I hate earbuds. I hate headphones. When I see everybody walking around with wires dangling from their ears, I feel that resistance is futile: We have yielded to the Borg.
I realize that some people wear these things to tune out the noise of the great metropolis and find some kind of secret hideaway in their heads. The need for peace and silence, for escape, is basic to all humans. Even Cleveland’s most famous native son, Superman, has his Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic Circle.
But for me, the answer to our need for silence and solitude doesn’t lie with replacing one noise with another.
Don’t get me wrong. I love listening to music. But when I say “listen,” that’s just what I mean. To fill my head with music while I’m, say, taking a bike ride is neither to listen to music nor enjoy the ride. Each experience is diluted by the other.
“We live in an age of constant partial attention,” some wise social observer commented recently.
As a writer, I need to give the world my complete attention. And to do that I sometimes have to escape to peaceful secret gardens, places where I can spend time with someone I get to visit all too rarely these days: myself.
So I’ve found my own quiet soundscapes, my quiet retreats, amid the cacophony of the city.
I discovered Lake View Cemetery soon after I came to Cleveland. I first visited because I’d heard about the famous folk buried there, from President Garfield to Eliot Ness. Then I discovered the tucked-away ponds and fountains, the serene gardens. Nowadays, I stroll Lake View’s acres on a weekend morning and find myself almost entirely alone.
I can hardly believe that I’m tucked between Cleveland Heights and Little Italy. The racket of the cars on Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road disappears.
And I’ve made an astonishing discovery. If you don’t wear earbuds, if you don’t have headphones clamped over your ears, you can hear stuff! Like birds and katydids and tree frogs and crickets and the amiable silence of so many dead buried around me.
In the spring and summer I like to drive down to Edgewater Park. I’ll bring a book and sit at one of the picnic tables by the water’s edge. Like most Clevelanders, I don’t see the lake all that often, and it’s a pleasure to contemplate it in all its immensity at dusk, as the city skyscrapers blaze with the last light of day.
Again I’m reminded of what a precious commodity silence has become. Instead of the roar of traffic, the whine of leaf blowers or the constant ruckus of somebody’s distant chainsaw, the only sounds are the cries of seagulls and the laughter of children chasing each other under the trees.
Leave it to my friend John Donoghue, professor of electrical engineering at Cleveland State, to have an actual secret garden. His love of poetry led him to build his private retreat.
Seamus Heaney has a great poem called “The Forge” about the work of the poet. The first line is, “All I know is a door into the dark.” That image inspired John to enclose a small space in his backyard, complete with a tiny door almost hidden by vines.
“I realized,” he said when the project was complete, “that I had built something apart from me, like a poem. Something alive that belongs to bird songs and light, something that instructs me to look at the small things — the moss on the sandstone or the sparrows drinking from the pond. To see that is wondrous beyond words.”
My own favorite garden of tranquility, my frail Fortress of Solitude, is a very small place: my bicycle.
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t ride from my home in Cleveland Heights all the way down the Euclid Corridor, across the Veterans Memorial Bridge, then over the Abbey Avenue Bridge and into Tremont. I listen to people calling to each other on the sidewalks.
Earbudless, I hear the exuberant wail of that lone downtown saxophonist serenading the shoppers and sidewalk diners. In the distance is the sonorous whistle of a cargo ship making its way up the Cuyahoga and the rhythmic rumble of a freight train moving through the Flats.
I stop at a little cafe where espresso-sipping slackers hang out on weekday afternoons. I buy a cup of coffee and sit outside. In the silence of the afternoon, I think about what I’ve seen as I’ve passed through the city. I remember the sounds and the images and the thoughts that came to me.
Then I take out my notebook and begin to write.