The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Thanks for Leslee Goodman’s excellent interview with Gordon Hempton [“Quiet, Please,” September 2010]. I read his book, One Square Inch of Silence, a year ago and will never forget it. We are overrun by man-made sound. Think about it: how long has it been since you have had just one hour without hearing a single man-made noise — no refrigerator, no furnace, no air conditioner, no car motor, no clock ticking? Is it asking too much to want only one hour of natural silence — or one square inch?
Regarding your interview on silence: I grew up in a house that was seventy-five yards from the railroad tracks, but the trains that went by didn’t bother me. Their passing was like music compared to what went on inside our house.
When my stepfather came home, he would yell at me, asking if I had my homework done and whether I knew my multiplication tables: that was noise. If I didn’t mow the lawn just right, he would let me know about it and send me across the street to hoe weeds in a vacant lot: that was noise.
When I got my driver’s license, I stayed away from home as much as possible. I liked to drive to Sequoia National Park and listen to the birds and the breeze that blew through the forest. The only noise came from a logger who cut down a thousand-year-old redwood in forty-five minutes.
I now live in Iowa and will be sixty-six soon. Despite the occasional passing car, I enjoy sitting on my front porch and listening to the birds.
As I read the Gordon Hempton interview about the search for silence in a noisy world, I became aware, here in my urban wilderness, of the sounds of crows cawing and sparrows chirping.
I am one of those people who is afraid of quiet, because in silence there is no escape from my mental chatter. Hempton says that the chatter will fall into the background if I focus my attention instead on natural silence. I am trying now to live in an awakened state and keep listening.
Gordon Hempton laments the loss of the birds’ “dawn chorus,” which he says used to build to a beautiful, rhythmic cacophony that made him want to dance. He also mentions how songbirds have had to amp up their sound levels just to be heard. I want to offer one more disturbing observation: for a number of years a mockingbird in our neighborhood has mimicked — in sweet, dulcet tones, but annoying nonetheless — the exact note sequence of car alarms.
I had just stepped outdoors this morning to enjoy my hot cup of coffee in the sunshine when my neighbor started up his deafening riding lawn mower and destroyed the silence. I retreated inside and hoped that later I might find a quiet hour in which to garden, when I could hear the birds, the rustling of leaves, and the sound of my spade as it dug into the soil. That time never came. Throughout the day one householder after another set to the task of lawn care using labor-saving, fuel-consuming, air-polluting, acoustically abusive technology.
I recall the gentle whir of my father’s wooden-handled push mower, and I am saddened and angered by what has been lost.
I read the interview with Gordon Hempton in the Memphis airport as I waited for a delayed flight. In the background I could hear the continuous television news; announcements coming over the loudspeaker; the beep and whir of electric carts; the sound of wheeled bags rolling across the floor; three or four different cellphone conversations; children playing and/or crying; and the man across from me commenting to his companion on how quiet the airport was.
Leslee Goodman’s interview with Gordon Hempton made me think about my childhood home across the street from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Planes destroyed the neighborhood with noise pollution. As they descended to land, everything in the house rattled, including my brain. The decibels were so high I would have done anything for silence, even shot down the planes like a ten-year-old terrorist. The correlation Hempton mentions between noise and violence might explain why I was such a mean child.
The only benefit of living under roaring jet engines was that I learned to block out disturbing noises — a skill I use daily here in prison.
For most of my adult life I have been battling noise: loud TVs, leaf blowers, turbocharged car engines, subwoofer speakers, garbage trucks, barking dogs — there’s no end to it. Even when I go into the “wilderness” to escape, I find radios, off-road motorcycles, motor-driven hang-gliders, and just plain loud, rude people. It seems Americans cannot bear being truly alone with their thoughts. If I mention the noise, people say I’m “too sensitive,” or that I should wear earplugs, or buy a white-noise machine, or practice meditation. I’ve tried all of these, but none offers true silence.
I experienced the quiet of nature once, in the Negev Desert in Israel many years ago: I was on a hiking trip, and our party came to Makhtesh Gadol, a huge crater miles from any settlements. It seemed the most desolate place on earth. In fact, it didn’t even look earthly; it could have been on the moon. I could hear my own heart. The sound of a fly landing on my arm was like a huge machine. We spoke almost in whispers; our voices were just too strident amid the overpowering silence. Then some Israeli jets flew over us, breaking the calm.
Fifty years ago we saw farmers cutting down their woodlots and thought we should find an old forest, buy the land with some friends, and keep it natural. So we did. Our acreage is in southeast Minnesota, an hour’s drive from our home. For all these years our family and friends have gone there to appreciate the woods, the wildlife, the limestone bluffs, the meandering creek, and the wildflowers. We hear the noon whistle from a village five miles away and an occasional airplane, but mostly we hear wind in the leaves, birdcalls, and water burbling over rocks. The interview with Gordon Hempton made us realize that the quiet is one of the greatest advantages of the place.
While I was reading about Gordon Hempton’s search for silence, it occurred to me that what I love about The Sun is its “silence.” I can read an entire issue without once being shouted at by advertisements.
I wept as I read Erika Trafton’s essay in Readers Write [“Beauty,” September 2010]. I have a four-year-old grandson who has always shunned boys’ toys, even as an infant. He loves makeup, plays with dolls, and wears dresses. His parents are evangelical Christians and not as tolerant as Trafton is of her son’s dress-up games. What I hear when I visit their house is “Take that off! You are a boy!”
I wonder what will become of him in a family that mostly views deviation from mainstream sex roles as sinful. I want him to be who he is without apology. Bravo to Trafton for allowing her son to be “gorgeous.”
After reading David Cook’s interview with Sister Helen Prejean on the death penalty [“And Justice for All,” August 2010], I feel compelled to offer my point of view as an inmate who is not on death row. Cook writes, “Since 1977 more than 1,200 people have been executed” in the United States. While this number is horrific, I wonder how many non-death-row inmates have been killed in that same time period by other inmates, guards, and inadequate healthcare.
Prejean states, “The innocent are convicted because the prosecution is in charge of the evidence.” When asking for a death sentence, a prosecutor has to build a case that can withstand numerous appeals, whereas a regular conviction has to survive only a cursory appeal and a single post-conviction filing. The chance of a man on death row receiving justice seems much better than the chance for a man with a mere 322 months, who will most likely die in prison from one cause or another.
If Prejean thinks that 322 months is more humane than a death sentence, I would challenge her to spend a night in jail. The recent flood of reality shows on television makes it seem as if prison isn’t such a bad place. The viewer, of course, cannot see where the cameras don’t go or what they edit out. If you really want to know the truth, come stay for a while.
Every day in prison we are reminded that we are disposable. It’s evident in the way the guards treat us, the way we are talked to, the medical attention we receive, and the way the courts treat our claims. No one gives any indication that we are human beings with dignity. I wish Prejean would call the same attention to the plight of this country’s 2 million non-death-row prisoners as she has to the almost 3,300 death-row inmates.
For years my dear friend Carol suggested I subscribe to The Sun, but for one reason or another I never got around to it. She would, however, loan me (not give me, mind you: she wanted them back!) old issues, which I read cover to cover and dutifully returned.
This spring, after seventeen years of battling breast cancer, Carol passed away. After sitting vigil with her family the night of her death, I arrived home to a brochure from The Sun in my mail. I sent in my subscription order the next day.
When my first issue arrived [July 2010], the magazine fell open to Sparrow’s essay “A Prayer for the Dead.”