White Noise, an essay by Jennifer K. Sweeney

White Noise

By Jennifer K. Sweeney

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I have never thought this world a quiet one. Quiet is that sought-after field worn to a golden stubble. Even as I am trying to write, the baby wakes again and again, his orange yowl zags down the hallway, and I return. Sometimes a night made only of returns. And how the word quiet quiets itself from the harsh widening of the hard k and long i with their knuckle-crack and child’s demanding why? into a staccato note, terse and neat. We are not primed for peace, though when around newborns, we instinctually lean in, grow soft, trying to preserve a perceived sense of untouched silence. We would do better to susurrate, whir, churn our rocket-gears; the womb is as loud as a vacuum cleaner. When that omnipresent inrush washes away to a stillpoint, the baby bristles against its salt plain.

We rock, bounce, sing, swaddle with a wrap called “miracle;” we develop elaborate dances that jiggle, dip, and figure 8 just so until his head grows heavy as fruit ripe on the bough yet always at the last moment of release, he bucks back from the trance. Monkey branch. Elephant dance. Our repertoire grows ever specific. We do this for hours taking turns throughout the night, swooshing him around the blue room. You need some white noise, a friend suggests, and I funnel up out of my postpartum miasma toward the lit sheen of Google to order odd items from the internet.

White noise is the term used to describe a signal or sound with a flat frequency spectrum, a steady unchanging storm-rustle. We sleep with a simulated ocean next to our heads set to the loudest volume. It is not enough. We summon the four directions: a Vornado fan waves on high from the East corner of the room, a cool mist humidifier from the West, the static of an AM radio due North, and a heartbeat machine lub-lubs from the South. They meet us in the middle, helplessly tired and ringing from the sonic monsoon we’ve orchestrated. We have placed ourselves in the belly of the whale, the ocean’s circular surf and suck droning out from us. Thieves would do well to rob us in the night, we have so woven ourselves into this white static. At times, his tiny consciousness finds its cavedom, he rummages for my breast, and I feel how singular we are, how the shushing layers snow over every relic of the ordinary world—trash trucks, car alarms, leaf blowers.

As I lay there with his ten pound body nestled into me, the sound not only bleats out the banal, but transcends in its fierce haze. I buckle at the edge of Niagara Falls, feel my teenage self trapped roadside during a New England snow squall at midnight, watch the ice frozen into the motion of waves on Lake Michigan slowly dismantle, a pressure of thousands of fine pops and cracks beneath the surface. And how much thinking is like falling. Wind swivels at me from all sides, a flock of swallows scatters open as if thrown, seams back together in a hairpin’s dive, so I tumble through memory and sound, blurry and receptive to each triggered thought sharpened from the void like a precipice. Land, linger, and release again into the ether.

As this sojourn into white deepens, other sounds emanate from the confluence of machines. That is, as their layers overlap, a kind of portal opens as when a Tuvan throat singer intones two octaves at once and a bolt of hooves takes the plain in the space between. I question that these sounds aren’t emerging from the exhaustion, my brain’s circuitry amok in alpha waves and oxytocin, but there are whole conversations. Opera. Bees. Factory gears grind their rote song. Freight trains on the mesa. An old woman and a man tune in and out from the abyss though there is no one home or neighboring. I can extract fragments, but mostly the calm tenor of their exchange threads through the rustling. It becomes a kind of listening into, a sifting through debris.

The first weeks with the baby are so vague in contour, time erodes into hazy hours that fly by (an actual moment of sleep) or slag on like one great ellipsis. Days slide into the filter of white, all hush and ash. Or I begin to suspect the devices are actually talking to each other. That our sleep orchestra is in fact one plain of interference. Unused radio frequencies, I read, are vulnerable to “contamination,” a word that interests me. False signals, harmonics, electrical equipment in the antenna’s circumference, even atmospheric events like solar flares and lightning are all subject to the white field of our bedroom. As we tried to contact the baby for 40 weeks through ultrasound, our rigged sonar funnels out from the womb of our bedroom in search of anything that might answer. We are sending out a call, and responses keep drawing into our sphere. Contaminating the slim bandwidth. Now I am listening keenly for fissures, friction, contact. What power generator groans into the storm to speak some rough language? What starry plough tunnels out to locate our pulse? Isolation and awe of the new parents, we are at home in this unknowing. We remember for an instant what it is to sense the beyond and not comprehend any of it.

So this has become an experiment of sorts as parenting a newborn too feels an experiment of sorts. In the first three days, we never opened up the computer, forgot to eat or drink, never felt the external urge to call or reach out, this brand new baby state so unexpectedly private and all-encompassing, exteriors fell away and the unit of family made us feel the last family, briefly the last people on earth or sent careening through outer space.

A random signal is considered “white noise” if it is observed to have a flat spectrum over the range of frequencies that is relevant to the context. For an audio signal, for example, the relevant range is the band of audible sound frequencies, between 20 to 20,000 Hz. Such a signal is heard as a hissing sound, resembling the /sh/ sound in “hush.” Though some of the sounds we have enlisted fall into the flat white noise spectrum, most white noise devices, those that simulate waterfalls, rain, wind, are actually producing pink noise, a spectrum set at a higher frequency. And our “ocean” is not random, but a generated track that is set to repeat, wash and wave. Meaning, we have complicated this greatly. I learn there is violet noise, red noise, and grey too. Brown noise is known as random walk or drunkard’s walk noise, a sound where the power density decreases rapidly and stumbles to a collapse whereas the density of the blue noise spectrum increases rapidly. Picture the seed of radiation let loose from Chernobyl swelling rapidly as it storms the forest. And producers of ambient sound refer to “green noise” as the sound that mirrors the natural world absent of manufactured noises.

Colors, wave patterns, shock and timbre, somewhere out there is a series of frequencies, and my ear trained only enough to perceive a small piece of the sounding world. I imagine the individual tremor emanating from each small gesture of wind-through-leaf, rabbit-tunneling-underground, milk-breath-against-chest, memory-surfacing-from-the-deep. Elegant chevrons, perpetuating spirals, skittery bands, this is fieldwork of the vague and particular, of desolation and howl.

Despite the cacophonous soundtrack of modern life, the underlying state of life outside the womb technically is quiet, a state of what’s referred to as black noise or silent noise. That there is first a general state absent of frequency at base, but there are too many random disturbances continuously interrupting at will. Simply, it’s just too loud to hear all that silence. And listening is no passive state of reception but rather a series of choices, an ongoing act of selection, silencing, honing in. In the first year of life, we acclimate to disruption, quickly learn to weave random noise into our backdrop and draw other senses to our primary focus; we filter, block, tune out in our conscious minds while simultaneously fatiguing the sensory realm until quiet is a biological necessity, a bodily felt relief. What falls away as we turn toward noise and learn its contours rather than bristle away? What do we lose in this process? So clearly I see how the baby cannot do it, plunged into a jarring and continuous barrage of brr-ringing telephones, slamming doors, clinking plates, and with no pattern to fix to, life feels entirely unexpected. The machinations of a great rustling soothe, surround, and make this world gentle and eternal.

To the adult’s forgotten senses, both white noise and silence seem oddities, rife with ancient and ancestral memories that call forth altered states of consciousness. To remove the disturbances of the modern world is to fully invite silent noise so that when true quiet comes, it comes larger than itself, its lack so striking it is heard as a sound presence. During meditation, in the recesses of an empty church or a room full of bodies bent over exams, a sensitivity grows, and any arising sound is subject to its own violence. The clearing of one’s throat, staccato spring of a stapler, the unending tweeze of cellophane in slow hands. Being alone in the house overnight, how suddenly one hears the suspicion and amplification in each micro-shift of pipe and wind, heater, appliance, every rummage of insects scurrying between walls. When remaining in silent noise long enough, talking can also feel disruptive, a rough choice and one made deliberately because a statement’s worth finally urges its bell-weight out. When I spend all day with the baby, sometimes I talk very little, and the sound of my own voice surprises me, even embarrasses me. It is the animal silence becomes us. And when I speak, I wonder what has happened to the stature of my voice, having receded into a singsong babble of oos and ahs. Instinctually, mothers speak in this soft high coo-cooey voice, for these are the pitches that babies’ ears can perceive most easily and thus first respond to as pleasure and enjoyment. Moon over the lucid yawn, old room, blue gone. Who knows what I sing when I sing to you? What will you do with a little brown shoe?

If I remove one of the fixtures in our bedroom, a curtain falls in the forest. If I quiet wind, I invite the raven’s caw. If I turn off mist, the sun rises up on its haunches. If I dim static, the loosed pages fold up to eighths and pocket into envelopes. If I draw the waves back out to sea, the tide dries up in the nautilus. The house sharpens its mild silences. His breathing deeper now, a bluebell snore, a tiny cavedom, against. I listen into it.



Jennifer K. SweeneyJennifer K. Sweeney is the author of three poetry collections: Little Spells (New Issues Press), How to Live on Bread and Music,(Perugia Press), and Salt Memory. The recipient of the James Laughlin Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a Hedgebrook residency, her essays have been featured in Vela and The Washington Post, and poems have recently appeared in The Adroit Journal, The Awl, Crab Creek Review, Passages North, Rust+Moth, Stirring, Tinderbox, and Thrush. She lives in California’s Inland Empire where she teaches privately and at the University of Redlands.
Read four poems by Jennifer K. Sweeney appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo of Niagara Falls by Pexels, courtesy Pixabay.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.