When you and your husband first bought this old clapboard house on the north side of Chula Vista it was incredibly quiet at night. But since then, Highway 805 was built, then 54.
In the time of the falling leaves, in the time of the last bird-pecked fig and the flowering datura, in the time of the Santa Ana winds, the freeway noise rages.
It's dark yet the delicate whorl of your upturned ear is filling with sound. Not the swoosh and suck of the ocean, rather the grrr, hmmm, vroom of noise poison, potent as the kind poured into Hamlet's father's ear. You check your clock and see that it is only 4:00 in the morning. You think about closing the window, but the first hint of cooler air is riding in on the back of the noise. Coolness is your due, as well as silence. You consider whether you have to pee, but the bathroom seems a long journey from which you will return wide awake.
So you change sides, slide your extra pillow over your head, and hope that by muffling the sound you will be able to sleep. Once you considered earplugs, but you're afraid of not hearing the back door open, the prowler enter. The hour advances, the onramps empty more vehicles onto the freeway, the sound intensifies. Your mind turns to the morrow. Your "to do" list is extensive. You live the day in advance, hour by hour, to make sure you have not forgotten anything. Like a tongue running over the teeth to discover the sore one, your mind suddenly hits pain; you have forgotten to run off the material for the 10:00 a.m. class. You start the day over, try to figure where you can squeeze in the forgotten task. Your jaws begin to clench, so you try to realign your spine in the way your physical therapist told you; you don't want your TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint syndrome) to return.
You check the clock again. Maybe you will call in sick. You remember how terrible it was to try to teach without sleep the last time. It was only yesterday. The synapses between the cottonballs in your brain refused to fire, and the students had to finish your sentences. You opt for deep breathing. Breathe in through your nose like Lilias advised you on your yoga cassette tape: let your belly swell with air then exhale slowly; increase the count with each exhalation. You're almost there. You feel your limbs relaxing, then the southbound NAFTA semi-accelerates on the incline and you go rigid again. You realize you do feel nauseous, but deadlines at work pop into your head. No, you can't call in sick, though you wonder if you can vomit noise.
The sound is everywhere, as if you live in a belfry or the top of a bell jar. It whirls around the second story of the house, enters every window. You know by morning when you open the back door the roar of Highway 54 will stop your breath, hurl you backward like so much debris in an airport runway. When you and your husband first bought this old clapboard house on the north side of Chula Vista it was incredibly quiet at night. Crickets and frogs, that's all you could hear. And the sky still had stars. But since then, Highway 805 was built, then 54. You could see how the landscape had been transformed, uglied, but the radical change in the soundscape was invisible. Now the quality of the night is changed; it is not strained like the mercy from heaven. There are no more frogs, the crickets are drowned out by freeway noise, there is never even a rough approximation of silence, and a bright yellow neon sign tells you to buy something, though you can't quite make out what. You think about the people who can afford to buy silence, darkness. You gnash your teeth.
Perhaps if you read for a few minutes you could lull yourself to sleep. You need to quiet your mind because now the idea of the noise is making you as angry as the noise itself. Nights like these you write letters in your head. Dear Editor, Dear Mayor, Dear Governor, Dear Caltrans. You resist the idea, opt for the book instead. You turn on the little book light and scan the pile beside you. You're too tired to concentrate on the novel Charming Billy; you are only on the first chapter and there are too many characters to sort out. Not the other novel either, the one you put down over a month ago because you sensed something very bad was about to happen. Your hand selects A Year In Thoreau's Journal: 1851, which is a good idea because you're just looking for the quick hit, a few pages at most. You think you're in luck because the August 17 entry opens with For a day or two it has been quite cool -- a coolness that was felt even when sitting by an open window in a thin coat on the west side of the house. Even now you feel your own breeze cover you with a veneer of coolness. You read on till you get to the bottom of the page, then you throw the book to the floor in anger, get up, and slam the windows shut. The passage that so moved you said The stillness seems more deep and significant -- each sound seems to come from out of a greater thoughtfulness in nature -- as if nature had acquired some character and mind -- the cricket -- the gurgling stream -- the rushing wind amid the trees -- all speak to me soberly yet encouragingly of the steady onward progress of the universe -- My heart leaps into my mouth at the sound of the wind in the woods -- I whose life was but yesterday so desultory and shallow -- suddenly recover my spirits -- my spirituality through my hearing.
What is the relationship between quiet and spirituality, between silence and meditation? How will the species evolve without that dimension?
At this moment, the truck changing gears on 54 is robbing you of your spirituality. Still you try to resurrect your mantra. It went something like this: o mane padme ohm. You add deep breathing and thrum the ohm. Amen, it's working. The ohm is subduing the "to do" list that was rearing its many-headed self again. Thank God it suppressed the Christmas list that was snaking its way to the surface; your mind is a catalog in which you could shop all night. Ohm, you drop off. And dream you are riding a motorcycle. You start awake and begin the letter.
Dear Caltrans People,
Last year during the month of October I called you. I spoke with your well-chosen complaint representative. Don't get me wrong, he was truly empathetic. When I discussed the efficacy of thicker windows, he pointed out to me that the idea of windows was to open them when it was hot. We had a long conversation about the noise level, and I remember he told me that even if I were to establish that the noise level was higher than the legal decibel level, that there was no money to do anything about it. He said I would have to obtain my evidence and then begin the interminable process for some kind of sound barrier at the Chula Vista City Council. Quite frankly, I began to believe he was only hired to placate me. He said he would put my backyard on the waiting list for a noise study. One year has passed, yet no one has contacted me; I begin to believe your agency is insincere, or the representative was an alien, or that the government wants everyone to go deaf and dumb.
Then you wipe the slate of your mind clean again because you don't really believe in Caltrans or the efficacy of government planning. You believe in the calisthenics of complaint and the silver lining of microbial mitigation.
There is one last thing to do. Count backward from 199. This has worked before. It's 5:26 but you know if you fall asleep for even a half an hour you will have the illusion of rest. 199. 198, 187, 186, 170. Maybe a little loss of hearing wouldn't be so bad? Just yesterday the newspaper reported that more and more people are reporting damage to their ears from noise, but the good news was that hearing aids have improved. It makes you worry about the tiny creatures. Birds and such. How can their little pinhole ears sustain, survive this noise? You remember reading somewhere that condors abandon their nests if there is too much noise. And the owls you used to hear in the canyon, are they still there? How can they, with their delicately calibrated hearing, find their mate, their fledglings, the field mouse scurrying under the dry grass?
Honk honk. A car on the freeway is moving too slowly. The satchel of ungraded papers weighs as heavily on your mind as it did on your arm when you toted it home. Maybe you should get up and grade. But how can you when you know that in just a little while you will be careening desperately through the lights and cars, joining your brothers and sisters on the road to work. Anxiety feeds anxiety. The cars you hear on the freeway hurling themselves toward their jobs are real and symbolic -- are rushing you to work even as you lie in your bed. A ray of hope, the count is becoming confused, your mind is numbing, 147, 151, 119. You are beginning to drift. No use, no use, your undertoad cries, get up and face the day. If you throw in the pillow now you will want to do mean things in the morning. Want to kick the cat, shake the baby. Fortunately the cat is dead of old age and is transmogrified into purple blossoms in the backyard, and your baby is 30, and she would be most resistant to a shaking.
Better to list all the things you hate.
- The Suzanne Sommers diet that dares to suggest you give up pasta. (O yes, o yes you can eat all the whole-wheat pasta you want.)
- The weatherman who said, in a most jovial fashion, that Thursday the high pressure will break down allowing the cooler air to enter San Diego, but by Friday expect the pressure to build again, another Santa Ana by the weekend and isn't San Diego grrreat??? Grrr. Five damn smiley-faced sunshine days. For you the symbol says smog, scratchy throat, dry nose, boogers, and NOISE.
- The guy in seventh grade who said you would make a better guy. (You never forget.)
- The preponderance of realtors, developers, and lawyers on the Chula Vista City Council.
- The undeveloped valley behind you that funnels the noise should be forested, but every City Council proposal involves more cars, more lights, more noise. (Even the San Diego Union-Tribune calls Chula Vista development crazy.) You begin to think anarchistically, maliciously. Why should you abide by city ordinances that prohibit you from owning a rooster, a peacock for that matter, when the sound of the freeway exceeds the sound of the rooster to the 100th power?
You try to imagine yourself in that little arcadian town north of San Francisco that you dream of retiring to. The one where the fog threads the spires of the redwoods and sound only comes in sibilants or as a susurrus. A soothingly small, safe city. A place where your feet can carry you easier than your car. Your mind taunts you, says you will never make it there. You remember the segment on KPBS you listened to this morning while driving to work. A woman who was battling breast cancer was talking about the relationship between stress and illness. A disproportionate number of friends and neighbors around you are succumbing to diseases, death. Starting at the feet, you tell your body to relax piece by piece. Then the first bird cracks its call over the sound of the freeway and you curse its mother's mother, and, my God, the Santa Anas will keep coming right on through February. You try to persuade yourself that there will be a direct relationship between the amount of French roast in your cup and the amount of energy in your body.
You get up, but not without a fond backward glance at your pillow. Good-bye, love, when will we meet again?