Tag Archives: noise

On Peace and Quiet

When I think of the word peace, I always think next of the word quiet.

I’ve always been someone who is extraordinarily sensitive to sound. As a student I would find myself distracted by the rhythmic clicking of a pen all the way over the other side of the lecture theater. Even now, any tapping or drumming of fingers tends to draw my attention with all the constant compulsion that magnets offer iron. Out in public I must sometimes make a conscious effort to maintain eye contact with the person I am speaking with, or I will find myself glancing around, restless as a sparrow, monitoring the source of every other sound that is playing its squeaky shrieky part in the symphony of background noise.

I crave quiet.

They say that you never fully appreciate what you have until it’s gone, but that’s not always true. I often notice and appreciate the gentle companionship of quiet. When I hear my damp bare feet meet our wooden floors after I get out of the shower at dawn, it reminds me to exhale gratitude for these brief still moments before the day really wakes up. Last year, as I stretched my way through prenatal yoga poses, I always thrilled to the heavy silence of the empty house. When I was pregnant and living at my parent’s place, I would open the bathroom window when I got up at night to listen to the slippery rustle of the breeze taunting the leaves in the tall stand of gum trees. Then I’d shut the window again, because given a choice I will always choose silence as a sleep companion even over the nocturnal music of this magical world.

Quiet for me is not just the absence of noise; it is a calming presence that prompts me to pay attention, to feel the act of breathing, to listen out for thoughts and feelings dancing hand in hand through my head. Quiet reminds me to live rather than just exist.

I am pretty good about being present where I am, but on those rare occasions when I indulge in fantasies of being elsewhere I always think of beaches, of cabins in woods, of the hushed sigh of falling snow or the grace notes that are the pop and hiss of a fire on a cold night. I think of my parents’ house. I never find myself longing for the efficient clamour of the London underground or the din and bustle of New York with its agile taxis and steaming hot dog carts and moving, throbbing energy. Those cities have their own charm, but I never find myself longing for them. I long for the still, silent places.

On the whole, Asia is not a still, silent place. Luang Prabang is by no means Jakarta or Bangkok, but it is a place of near neighbors and thin walls. It is a place of barking dogs, roosters, axes in wood, coconuts on tin roofs, motorcycles, and a cultural more that says you’re not having fun unless people in Vietnam can hear your music playing. It is a place of power tools running right outside our kitchen window.

Silence often brings me peace. This sort of peace comes easily, as a gift, but silence is not the only courier of peace. There is also peace hard won in defiance of noise, peace chosen in the face of fear, peace found in a seemingly barren wilderness of grief.

This I believe.

But sometimes that belief falters on days when I am serenaded by the shrill screech of power saws, or I think for too long about the lack of good medical care in this country, or I receive the news that a friend has lost his mortal battle with leukemia, leaving behind a much beloved wife and two little boys. Sometimes peace seems an elusive chimera indeed.

What does the word “peace” mean to you? What brings you peace?

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Noisy neighbors (cont…)

Once upon a time in the land of Laos there lived a noisy woodcutter running an illegal business. Next door to him lived a frazzled woman and a little baby boy who did not, for some reason, sleep nicely to the lullaby of power tools screeching right outside his bedroom window…

One day four government officials met to discuss the matter of the noisy woodcutter and his illegal business. They sat around outside the house of the noisy woodcutter and drank tea and smiled, as one must always do in Laos. They saw that noisy woodcutter was the sole breadwinner for four old ladies. They felt very sorry for noisy woodcutter and the four old ladies (they felt a little sorry for the baby, too, but they felt more sorry for the four old ladies).

The government officials decided that noisy woodcutter could keep operating his illegal business from 9-11:30am and 2-4:30pm every weekday. The government officials wrote this down on a piece of paper and everyone except frazzled woman signed it and everyone except frazzled woman seemed to be happy with this solution.

(Well, frazzled woman’s husband isn’t happy with it either, because he has to live with frazzled woman. Frazzled woman’s husband is doing everything he can to continue to figure out a “creative solution”. Frazzled woman loves her husband. She thinks that without him in her life she would not enjoy living in Laos nearly as much. She doesn’t think too hard about the fact that without him in her life she would not be living in Laos next to noisy woodcutter, because that line of thought would not do anyone any good. Plus, were she to remind him of this fact all he would say is, “you need me to make your life more interesting and provide unto you material for your writing. You’re welcome.”)

No one is quite sure how this story will end. Will frazzled woman and her long-suffering and hard working husband decide to move house? Will they try to rent noisy woodcutter other premises? Will frazzled woman magically learn to cope better with the din of power tools ringing through the house every single day? Will the noisy woodcutter stumble across the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and therefore have another viable option for feeding the four old ladies?

Stay tuned.

-------- Me: "What are we going to do about the noisy woodcutter, Dominic?" -------- Dominic: "I don't know mama, what ARE we going to do?"

Have you had any bad neighbor experiences lately (or good ones, for that matter)?

What Would Jesus Do?

So I have a What Would Jesus Do problem.

I don’t usually use the WWJD phrase, even in my own private thought life much less out loud. That’s partly because when I find myself tempted to ask what Jesus would do, I often deep down already know the answer and have previously avoided acknowledging said answer because I don’t like it.

Oh, and also because whenever I hear “What Would Jesus Do?” I think of charm bracelets and neatly packaged “how to live life” seminars and my kitsch radar goes off and I think “Laaa-aaame”. And thinking the word “lame” is not something I feel quite right doing when I’m also thinking about Jesus. Thinking “lame” in conjunction with Jesus instinctively makes me feel that I’m risking a divinely-inspired lightening strike, and acknowledging that feeling makes me wonder (once again) whether I understand grace or really comprehend who Jesus was at all.

No, easier just to sidestep that whole quagmire by not asking myself what Jesus would do.

Which is a pity, really, because when you stop to think about it it’s not a bad question to ask if you hold Jesus in high esteem.

Anyway, my problem. My problem that’s made me wonder what Jesus would do.

The neighbors just over the back fence have started woodworking again. They’ve been at it with electric sanders and power saws almost every day now for the past month. They often start at about 8 AM and go for up to seven hours a day. There is nowhere in this house I can go to escape the noise. It’s particularly bad in Dominic’s room (which overlooks the neighbors house). I’ve been putting him to sleep for his naps on my bed most of the time because our room is quieter. If he’s in his cot when the saws start up, he wakes up.

I find it hard to explain just how insane that high-pitched, shrieking whine drives me. How, now, whenever I hear them start up around 8AM in the morning my blood pressure jumps up ten notches and I’m flooded with righteous anger. For what they’re doing is technically illegal. You’re not supposed to run a noisy business within the city limits of Luang Prabang.

So, you see, what they’re doing is WRONG.

And, yet.

As Mike regularly reminds me.

They are poor. They probably aren’t poor enough that food is in short supply, but who knows. They almost definitely are poor enough that most of those extra dollars they are making from this illegal business are not being spent on lattes at Starbucks but, presumably, on things like school books and uniforms for their children.

I hope they’re spending the money on school uniforms, anyway, because when I think about the fact that they might be spending it on Beerlao, that’s just crazy-making.

Some of Mike’s Lao colleagues have visited these neighbors on our behalf to remind them of the agreement we reached almost a year ago that they only use these power tools three days a month. That made them cut back a little, but not enough. We’ve complained to the village chief, who basically suggested we move house. Last night, Mike rang me from Vientiane (where he’s been most of the week) to tell me that four government officials and a couple of his colleagues would be showing up at our house this morning to have a meeting about the issue.


The whole thing makes me feel icky, as if I’m acting like a wealthy, entitled expatriate, even though I cannot imagine that anyone else living around us enjoys being assaulted by the screeching din of power tools on a daily basis, either.

So, what would Jesus do?

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that “bribing the government officials to put pressure on the poverty-stricken woodcutter over the back fence” is out. Would Jesus have put up with it? Moved house? Paid the neighbor not to work? Paid rent for a work-space outside of town where these sorts of businesses are legal? Tried to negotiate some sort of compromise? Gone quietly insane? Packed up the baby while Mike was away on one of these work trips and high-tailed it to Australia?

Yeah, that one’s probably out, too.


Have you had a What Would Jesus Do (or your spiritual equivalent) problem lately? What was it?

(This is a Life Unmasked post. To read more Life Umasked posts by other bloggers hope over to Joy’s website)

Books, glorious books

It was a mostly quiet weekend.

I know, I know. That sentence is so boring that I should enter it into the Bulwer Lytton contest for the worst first lines of books.

This year’s overall winner was Molly Ringle from Seattle for the following:

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss–a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.

Another one of my favorites was Rick Cheeseman’s entry for fantasy fiction:

The wood nymph fairies blissfully pranced in the morning light past the glistening dewdrops on the meadow thistles by the Old Mill, ignorant of the daily slaughter that occurred just behind its lichen-encrusted walls, twin 20-ton mill stones savagely ripping apart the husks of wheat seed, gleefully smearing the starchy entrails across their dour granite faces in unspeakable botanical horror and carnage – but that’s not our story; ours is about fairies!

Granted, in light of the eloquence of previous winners, “it was a mostly quiet weekend” lacks a little… spice. Or comic hyperbole. But I like to think that its bland equivocation is a supremely boring sort of elegant. If there were a “meh” category it’d definitely be a strong contender.

Sadly, there’s not yet a category for meh.

So, this weekend. First, it came after five solid days of working on my consultancy report all day, every day. Then it came after three solid days of noise. The guesthouse right next door hosted a 48-hour party complete with karaoke and periodic drumming (at first we thought it was a funeral, but apparently someone bought a house). On Friday the drumming competed valiantly with the circular saws going over the back fence.

By 5:30pm Zulu, who had been locked in the office with me for most of the day, was completely over the din, his toys, and the sheets of packing paper that (desperate, and awash with guilt about my necessary neglect) I’d let him shred. The office was covered with tiny pieces of white paper and he was lying on his back with his head under the bed, moaning sadly to himself and chewing on cardboard. I knew how he felt.

Instead of feeling relieved after I sent off the report draft I just felt exhausted and flat. Why, I wondered, can’t I write a draft of a report in a week that I feel is brilliant instead of just a draft that I feel is a good start?

Then a whole host of other thoughts started to feed into a familiar mental storm – the kind of mental storm that occasionally generates inner tornadoes.

Why were we even living in this blasted place of incessant noise – this place where people think it’s acceptable to drum for two days, this place where people run circular saws eight hours a day, this place where radios only seem to have one setting – loud.

This place of swarms of mosquitoes that invade our house so that our pre-bedtime routine now consists of lurking in the corners of the bedroom watching… waiting… and killing.

This place where we can’t get reliable vaccines for our puppy, or doctors for ourselves.

Where we have no oven. And where I can’t buy pesto in a jar.

Yeah, once these mental tornadoes start to form it’s truly remarkable how quickly I can generate a wide variety of things that I am unhappy about to pull into the maelstrom.

“What can I do to help?” Mike asked on Friday night.

“Nothing,” I said from the depths of my stormy darkness. “I just need to go to bed and get over myself. But I can’t go to bed and go to sleep because they are still drumming.

At some point this weekend, however, the drumming stopped, so did the saws, and the world went quiet. We played with the puppy. We had a new friend, Luzia – a Swiss vet – over for dinner and she gave Zulu a deworming shot for us and shared some thoughts on how to possibly track down puppy vaccines. I figured out that the toaster oven works quite well for roasting pumpkin. We opened the jar of pesto we’d bought with us from California. Mike pottered around happily, and I sorted my books and finally got them stacked onto our new bookshelves.

Novels. Memoirs. Essays and short stories. Poetry. Academic texts on trauma, and peace building, and aid work. Books on writing.

Some of these books have been around the world with me more than once by now, and more than a few were bought in a pre-move literary-spending-spree (or, uh, ten such sprees). Sitting on the tile floor in the silence and sifting through them was soothing. The dozens that I haven’t read were tangible promises of many hours of pleasure to come. The dozens that I have read served a double function. They are stories that I have loved – each a whole world in their own right – and they are also each a small piece of my own story, my own world. I can remember where I was when I read many of the books that I have most loved – what I was doing, and how I was feeling about life.

Whenever I handle The Time Travelers Wife, for example, I flash back to Heathrow airport and a six-hour layover after a brutal week of hard work and food poisoning in Kenya. That book was read in a single stint – lying on hard plastic chairs, amidst the cacophony of constant boarding announcements. It redeemed those six hours, and I loved it even more for that.

Hours of peaceful sorting this weekend have finally yielded some order in our book collection and in my mind. It’s also transformed the corner of our downstairs room. We may not have access to good medical care here, but we now have our own library tucked neatly under a spiral staircase.

Luzia was stunned when she walked into our place on Sunday.

“It’s so nice to see books,” she said, entranced. “I haven’t seen hardly any books during the last eighteen months. This is amazing that you brought so many.”

“Yes, well,” Mike joked as he gave me a hug. “She is the love of my life. And they are the love of hers.”