The Sound of City Silence


Tonight, the weather was nice enough for me to open up my windows to take advantage of the evening breeze and air out my apartment. It’s one of my favorite things to do when the weather starts turning, opening windows; I get it from my mother, I think. It always seemed that as soon as the temperature touched around 50 degrees Fahrenheit or so, the windows in our house would be open, even if only a few inches, to welcome the fresh air in. It didn’t matter if there was still snow on the ground outside; that first day of opening the windows after a long winter of keeping them shut brought in new life to our house.

(It also usually brought in the unique Montana scent of thaw—wet earth, mouldering hay, and the underlying aroma of cow manure. But that’s to be expected when you live on a farm; odd as it sounds, it’s a comforting scent now, because whenever I smell it, it’s another sign that I’m home.)

The luxury of having open windows was something I never fully appreciated until I moved to more humid places—Chicago, for a time, and now Washington, D.C. (which is much worse). In Montana, we almost always left our windows open all day; no air conditioning means we welcome any breeze we get, and the desert-like temperature shifts mean that even if the day was miserably hot, the night will be better and will cool off the air in the house. In D.C., there is no cooling off at night in the summer. Last year, we had several days where the low never dropped below 80 degrees. I don’t do well in humidity or in temperatures over 85, so you know I was miserable.

All of that is to say that when the weather is right, I take full advantage of the opportunity to open my windows and savor the breeze that comes in. So tonight, I did just that; I opened the window next to my sofa and sat down on the couch to write for awhile. Normally, my writing routine involves me listening to different genres of music, depending on the genre of what I’m writing. But after awhile, I decided to turn off the music and contemplate on the sounds I could hear from my window.

One of the things I love about having windows open in the summer in Montana is the sounds—specifically, the sprinklers. Living amidst fields, summer evenings often mean we can hear sprinklers running over the hay fields; it’s a steady sound, hard to describe in writing. The nearest I can come up with is a quiet shhtock-shhtock-shhtock, like a sort of clock. In any case, that sound combined with the smell of fresh-cut hay and the vibrant colors of a Montana sunset is, I’m convinced, a little glimpse of heaven. I’ve spent most of my life convinced that that the silence (or nearly silent, if sprinklers are running) found in country summer evenings will always beat evenings in the city.

After all, sounds floating in from open windows in this neighborhood in D.C. are very different.

Disclaimer here: I currently live in a quiet, residential, affluent neighborhood on Capitol Hill. This is the fourth placed I’ve lived in just over three years, so I have been around enough to know that not every neighborhood is like this neighborhood. Which is one of the reasons that, for all the things that stress me out about this kind of life, I do enjoy being in the city. But most neighborhoods are not going to sound like mine.

Back to the (not at all regularly scheduled) post: Some of the sounds I’ve heard are what you might expect. Bits of conversation from people walking by; traffic on the street; the breeze rustling the trees on the corner. I live on a fairly busy street just up the road from a fire station, so there’s also a fair share of sirens as various responders go by en route to the latest call. There’s also a couple of bus routes on that street, so I’ve heard the sound of doors opening and a pleasant-but-robotic voice announcing the bus’s route and final destination.

But sitting with my window open made me realize just how much I don’t pay attention to my city’s sounds sometimes. If I walk alone, I’m often wearing headphones; if I’m with others, I’m caught up in conversation or lost in thought, pondering something that was just said. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with any of that, but you miss out on a lot when you do.

So far tonight, I’ve heard:

  • Several joggers running by at a good pace; one was a man doing a half-gasp-half-hum of “Single Ladies” to keep pace.
  • Someone walking by and whistling merrily (that person turned out to be one of the students living in my building; he whistled all the way up to the third floor).
  • The sound of busses downshifting that I swear is the same sound they use for the transformation sound effects in the Transformers movies.
  • The strains of someone practicing their violin near an open window.
  • Church bells ringing in the distance.
  • Someone playing love ballads loudly on their car stereo.

And this is a “quiet” street. Having walked the streets of D.C. a few times in the early morning hours, I’m pretty sure this is actually as quiet as D.C. streets ever get. But more and more I realize that, even though I miss my quiet summer evenings at home in Montana something fierce, this is also a good kind of “silence.”

I’ve been in a fairly reminiscent mood lately, so perhaps that is why this experience is striking me so profoundly. But there’s something uniquely humbling when you realize how much life is going on outside your window without your knowing—and then realizing that, as Christians, we worship a Creator God who knows the entirety of every snippet of conversation we overhear; He knows the destination of every passenger on those busses and in those cars; He cares for every person those responders are going to see; He knows everything about every single person in this city and loves them regardless.

And it’s thoughts like that that make city “silence” so compelling, and not any better or worse than country silence; just different. In any case, it’s why I’ll open my windows, even to the sounds of traffic outside (that is, until the humidity kicks in again and I hide myself away forever from it).


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