Silence is Golden? – Last Sunday our electricity went out, something that seems to happen more often than one might expect here in Alabama. I had decided to make French Toast that morning, and I went through the comforting routine: warming some oil in my saucepan, mixing eggs, almond milk, and cinnamon, with just a bit of powdered ginger, then soaking the bread in the mixture—long enough for it to pick up the egg coating, but not so long that it fell from my fork as I lifted it to the saucepan—then letting it cook until golden on each side. I settled down to eat, with one last piece still cooking in the pan, and watched a movie on my computer. I savored my breakfast, tasting each strawberry, draped with just a taste of agave syrup, enjoying the slight outer crunch and inner softness of the French Toast. My neighbor’s air pump, like a miniature version of a ship’s engine, roared. Then, it stopped, as did the whine of my fridge, while the digital display on my radio and the outlet icon on my computer disappeared. All of a sudden, there was nothing.
I checked to see if I’d somehow blown a fuse: no. I finished my French Toast and watched the movie as the energy drained out and the light started blinking: low battery, low battery. Finally, the screen went to black and the hibernate button blinked slowly on and off. I couldn’t connect to the Internet, I couldn’t watch TV, and I couldn’t listen to the radio to see if there was a report of the outage. I decided to go old school: I pulled out a book and began to read. The neighborhood was quiet: no air pumps, no stereos, and it was too early for many of my neighbors to be up, so no voices echoing down the street. I drank my cooling tea, nursing the last sips. No storm was in the sky; the sun shone, the birds chattered, and the cats slept. I opened the windows to bring in the breeze, and I felt cool slips of wind sliding along my skin. I read further, marking places of interest with small slips of paper. It felt months, years, since I’d read like this: no cramming for a class or work, no catching a few minutes before other tasks or trying to read while flipping channels, searching, always searching, for something better. There was nothing to distract me but the words in their orderly patterns, the sound as I fingered each page, the slight smack of my lips as I drank the last of the tea. I finished the book, and then I glanced at another: it was wonderful.
Two and a half hours went by. Suddenly, it was almost too quiet. I pulled out my MP3 player and listened to it for just a few minutes, so as not to drain the battery too much. The sound of human voices and snippets of music felt almost foreign after such profound quiet. There was no mention of the power going out. I did the dishes; it was so quiet that the sound of plates in the metal sink made me wince. I must confess, I was starting to get just a little bored and a little tired of all this quiet. I made a sandwich, cold food only since I couldn’t heat anything, and worried about the contents of the freezer and my precious cheese drawer. I brushed my teeth. I checked my sunscreen. Finally, I left the house.
Suddenly, there was life: the stimuli of visual and aural input. On the boulevard, workers were up in lifts, working on wires. One traffic light was out, but others were on; I saw lights on the other side my street, so the outage at my house was relatively contained. I went to work: everything was on. It felt strange to see the glow of the computer screen in front of me, to fire up the radio programs, to flip on the lights. I worked, and then I took a bus to shopping, and when I was home the lights were back on. I checked with the power company while I was at work: they’d turned the power off to protect some workers: understandable, though some warning would have been nice.
However, I have to admit that there was something soothing about that silence, that paring down of one’s options, the shutting down of all that cacophony of noise and sound. On a typical day, the phone screams its need for my attention, the news on the radio proclaims the latest tragedy, the air pump fires up again and again; too often I feel almost schizophrenic in trying to attend to this and that and those simultaneously. Watching TV, for instance, has become an aggravating exercise of skipping from commercial to commercial, all too loud, their flashes of light trying to get my attention, the programs full of hordes of tanned, stretched, bouffanted people with pouty lips shouting at each other and drinking champagne. If I’m smart, I turn the TV off and do my dishes or clean the litter box or put my clothes away. All too often I don’t, and then wish I had. Sometimes, I dream that there is a giant plug I can pull, if only for an hour or two, to turn off all this sound, the sounds I make and the sounds of others, or a cone of silence, as in the old TV series Get Smart. Of course, on the other, hand, a little silence goes a long way, and all-too-quickly I crave stimuli again, want to catch up on my programs, desire to check to my email and gaze at shoes, ah, shoes: herein, the strange paradox of modern life.