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Quiet People in a Noisy World

WHEN we were site managers at Tomahawk Girl Scout camp, Tuesday was my day off. I wrote at the dining area table while Mike, a young man who cleaned chimneys and worked on fireplaces, glued light-blue tile onto the hearth, along the sides and over the mantel I'd built. The sound of my pencil leaving words on the page, the clink and scrape of tile, and the occasional somewhat sharper sound as he cut tile to fit his work were the only sounds.

After more than an hour, he put aside his work and stood up. He said, "This could be the longest quiet time I've ever spent in my life. I always have the TV going, or the radio. When I work outside, I pull the van up close to my work and open the doors and let the music blast out of there. I'm going to have to do this more often. I like it." He went back to work, quietly. So did I.

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My wife Laura, our daughters, Juniper and Amanda, and I live quietly. We make our own sounds without reservation, including music from instruments and voices, but we employ no electrically driven background sounds. We have a television set, because it was given to us by someone who had excess and was alarmed that we had none, but it never comes out of the closet. We have a radio and tape deck. Some early mornings, we listen briefly to the radio, to see if the school Juniper attends will close because of snow. If we play a tape, we listen to it. We don't use it as background to our other activities. It becomes our activity.

We lived for 8 1/2 years in Whitney Valley, in northeastern Oregon, with no close neighbors, no electricity, and little sound from traffic. Our thinly insulated house let in the sounds of nature; a chorus of hundreds of frogs in spring, bird songs, elk whistling; during mating season, the bulls bugling; coyote serenades, wind, thunder, rain on the metal roof; and we listened. We had a battery-powered tape deck, so we could listen to music, but when we did, it became our point of concentration.

When we moved to better-insulated houses, supplied with electricity, our habits concerning sound didn't change much. We were still away from busy cities and traffic, so we opened windows, weather permitting, to let the outdoor sounds in.

The car we bought, more than two years ago, has a radio. I thought it didn't work. One day, I drove about Fort Collins, Colorado, the city nearest us, filling various needs. When I left the Mini Mart after buying gasoline, the radio began to play some music for me. I was surprised and momentarily pleased. I turned the knob and found more than a dozen stations with people talking, and with various kinds of music. None of it interested me much, so I shut the radio off.

When I got home, I mentioned to Laura that the radio had begun to work. She said it always had worked; we just never turned it on because no one in the family was interested in listening to it.

It takes about an hour to drive from our home on the mountain to Fort Collins. Several times since the day I discovered the radio worked, I've turned it on as I drove down the winding road. The longest I've left it on has been less than 10 minutes. Were I talking with the people or hearing the music live, I would be more interested, but over the radio there is no participation on my part. The engine running, tires on the pavement, the sound of the heater fan require no concentration from me, and I am sat isfied with my own thoughts or my own singing.

It was a warm afternoon in Fort Collins, and I rolled the window down. There were pedestrians waiting for the light to change and tell them they could cross as I stopped.

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I was doing rather well, I thought, with "Glory, glory hallelujah, His truth goes marching on," when I looked at the pedestrians. I don't think I imagined that several of them looked at me with some incredulity.

I kept singing, working some to avoid having self-consciousness at the unexpected audience cause me to slip off-key or into diminished volume. That song requires full voice more than many do.

Singing for our own enjoyment may be unusual. Thus, dozens of cars at stoplights, with music machines turned up loud enough to shake the pavement and rattle the traffic lights, cause not a second thought, but a man building his own music with his own voice stands out from the norm, for better or for worse.

I pulled away from the intersection, still singing and still thinking. Most stores I go into have music playing or voices, electrically reproduced, talking. Anyone singing should be as valid as music coming over speakers. Were I self-confident enough, I would continue singing as I disembark from the auto, cross the parking lot, and shop in the store.

I am not that self-confident. My voice fades to a whisper halfway across the parking lot and gives way to nothing but breathing as I enter the store. At the same time, a young woman carrying a "boom box" across the parking lot plays raucous music at high volume without a trace of self-consciousness and without turning anyone's head.

That's all right. I'm seldom in town. If I were in town more, if it were more a part of my life, I might want to attempt to bring about some changes in the way life is lived or in me. For now, I'll accept the ways it seems to work.

I'll sing in the car, because it is, at times, my habitation. I'll sing at home, in the garden, even at a declared performance, when the audience has consented to be an audience. One day, I may be able to overcome self-consciousness, because I know any living voice should have as much right to be heard as music coming over speakers, but that time is not quite yet.

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