White Noise

This city isn’t quiet at night. There is a constant stream of noise throughout the sleeping hours, but I don’t mind. White noise has always been my ally.

I know plenty of people who love silence. It relaxes them and gives them a feeling of serenity. Too often, silence amplifies the smallest of noises for me—tiny sounds that shout in the echo chamber of the void. As the external noises of my environment fade, my brain grows more active and I start to drown in my own thoughts. It’s like being in a movie theater where you can’t hear people whispering during the action sequences of the movie, but in the quiet dramatic scenes, a whisper becomes a complete distraction. Without white noise, my brain fills with my own whispers. Whispers that I am powerless to silence.

I’ve always thought of my ability to drink in all the sights and sounds of my environment as a blessing. It made me more observant and quicker to gather information in a classroom. There is a curse as well and it comes into play when I lose control of the onslaught of input and the noises from outside and within overwhelm me. It’s at those moments that I become paralyzed. I fail to make any progress because my brain can’t concentrate on one path to follow.

I used to sit in my Texas backyard to get some fresh air and try to clear my head. It was relatively quiet—in Houston, you quickly learned to ignore the drone of air conditioning units as the price to surviving the heat and humidity—but I couldn’t focus unless I turned on our pool waterfall. The rush of water over two tons of rocks created an intricate symphony of sounds that quieted the cross chatter in my head.

White noise consists of sounds that don’t require my action or attention. When I would work in my home office with family around, every creak, conversation, or drip would distract me—even with closed doors. Every sound screamed, “handle me now!” I’d escape to a coffee shop or restaurant for the quiet of bustling activity and carefree conversations. It wasn’t my building decaying or my family talking, so it was glorious static.

Our San Francisco apartment is in a busy area of Pacific Heights, with both a hospital and a fire station within ear shot and the traffic of Van Ness two blocks downhill. I was concerned at first that our city life would too dramatic a change without the residential quiet we had become used to, but the chaos has become glorious background music.

It’s just one more gift of our life change: beautiful white noise.