Since I was a child I’ve had the most extraordinary hearing. I’ve revelled in the sounds I can hear that others can’t. Really precise sounds.
The pleasure of hearing the expansion of a teapot as hot water is poured into it, tick, tick, fizz at the lowest levels. The sound of the feathers of birds as they fly by catching in the wind as I stand on a lonely moor. The rain coming off the sides of buildings and puddling and pooling, so that you can hear the locations of each spot as it drops, in a 360 degree soundscape.
There have been nights when I woke to the sound of voices, and complained about the noise of people talking in the streets – to the bafflement of my partner.
The crisp rustle of dried autumn leaves plucked from the branches, the whisper of the wind though a poplar stand while we camped out in Ireland years and years ago. And the sea, of course, the wide open sea that floods my head in oceanic stereo.
And the thing that made it all so clear and powerful was the silence. The powerful, echoing silence that made everything else so stark, like the gaps between words.
There was a time when I was living on the Isle of Arran, a lonely young man who had had his heart broken by a woman and had hitched for two years, living in woods, on friends’ floors, in tents – just seeking some form of inner peace, when the depression had taken hold of me so badly that I couldn’t function. On the Isle of Arran, the long days and nights of pure, utter silence reached into my soul and cured me of my pain. It said: “There, there, this now is past. There is peace here. There is love. There is a world in which you can start again. The only voices you hear are inside yourself – your rage, your pain, your narrative of suffering, your self-created rage.”
And so, silence taught me, and nurtured me, and helped me grow.
All this went on a night out in Southsea. It changed when I got a text from a good friend of mine, Johnny, a few months ago, telling me there was a DJ set at a local pub in aid of charity.
It was a good night. I danced. I thought the music was loud, but no-one else seemed to notice, and so – unlike my usual habit of putting paper in my ears to protect them, I danced on.
The next morning I woke to a high pitched whistling in my ears. From then, till now, it has not gone away. I did my research, and I am now resigning myself to a terrible, soul-destroying fact. My hearing has been damaged irreparably by that one night. I will never hear silence again, and the clarity with which I heard the tiniest sounds has gone forever.
I can’t tell you how much this hurts me. Silence was the thing I relied on to gather my thoughts. It was the thing I used to unwind myself and find the centre of my soul. Silence was the touchstone I used to direct my life, the void in which the stream moved.
I had no idea how much silence was my friend until now. I had no idea that I wouldn’t be able to hear precisely the movements of wind and rain, or hear the slightest change of stress in a voice, or hear the tiny nuances of sound that others missed and that I took for granted.
So, what can I say? This little piece is goodbye to you, my old friend, Silence.
I loved you. I loved you, and I miss you so much.
Thank you, Matt. What a beautiful piece of writing. Even though I’m ancient, I have very good hearing and my husband now hasn’t. I truly appreciate the sounds but also the calming silence between words and bird-song.
Hi, thanks. The writing will never compensate for the loss I feel. I’m in grief at the moment, and struggling with this change in my life. Horrendous.
Beautifully written. Thank you. If this is tinnitus (my guess) then it is intensely annoying and disturbing. Acute hearing such as yours is clearly deserving of grief now that you know some of it is gone.
Many people’s experiences are wildly different, so it’s hard to know how it will develop for you. Some never valued high-fidelity hearing and don’t notice when it is dulled. Others exalt in their golden ears and rightly grieve their departure.
With a tiny chip in a tooth, our brains seem to have limitless capacity to zoom in on every excruciating detail of that chipped tooth, magnifying its size to enormous proportions, marvelling at its many edges and angles. Just the same, our brains can eventually get to the point of recognising it, noting that the wretched thing is still there, shrugging, and moving on to more pressing matters.
With tinnitus, the process of acknowledging it can be slow. And there will be frequent reverses. But you will never lose your ability to extract maximum fidelity from the flawed hearing you retain.