Domestic Noise

On a recent Sunday, our Quaker Meeting was gathering for our Zoom Silent Worship, when something lovely happened. As usual, there was a bit of chitchat as folks welcomed each other to the zoom session, and then people began settling into the silence.  As the session quieted (and before the host muted everyone) there was a short period when we could all hear domestic noise from each others’ homes: the clink of a spoon in a mug, the scrape of a chair on the floor, the whistle of a cockatiel.  It was intimate and wonderful.

Domestic noise can be comforting and reassuring, the sounds of a household functioning. When I was a young mother, I could work in the other room and listen to the kids chattering and usually know what they were doing. (When they went radio silent, I knew to drop what I was doing and go check.) Listening to each other – not just what we say, but listening to what we do – is how we keep track of each other in our respective caves. And as we continue to hunker down in our homes to survive this pandemic, all of us are becoming more aware of the domestic noise in our lives.

During Covid, who we share our domestic space with carries huge implications for our lives. For better or for worse, we have been locked in with our intimates, people whose breath we feel safe sharing. For those living in larger family groups – especially those with children stuck at home – domestic noise can sometimes be irritating and pervasive, something to be escaped. For those of us who live with a partner, small idiosyncrasies we may have easily ignored in the past can loom large in our confined spaces. And for those who live alone, our own domestic noise may echo through our rooms, highlighting our aloneness in this long lock-down.

In these strange days, it may help to become more alert to the domestic noise in our lives. What can these audible clues tell us? If my husband’s cough is becoming annoying, it’s probably no fun for him either. So instead of putting a pillow over my head, maybe I should explore what it means. Does he need a cough drop, a cup of lemon tea, or a trip to the doctor? If children are fighting with their siblings more, are there practical adjustments that might make them all happier? (And if not, do we have the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies?)

And what about domestic silence? What can that tell us? As much as Quakers are drawn to silence, we know that it can mean something more troubling, such as a distancing from each other, an avoidance, a protective barrier that needs examination. Sometimes we fail to say what we must because we don’t want to inflict our truth on a loved one and tension builds. It’s hard enough to live with unaddressed family problems in normal times, and very difficult when there’s little opportunity for escape.  So how do we keep our patience through the pandemic with those who share our lives, even as we all go slightly mad? Mental health professionals are reporting rising rates of mental illness and depression among students, who miss school, and married people in unhappy relationships, and lonely seniors who rarely get a chance to talk with someone face-to-face. And for those who may need to take action to protect themselves, rearranging our domestic situations right now can be painfully difficult and for some financially or practically impossible. Making one’s peace with an unhappy situation can be particularly tough in these circumstances.

So how do we manage, and find ways of appreciating, the domestic noise in our lives? Quaker Muriel Bishop Summers said this in 1990: “All of us… are diminished and dishonored when we do not meet each other half way. How can we love in truth and lovingly help one another in this? Because we must remember that truth without love is violence. And love without truth is sentimentality. We do need both.”

Here are some queries to consider in thinking about the domestic noise or silence in your life:

Do I resist the temptation to fill the quiet of my home with nonstop television or radio? Do I spend time listening to the noises that surface in the quiet?

Do I listen to the domestic noise my partners or children add to the crazy quilt of my life? What might that noise, or the lack of noise, be telling me?

Do I tend to those I live with in the spirit of tolerance and understanding? Do I make space for my partners and children to share messages that I may not want to hear but they need to tell me?

Do I stop to enjoy the simple pleasures of domestic life, such as a warm cookie or listening to the wind chimes out my window?

Do I stop to listen for God in the domestic noise of my life?

When I encounter discord in my domestic space, do I have the courage to speak with both integrity and love?

If I sense there is tension in the silence between us, do I ask if there is something we need to talk about?

By Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.