The last house we rented in California, before moving to Vermont, stood on the corner of a busy 4-way roundabout in South Berkeley. Directly across the street was the Bethlehem Temple, from whence blasted 10 hours of high-spirited gospel music and shouting every Sunday (and during Wednesday night choir practices, and on occasional Friday evenings). Diagonally across the intersection from our house was a middle school, a source of ringing bells and adolescent shrieking. And just up the street was the local fire station.
It was never quiet.
Also, because the two well-traveled streets that formed our corner lot were lined with streetlights, and because our house itself was rigged up with motion-sensing lights, it was never dark.
When we moved to Vermont, we immediately noticed the quiet and the dark. The quiet was so intense, it was almost audible; there was no hum of passing traffic, and if we were outside we could distinctly hear the conversation of neighbors a quarter-mile away. Our three young daughters are the noisiest things around, as we discovered when multiple neighbors commented how nice it was to hear “children’s voices” (a diplomatic term for “shrieking”).
And the dark was the blackest dark I’d ever seen. There are no streetlights where we live, and our house is so surrounded by trees that most of the year it takes effort to see a neighbor’s lights through the foliage. For that matter, it’s difficult to make out the stars or moon through the leaves overhead.
All this dark and quiet was disconcerting during our first few months in Vermont.
Of course, we adjust. When surrounded by dark and quiet, our eyes and ears become more sensitive, and what was once uncomfortable becomes the new normal. When my youngest daughter first became aware of the noise of a small propeller plane taking off from the Middlebury Airport near our house (an event that happens once every couple of days), she bolted into my arms like a startled rabbit. She doesn’t remember California, where jumbo jets roared overhead all day long.
I’m thinking about quiet and dark as we head towards the winter solstice – the quietest, darkest time of the year. This season is especially quiet and dark in Vermont, which is far enough north to have less than 9 hours of daylight on December 21, and cold enough to drive most living things indoors or underground.
But clustered around the winter solstice are a host of holiday celebrations. This is true no matter what tradition you embrace: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, secular. And what do all these celebrations have in common? Light and sound.
It’s no accident, of course, that during the quietest, darkest time of the year, we choose to celebrate holidays that involve lighting candles, decking our homes with brightly colored electric lights, singing at the top of our lungs, and gathering family and friends around us. (I’ve never been to a quiet gathering of family and friends.)
Back when these holidays were first celebrated, the quiet and the dark were even deeper than in Vermont. I can always flip a light switch, or hear the hum of my washing machine – recent luxuries. But living in Vermont, where I’ve experienced moments of deep darkness and true quiet for the first time in my life, I now see a more meaningful and dramatic contrast in the lights and sounds of my own winter holiday. It’s easier to appreciate the drama of a light coming into the darkness when there aren’t any streetlights, and to imagine a truly Silent Night without the hum of traffic.
To all of you reading this, whether in Vermont or elsewhere, I wish you winter holidays filled with light and sound.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, three young daughters (with another on the way), one adorable puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.