The first hour of my day, before the noise machinery commences, before the bustle begins and the too-fast walking, before the bells start marking time, I sit on a park bench and become the still point of my turning world. Breath leads to breadth and depth, the to-do list turned off along with the self-reproach and should-haves.
The sun weaves through every cranny and crevice in the thicket of trees. Rivulets of students stream through neighborhoods toward school. Two teens playing hooky to nurture their budding romance (I imagine) head the opposite way. Owners hold back full-bladdered, pent-up pets with dreams of snagging squirrels, which hop through the grass seeking buried forage for winter storage, if only they could remember where they left it. Sunshine butters the treeless semi-circle of meadow with life-sustaining light.
The inner gaze turns outward, a prison break from the holding cell of subjectivity. Bacon and eggs waft from a nearby condo’s windows, left open to cool, sleep-friendly night air, along with the ethereal cricket concert, which continues into the early morning.
Walkers pass, harboring unknowable thoughts, shedding their angers step by step until they empty the bin of frets and regrets (I hope). A herd of grey-bellied cumulus grazes overhead across a pasture of blue. Sidewalks become the graveyard of cicadas, but the survivors will soon be singing their daily chorus of the doomed.
I come here seeking quiet, not silence. Silence is absence, emptiness. Quiet is fullness. Quiet, unlike noise, is the sustaining ground of sound. Quiet hosts sounds that noise normally drowns: the jingling of a dog’s tags, the labored breathing of a sweating jogger, children making themselves heard by many means (laughter preferable to whining), wind chimes gently jostling one another.
Wind shudders past my ears. A leaf, falling to the sidewalk, tumbles slowly before the force of nature’s blower. The breeze through drying leaves is symphonic, swirling through trees, our original woodwinds, conducted by flailing branches. A Tai Chi practitioner nearby mimics their movements — or is it vice versa?
Quiet is what you don’t hear, too, footfalls in the grass on the far side of the park, the flutter of butterfly wings, dogs in the distance, sweating through their tongues.
Birds perform the original vocalise. Distant train whistles provide the muffled horn section of this quiet symphony. Human conversation with its rise and fall and lilt is the original recitative.
Soon enough, all will be obliterated by noise — the demonic chorus of cicadas by afternoon builds to a harsh metallica, with overwhelming crescendos. Unmuffled motorcycles blast under amplifying viaducts. Sirens alert and alarm. Car horns bray their impatience with dawdling, distracted motorists. Car stereos inflict decibel damage on victimized ears, accompanied by the electric crackling of maxed-out speakers. Car alarms set off by no one knows what. The unceasing hiss of car tires against pavement. The roar of belching behemoth garbage trucks and buses. The rattletrap of CTA and freight trains. The churning grind of street work on Oak Park Avenue. The wheezing and rumbling of dump trucks carting off the old pavement. Squealing brakes. The annoying backup buzz of Amazon delivery vans.
And if weed-whackers and giant mowers weren’t noxious enough, gas-powered blowers inflict pollution, particulate diaspora and hearing loss, which cannot be justified by our obsession with front yard neatness. An auditory and respiratory crime against humanity, gas blowers have been banned in Oak Park since 2003, but the law is not enforced.
Noise is hostile, anti-social, anti-harmonic, an assault against the senses, produced by those who seem addicted to it, who fear the abyss that silence suggests. In their efforts to exterminate silence, they violate quiet, which all of us need, all of us thrive in.
That’s why they call it “peace and quiet.” They go together.
So out I go in the morning and evening, once cicadas have exhausted their hellish chatter, to treat my ears to the sonic tonic of quiet.
Oak Park is a much too noisy place. We should work to make it quieter.
If we replaced gas-powered leaf blowers with electric-powered, and if we replaced gas-powered vehicles with the soft whir of electric propulsion, this village — this country in fact — would be transformed. We wouldn’t be so road-enraged and sidewalk-deafened.
Maybe we wouldn’t be so mad at each other all the time.
And maybe we could hear the most soothing sound of all.