Saturday, July 10, 2010


I have always had very sensitive ears. I can find pitches very easily, whether it be for the purposes of harmony or unity. I am quick to notice in a performance, casual or formal when there is a problem with intonation. I do not like it when the radio is playing and the television is on, even in another room, and it is very difficult for me when there is music playing (especially with words) along with a lively conversation in which I am engaged. I find myself physically irritated when in a small space, like an elevator or hallway and there is loud background music. When I have memories, they are almost always associated with sound, good and bad. I often attribute "theme songs" to certain periods of my life, almost like an audio scrapbook. I know my brother and sisters do this too.

When I was a child, my parents raised me in their version of a faith-based hippie commune called "Quaker Earth" and in Bluffton, Ohio, a small town of about 3000 people. Quaker Earth was a beautiful natural refuge, on the northern part of Appalachia, with nothing but the sounds of the running ravine, birds, dogs, music, children playing make-believe, and grown ups having deep and meaningful conversations. In Bluffton, I remember the distant hum of Highway 75, the band practicing at Bluffton College, and neighbors talking (yes, you could hear your neighbors). When I was an adult, I moved to Newton, Kansas, where I was embraced by the sounds of the train coming through town, the Mennonite church bells ringing familiar hymns twice a day, cicadas, and the occasional college track meet.

For the most part, I have been audibly protected from the sounds of city traffic, sirens, car alarms, low-flying helicopters and airplanes, loud booms that resemble gunshots, or large-scale construction. Until now.

As much as sound has affected me aesthetically, it has also affected me spiritually. During my formative years, I participated in Friends Meeting with my parents. While our meeting unconventionally opened the time for worship with some singing together, the rest of the Meeting for Worship was spent in silent meditation. So, as a very young child I learned the importance and the comfort of complete silence. And that is where I found the most significant and compelling connection to God. So much, in fact, that I recently spent a good amount of time working with two spiritual companions, learning how to pray with words.

There are so many things I am learning about Colombia, about myself, and about being culturally aware. Colombia, as I know it thus far, is not quiet. There is, of course the "urban music" mentioned previously, but I would also argue that there is a cultural value here on loudness, unlike anything I have experienced thus far.

This is manifested in loud church services (an MCC friend of mine even confessed to turning down the amplifier at church when she went), loud birthday parties, loud meetings, loud music in restaurants, coffee shops, stores, loud(er) amplification at concerts, parks, etc. It is simply loud here.

This has provided general discomfort in most public situations, but it has most profoundly disrupted my ability to feel connected to a community of faith. It is not uncommon for my children to be covering their ears during the singing part of church. The music is louder than most concerts I have been to, so much so it is difficult to even hear your neighbor say something to you, even when they are yelling. Another cultural norm is that while one person is praying aloud into a microphone, many others around you are also praying aloud their own petitions and reinforcements on top the the first. At first I found this to be a pleasant, prayer-rumble of sound, but that was before I understood any Spanish. Now that I can actually understand what the lead prayer is saying, I find it audibly dizzying, at the least.

So, not unlike many of the difficult times I have had this year, I have to ask...what is the purpose of this for me? What is the lesson? Is there something about me that can be stretched by embracing the loudness around me? Is it meant to make me value the silence more?

Meanwhile, I listen. I try to understand the sounds around me, the volume that is in some way so important to my Colombian neighbors. Maybe this is just the soundtrack of the times that is meant to be part of my life here. And while it is so deeply uncomfortable, it is also unavoidable. I will continue to pray in silence and in whispers, not because I feel like that way is better than the rest, but because it feeds my spirit in the fullest way, and brings a peace that is otherwise so very hard to find.


  1. Beautiful post, Jen. Thanks for your thoughts. They are so clear, and so familiar.

  2. i love this post and all this about you.

    when we're together again, i'm glad to be that colombian presence for you and be LOUD.

  3. You are not alone! I felt the same way when i was in Newton, but it was vice versa.
    I came from a 'loud' culture and went in to a 'silent' culture in a very small city. Actually that changed me a bit. Now I like the quietness more than the loudness :)

  4. Your words speak so clearly to me. Last night, on our evening bike-about-North-Newton, Jon and I were marveling at the quietness. -Kathleen

    My work with music … has taught me the deepest respect for the emptiness between the notes. Of course, there is no music without the silence. It is silence that actually gives life to sound.
    – Jane Lowey quoted in Listening Below the Noise