The Sound of Breathing
Recently I visited New Orleans for the first time. I had been asked there to speak at a conference on environment and visit Grand Isle after the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. When I arrived at the Louis Armstrong Airport on a Saturday evening, my ears were still ringing from the flight noise and altitude decompression. Even my noise-canceling earphones did not seem to help. My cell phone rang. I gathered myself within the hustle and bustle of the airport crowd and noted the colored statue of Louis, horn to his lips as if blowing the blues away, but I could not hear him above the public address system and the din of voices that swirled around me, along with the scream of jets taking off overhead.
I enjoy flying and accept the noisy stuff, probably below the dangerous 85 decibels that comes with it. How could I complain about a little noise when I just traveled over a thousand miles that in a former life might have taken me months or even years to walk?
I took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then slowly let it out like a mantra, and paused to hear the sound of the sea within me. I found the shuttle that was to take me to my downtown hotel, and settled back to enjoy the ride. On the way we drove past the stadium that had housed many of the dispossessed seeking shelter during Hurricane Katrina, a silent reminder of the troubles that the people of this region had endured. Inside I felt a jagged sadness as a stream of sounds and news images of suffering and destruction replayed in my mind.
The conversations of my fellow passengers rose as they competed with each other to be heard over traffic and the grumble of the engines and grinding of gears. As our small bus lurched, hit potholes and squeaked, I was glad I was traveling alone, not having to shout a conversation with a companion. Then we turned onto Bourbon Street and my jaw dropped. I was instantly assaulted with a cacophony of sights and sounds that overwhelmed me. The narrow street was lined with gaudy neon, filled with people; some dressed just as gaudily, walking, dancing, and strutting. They shouted and sang, music pouring from open doors and windows amplified to distortion. It was a celebration, and not even Mardi Gras. I embraced it, even though the noise was off the charts. It was all I could do.
When I returned home to Cape May, a little island just off the southern tip of mainland New Jersey. I went for a walk on the beach. I listened to the sound of the sea washing onto the shore. It was the sound of breathing, and for a moment I was back in New Orleans listening inside to the sound of breathing on the ocean’s edge that gave me peace. I carried it with me all the way back home.