These ideas kept me awake this morning from 5:45 till 7:45, but I was too cozily wrapped up inside my covers to do anything about them. I hope I remember it now as clearly as I felt it then.
At 5:45 in the morning, the world is relatively quiet. It is quiet enough that, if I really listen, I can hear car tires thudding quickly over a gap in the pavement a few blocks away. There is the gentle rustling of the leaves as the breeze sifts through them. The occasional bird or insect makes itself known–they are all sounds I am familiar with. And they are all sounds I love. Sounds are how I know, with precise clarity, where and when I am.
I can’t remember exactly when my affinity for sounds began. I do know that, even as a kindergartner, I would lay down on the driveway and with one arm, move my plastic shopping cart back and forth, over, and over, and over, so I could listen to the wheels rattle across the pebbly surface. As a teenager, I’d keep my bedroom window open a crack until the last of the crickets left us, often into late October. I didn’t care how cold the air was–crickets meant summer, crickets meant there was life out there. I remember when I lived in Boston in the summer of 2005 how I struggled to hear any sort of insect activity outside of my window. But, Vinal street was too crammed with brownstones to make any room for my best summer buddies. Sometimes I’d hear an air conditioner squeal to life and briefly mistake it for the rubbing of insect thighs, but after only a few moments I’d realize my error and sigh in disappointment.
I don’t think it was until I left the northeast “for good” that I really became attached to specific sounds. The birds sounded different in Washington, and the cicadas never actually came to Seattle. When I slept on my friend’s living room floor in Portland, Oregon, before moving there, I noticed how different the traffic sounded below on Stark Street. It was faster, smoother than what I’d become accustomed to on East 15th, three hours north. When I moved into my apartment in SE Portland, I heard my neighbors on their drums, I heard the insects in the grass just beyond my patio, I heard the rain fall for months on end.
And when I left this continent, I found even more comfort, bliss, even, in sounds that I knew well. Of course, I learned to appreciate new noises, too. The bird and insect sounds in Ecuador were beautiful. In the mornings, I’d hear the man who sold humitas dragging his cooler up and down the cement walkway outside, shouting off his prices. All day, the constant thrum of traffic, the high-pitched beeps of car-horns, motorcycles and mopeds, the parakeets flapping in their cages on the porch below us. Later, the woman who sang every evening at sunset in La Iglesia de Santa Maria del Paraíso, how softly my leather shoes slid across the marble stairs as I ascended them after a long day at work. The roosters and car alarms. I guess I knew these sounds would only be a part of my life for a little while. You can take pictures of many of the sights you want to remember. You cannot record the sounds. I made sure to record them in my memory.
When I returned to visit last summer, I took a nap upon arrival in my dorm bed. The hostel I was staying at was very close to my favorite apartment–as I laid there, I remember telling myself to take in all the sounds I’d once had in my life and had since come to miss–the piercing trill of the tropical birds, the breeze weaving its way through palm fronds. And the unpleasant sounds, too: even the dogs barking at night, even the construction workers arguing loudly in the street, using all kinds of explicit spanish slang: this is Guayaquil, I told myself, you don’t know when you’ll have it back.
Of course, upon returning to the good old United States three years ago, I vowed to never again take for granted the sounds that told me I was home. Robins chirping at early hours. Crickets in the evening. Cicadas in late summer. August thunderstorms. The geese coming and going. Leaves falling, leaves blowing and cracking and scratching the sidewalks as they go. Rain pounding the earth. The sounds of car tires spinning softly through slush. The absolute silence of freshly fallen snow. My cat whining for food. When I moved into my first studio apartment last year, I relished the unexciting crunching and popping of gravel (I was reminded of my gravel driveway as a child), my neighbors chatting into the night. More recently, as I’ve come to spend more time at the lake, the sound of the sandpipers calls to mind not only where I am, but where I’ve been: my aunts’ cottage on Lake Erie as a little girl, every summer.
I had no doubt, this morning, laying in my warm, cozy bed, listening to an insect outside, the leaves moving, and the car-tires in the distance, that sound is sacred. And I haven’t even addressed the beauty that is “good” music–but I will say that while writing this, I chose, instead of the sounds outside my window, to listen to everything from Rihanna to Simon & Garfunkel to YoYo Ma. But that’s a story for another time, and probably not one I’m qualified to tell.