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On Silence

By Beatrice Mount

I am constantly surprised by how quiet it is here. That, on my walks to class or get groceries, all I hear sometimes is the sounds of the wind and the seagulls flocking near the boats. At first, it was odd--the absence of sound was foreign to me. After two years in D.C., I think I forgot what quiet sounded like. There's always an ambulance, a group of tourists, or politicians taking phone calls to interrupt the silence. D.C., while it can be peaceful, can never be quiet. It, like all American cities, has too much to say.

To some extent, the loud buzz of city buildings and Ubers jetting off to their next destination had become a type of comfort to me. Silence, especially in the dead of night, was ominous. It served as a kind of warning--that you were alone, so tread carefully. It was the absence of peace.

For women, this warning is extremely prevalent. It undercuts why my friends don't run after certain hours, or why we travel in groups from event to event, or why we'll hold keys in our hands if we do wind up alone in the dark. D.C. is less menacing than some cities--less chaotic and more friendly than Los Angeles or San Francisco--but that ominous warning is still present.

Safety is such a small concept, one those who are privileged to have it as a guarantee take for granted. When you have something is your "natural condition," It is difficult to see the unnatural nature it holds for others. It's easy to point out to my male friends, especially since at this point most people are aware of those tropes, but to actually let them experience what I and other women experience is impossible. How do you explain the fear you have in concrete terms? Will they really understand why you avoid certain hours? Why you travel in groups? Why you clutch your keys until your knuckles turn white? It all seems like an overreaction. After all, D.C. is safe. The likelihood something will happen to you is low. Those lived experiences are so easy to toss aside. But when they are ingrained into your skin, how do you toss them aside?

While I could argue that free health care, the obsession with mayo on fries, or the blunt, friendly attitude the Dutch have is the greatest difference between here and there, that would be a lie. The greatest difference is this--the existence of peace and quiet and its effect on my own freedom.

Here, I cut through pitch-black parks knowing that no one will hurt me. I don't feel as though I have to look over my shoulder when I walk back from the library late at night. The small amounts of bikes that do whirr past me don't necessitate intense focus and feelings of dread. As I look at the fishermen reeling in their nets after a late night session, I feel safe. Calm. Happy.