It’s hard to write just now because some kind of heavy equipment, a tamper, I’m guessing, is making a hammering racket at a work site not far from my office, and has been all day. Maybe I should be getting used to it.
For much of the summer earth movers and dump trucks and pavers have been beeping and honking and rumbling a couple of hundred feet from my bedroom window, sometimes during the day, often at midnight.
My head vibrated with my house.
Just part of the cost of living in the machine age, I suppose.
There are tradeoffs for the conveniences of our machinery. Getting from Portland to Los Angeles in just a couple of hours to see my friends is a very noisy event. I like my Camry, and I imagine the factory where it was assembled was every bit as noisy as the plant where I worked the summer of my marriage. Even though I wore the required earmuffs my ears rang long after my shift was over. Maybe that’s part of the reason I say “Huh? and “What?” a dozen times a day.
But research has linked the long, loud cataract of sound that washes over us to more than hearing loss. Some studies point to links with elevated blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and even—yikes!—impotence.
Perhaps when the rain comes the racket of the construction projects will be washed away, at least for a few months.
I hope so.
I have less hope for relief from the elevated sound levels of—well, I’ll say it—my church, and I don’t mean just the one I attend on Sunday morning, where the first half hour pumps out volume and volubility at levels that are too much for me, but that most of the folks around me seem to like. And I like them, so okay, I deal with it. Maybe I’m just old and out of touch, as usual, with the folkways of Contemporary American Evangelical Christianity.
But I think of my much younger friend Anna, now Sister Teresa, once my best Western Baptist student, now a nun. While doing graduate work at Oregon State she visited St. Mary’s Catholic Church. She went again, and then regularly, and in time came to my office to tell me she was converting. “I wanted to tell you myself,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate that. And I trust you. You know what you’re doing. But I’d like to know why. What did you find at St. Mary’s?”
Her answer was succinct.
“I found out I prayed better,” she said.
I went for a visit, and I saw what she meant. It was quiet enough for me to think, to meditate, to pray. Apparently nobody was uncomfortable with silence; they seemed to welcome it.
I’ve learned that many of my students do not. Some morning this term I’ll send my freshman writers out of doors with these instructions: “No phones, no texting, no talking. Don’t take paper or pen. There are no expectations here except one: you must be quiet for eight minutes. Vaya con Dios.”
In the past, student elation at being cut loose from class eight minutes early has been tempered for some by the stress of eight minutes of silence, eight minutes with nothing much but their own thoughts. “Just about drove me nuts,” they have reported. “Please don’t ask me to do that again.”
Others, though, have asked how soon we might repeat the experience. “I never knew there were so many birds around here,” one smiling girl said.
Others commented on the calming effects of even eight minutes of quiet—and how rare it was.
There’s a lot of noise about the purpose of a college education, a lot of voices in the conversation, including some loud ones sneering at the impracticality of studying philosophy, history, art, literature, fields of study not designed to make the learner a lot of money.
Perhaps you will excuse me for adding one more voice. I promise to keep it down.
Here’s what I hope to accomplish at Corban. I hope that because of what you and I do together, the books and poems we read together, the conversations we have in the classroom and on the sidewalk and in the dining hall, maybe the way we stand quietly together looking out over the city to the quiet mountains—that because of this you will learn to be comfortable with yourself and by yourself, that you will be at ease in the world, tuned to its soft but persistent music that is there for anyone with ears to hear it.
Sir Edward Dyer wrote, “My mind to me a kingdom is,” and I hope yours will be the same for you. If you choose, you can populate it with Shakespeare’s sonnets and Keats’s odes and Bach’s chorales. And the songs of the birds in the rustling oaks and whispering firs on the campus of Corban University.