I spent my happiest high school moments singing with a group of 100 other students for two hours a day. The frenzy of the newsroom captivated me in journalism school — phones ringing, editors running around, the room itself a popular thoroughfare for students just trying to get from one end of the building. When I graduated and (finally!) saw an opportunity, I left the plains for NYC's greener pastures, my lifelong dream.And when the pace and isolation and financial evaporation started eating my soul, I still wasn't content to go back home to all that quiet. (Well, there were a lot of reasons not to go back, but quiet seems like reason enough.) Chicago.
When my mother left her college dorm — located on the corner of a building at the corner of two busy streets — for long holidays, it was back to her room in a big, old house on a tree-lined street in the hushed North Shore suburbs, sleep was near impossible for her. Like her, the whispers and wails of Chicago don’t keep me up at night. I tune out the sirens and traffic; I rarely hear my neighbors coming and going, slamming their doors without realizing how the sound carries through the ancient plaster and crumbling drywall. The gentle city buzz can be comforting. And it's not like I’d have trouble falling asleep anywhere; I whip myself into such a frenzy during the day that few disturbances keep me from that blissful, coma-like reunion with my pillow.
And yet? Just in the morning: The incessant chirps of my BlackBerry (dear GOD) meant to jolt me back to consciousness. The clunks of the bus lumbering west toward the Metra station. My train’s hissing steam and clanging bells — and, God forbid someone should near the tracks as it approaches, the horn. My favorite moment in any commute is the last moment before the train stops in the station, the roar of the engine as it passes, the violent rush of air that comes with it. More noise, however melodic, when I crank my iPod to shut out the unpleasant noises. (Today? Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti. What glorious cacophony.) My life is loud. And it's hard for that not to get to me once in a while.
Pair those noises with the shouting that slams my eardrums from the inside? The internal bickering: “I’m so hungry!” “But you ate so much at lunch!” The angel and devil on my shoulder sparring, pretty golden harp fighting fire-red trident? The strained, grunting tug of war between who I was raised to be and how I’m learning I want to live? The little voice in my head that, especially when I'm trying desperately to tune out and relax, says, "WHAT IF YOU HAVE NEW E-MAILS?!" Shut! Up! The internal white noise I’ve learned to stamp out — save for an hour every Thursday evening — and the blares of the city fade to the background eventually, too. But sometimes that's not enough.
So a couple of weekends ago, the Shining Camry whisked me away to Door County, Wisconsin, where I spent many weeks of childhood summer. Some much-needed peace and quiet, which I never imagined I actually would need. With each pit stop along the way — I love bottled water, but it's so…wet — the silence crept closer. In southern Wisconsin, highway noise but no jackhammers. In Kewaunee, slowed traffic and a family shouting happily to one another. A dog splashing, gasping, in Lake Michigan's cold water. By the time we got out of the car in Egg Harbor, nothing but unseen birds chirping in the trees and Green Bay meeting the rocky shore of the little beach beyond the building. They say silence can be deafening; to me, it was a little terrifying, like venturing into a cave and switching off the flashlight to find absolute darkness. Still, I had craved these first moments of perfect quiet, and I was looking forward to an entire weekend of it. Waking up in an empty building, feet falling on plush carpet, sliding open the glass door to invite the lapping waters inside. Hundreds of feet from highway, the closest boat on the bay scarcely visible near the horizon. Gill's Rock, the northernmost point on the peninsula, barely buzzed with idling passenger engines and the motor of the ferry to Washington Island, and the loping S curves of the deserted, tree-lined highway back to "civilization" swallowed even the breeze. More Zeppelin, though, if I remember. But not to mask the noise. This was sound simply to slather ourselves in: aural hedonism. But after two days of the hush of the woods and the lake, with few interruptions save for sweet bits of conversation and one quick guitar lesson before bed — to the Rolling Stones' "Angie" — it was time to bid the peace and the quiet goodbye. Back to buses clunking and doors slamming and angels and devils on shoulders. And for the first time, I was sad to leave it. I could have stayed for twice as long. Maybe longer.
I could never leave my noisy life — I'd go crazy with my thoughts and my peace and that…lack of stress — but I should pay more attention to that quiet little voice begging me for a break now and then. Hanging in the balance, always.