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Essayist Says a Reluctant Goodbye to Winter

March 18, 2009 at 6:50 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune says a reluctant goodbye to winter.

TV REPORTER: It is really coming down, very convective in nature. We’ve had…

JULIA KELLER, NewsHour essayist: Here in the Midwest, the winter of 2009 has been a wicked one. The snow, like those legendary Chicago voters, came early and often. It’s been diabolically cold, as well, which means that, when the snow came, it stayed. It clogged roads, and closed schools, and turned daily life into one long, obnoxious slog, an endless ordeal of bursting water pipes and dangling power lines.

But winter brings something else, too, along with copious snow and stuck cars and frozen fingers: silence.

This occurred to me as I drove across the snow-coated miles of northern Ohio and Indiana. As I rolled past those wide-open farm fields, the ones tucked under their simple quilts of snow, I realized how quiet the world is when it is encased that way, how graceful.

Everything slows down. We’re forced to be more patient and deliberative. We can’t just race around in our usual frenzy, changing lanes with a quick jerk of the steering wheel or peeling out when the light turns green, because the snow and the ice won’t allow it. And that, in turn, means the world grows quieter.

For the rest of the year, silence is hard to come by. Typically, our world lives at the top of its lungs. It’s loud, and it’s rude, and it’s brassy, and it won’t rest until everybody joins the party.

TV sets yammer at airport departure gates, in doctors’ waiting rooms, even at gas pumps. The racket is outrageous: car horns, car alarms, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, radios, yelled conversations, cell phone ring tones. It’s a cacophonous carnival, this country of ours, a riot of sound and a jumble of jarring aural interruptions.

And it’s more than merely annoying. The American Academy of Audiology…

DOCTOR: May I check your other ear?

JULIA KELLER: … recently estimated that more than 5 million kids have already suffered noise-induced hearing loss, a loss that is, they add, entirely preventable.

But winter is different. Even in the city, for a brief, blessed interval, the world is forced to shut down and shut up. Silence is in charge.

In her luminous new memoir, “Listening Below the Noise,” Anne D. LeClaire notes that, in contemporary life, silence must be actively sought out. “Take one day,” she says, “and do not speak. Embrace silence. You’ll be renewed,” she promises, “at peace.”

Winter requires us to become reacquainted with silence. It’s like a long pause, a held breath, a solace that is available to all at no extra charge.

And so I am, much to my astonishment, a little bit reluctant to see winter go away this time. Maybe those cloistered monks were onto something, because there is a white stretch of wilderness in every human soul, a place that’s so easy to forget about when you’ve got an iPod jammed in your ear, a TV remote glued to your palm, and a whole bunch of errands to run.

Winter, I’ve decided, is the Clint Eastwood of the seasons. It’s tough, sometimes mean. It can kill you if it wants to. And it doesn’t have much to say. In fact, it generally restricts itself to a single syllable: hush. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll do as you’re told.

I’m Julia Keller.