March 4, 2011


Conrad Aiken wrote a classic short story called “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” which chronicles a 12-year-old boy’s decent into stillness and isolation. The story begins as the child, lying in his bed, notices the postman’s footsteps seem muted. He imagines snow has fallen, but when he looks from his window there is no snow.  Thus begins his fascination and fantasy with white landscapes to the exclusion of ordinary life. Reviewers describe the story as a study of a mind descending into mental illness, schizophrenia being one possibility.


I thought about Aiken’s story a few days ago when I was fitted for a hearing aid in my right ear. The moment it was turned on, I was thrust into a far noisier world than the one to which I’d grown accustomed. Frankly, I felt assaulted. The specialist fitting the device wasn’t surprised and advised me to wear the aid all day, every day to help me adjust to the change. A week has passed and I’m still uncertain about the benefits of my renewed acuity.

Experts have written that the sooner a person with hearing loss accepts a hearing aid the better. The trauma of adjustment is less. As I am one who procrastinated, I can see why. Like Aiken’s child, I’ve been living a snow muted existence, one that permits thought and tranquility. The dog barking in my neighbor’s yard is no more distracting to me than if it stood on a distant hill. Yes, I understand the addiction to silence.

And there is mischief in me, too, for I must question whether or not the real world is an improvement on the one without distractions. This new technology in my ear has dropped me onto a planet awash in adrenalin. From my television, I hear gun shots and cries of the wounded with supersonic clarity even though they arrive from half way across the globe. I am as repelled by the sound as if I’d opened a door to find a cat has left a dead mouse on the threshold. 

Out of pity for my friends who struggle to converse with me, I will keep my new device.  But I confess, I like being hearing impaired. And when the world is too much with me, I shall pull the plug on my “normal” existence and retreat to the silent snow of my inner one. To do so is not a descent into mental illness. Quite the reverse. It’s a way to keep my sanity.