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).


Book Recap: A Grief Observed

(Pretend there was a long post before this one that was all philosophical and slightly apologetic and gave an overview of what happened in the long dormancy of this blog, and a new and excited commitment to blog about books I’m reading, things I’m watching, etc. Because I’m too lazy to write it down now, and also, most of y’all reading this are people who know me and know all about my life in the interim, anyway, and can see right through my crap. I just didn’t write. It happens. These are not the droids you’re looking for; move along.)

So at some point in late 2014/early 2015, I came to be the owner of the C.S. Lewis Signature Box Set, which contains six books: Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters. Shockingly (well, to everyone but me – I’m not actually as well-read as everyone would think), I had only read two of the books (and seen a performance of The Screwtape Letters), so it was the perfect set for me. I reread Mere Christianity first and loved it. Time to tackle the other five, I thought as I stuck the first book back into the box.

Then I didn’t read any of them.

This is a common problem for me – I buy books and then they sit on my shelf for months – sometimes years – before I actually read them. I don’t have the pressure of deadlines, I guess, so there’s nothing that forces me to check them out right away other than my own willpower, which is apparently easily distracted by other books I see on the shelves.

Anyway, fast-forward to this fall, when I joined an Inklings small group through NCC. This semester, we read The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed.

True confessions: I still need to finish reading the first one. October got crazy for me, and I missed about 6 weeks of the group. But when I got word we were shifting to the next book, I jumped right back in.

And boy, am I glad I did. Because it was really powerful reading a Lewis book that wasn’t… really Lewis.

Backstory: A Grief Observed was written in the aftermath of the death of Lewis’ wife, Joy (referred to as “H.” in the book). It was originally published under a pseudonym, and it dives down deep into Lewis’ raw emotions – a rare thing to see, since Lewis was notably not an emotional man.

So in many ways, this book is not your typical Lewis – it was written as a journal so there are literally lines where he writes something from a place of deep pain and then in the next paragraph writes (and I quote), “I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought. Let me try it over again.” (30) There are moments he expresses deep, deep doubt in God and his goodness (which is fascinating when juxtaposed against The Problem of Pain, which was written many years earlier when Lewis was notably not suffering from physical ailments or the loss of his wife). (Edit 12/11/2016: As my Uncle Dave has helpfully noted below in his comment, Lewis was not without suffering before the loss of his wife – he lost his mother at a young age, saw much death and was himself wounded in WWI, and had other family/friend troubles. So I suppose that is further evidence of the depth of his love and the power of his loss at his wife in this book!)  

But that very not-Lewis-like writing is what makes the ending of the book – when Lewis is still grieving but has moved into a different stage that isn’t quite so raw and new – even that much more remarkably and powerfully Lewisian. By that, I’m referring to the way that Lewis, using beautiful phrases and spot-on analogies, can just hit you over the head with a truth about faith that is so simple and yet so profound.

The main example I’m thinking of (though there are many) comes in Chapter 3, when Lewis is talking about the idea of God sending things to try us. He writes: “But of course one must take ‘sent to try us’ the right way. God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.” (52)

Somehow, in my more-than-two-decades of faith, this idea had never really crossed my mind before. Which seems silly, in retrospect, because it would be given, if I truly believe God as omniscient and eternal. Yet I never really thought about the fact that me enduring trials and such was meant (at least in part) to show to me the quality of my commitment. I underlined that, put a bunch of stars by it, and then just sat and reread that line about six times the first time.

Similarly, this section in Chapter 4 was underlined and starred (and I bolded the section that was extra underlined in my book):

Am I, for instance, just sidling back to God because I know that if there’s any road to H., it runs through Him? But then of course I know perfectly well that He can’t be used as a road. If you’re approaching Him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching Him at all. (68)

Just… oomph. Nothing like a slight shift of your lens to change everything about how you look at yourself and your faith.

There are so many other lines and moments in this tiny little book that struck me, but that would fill up pages and pages – we spent over an hour discussing each chapter in my book club, and that easily could have been extended.

I will say this, though: At one point last year, when I was deep in the midst of grief over the sudden death of my aunt, I saw this book sitting on my shelf and contemplated reading it. I’m glad I didn’t. Though I saw similarities in some of the reactions that Lewis had compared to my own reactions to grief, it is, as the introduction notes, “a” grief observed, and not certainly a prescription to anyone on what grief should look like. I think if I had read this at this time of the year last year, I might have regarded it as such, and that would have been false. But I suppose there is no really knowing for sure.

In any case, I certainly appreciated the chance to read it now (and especially to discuss it in a small group setting). I would highly recommend this book to anyone – short, powerful, and thought-provoking. Plus, it has what has to be one of my fave quotes of anything ever: “‘She is in God’s hands.’ That gains a new energy when I think of her as a sword.” (63)