I lost my last good pair of headphones the other day.
I don’t really know where they went. At one point they were in my ears, and then in my pocket along with my phone and then at a later moment in neither place. I might have kicked them under my bed accidentally. Maybe left them somewhere on a table in the Law Library. If you’re currently reading this while listening to music through some black Klipsch earbuds, then they are mine and you should probably give them back to me.
I didn’t even notice I had lost them until I stepped outside to walk to class, went to go plug the invisible headphones into my phone in my sleepless stupor and then realized that my hands were grasping at nothing and I should probably go to bed before three in the morning. I had another pair lying around somewhere, but they went through the wash sometime in the past and I wasn’t really in the mood to listen to music playing into only my left ear. So I embarked on the journey to class without anything in my ears, and immediately noticed the unnerving silence.
I’ve grown up with portable music players as a normal part of my life. The iPod was released when I was in elementary school, and I still remember standing at my safety guard post at the street corner before school listening in awe on my friend’s new iPod to the entire album of Songs About Jane as my friend endlessly showed off how cool this thing called the click wheel was. Ever since then, whenever there was some time to be spent traveling between two places, or really any time spent not directly talking to someone else, the space was filled with some unnatural soundtrack.
Walking outside without the normal buffer of headphones is immediately unusual. The sounds are different. The entire scene feels different. There’s nothing between me and the outside world, no playlist to absorb myself into during the trek. I watch squirrels scamper around and up and down trees as a means to distract myself, becoming not so different from the squirrels themselves.
I get a few blocks before my phone vibrates; someone else has announced they’re running for president. So I pull up the news story and walk with my head down while crossing a few streets because this is Ann Arbor and as a pedestrian I am untouchable. And at this moment, any type of diversion from the quiet walk is better than being forced to actually acknowledge the silence.
Silence can be uncomfortable. Because on that walk to class without headphones, there is nothing left to do but to think. To think of meaningless things like what sandwich I’ll order at Jimmy John’s when I get sidetracked on my walk to class. Of slightly more important things like the exam I have later that night I’m not sure if I had enough time to study for. Of the looming prospects of preparing for whatever life after graduation might look like. The 15-minute walk usually accompanied by explorations of the New Releases section of Spotify was quickly replaced with more introspective explorations.
The Digital Age, or whatever cliché term is being used to describe it, brings with it the consequence that such moments are rare. The math student in me likens it to statistical noise, the random variations that get in the way of what is trying to be measured. Such is the noise that we have thrown into our world, in media and in other forms, which prevents us from the moments we just get to think. Something else had to get in the way of the usual routine, that being losing my headphones, just to find this out.
I never ended up getting a new pair of headphones. I never needed to. I learned to enjoy the moments, the walks, the only time in days not filled with studying and meetings and occasionally sleep. The space in my pocket once used for headphones replaced with a rosary, lyrics replaced with time of serenity, anything to enjoy the fleeting moments of calmness in the life of a college student. The silence that was once unsettling is no longer so.
David Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.