American Sweetgum by Lindsey Goodrow

I listened to 105,595 minutes of music last year, according to Spotify Wrapped. That’s 1,759 hours, or a whopping 73 consecutive days, filled with sound. I was amused and almost proud to find myself in the top 1% of music-obsessed listeners worldwide.

But with the constant cacophony of noise filling my every waking moment, sound drowns out everything else around me, leaving me drained, panicked, and frightfully confused.

Most mornings, I slip out of bed, eyes half-shut, and wander to the coffee machine to make that precious first cup. Before scooping the rich, aromatic beans into the grinder, I turn on my morning playlist to accompany my routine.

Aptly titled “No Words,” — the playlist is a calming mix of jazz harp, twangy acoustic guitar, and other eclectic instrumental music. I play it on low, allowing it to fill up space and time.

After finishing my coffee, I rouse my dog from her slumber and grab my headphones for a quick walk to a nearby park, selecting a world news podcast to listen to. Along the path, we pass by rushed parents walking their children to the elementary school down the street. The report in my ears details the latest mass shooting at a school no different from the one they’re heading to.

I smile at them as they smile at my dog.

I don’t hear when they ask if they can pet her.

I pass through a whole world of sound on my way to the park; neighbors saying good morning to each other, birds proudly singing their song, trees swaying in the breeze, and cars whizzing past. I’m not attuned to any of it unless it happens to be louder than whatever I have playing on my phone.

When it’s constantly competing with a dopamine-releasing smartphone, the thrills of the natural world fall short.

Once my dog and I reach our destination — a quaint patch of grass set in the middle of a quiet roundabout — I let the leash go slack, allowing her more freedom to roam, sniff, and mark to her heart’s content. She wanders happily, taking in the splendor of the morning.

I stand under a towering American Sweetgum, carefully avoiding the sweet gumballs that drop from its branches, littering the grass beneath my feet like clusters of spiked sea mines ready to detonate. For a serene moment, I survey the world around me, keeping peripherals on my dog, my attention briefly dropping from the news blaring in my ears. The sun is heating the frost on the grass, and a heavy mist slowly drifts up around me.

As the wet gray air rolls over my feet, I tune back into the news podcast, which has moved from headlines to the main story — a genocide on the other side of the world. My stomach drops as the sound of bombs flying through the air fills my ears.

In a panic, I hit pause and switch over to a social media app, numbly scrolling through a feed of loud influencers influencing me, all of them speaking in the same too-nice tone that screams, “Pick me, pick me!”

Between videos of influencers and a few humble posts from friends and family are ads from brands and companies throwing useless products my way. Without thinking, I click on a Winter Flash Sale and add a few things to my cart before snapping back to reality and stumbling to exit the app, huffing in frustration at myself.

Fifteen minutes have somehow slipped by. My dog sits a few feet from me, facing me with a bored impatience. She’s wondering what else could be more important than her and now, and I don’t know the answer.

I resume the podcast episode, place the phone back in my pocket, and begin our walk home.

As I stroll, I chastise myself for mindlessly losing time to social media, promising myself that tomorrow I’ll make better use of my precious hours before work. Mornings, I tell myself, should be for quiet reflection, day planning, and practicing mindfulness. It’s not for loud, colorful apps that steal my most precious resource: time.

As I re-enter my home, my morning playlist resumes, which I leave on for the remainder of my work day. I make several more cups of coffee in a desperate attempt to wake my mind and body up, eventually giving up around 2 PM. The caffeine fails to liven me up the way I would expect it to.

I can never settle into any kind of rhythm or groove, the sound of my relaxing playlist somehow setting me on edge.

Despite understanding this, I continue to play it every day. Nearly 12 hours a day. Why? When I constantly fill the void with noise, I lose the opportunity to embrace the world in all of its sounds.

I miss out on connecting to my community; even if I’m listening to the latest news about what’s happening in the world, I feel so far from being a part of it, from being close to anyone.

I listen to music to make the time go by faster and to keep my mind constantly occupied. But speeding up time is the last thing I want to do. What is the rush? I can’t continue hurrying through walks with my dog when who knows how many walks I have left.

Why do I want each day to go by in a blur? Why can’t I sit and listen to nothing for once? All the noise is slowly killing me.

The next morning I wake up determined to live a day without noise.

Nothing from playlists, podcasts, or car radios.

I step out into the world and walk, as I do every morning, to the park with my dog, slowly letting her sniff and savor every patch of grass and urine-drenched flower. I smile and say hi to several neighbors, some of whom I never noticed before.

As we reach the park, I take in a deep breath of cool morning air. For as long as I want, I can look out and enjoy the mist rolling off the grass.

I witness a mother and daughter hurriedly making their way through the middle of the park, the mom stuffing a book into the child’s already overflowing backpack.

They notice my dog sniffing at the rose bush beside the gazebo and smile. The daughter reaches out a hand with quiet desperation to pet her, but her mother gently grabs it and rushes her along.

I walk the length of the park and listen to birds waking up and to the man turning the pages of his newspaper while he sits with one leg across the other on a bench ten feet from me. A couple in the downward dog position on a picnic blanket both laugh as they try yoga for what appears to be the first time in a not-so-private lesson. Their instructor waits impatiently for them to regain focus.

So distracted by the wonder of all the sounds, I let out a surprised yelp as my foot hits something round and pointed, and my ankle slips to the side. I look below in horror and see dozens of spiky brown gumballs lurking in the grass. I manage to catch myself before any real damage can be done, and that prickly sensation you get from a scary free fall covers the entire surface of my body.

My dog rushes over to see what all the fuss is about and then nonchalantly nudges me to go home once she discovers I’m not in any danger.

As we begin our trek back home, I notice my ankle feels warm and tender, and grin at the sensation.

Lindsey Goodrow is a queer and sober essayist writing from Long Beach, California. She is obsessed with unearthing and unraveling life’s strange but addictive feelings.️ Her work has been featured in The Gay and Lesbian Review and her newsletter, Sober Gemini, is published monthly on Substack.