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July 11, 2011

MIKE LUNSFORD: Silence is wonderful, as long as you don’t take it too far

I have visited this topic — how it is often only through inconvenience that we come to appreciate the comforts we have in life — before.

I guess I needed to be reminded of that again last week when a late-night thunderstorm came plowing through our area, zapping phones and computers and garage door openers and, eventually, our own electrical power.

In an instant, my wife and I lay in our bed in the dark, in silence, listening…

I had retired to read around 11:30, the late local news over, an impromptu bowl of cereal still sloshing in my stomach. Tired and a bit back-sore after a day of mowing and weed-whacking in the Turkish steambath-kind of heat that comes to stay with us in July, I peeked through our west-facing windows as I hobbled off to turn a few pages of a book that needed to interest me that night or find itself in a garage sale box.

I commented to Joanie that we either had a whopper of a thunderstorm headed our way or a fireworks show in the northern corner of the county was running late, because the sky was restless with flashes of light.

Because storms had become as regular for us as a daily vitamin, regardless of what the weatherman was predicting, we expected to find an inch or so of rain in the gauge on my cabin porch rail the next morning; we weren’t disappointed.

I wearily turned only a few pages of the book before I clicked off my light and went to sleep.

My wife, as she often does, had read in her living room recliner until her chin was on her chest, and was stumbling into the bedroom an hour behind me as the lightning and wind and rain were coming on in earnest. I was awake by then, and she told me that our deck table umbrella had come unmoored and had blown against our back door. I launched myself out of bed to retrieve it, knowing it could be in the jet stream over Bridgeton by morning.

I don’t sleep well when wind and rain are driving by my place, but I usually can’t sleep at all when lightning and thunder are along for the ride. I tried to read with my booklight for a while as I heard the rain smacking down on our roof and pelting our storm windows, and I kept hopping out of bed to unplug the victims of earlier lightning strikes, our computer, for example. I was headed for our phone just as a brilliant blue-white bolt struck in the field across from the house, setting off our smoke detectors and dimming our lights in a scene reminiscent of a prison-break movie. 

Back in bed for what I hoped would be the last time that night, I believed that I’d eventually be too tired to stay awake for long, that the worst of the storm had already passed, and that the hum of our bedroom fan would lull me away from the worries of ripped shingles and overflowing gutters and a now-messy yard.

It didn’t work out that way; the storm returned for another assault, and then another, and another. And then, in the eerie, flashing light of countless strikes, our power died. I heard the last gasp of our air conditioner, the fan went dead, and the blinking blue light of our computer modem flickered and passed away in the living room. Suddenly, a house that had been alive with the purrs of a refrigerator and a dish washer and a hot water heater was as quiet as a tomb, completely dark, except for the craggy streaks of nature’s pyrotechnics.

I read a Newsweek magazine article a month or so ago that suggests that Americans are now hearing so much, seeing so much, overloading their circuitries with so much information and sound nearly every minute of their day, that they can’t make good decisions anymore.

It was far from a clinical study that night, but it didn’t take a minute for that thought to drift through my mind. I had become so used to hearing something — the drone of a fan; the canned laughter of a television; the clack of keyboard keys a room away — before I drifted off to sleep each night that total silence in the house was unsettling. I couldn’t sleep…

The storm spent itself and was gone within a half-hour more, but the house grew so quiet, so hushed that it took me back to grade school sleepovers with friends and how I always struggled to sleep in strange places. My wife, who, I’m certain, can fall asleep in a chainsaw repair shop, was already snoozing, the rhythm of her breathing now louder than normal. I grabbed my pillow and a blanket from under the bed and headed for the couch. 

As I settled on the sofa, I heard little but the ringing in my ears; I rolled and tossed, and eventually moved to the floor of our family room, slightly warm and agitated. I asked myself how I could spend so much time in my cabin, never missing the television or the stereo, most often just listening to the thoughts in my head or the birds through the screened windows, and being comforted by just those few sounds, yet this near-total silence exasperated me. The hours dragged by endlessly.

By 5 a.m., I had done a lot of thinking, but virtually no sleeping. The whole thing kind of reminded me of a scene from an old W.C. Fields’ film, “It’s a Gift,” where the hapless protagonist, Harold Bissonette, tries to grab a few minutes rest on a back-porch swing, but his harpy wife, an ice-pick wielding Baby Leroy, an overbearing insurance salesman searching for Carl LaFong, and a rolling coconut all conspire to see it doesn’t happen. I had no squeaking clotheslines or obnoxious neighbors keeping me awake, like Bissonette, but the usual cracks and creaks of a cooling, settling house had become klaxons to me. 

By 6 a.m., the sun began to make early ventures through the clouds, just enough, I might add, to shine through the blinds into my face.

It was irritating, but by no means did the light keep me awake as much as the robins in the maples just a few feet and a wall away. Apparently happy to be out of their nests and up for a day of grooming my lawn for worms, they were cheerfully and loudly discussing the day’s business.

By that time, our old housecat, Arthur, was also into the act. Hungry from a night spent in the garage in his own bed, he was clawing at our door, wailing in hopes of his usual monotonous breakfast. With his pitiful cries, I gave up any illusion of sleep, so I slipped on a pair of jeans and headed out the door to the newspaper box.

The power was restored by 8:30. I knew the crew of utility linesman spent a much more restless night in their work than I did in my attempt to slumber, but I can’t imagine that they felt any worse for wear.

All at once, our house was filled with the beeps and murmurs and whistles of freezers and ceiling fans and microwaves coming to life. Within minutes, I heard ice cubes automatically plopping into a plastic tray.

At some point in my sleepless vigil, I contemplated how just a few generations ago people went to bed and slept and awoke to silence in their homes, and how the conveniences I had in a “modern” life, when taken from me for just a few hours, had made me dependent on comforting sounds, like a baby who hears its mother’s heartbeat in the womb.

I thought I loved silence, and I know I have been critical of so many as they’ve passed me with wires plugged into their heads, their music so loud I could hear it myself. But I seek silence of my own choosing.

Late that afternoon, bleary-eyed and thick-headed, I lay down on our bed for a quick nap.

Just to be sure, I flicked on the fan; I had to hear something.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar. com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His third collection of stories, “A Place Near Home,” is due to be released in the fall.

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