Once upon a time, when I was about 19 years old, the year before I went to university, I worked in one of Canada's biggest cities as a secretary. I took the commuter train every morning from my comfy suburban home to the city. Every morning, there I was with the masses, the "suits," on my way to work in a big building, 23 stories up, with a further 49 floors above my head. As a good commuter, I learned to fold my Globe and Mail properly so that I would not infringe on the pasenger across or next to me. It didn't do to read The Toronto Sun, that practically-a-tabloid paper, even though it was smaller and less cumbersome. Many of us read, some of us chatted. There was always the constant hum of voices, even at 7:30 in the morning as regular commuters met in their spots, talking about the hockey game the night before, the election coming up, or inevitably, business. Most of us were heading into the financial district of Toronto where we holed up in our cubicles, offices, and whatnot. It was always crowded at 7:30, with people standing the aisles. It was an express train, and it was worth the thirty minute stand if you could get into the office before 8:30.
When I didn't read the paper, I watched as the urban sprawl filled my window. I watched as the residential gave way to the factories and the warehouses, until finally the train emerged from its industrial tunnel to reach the place where the train zipped alongside the Queen Elizabeth Way with its commuting cars keeping pace more or less with the train. I could see Lake Ontario to the south. It was always beautiful in the sun, hiding the reality of how dirty the water actually is.
After we slowly de-trained, we shuffled en masse from the train station to the underground concourse where the stream of commuters would eventually thin out as we made our way to our respective offices. I always felt like cattle being led to slaughter as we shuffled in such a painfully slow way from the train to the concourse. It was such a relief when those detouring at the subway made their exit, leaving more room for the rest of us. I walked quickly along with the other commuters, with women wearing Nikes with their Armani suits so as not to damage their expensive shoes. I never wore Nikes with my dresses. After damaging a couple of pairs of heels, I finally caved and bought leather loafers. The concourse carried along with it the steady hum of conversation as I went to my office building. The conversation continued into the elevator and into where I worked.
All day long, I heard the sound of voices; conference calls, meetings, telephone conversations. Even after hours, when it should have been quiet, there was generally someone who stayed behind who needed to talk to someone on the other side of the world where the day was just beginning. The only time the office was ever truly quiet was the time I had to stay until about midnight because of a big project my boss was working on, and even then, at 8:00, the cleaning staff came in chattering.
During those days of commuting, a necessity in order to make money, I wrote in my journal about wanting to escape the noise. There were definitely advantages to working in a big city like that, especially when I learned to navigate the subway system and shopped at stores I liked (in the days when I liked to shop). But for the most part, I was anxious to get home to the quiet of the suburbs, and even then, the suburbs were not often quiet enough. I wanted to live a life where there was no hectic commute. I realized very soon into that experience that whatever my future held, commuting and having a job in the financial world was not in my future. Too much noise and chaos for me.
I thought about those days recently. I don't know why they came up. A song playing on iTunes; I don't know. I was thinking about how quiet my little town is, and how I like it. I don't enjoy shopping anymore mostly because it means going into the "big city" and being in the crowds. I do it when I have to, but I'm always glad to get back to my little town. However, little towns and secluded places in the country are not so quiet as they once were, because even little towns are "plugged in" to the world via the internet.
I remember once, during my office worker years, taking a brief vacation to my aunt and uncle's farm. It was in winter, and it was really quiet. All we really did that week was watch old black and white movies and make home made french fries with my aunt's recently purchased deep fryer. I got up early one morning to take pictures of the dawn coming up over the cold, frozen horizon. That was quiet. More than being away from crowds, there was no internet to distract. My aunt and uncle have internet now. I wonder how much of a distraction it would be to be there now. To go there when I was younger meant having time to as my aunt liked to say, "contemplate your navel." It meant time to read and to talk and to work. My cousin and aunt e-mail me now. Are they distracted, too, with the internet?
So, here I sit in 2012, in my little town, living a life completely different from the commuter I was, but still wondering about getting away from noise and crowds. It's just that the noise and crowds are in my home, through my computer. The difference, of course, is that I had to brave the commute every day to earn that wage. I don't have to use the internet for the most part, although it's getting so that finding out anything from one's utilities providers, banks, or schools demands being online. I remember one day writing in my journal after work that I felt like having to commute was some kind of conspiracy to turn us all into robots. I had that thought a lot. The paranoid side of me occasionally wonders about The Matrix-like scenarios as it increasingly gets harder and harder to speak to live voice when one calls the 1-800 number.
I really appreciate the song, "Adding to the Noise," by Switchfoot, which sings about such a situation of wanting to turn things off. I can identify with the cry of the lyric:
If we're adding to the noise, turn off this song.
Sometimes, I need to find times to just turn off. Crowds will never escape us, whether it's that one at the amusement park, the mall, or the one in my computer screen, but we can unplug. I'm more convicted of that lately. I like having the internet, and I like the convenience, but I do like the off switch.
If I'm adding to the noise, turn off my computer. That easy.