Walled In Again

There is always noise these days. Always something on, and now a massive portion of the population has earbuds perpetuating the sounds. The time spent in complete silence save the sounds of nature, or even a quiet walk down a sidewalk with cars passing or people talking nearby, has diminished to a fraction of the day. There is simply always some sort of humanmade noise.

Add to that the waves emitting from cellphones always on our body somewhere, moving the space around us, the air around us, pushing or pulling the vibrations and filling the emptiness in the air around us, everywhere, and we are bathed in noise, saturated by noise, be it audible or not.

When is there room for imagination? When are we ever left alone with our own thoughts? Not filtered through music, not wrapped in anticipation of who might text or call, but space for letting our thoughts drift, our mind, uninfluenced by a claustrophobic world, wander at will.

In anticipation of the long long long anticipated launch of The Nature Readings Project, I have been watching videos all week of writers reading work about nature, and there is a common theme amongst almost all of them, from Tim O’Brien and Tim Seibles to classic recordings by Robert Frost and Wendell Berry, all reiterating a concept most famously communicated by Thoreau: nature’s greatest asset for humans is the chance to escape and regroup so we can better deal with society.

And as I approach the 500th blog here at A View, I have skimmed through the early days and discovered too that my emphasis was always on nature as a place to remind ourselves of the essentials, the basics we need, so no matter what society throws at us, we know what we can handle. More, we remember we need so much less to be happy than we might believe when suffering under the deluge of noise.

Anyway, this morning I stopped at the Point near my home before headed south to the college, and I sat and watched a pod of dolphins move by, and geese, and one lone heron. The only sounds were of the water—somewhat rough—the deep call of the heron as it moved by, and the geese encouraging each other along.  I could have stayed there all day like I used to during Covid and would record videos for my asynchronous courses, talking about the structure of an essay while watching fishing boats head out to sea.

Instead, I drove south, sat on the bridge-tunnel for an eternity, weaved through the streets of Norfolk to campus, and sat before class staring at twenty students with earbuds in and reading cellphones, moving their heads to some song, or texting away to some friend.

It is none of my business until class starts, but when class starts I have a tendency to make that my business.

“What’s her name?” I asked one student in the front row about the one next to him.

“I don’t know.”

“Does anyone here, a month into the class we meet three times a week, know anybody else’s name?” They all looked around, then at me. They didn’t, of course, but worse, they couldn’t care less.

“In the before times,” I told them, noting I didn’t mean before Covid, but before cellphones, “people were endlessly engaged with each other, talking so much I had to call out several times to get everyone to calm down to start class. Friendships were formed, relationships. They used to look in the eyes and talk to people who were now part of their future instead of looking down into their past, their friends since seventh grade in their phones.”

I told them to talk to each other and that I’d be back in fifteen minutes. No phones. No silence. Introduce themselves, ask questions.

I stood outside and listened to cars going by, some birds in an oak outside the building, two professors from the business building talking on the sidewalk. I slowed down my breathing. I thought about the bay, my river, hikes I’ve taken recently along the York River and out in Utah. Those times I stepped outside my comfort zone. My bp came down, my breathing stayed normal. My headache went away.

I appreciated the time to regroup. I really haven’t heard of people doing that anymore—regrouping. I walked back in the building relaxed, ready to talk about the tedious task of editing, hoping their minds were all a bit clearer now, relaxed. Even hopeful, I hoped.

I approached the room and could hear nothing at all. Nothing. I walked in and people quickly hid their phones, looking around, one even pretended he was finishing a conversation with the woman next to him.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “You’re not being graded.”

I sat for a minute and imagined the waves from the devices as colors, dark red and purple, and deep yellow like on weather maps of thunderstorms, and I looked around the room and in my mind I could see nothing but the storm, a rough sea of dark colors filling the air, completely occupying every aspect of the room, and when anyone took a breathe their lungs filled with purple and yellow air.

We used to talk to each other.

We used to look at each other more. We used to laugh and tell stories, or go for a walk through fallen leaves, their sound the only music.

We were present. We remained present so that we could better handle the future when we got there.

We lived deliberately.

“Let’s talk about tone,” I said, and everyone let out a sigh of relief, as if they were terrified I was going to make them talk to each other again.