I’ve never thought of ambient sound as something that some of us get to choose and some don’t. I’ve never thought much at all about the sounds around me. I grew up in a house with four kids and an endless rotation of babies. The television was always on. I went to public school with hundreds of kids flooding the halls in between classes. I’ve worked in restaurants, amusement parks, classrooms, and other places with incessant, uncontrollable noise. I’ve lived in huge cities like Montreal and Moscow, where window glass and insulation can’t drown out the cacophony, and in places like India and Honduras where glass and insulation are non-existent. Noise has always existed.
But now I live alone. I rarely put music on when I’m home because I’m often writing or reading. Sometimes I’ll watch a movie or listen to an audio book, but mostly my house is silent except for the occasional whistle of a passing train or the tapping of my dog’s nails on the floor. As I’m drafting this post on February 1, the only sounds in my house are a chinook rattling my roof on a welcome 60-degree winter day and the clicking of my keyboard. I work in an open concept office, but the company provides me with noise cancelling headphones, and I work from home about forty percent of the week. I spend a lot of time alone in the woods running, camping, or hiking with my dog. When someone comes with me, it’s often someone who also enjoys the silence and we don’t feel the need to fill every minute with conversation.
So, I get to choose. I could have roommates but I can afford to live alone, so I do. I have a Spotify premium subscription and could put on background music, but I generally don’t. I could work from a coffee shop or a brewery, but I like being at home with my dog. I could join hiking meetups and head into the forest with more companions, but that doesn’t appeal to me.
Going to Cuba a few weeks ago reminded me that most of the world doesn’t get to choose silence. They can’t afford to live on their own and even if they could, climate and availability of building materials would restrict how closed off their homes could be. Jobs are limited, especially jobs with the flexibility like mine has. Access to remote, wild spaces is limited and such spaces are underdeveloped anyway. If I were in Cuba right now, I would hear babies crying, street vendors hawking their goods, cats fighting, cars rumbling down pocked streets, water swooshing from neighbors cooking and cleaning and flushing their toilets, roosters crowing, the ocean, and music, everywhere. But here, listen for yourself.