I have talked often about how much I love and even crave solitude. Sometimes, when I’m alone, I also enjoy complete silence as I work or read or just go about my days.
I grew up in a household that was filled with other people, including my parents and three siblings and the many friends and relatives who, in those days, would stop by unannounced. When voices fell silent, the TV would take their place. Many an evening, my dad fell asleep in his favorite chair in front of the TV.
I savored those rare moments when no one else was in the house and I could have it all to myself, in total silence.
Sometimes I didn’t mind the chatter and all the other sounds of everyday life. But it was different when I had homework. Occasionally, feeling exasperated, I’d hide out in a clothes closet that had a light and a door that shut; the clothes absorbed the sound and I could work in peace.
For many years, I continued to seek silence, and was baffled by people who wanted some sort of background noise all the time, whether music or TV or just the sounds of people living their everyday lives. That started to change at some point. Looking back, I think the 1999 massacre at Columbine may have marked the first time I wanted the TV on all the time. I was riveted. I used to have a TV in my sun room, but when Columbine happened, I got a small TV for my study, so I could have it on in the background even when I was working.
After a while, I went back to embracing silence. Later, though, during a stretch of time when I was distressed about some work-related drama, I liked having the TV on to distract me from my own depressing thoughts.
The awfulness passed, but a genuine interest in the shows I had on in the background started to take hold. They were often newscasts or political opinion shows. Then I got interested in pure entertainment. Before then, watching TV dramas and other shows at night, just for fun, had been something I allowed myself as a rare treat. It is different now. I greatly enjoy having an interlude of TV or Netflix in between my two big stretches of work in the afternoons and the wee hours of the night. Once I learned about Pandora, I enjoyed playing music when I was working on something that did not require all my attention.
That’s how I felt about silence as of January 8, 2018. I liked it occasionally, but music and TV had become a regular part of my life. Sometimes I have the TV on, but muted; that way, if I notice that there’s something I might want to pay attention to, I can turn the sound back on. Unlike those days of hiding out in a closet to muffle the sound (which, these days, would make me claustrophobic), I now have on some sort of background sounds, or at least images, a lot of the time.
Then, in the early morning hours of January 9, torrential rains came, and with them, catastrophic mudslides that destroyed homes and killed people. This happened less than four miles from my little town of Summerland in southern California. News reports and images of the devastation were broadcast nationally and internationally – but they didn’t reach me.
For days, I had no internet, no TV, no radio, no landline, no snail mail, and no deliveries. Roads were closed in both directions. The post office was shut down, as was every business. There was nowhere to get food or anything else, and the water that came out of the taps had to be boiled. (I was one of the lucky ones who had water, and usually, power.)
My cell phone worked well enough for calls and texts, but not for accessing email. When a friend texted me four pictures so I could have some view of what was happening, only two would download. I could have walked to the scene of the trauma if the roads were not blocked, but instead, the only way I got any news at all was from people from father away calling and texting. I walked around the neighborhood every day, but my neighbors were in the same situation. One learned about the number of dead and missing people from her daughter who lived 400 miles away.
It was a deeply sad time. (It still is. As I write this 19 days later, 2 kids still have not been found.) Since I was totally cut off, there was nothing constructive I could do to help.
[In the next part of this 2-part post, I’ll share my experience of four solid days of total silence, and what I learned after I once again had access to music and TV. Here is Part 2.]