earplugs

I started sleeping with earplugs the second night after I adopted my (then-few-weeks-old-kitten) Max. Her energy did not know the limits of a 7 am to 3 pm shift at the Doubletree Hotel. So, I bought my first set of foam triangles. That was in 1998. I’ve slept without earplugs once between now and then. It was in London, unexpectedly crashing at a friend’s house after a night out on the town. A couple hours of tossing and turning later, I shoved toilet paper in my ears to try to mimic my beloved’s touch. It didn’t really work.

I’ve always been a bad sleeper. My psychiatrist gave me a word for it: fragile. I’m a fragile sleeper. A dainty princess, you might say. The following conditions must be met in order for me to fall asleep:

  • Moderate room temperature;
  • Heavy-feeling bedding that isn’t oppressively hot;
  • Personal space. I do not need anyone up in my business;
  • An intact bubble of warmth. This is that lovely cocoon one makes for oneself that captures just the right amount of body heat. Often destroyed by cover-tossing spouses, children, and cats;
  • A clean cat box (a must at all times, anyway, because we don’t like to go in dirty toilets, so why should our cats be forced to?);
  • Things put where they belong. No clothes on the floor, no closet or dresser drawers ajar;
  • Abstinence from caffeine for at least 14 hours. Sugar, too. Soda can only be consumed at breakfast (ew, kidding, soda is gross);
  • A mental list that has been completely checked off, including the making of any necessary apologies from the day’s thoughtless behaviors. Random things may come to mind, this requires a smartphone or pad of paper by my bedside so that I can email or write down things that come to me 45 minutes after I lay down to go to sleep. On particularly busy days, when I’ve not had a lot of quiet-mind-time, it will take a few hours to fully clear my cache;
  • And quiet. Utter silence. I had a roommate my sophomore year in college who went to sleep listening to the radio. The fucking RADIO, commercials and all. I moved into a freshman dorm to escape the madness. For a while in my adult life, I slept with earplugs and a white noise machine (not one of those crazy ones with jungle sounds – who the hell can sleep with birds cawing in your ear?).

Earplugs. I am writing this at a Franciscan hermitage in Southeastern Pennsylvania. I think there’s a highway in the distance, and some occasional air traffic, but it is otherwise silent. I still need my earplugs to sleep, though. I thought I’d be able to do without…no snoring, no cats scratching things, no people yelling at each other outside my window…but the occasional pop of the heater or settling sound of the house grips my anxious little heart and it’s just easier to put in the plugs and rest in peace.

I made an odd discovery when I arrived yesterday. I dug a pair of bright orange plugs out of my laptop bag (yes, a laptop at a retreat, I know, but there’s no internet, so think of it as a pen and paper, only nicer to trees). Anyway, I dug out the pair that I knew I had in my bag, and noticed another pair in the same pouch. I dug around, curious. In total, there were four pair in various pockets, and another pair in my bathroom bag. Five pairs of earplugs at a hermitage in the woods. Ha. But also…I have been carrying four of these pairs with me to and fro almost everywhere I go for…I don’t know how long.

Hello silence, my old friend?

I don’t think I can ignore this. It feels significant to me.

Maybe I have a strong need (for quiet, I presume?) and I walk around prepared to take advantage of every opportunity I can get.

Maybe my need for quiet is so wildly under-met that I am hoarding its little symbols.

Maybe it’s not a need, but a fear, that drives this compulsion. Perhaps I’m afraid of becoming overwhelmed. Earplugs are, after all, an escape. I can wear them and read while my kid plays a video game and I don’t have to think about and then overanalyze and then try to talk to him about its subtle messaging about redemptive violence or the role of women…it’s a Lego game, after all. I can wear them on a plane to avoid conversations and scary engine sounds. I can wear them in my office when I don’t want distraction and wouldn’t mind falling asleep for a few minutes in my cozy corner chair.

Maybe earplugs are my meditation. I roll them between my fingers and slide them into my ears just so. As they start to expand in my ear canal, the shape of the world around me changes, narrows. I hear the crackling foam. I become more conscious of my breathing. I hear the blood flow through my brain. The world seems to slow a little. My body relaxes. My mind stops racing. Denying this one sense seems to force a certain deliberation and focus.

Maybe these five pairs of earplugs that I’m carrying around are just one desperate cry my overworked mind is making to try to get my attention. “See us! We’re peace! We’re rest! You need us! You love us!”

I am a seminary student, work for an evangelical nonprofit, and am part of an awesome community of believers, but it’s hard for me to find Jesus in my to-do list. I’m still battling my twenty-year-old self wondering if I’m doing “the right thing” with my life; wondering what I should do next and whether or not the choices I made up to this point were mistakes; wondering if I can really change this time, or if I’m doomed to fail again; wondering…wondering…wondering…

Earlier today, I was sitting next to a window in this little cabin and noticed a bright blue flash in the trees. I put down my book, put on my glasses, and spent the next ten minutes or so watching birds forage for lunch in the brush and branches. Dozens of birds, some tiny and brown others huge and blue, doing what birds do. God made all of those species of birds, with their intricacies and quirks. And God made the trees that shelter them, and the insects which feed them. And this tiny microcosm of the whole created universe was happening right in front of me, in the frame of one small window, of one small house, in one small town, in one small country…That’s the kind of healthy wondering that mental quiet fosters.

I’ve never quite believed that I was enough. And part of the way I express that in life is by doing. Sure, I “do” a lot of TV watching – I’m not claiming this is a perfect science – but I also “do” a lot of actual productive stuff. And I feel driven. I am particularly driven to help Christians do a better job of talking about and relating to nonhuman animals. God gave me a heart for the work…it’s my passion and my vocation, and that’s okay. But I’m finding it difficult to balance that God-given passion with my other God-given need for quiet, respite, rest, and room to just think and write…and not necessarily about anything earth-changing. “If I’m not working to change the world, am I still working?” becomes “If I’m not working to change the world at this very second, am I still worthy?” So, there’s a daily vacillation between self-righteousness (I’m working) and self-loathing (I’ve been watching Netflix for three hours and I’m fat and therefore a terrible person who will never accomplish anything and whose son will grow up to hate her and eat meat and kill people for a living).

When I’m wearing earplugs, I can see the absurdity of all that grey-matter chatter. It’s just the steady drone of air in and out of my lungs and the space to hear God’s voice say: Rest. I am here. You are loved. I am here.

I can hear the best messages when I’m not listening to my own.

So, I’m going to keep a hold of these five pairs of earplugs. I’m going to use them. And maybe, eventually, I’ll learn to listen without them.

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