The day before Ash Wednesday, I accidentally left my iPod at home. After many hours walking around the city I was antsy and irritated, desperately wishing I had something to drown everything, and everyone, out. To manage our overwhelming environment, New Yorkers need coping mechanisms: the tunnel vision stare that takes in nothing but our ultimate destination, the uninviting face that ensures we will never be one of the select few subway patrons forced to engage in conversation with a stranger, the book to bury our heads in, and of course, the headphones — perhaps the easiest and most effective escape from one’s surroundings. After realizing that I was relying heavily on this self-preservation tool, I decided it would be worth trying to navigate the city without it. The next day, with the clichéd hope of changing my outlook on daily life and becoming a slightly more self-actualized person, I resolved to give up my iPod for Lent.
This city, as everyone who lives here knows and everyone who doesn’t assumes, is a constant assault to one’s senses. Learning how to shield oneself is imperative to avoiding complete misery. When I moved here almost six years ago, I remember coming home at night more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life. After a physician confirmed that I did not, in fact, have mono, I realized that my nervous system had just never experienced such incessant stimulation. There’s a reason tourists don’t vacation for months at a time — the constant experience of seeing everything, of taking it all in as new and exciting, can be entirely draining. Winter is an especially trying time for out-and-about New Yorkers, when the long walks we face daily can be painful if we’re not properly clothed. During this time of year, we commuters retreat into the protective shells of our puffy coats, tensely dropping our chins to our chests and hunching our shoulders up to our earlobes. Having some type of distraction can be quite helpful. In such a secluded state, it’s only natural that we want the company of, say, an Ira Glass or a Carly Rae Jepsen.
What I’ve learned since turning off the tunes is that I used them for more than a pleasant escape from the biting cold, wailing ambulances, grating jackhammers and squawking cell phone conversations. I used certain songs to call up specific emotions, to automatically go into the same melancholy, excited, or empowered moods over and over again. For me, Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green,” or Sun Kill Moon’s “Carry Me Ohio” would always help to glamorize a sad or homesick mood during a particularly crowded commute. On the flip side, some awfully shallow pop song could always cheer me up after a rough day at work. Now, I have to make those shifts on my own, with only the voice in my head to listen to. Unfortunately, this voice hasn’t always been the loveliest sound. Instead, it’s been berating and full of self-doubt, using the word should far too much. “You should be more clear about your career at this age. You should be able to be alone in your head for 10 minutes…” In the beginning, I found myself anxious and fidgety in the silence, often replaying the more negative, painful aspects of life over in my head — rather than the joyous ones — and coming home feeling wholly deflated.
After a few weeks of struggling, I met a friend for drinks and explained my endeavor. She told me about a related rant George Carlin had years ago on Walkmans. Looking it up when I got home, I found that Carlin had indeed hit the nail on the head: “And I’ve just about had it with all these [people] who walk around listening to Walkmans. What are these jack-offs telling us? They’re too good to participate in daily life? … I think a person has to be fairly uncomfortable with his thoughts to have the need to block them out while simply walking around.” I’m undeniably guilty of being “fairly uncomfortable” with my own thoughts, so much so that in the past I’ve found myself putting in headphones just to walk three blocks. Now however, for better or for worse, I’m stuck with them, in the hopes that somehow I can un-stick myself from a cycle of negativity and passive self-abuse.
Sometimes, it actually helps to pretend I’m a vacationing tourist. The fact is, I would never dream of wandering the streets of a foreign city with headphones in, because I wouldn’t want to miss anything or make my experience of a place any less authentic. It’s this desire to truly see things anew — to take it all in despite the sharpness, loudness, exhaustion and sadness — that I am slowly cultivating in daily life. Little by little, I’ve begun to tune-in to the music drifting out of my neighbors’ cars and apartments and the hilarious conversations held in French by people sitting next to me who are unaware of my comprehension. I‘ve noticed that the most seemingly lifeless trees are often filled with the littlest birds singing the loudest, prettiest songs. The other day I even had a conversation with a stranger on the subway. She told me she liked my shoes and asked what brand they were; I answered and then promptly went back to reading. It wasn’t the most profound conversation, but still, cordial words were exchanged. It counts. Ever so slightly, my world is shifting.
With awareness, saying kinder things to myself and fully engaging in my surroundings has gotten easier. The piercing silence, once entirely unnerving, now settles me. My thoughts and I have begun to make peace. As is often the case with many things in life, once I stopped trying to fight them off, they surrendered, retreated. Let’s face it, though, this will not be permanent. I know that when Easter comes, I will pick up the music again, but perhaps not as often and automatically. This city has too much to offer and I wouldn’t want to miss it. More frequently, I plan on tuning in.