I’ve been a university student for almost a decade, but it wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic that I realized my campus’ ambient noise is what sustains me in the solitariness of my medical degree.
Every campus’ noises are different. At Stanford, you used to hear bike bells. Gears clicking in place. Squirrels’ claws clattering on bark. The Marguerite shuttle sighing in at its stop. Skateboards thundering down sun-warmed pavement. Chance the Rapper’s latest mixtape blasting, or being socially flexed, in the Oval. Throngs of students. Incessant chatter.
Even when I was alone, I found myself keeping time against the beat of campus: running to catch tomorrow’s deadlines, breaking out of the library at dusk, yelling see ya later to friends across bicycles pointed home.
Now, with classes cancelled and friends at home, I find myself reflecting on that turn of phrase. See ya later. It’s neither a guarantee nor a certainty, but a promise. We exchanged it on the assumption that we would have a shared later.
So, with borders closing and flight bans slapped down haphazardly, I learn not to make promises. Instead, I partake in different kinds of goodbye altogether. Suitcases zipping shut. Sheets swishing against each other as they’re stripped from the bed. Silverware clattering as it’s dumped into a box. Furniture scraping over asphalt. Quiet grunts of exertion.
In the rush to move a friend out of his dorm, I don’t know that we exchanged a see ya later.
Now, I’m one of the few students remaining on campus. My state is on strict lockdown orders, and I can leave the house to buy groceries, pick up prescriptions or walk a dog. Absent a dog, I begin to walk myself instead.
I’m in the Quad on a walk when the scream of a horn cuts through the night. The offending sound is unfamiliar, and I pause to place it: … Oh, the Caltrain, stationed three miles away. I’ve never heard the train penetrate this far into the heart. Our campus has always been shielded in a blanket of white noise, softening the harshness of the outside world from us. But, in silence, our campus is a husk, cracking open.
What infiltrates through these cracks is the urgency of the outside world, grave and injurious. I could recount the headlines to you, but I needn’t because you’ve followed them too. And perhaps you, like I, have found in each a drumming call to action. At night, I realize I’ve internalized its tempo, for my heart drums too quickly against the great inertial silence of our nights.
Instead of galloping into battle, I heed marching orders to stay at home. On the streets, I can count the police cars — two, sometimes three — monitoring my compliance.
I reread “Discipline & Punish,” wherein Michel Foucault describes how state discipline renders our bodies “docile.” In docility, we learn how to appear and behave in line with regulations. In turn, we internalize the regulations and impose them upon others too.
Before the virus, I’d pass joggers on the street, and we’d peer into each other’s faces, searching for recognition, a smile, a nod. Now, when joggers pass, they too are docile: eyes downcast, finding the space in between us instead of finding each other. We measure out and impose our isolation in regulation six-foot increments.
But, perhaps silence is also intrinsically a blank score. Don’t blank scores call for music?
On jogs, I’ve begun calling out good morning to strangers. I take friends for walks on the phone, stopping to share the colors of spring aloud: primrose yellow, tender shoot green, cerulean. Then, over pantomimed air hugs, we swap see ya laters.
I am not alone. The world has reasserted connection through sound with breathtaking synchronicity. In Italy, neighborhoods bellow accordions and rattle tambourines out of windows. Across Canada, Spain and France, every evening brings thunderous clapping for healthcare workers on the ground. In Berlin, the Philharmonic is unabated by its empty concert hall and streams Berio and Bartók to the world. The music rings out against the silence and, across the world, people listen.
Now, when I leave the house, I always pause at the doorstep. For in the liminal space of my door frame, I can hear the sounds of campus assumed but unrealized. In my imagining of our campus’ music, the sound is not gone, but waiting to be played out loud together.