don’t get distracted by trying to identify whatever band is playing. This day is deceptively easy, and I am not prepared for the next day of work.
The second night of the challenge is largely the same, although this time I am prepared for the silence that meets me. I read longer, telling myself “just one more chapter” until I check my watch and it’s way past the time I should have been asleep. This time, to fall asleep I think of the day ahead of me. I plan what I want to do after work. Should I draw? Read? Write? Play the new Legend of Zelda game? All of these options make me happy (I need to do laundry too, which does not make me as happy), and I know they will help me get through work the next day. My thoughts start to tumble into each other and stop making sense. Eventually I drift into a sleep filled with dreams that, like usual, I can’t remember when I wake up.
Another day of work and another place where I listen to things. My Youtube recommendations are filled with “Lofi/Chill Beats” and “5 Hour Study with Me.” These videos are a holdover from college (along with a less than ideal sleep schedule) when I would listen to them as I studied for hours on end. I still use them when I work at my (scarily) real job, as my job is mostly writing and editing on my computer. When I put the headphones on, the same noise-canceling ones I use for running, I am in the zone so to speak, and my focus turns to my computer screen. I wouldn’t say that I am easily distracted, but the music helps to keep my focus on my work for longer than if I wasn’t listening to anything. This is why I was most apprehensive about the going-to-work part of the challenge. Silence while I work is unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
I drive the fifteen minutes into the office, a place tucked away on a no-outlet road, surrounded by a field. There is silence in my car. The tick of the turn signal and the speeding up and slowing down of the wheels are what I listen to. I turn into the driveway of my workplace. There are lots of animals and insects living in the field next to the building, turkeys, mice, squirrels, bees. It’s weird for a place so near the city. Inside the office, I have my own room that I share with my friend and co-worker. We work on projects together, sometimes not working but talking about what we would be doing if not at work. I set up my computer and go to fill up my water bottle. I say hi to my boss and the other people working that day. I hear that someone is on a Teams meeting. I go back to my desk. It is just me today, my friend has taken the day off. Out of habit I take out my headphones, but remember and put them away. Instead I open my computer and log in to my work email. I’ve been on vacation in London for the past two weeks and the emails piled up while I was gone. Even though it’s 10:00 am, I’m tired because of the sudden time difference. The weekend (plus the added Friday) didn’t seem to help. I think that music would be helpful to keep me awake but I stop myself from cheating and putting the headphones on. (I’m writing this in a Starbucks as I am listening to music on my headphones, and even though the 72 hours are up, I still feel as if I’m cheating somehow). The day is hot, as it can be near the end of June in Cleveland. I prop the window open, because even though it’s hot outside, it’s cold inside. My boss likes to keep the air on blast. I can’t hear the air conditioning, although I know it’s on. I actually listened for it, something I wouldn’t have thought of with the headphones. There’s a bee outside the screen between me and the outdoors. I don’t know if it’s the same bee, but there has been one every day that tries to get inside. I wonder why it wants to come in so badly. The beige walls don’t quite scream “flower” to me. I hear the soft buzzing of its wings and the tap tap of it hitting the screen. I’m distracted by the bee and the other sounds I hear. The Teams call is still going. The office is small so I can practically hear every word. “Stop talking,” I think to myself, even though I know that’s not realistic. I’m overstimulated by the sounds, which surprises me because I have sound on all the time. Why is it that the music and podcasts help me focus, but the everyday sounds are so hard to tune out? Part of it I think is because I can’t help but follow along with the conversation. This is a common problem of mine. I don’t mean to, but my brain just tunes in to whatever conversation is nearest. It makes it hard for me to complete my work. Yet after a few minutes, I am engrossed in the article I’m editing, correcting grammar and re-writing sentences. That is, until I remember that something else is going on around me. It’s like remembering you’re breathing, and suddenly the breathing becomes manual instead of automatic (and there you go, you’re thinking about your breathing now). I’m pulled out of the project and back into my surroundings. It is so frustrating. I go through the workday like this, focusing for a while and then being pulled out again. At one point someone starts to mow the field outside and the whir of the lawn mower is what pulls me out. I’m sad to see the field go. There were so many animals that lived there. I don’t see a real reason why it needed to be mowed, it obviously hadn’t been in years, but of course humans have to come in and ruin things we shouldn’t. At the end of the day, I pack my things and drive home. The drive is equally devoid of noise, the only things I hear are the other cars on the highway zooming past and my own car as it goes over the rough stretches. But when I get home my seventy-two hours are up. Immediately, almost shamefully, I pull on my headphones and hit play on my latest podcast. The silence is over and I am back to my old habits.
Skipping ahead a half hour, here I am in the Starbucks down the street, writing this piece and listening to “Lofi Beats.” The challenge was difficult. I realized how much I relied on sound, but hadn’t really thought about it. Maybe that’s because constant noise is normalized in society today. The moments where I usually will have sound playing, my runs, when I go to sleep, work, were the moments that stood out because they were so different from my usual habit. For fear of sounding decades older than I am, the Internet and continual media consumption has caused silence to be treated differently. It’s related to meditation, to taking some time for yourself, “improving your mental health.” Silence is almost a fad, something we have to try and pay attention to instead of something we take for granted. As a college student, I saw everyone walking around campus with their Airpods in or headphones over their ears. We tune out each other as well as the world around us. Music is such a big part of the culture. Who your favorite band is defines you to others. The music you listen to is different for different places, the mood of a bar unlike that of a walk with your dog. We consume, consume, consume. The podcast I listen to puts out an episode four days a week. I became a member so I could get access to the fifth, members-only episode because the four almost three-hour episodes a week weren’t enough for me. I was going through them too fast. Not having something to listen to caused me to slow down and pay more attention to what was going on around me. Everyday sounds became my soundtrack. I was transported back to my childhood, when I didn’t have the devices I do now. I don’t know if I prefer the silence, but I appreciated it during the time I had it. It’s funny that I keep referring to the lack of auditory stimulation as “silence” because it isn’t really. The world is never silent, not with our highways and air conditioning and the birds and creatures that occupy the space next to us. Even the wind through the trees creates sound.
Part of me feels guilty for being so reliant on having something to listen to. I think I am numbing myself to real life, not allowing myself to listen to my own thoughts; deal with things I don’t want to. But at the same time, I am blown away by our ability to listen to practically anything we want. A few months ago, I listened to the Hunger Games trilogy, having read them when they came out. I was eleven back then and the books seemed so much simpler the first time I read them. I was still in college when I listened to the books on my phone. Time was ticking down until graduation and I was so busy. I was putting the finishing touches on my first novella for my senior project, while keeping my grades up and spending as much time as I could with the friends I would soon have to say goodbye to. All of this to say that I didn’t have time to sit down and read. So I listened instead, while I walked from class to class, while I wrote various essays, when I was falling asleep. It was an escape that I needed during that busy time, it helped me to deal with the emotions of leaving a place I loved so much. I thank modern technology for that.
Spotify (as well as Apple Music, Youtube Music, etc.) allow us to listen to decades of artists, from The Beatles to Taylor Swift to Louis Armstrong. My partner is into almost every genre you could think of, his notebook full of scrawlings about which album was recorded when, and which artist was part of which band. It’s a hobby that would not have existed in the same capacity years ago. I myself am exposed to music I never thought I would discover, bands that have little following (Rabbitt, a South African band from the 70s comes to mind as one of these smaller artists). Spotify, as I’m sure other apps will as well, takes your listening habits and suggests to you music you might like. It expands my horizons from the comfort of my own home. I don’t have to buy a new record to experience a new sound, I only have to tap a song on my phone and suddenly a band is introduced to me. It is easier than ever for people to advertise their music. I think that is a good thing. More people get to create, and more people get to listen. I feel that art is one of the most important things we as humans have. It makes our lives richer. I feel guilty for relying on auditory stimulation, but I am also so impressed by the breadth of art that I can access. I live in an era where we are encouraged to create anything and everything, and for that I am thankful. Silence is golden, but sound can be priceless, both the artificial and the natural. The key is to take the time to appreciate both.
About the Author
My name is Lillian Beach and I am a recent 2023 graduate of the College of Wooster. I love writing and editing, and plan to go to grad school next fall to pursue an MFA and MA. During my time at Wooster, I wrote a novella titled “Memories of Tomorrow,” about a girl named Clara who has foreboding dreams of the future. Currently, I work for the Ohio Marine Trade Association, writing copy. I hope to work for a publishing company in the future and continue to write. I love to read in my free time and my favorite author is Stephen King, although my favorite book is Fahrenheit 451.
I write because I want to express myself. I want to create works that people can relate to, works that stick with you after you read them. I draw a lot from my personal life and the environment around me, however that may change.
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