The Quiet Game

In Maryland, we can go from nights below freezing, to days in the nineties without much in-between. Some years, the air conditioning comes on in March, and the heat goes off in May. It’s… interesting.

This year, we’re having an extended period of gorgeous weather (meaning more than two days). The nights are chipper but not freezing, the bugs have been slow to come out, the days have been mostly sunny with low humidity.

What I notice, without the heat blasting, the woodstove crackling, or the fans roaring, is the quiet. We’ve all had the experience of the power winking out, and even if we’re sitting in a sunny location, we hear the house go off grid. The ‘fridge sighs, the dishwasher stops, the everything goes silent.

And our first reaction–even before, “The %$#*! power cut out again!” is a sense of relief. Studies show that people who live near chronic sources of noise–heavy traffic, airports, construction sites–will have higher blood pressure, higher levels of stress, and poorer quality sleep than the general population. The news gets worse, because that stress and elevated BP translate into heart disease.

You read that right–living loudly can cost you heart health. Other areas affected are your immune system, learning efficiency, hearing, attention span, birth weight (if your mama is dealing with a noisy gestational environment), propensity for headaches… In other words, noise is not only a nuisance, over time it can hurt us.

I am not good at tuning out sounds. I can ignore visual clutter, stink, most people, and lots of other distractions, but noise sinks my ship of creativity. I think about this when I visit those poor souls trapped in open-plan offices, particularly the exposed-duct-work, warehouse style versions. We’ve had years to study those environments, and yea, though they lower HVAC costs, and delight snoopy, insecure managers, they invariably raise sick leave totals and reduce productivity (this the opposite of team-building, ye managers). I wonder if some of the damage they do isn’t simply a function of having a lot of ambient noise.

Our brains like a good dose of silence, even to the point of finding silence more relaxing than “relaxing” music. Silence helps us integrate memories, and tend to the background brain functions related to figuring out how we fit into the world we live in.

Maybe this is why I like to write about the Regency and Victorian Highlands, and why my contemporaries are almost always rural. Those are quiet times and places, where characters can literally hear themselves think.

Do you treat yourself to regular servings of silence, or are you silence-averse? If you could add some quiet to your day, where and how might you do that? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Duchesses in Disguise, because our hero, Sir Greyville Trenton, is comfortable with silence, and can communicate well while using his handsome mouth to do a lot more than talk.




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51 comments on “The Quiet Game

  1. When I moved from my house which was situated on the edge of town and overlooked farmland and countryside it was to a different environment entirely.Instead of the sounds of trees blowing in the wind and birds singing or farm machinery working the land I am now woken up by seagulls noisily calling each other at the crack of dawn and the north sea roaring on a rough day.It took a while to adjust but I feel so calm and contented and do not wish to live any where else.I am 70 next birthday and have during my life lived and worked in noisy and stressful environments .I had a heart attack twelve years ago and are being treated by many tablets.But I am still here and enjoying this life,a mixture of quiet and calm noise suits me fine.So much to be thankful for and still so much to explore but at a slower pace and with people and family around this to me is just PERFECT.

    • We do get used to ambient sounds. My dad live by the shore in San Diego and hardly ever leaves the house unless it’s to see a doctor (he’s 96 and failing). When my mom was alive, one of my siblings asked, “Does Dad even know the ocean is out there any more?” You can see it from many rooms in his house, but he likes his bedroom curtains closed, the better to facilitate napping. My mom’s response, “I keep the windows open at night. He can hear the surf, and that’s probably more important.”

  2. I’m retired and I live in a suburban area and I love to sit on my porch with a cup or glass of whatever. Late afternoons are no good because there is too much car traffic. Not pleasant at all. Evenings are good if you are in a social mood. Lot of neighbors out walking the babies, dogs, or themselves. Great for chit chat or catching up on neighborly news.

    But my favorite times are early morning or early afternoon. Quiet enough to listen to the birds. I have a sister who can tell you what kind of bird is chirping. I have never been interested enough to care – I just enjoy listening to them. There are a pair of doves who come by. They seem to walk more than they fly. I call them the Bickersons because they walk one behind the other. The one in the front is silent while the one behind it just jabbers away incessantly.

    Well, I think I got a little off topic here (smile). No need to put me in the drawing. I just downloaded Duchesses to my kindle.

    • I’m a morning-porch-sitter too, or after dark, when the crickets and owls are out. There’s very little traffic on my road of any kind, but the kitchen porch gets morning sun, and with a first cup of tea, that is glorious to my mind.

  3. I’ve always craved silence, but never had much of it in my life. Being the middle child in a large family, silence was scarce when I was growing up. After I left home, I lived in an apartment with 5 other women and it was NEVER quiet. After college, my husband and I moved to Chicago and lived at a busy intersection that saw cars honking and/or crashing day and night. When we left Chicago, we found a quiet neighborhood in Albuquerque, lived in blissful peace for about 3 months, before bringing our baby home and we haven’t had a day of quiet since then!

    I have found that my soul needs silence to rebalance. During the precious 2.5 hours a day that my youngest is in school, I head home to my quiet house, sit down with my coffee, and listen to the silence. It immediately centers me and gives me a chance to refocus, which is often hard to do when I’ve got a 4-year-old who demands my attention during every other minute of the day. Everything feels more manageable after a few minutes of silence.

    A hospice doctor that I used to work with would always say that the kindest thing she could do for the family and the patient was to unplug each and every machine in the room. Without constant alarms and iv’s beeping, everything (and everyon) feels more peaceful.

    • Your hospice doc would have gotten along with Florence Nightingale. She was among the first to insist that wherever the sick or wounded were, they be given peace and quiet. This was, of course, not convenient for the Army surgeons and public hospitals where she worked, but her patients tended to do well, and thus we eventually went from open wards, to increasingly private rooms (and thus, oh by the way) reducing the risk of contagion.

  4. I find time for peace & quiet.
    At night, I head upstairs to read and to spend a1/2 hour away from the noise.
    I get up early eat breakfast, take care of the dogs and read before my husband and daughter get up.
    My husband loves the noise of the tv. He turns it on when he comes downstairs. He’s more up on the news and weather than I am. I need my quiet time before putting on my game face for work.

    It’s almost warm enough to have coffee on the back deck. Celeste, Molly and I will spend our mornings listening to birds soon. Nice way to start the day.

    My desk at work is next to the elevator bank and the service elevator. Getting used to the constant noise was difficult. I listen to music on my iPhone …problem pretty much solved.

    Enjoy the weather. I think we are due for rain this week…good reading weather.

    • When my sister was teaching high school Latin, she did pretty much as you do. No matter how late she’d gone to bed, no matter how pressing the issues of the day, she got up before everybody else, had some Silent House time, and THEN the day could begin.

  5. So true. I work in a big box call center in a cubicle and so many times, it is hard to focus. I’m home recovering from another surgery. I rarely turn the TV or music on and I will be interested to see if my blood pressure is down. I started reading again, rather than constantly playing on my phone or computer (one of yours!) and have scribbled down some scenes for my fiction. Feeling a little better now, with more awake time, so maybe I will take advantage of the quiet. Thanks for sharing your informative thoughts and best of luck on your latest anthologies!

    • Oh, Julee…. I wish on you a job change. When a telemarker calls, before they even begin their spiel, I can hear that call center wall of noise in the background, and I just want to hang up. It’s painful for me, the instant I hear it. What must it be like to work at a place like that? And why hasn’t anybody worked out the equivalent of noise-canceling headphones that are also bluetooth and microphone? I know we have this stuff, because I’ve been shown how to use it for doing podcasts.

      Get well slowly, I guess, and make a lot of progress on those stories!

  6. I thrive on silence and love nothing better than those rare weekends I get to do nothing but potter around my house doing my own thing with no one around. It recharges me for the week ahead. When I’m in a noisy environment feel this irrational urge to escape and, if it’s an option, I do get up and leave. I’m lucky now to live on a farm where I just step out of my house and I can sit in silence just listening to the breeze in the trees and the chickens as they wander around the yard. Bliss!

    • My usual schedule is court on Thursday, and sometimes it’s a full day, back to back hearings, or one hearing that goes on and on. You have to listen, have to catch every word, connect every dot. I used to think that I needed a three-day weekend at home to get my head on straight because the subject matter was so drainging–child welfare is not light-hearted law.

      Now, I think part of what I need to recover from is the incessant nattering. Even when we’re up before the judge, having a bench conference, the court reporter will turn on a danged white noise generator, and it’s often on when the court is in recess too.

      NOISY business!

  7. I am a musician. My profession is filled with sound–listening, practicing, rehearsing, performing. I crave quiet when I am not doing any of those things. I only listen to news radio when I am driving in my car because music distracts me and it’s a fairly objective *just the facts* radio station…it soothes me and keeps me on task.

    If I am home during the day, I keep it quiet if I can. My palate need to be cleansed for the times I need to be intensely NOT quiet!

    • Being a musician wrecks you for any environment with constant, casual, “produced” sound. You almost can’t help but listen analytically. I’m just as bad with talk radio as music–I can’t tune it out. Real people, I do a little better at, but my preferred writing environment is silence or a purring cat.

      Back when I was working at the piano, I’d sometimes just go into a soundproof practice room, close the door, and sit there.


  8. For years my household consisted of chaos and noise. Raising my seven children was chaotic and loud. It was good noise, their laughter and just their footsteps walking or chasing each other. Then I became a single parent and times to unwind and find ten minutes of quiet became rare. With the help of my family I moved from the city to a more rural area. The headaches and stress I experienced became less. But as the children grew older and all eventually had their own families I moved to a small apt. And had for the first time had a place of total silence. I soaked it up and started reading. Almost all the ailments I had suffered with for years disappeared. I love my children dearly but everyone needs privacy at times and a quiet time.
    Carol L

    • You know, my migraines abated by a factor of ten when my daughter moved out. She’s not a loud person, but this is a tiny house. I could hear her moving around, hear her music, hear her doing the chat room thing. I was not alone.

      I miss her terribly, but I do not miss those stinkin’ migraines. At. All.

  9. I love silence Grace and enjoy it whenever possible. I live in what I call a semi-rural area off a major seven lane road. Strangely enough if I were to turn off my rafio and fan right now all I would hear woud be “the sounds of silence”. The mobile home park I live in is set back from the road, to the east is a large drainage area, to the west is a large church with empty land behind it, and there’s also a drainage area behind the park. At night it’s so quiet here that if a train goes along one of the tracks just over half a mile away the whistle sounds like it’s in the mobile home park. I enjoy being where I live for the very fact that at times it’s silent around here. I’d be thrilled to win a signed copy of this book.

  10. I always notice sound… So much so that I have a white noise generator (a fan) in my bedroom… Otherwise I wake up for every raccoon shuffle and coyote call, every word spoken outside for blocks around.

    The oddest experience ice had with silence and sound tho was when we lived in Chicago. The day after 9/11 both my husband and I woke up with dread at 530. “something is wrong.” … Turns out we did not hear the usual 530 flying of planes… Even tho we weren’t close to Ohare, we noticed that the regular plane sounds didn’t happen.

    Now that I live in a town of 500 people, I notice different sounds or lack thereof.

    • I figured out when I moved to the country that there’s a downside to the quiet–you do notice every crowing rooster, every barking dog. Sounds are isolated, and more prominent as a result.

      Somebody did an experiment with mice, and exposed them to two hours of silence a day. The mice started growing new brain cells in the hippocampus, which has to do with memory and integrating present experiences into memory. The idea was that for the mice, who’d been raised in a typical lab environment, silence was so novel it constituted a significant change in the environment, and prompted the mice to pay extra attention to their world. Silence woke them up neurologically, in other words.

      Which you could have told the nice people, if they’d only asked you and your hubby.

  11. I’m very comfortable with silence (or at least not talking). I do like it quiet when I am reading and where I live it doesn’t usually get very loud – tho the birds where very vocal at dawn today.

    • Dry cat food is universal donor food, and I put some out on the sidewalk each morning. The cats have what they please of it, but before they’re finished, the crows–huge, bossy, old birds–are dive-bombing the cats to get them off the dry food. The attach is as much about incessant noise as it is about flapping wings and exposed talons.

      Then the birds have at the food–not just the crows, everybody–and pretty soon, there’s not a scrap of food on the sidewalk.

      I think it’s cool, that the crows get the cat-repellent job, then all the birds enjoy the buffet together.

  12. Ideally, I would read outside in a hammock surrounded by the sounds of the woods.

    But I have kids, so it usually means I read for a few hours in bed after they go to sleep instead lol.

  13. My husband and I live on a beautiful lake several miles from any of a number of towns here in northern Minnesota. Silence is indeed golden. On any given morning we hear loons, ducks, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Trumpeter Swans and Pelicans. Absolutely peaceful!

  14. My husband and I just moved from a 3000 square foot house into an 1100 square foot apartment for the next 7 months while our new house is being built. I like quiet. I enjoy reading in a quiet room. I like quilting in silence. Our upstairs neighbor is a herd of elephants or so it seems. My husband is a tall man who takes up space and has to have the television on regardless of if he’s in the room or on his iPad. I have taken to sending this dear man on long errands just for the periodic alone and quiet time. I only hope he doesn’t catch on to my scheme anytime soon. In the long run, I just tell myself this arrangement is temporary. But 7 months is a long time.

    • My parents (married 70 years) developed an interesting routine. Mom got up very early and had breakfast in solitude, then brought Dad the paper. While he got stirring, she went on a long walk by herself. When she came back, he often took a nap. Lunch was together most days, then she took a nap…. and so on it went. Frequent brushes of contact, but also an elegant dance intended to give them both a lot of solitude while living under one roof (and on one floor). I don’t think it was conscious, but they held that pattern for many years.

  15. I live in a remote city, so it is easy for me to find peace and quiet when I need it. I do a lot of walking around my neighborhood.

    • I walk the neighborhood at certain times of year, when it’s not too hot, not too cold, not too buggy, not too dark… You learn things about your neighbors on foot that you don’t when you’re just driving to and from work. I think neighborhoods are safer for having a cohort of walkers, too. The walkers are more likely to notice something amiss, or a neighbor in need…. so keep up the good work!

  16. Yes, my home is a quiet sanctuary in a surprisingly quiet neighborhood. In the summer I can hear kids laughing and squeeling in the community pool…a brief joyful noise. Noisy environments bother me too, a chaotic assualt. Loud music is a conscious choice…Opera’s passion and pathos deserve that oomph.

    • I was well into adulthood before I realized what a low tolerance I have for noise in particular. I hear the fly buzzing, the electricity humming, the well cutting on and off. I don’t know where this comes from–I was the sixth out of seven children, and not raised in a quiet environment. I do know that by Friday, I’m ready for DAYS of quiet, and if I don’t get them, I become difficult.

  17. I do indeed enjoy silence. I live with someone that always has the TV on for background noise. If he walks into the house and I’m sitting at the computer with the TV off, he thinks something is wrong lol. He actually leaves the house with it on which drives me crazy lol. Although I can block out sound when reading, I much prefer silence, thus my favorite time to read is in bed late at night. Many a time I wished I lived in the woods – most of my neighbors are just horrible. They can start their yard work at 7 in the morning – I hate lawn mowers, leaf blowers, hedge clippers etc.

    • One of few HOA restrictions I could support are quiet hours. I get that it’s cool in the morning, but it’s also cool in the evening, and people are less likely to be asleep, or even home.

      I don’t have a TV. My grandfather would leave his on “for company,” while my grandma sat four feet away. GRRRR.

  18. As I have gotten older, I find silence to have a greater meaning to me. I can listen to others and hear them. Body language, eye contact and gestures are inherently much more telling to me. My relationships since I’ve learned to accept silence, have benefited. It is golden.

  19. I like music and usually have it on during the day, I work at home. Or in the car. I have a white noise machine for sleeping. My yoga practice usually involves some form of music or an instructor speaking a guided meditation. I don’t like loud or repetitive noise. I guess I need some sound to feel balanced. Music is my greatest love, I am a vocal musician, so if I’m not listening to music, I am practicing it. Out in nature, I hear birds, insects, water or the wind. There very rarely is true silence. I will say, while in New York City, a visit to a park was a welcome break from the constant noise of the city. I would be too stressed living there. A short visit is all I can take.

    • I have to plan for a trip to NYC, and plan for a decompress afterward. I can take the train, but still… You step out of the train station and it’s the Wall of Noise, Wall of Scent, Wall of Visual Activity, Wall of Human Emotion. My little badger-brain can’t deal with that, nor can I deal with an environment where the only animals I’m likely to see are drug dogs, bomb dogs, police horses, and rats.
      Even Washington, DC, a very quiet, low to the ground city, is an adjustment for me these days. I’m glad there are such places, but that is not where I’ll thrive.

  20. Noise canceling headphones!! I personally like to run my public radio classical station on very low volume through them

    Never get on a plane without them!

  21. We live in the country, so it is nice to go to sleep at night and the only real sounds are frogs or dogs barking. This morning the power went out as I was trying to get ready for work, that was not fun. My husband is talking about getting a back-up generator.

    • I’m looking into going solar, except here, the only cost-effective option is solar-on-the-grid. The grid drops, and your power drops too, lest your juice electrocute anybody trying to repair the lines.
      We’re just not quite there yet, but I hear the storage technology is advancing rapidly. Maybe in another few years….

  22. To find silence in my home it usually requires finding the least-popular room, closing a door and turning a box fan on low. I guess that doesn’t technically qualify as silence, but it’s close. No TV with a ballgame on, no boys playing video games, etc. I’m comfortable with silence but few people are and I’m often labeled as anti-social or accused of avoiding ‘family-time’. For my birthday one year, my husband took our 2 boys out of the house for 5 hours. That was it. And it was a wonderful gift.

    • Anti-social?! It’s a huge leap from anti-social to introverted, and I’m a warp nine introvert, though I like people well enough. It’s just that being around people drains my energy rather than recharges it. Same with being around noise, activity, “bustle.”
      Other people love the buzz of human interaction, but even for social activities I enjoy, I need recovery time. Thank heavens for the unpopular room, where I’ve read many a novel in blissful solitude.

  23. It has been said that Paul Simon sat in the bathroom at night to play the guitar and write music. And so we have “The Sounds of Silence.”

    “Quiet” is different for everyone, I think. A profoundly deaf friend of our daughter’s asked a restaurant to turn the music down, or rather she had our daughter ask.

    “Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

    • Gallaudet College holds dances, at which thumping rock bands are mandatory. They look and sound like the college dances I avoided like the plague, and I was pleased to learn of them. We can dance in silence, we can dance to palpable percussion, and we can dance to throbbing noise or great music.
      The important thing is to dance.

  24. Hi Grace I currently living in a hectic environment and there are too much noises all around me coming from the heavy- traffic. For me, usually I just try to tune out all the noise by listening to music from my phone , though it’s not very successful but it helps me to reduce the stress level which is caused by the noise. I find solace and some quiet time through medication at night times

  25. I enjoy the quiet everyday. I am retired and at home every day. No radio, no television, and live at the edge of town. The quiet is normal to me and I enjoy it very much. Except today I had my windows open and there was a storm coming and the birds chirping was very comforting. I have found I am more content without the noise.

    • I am as well. My weekends are where I do much of my writing, and I think I CAN write on the weekends because I’m home where it’s quiet. What sounds there are here–birds in the morning, the occasional horse whinnying, a tractor three fields over–are familiar to me from long acquaintance, and thus a low-grade “proof of safety.”

  26. I’m a former opera singer and silence is music to my ears. (Sorry for the cliche). I can’t think if I hear classical music. My mind gets hijacked and I try to figure out if it’s Bach or Handel or Spohr. I try to figure out the performers, hear intertwined melodies, see what if I can remember what symphony number it is. I don’t go the the gym because they play NOISE pretending to be music and it scrambles my brain. It’s sad how people take their hearing for granted and crank up their music or TVs. They dont understand that once your hearing is gone, you can’t get it back. Think of never being able to hear birdsong or the whisper of a child. When I write, it’s got to be totally quiet or I’m distracted. But I love music, just not when I’m writing.

    • My first profession was pianist, and I’m like you. I can’t listen “passively.” If there’s music on, I’m analyzing it, and classical music is the hardest to ignore. I agree 1000% percent about the gym. My gym is tiny, and caters to ladies 35 and up. I walk in there, and utter crap is blasting, though I can’t see anybody–other than the mere stripling at the desk–enjoying it.
      If you depend on a demographic of mature women for your revenue, why would you play the very noise most likely to drive them from the gym? Yes, I put that on the comment card.