Last week, I had my ears irrigated. Which means a brave and kind man named Dr. Hanson power-washed all the wax that had accumulated over the past year and laid the great globs out on a tray for me to ooh and oy at.
I've always had a lot of wax in my ears. I should get them irrigated at least once a year. Probably before it gets to the point where I can't hear out of one side and I'm slightly dizzy from this feeling of imbalance.
The day after Dr. Hanson did his excavation I vowed to appreciate each broken muffler and every butterfly sneeze. Even the sewage construction that's been pummeling our streets for the past four months.
The day after that, I started tuning it out again.
Yesterday, I found this fascinating talk on TED.com on the human perception of sound. Julian Treasure dissects how we tune out the static around us, or rather, charge through it. Talking over the baby crying, the back hoe, the clickety-clack-clonk or top 40 countdown.
As I write this, I am in a crowded coffee shop. Here are some snippets I can catch if I truly try to take them all in (a.k.a. LISTEN).
"Change the channel."
"Hi! How can I help you?"
"Can I have a latte please?"
Coffee beans grinding
Neville Brothers crooning
"Halloo! Happy Valentine's Day! Are the kids excited?"
"You can't break it down. What are you gonna break down?"
You can call this eavesdropping. Maybe even misquoting.
I call it a blessing.
There are many people with neurological disorders that make this kind of listening challenging, if not impossible. I feel truly grateful that I have a brain that can process sound, focusing on one at a time, for the most part. When I experience too much auditory stimulus at once, I either shut them out effortlessly, or hold my ears and say Nah nah nah nah nah I can't hear you.
Where I stray, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in this, is how I fill in the silences.
This morning, I was downstairs in our basement. Most Tuesdays, I say my prayers there before grabbing my bike and heading out for a day of writing. My husband is in charge of breakfast and getting our kids ready for the day. For this I owe him a lifetime supply of NutterButters.
This morning, as I was about to leave, I heard my husband say to our three-year-old,
"You want to lay on the couch? You don't want to eat the waffle I made you?"
Her answer was inaudible. I pulled my hand away from the door. As if to rewind his sentence - find out what came before. But I'd already created its context. Without logic or justification, I'd filled in her silence with illness, injury, stomach ulcers, flu, vomit, moaning, groaning, shaky unstoppable unknowns. I'd created a horror story about my daughter's health in the space of a single breath.
An all-too-common hobby of mine these days: find a blank space, fill it in with worst fear. Repeat.
A little while later, I texted my husband. Trying to sound upbeat, I started with
Yeah was his response.
She sounded sad, I persisted. All OK? xo
All OK. xo
Our next check-in was by phone. He soothed me at hello.
"Hey, so did she ever eat her waffle? I heard her say she didn't want it," I said.
"She ate one and a half waffles, Abby. And some orange."
"Oh, thanks. I went somewhere else."
"We had a great morning," he said. "I love you."
I do want to pay more attention and appreciate the soundscape in which I live. Every day there is a new song being hummed, an ocean roaring, a calf mewing. In Brooklyn, where I live, there are rushing sirens, buses farting, the slurp of a soda straw. I'm filtering eagerly, but too often selecting the wrong noises to listen to. Singling out the one loose string in a full and vibrant symphony.
If I listen with full and grateful awareness, hopefully I'll start hearing the music more. My children are in great health. They also make up hilarious songs about pigs and cupcakes. When I really hear them, I'll become more informed and prepared for the silence.
Because there will be silence. And I need to face it fearlessly.
I no longer have the excuse of waxy build-up in my ears.
I have the challenge of wide-open possibility.