At the risk of wandering further and further away from my promised post, I’m going to write about what it’s like to “read” on the subway in New York City, without actually bringing a book or tablet. This is, yet again, probably one of those highly explored territories that I just happen to be traversing for the first time. Actually, I’m certain that it is — but I still think it’s worth writing about. And it touches on the “sensibility” side of “Sound and Sensibility.” The post that will someday come (if you must know) is a commentary on how music relates to Maria Popova’s recent essay (6/15) titled, “How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.” It’ll sort of be like Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?” version 2.0, except nowhere near as scandalous! I’ll just be commenting on what it means to be “well-read” musically and otherwise, and to what extent that even matters.
Back to my original thought. It’s occurred to me that the subway (like coffee shops and cafés) are perfect nooks for creativity. My friend and fellow blogger, Sam McNerney, has written for Big Think about environmental cues that induce creativity. And while the sound level of a subway is way above that which maximizes creative thinking (90 dB as opposed to around 50 dB), I’ve found that actually being inside the subway, as long as it’s a relatively uncrowded one, allows me to become more sensitized to my surroundings. I can hone in on details; I can see stories unfolding. Even short ones… it’s like the fabric of a novella or a snippet of nanofiction is unfurling before me. Again, like I noted in my last blog, I hear the words of the story in my head, but I can’t make out the language. Nor do I know exactly what’s being said.
This morning I watched an African American man and his young son (who was probably about five years old) sit together. The man was rocking out to music on his iPod, but every so often he would glance at his son and the son would glance back in this way that was incredibly precious. The boy was being very quiet, but simply watched his father like he was the king of everything. In response, the man delicately fixed the boy’s sleeves, rolled them up, adjusted the buttons on his shirt, and held him close when the subway car suddenly jerked. I was reading a story, and that’s why I don’t need to bring a book with me on the subway.
Later in the day, I witnessed a young woman — braided, blond hair with soft but austere facial features — get on the subway and pull out an envelope. It was a card, presumably from someone she knew well. She opened it and I watched the glimmer of a smile form on her lips. The ambient sound of the subway car pushed me into this world of heightened sensibility. I saw an important internal moment play itself out on a young woman’s face, and settle back into neutrality as she slipped the card back inside her bag. And yet there was no doubt some residue left over — she was thinking about something still, and I wondered what it was.
I suppose the point of this post and of the last has been to demonstrate that sound and sensibility are related in ways we might not expect — even (maybe especially) when the focus isn’t on sound at all… when we can use the principles of sound and music as a way of navigating other ways of being and seeing and feeling. It’s also about the nature of writing — ideas never come in precise packages; they’re fuzzy heaps of words that sound like they could be something other than gibberish, and it’s our job to find the string of sense that threads the nonsense.