Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Sounds of Silence

I probably wrote about this some years ago, but it’s back on my mind.  When I was a boy visiting my grandmother’s house in rural Kansas, I was always struck by the quiet.  No television.  No radio.  A clock ticking  in the dining room.  The quiet sounds of whatever was going on outside.  The banging of the kitchen door.  Crickets at night.  Mourning doves at dawn.  Cows mooing in the distance.  Grandma clattering around in the kitchen making breakfast.  The phone ringing now and then, it was always somebody wondering who was visiting.  It was very odd.

My days were filled with louder sounds, city sounds, mostly the radio tuned to a favorite cutting edge top forty station.  If not that, the T.V. was on, and maybe also a record player stacked hight with 45s.  With groups of friends we didn’t just talk, we talked on top of each other, over each other, and always with music or T.V. blaring in the background.  The presence of all that quiet on our annual visits to grandma’s seemed strange.  I thought it was boring; it was a sign of how disconnected she was from what was happening in the world, what was new, exciting, interesting, moving.

Now I’m the old one and treasure the quiet.  It’s a different kind of quiet because times have changed, but the sound of the ticking clock in the den is comforting.  Television seems intrusive except for the rare occasion when there is something on I actually want to watch.  The kitchen door doesn’t slam.  No one has ever called to see who is visiting.  The radio, when on at all, is usually tuned to NPR.  My little boy self would wonder what happened to me, and what could possibly occupy my mind without some outside noise to do the job.

What occupies it is seventy years of memory, knowledge, questions, hypotheses, and plans for possible futures ranging from tonight’s concert, an adventure somewhere in the world next year, or the new restaurant opening this weekend.  In the silence, my head is filled with conversation, images, notes on sermons to be given, lists of things to do, music, and long searches in the library of my mind for that misplaced name or trivial fact.  

None of that was up there when I was a boy.  It was mostly empty, though I didn’t know it at the time.  It wasn’t childish or teenage hubris.  I was just ignorant of the fact that I was ignorant.  All the new things I was learning seemed to be private information shared only between teachers and my friends as if for the first time in the history of the universe.  It was not a question of thinking my grandmother or parents didn’t know anything, because the question itself never occurred to me.


It never occurred to me that my grandmother’s quiet was filled with the noise and excitement of a childhood on the Kansas prairie, with the struggles of a large family living through the Depression, of the anxiety of seeing her boys go off to battle in WWII, of the relief of their safe homecoming, of the ebb and flow of visiting grandchildren, and of the hours of small talk that only small town rural folk can master.  I imagine that my own grandchildren wonder the same about me.

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