My ears ring. I’ve had tinnitus in both ears for thirteen years. I wish I didn’t have it, but I do. I remember when I first got it how depressed I was, and I remember a good friend who had experienced ACL tears in both knees telling me, “I’d take a little ringing in my ears over having both knees fucked up.” Yes, it’s true, a little ringing in the ears is not the worst thing in the world. Usually I don’t even notice it, but sometimes I really do.
This fall in Harrisonburg I’ve been sneezing like crazy, blowing my nose constantly. I’ve always had allergies, but this year they are particularly ferocious. I am slow to reach for medicine, though, and so I haven’t been fighting back as maybe I should have. I say that because this past week, the day after driving eight hours back from Massachusetts, often with a blasting car stereo to help keep me awake, I felt my right ear begin to feel plugged up and ringing like never before.
I flew to Minneapolis on Saturday, and on Sunday morning it was worse—I could barely hear out of my right ear. And on Monday when I flew to Los Angeles I was basically deaf in that ear. Was it the allergies? Was it all the flying? Was it blasting the car stereo for several hours on the drive? I don’t know. But I know I did not like this feeling—ringing and whirling in my right ear, the sound of faint sirens, the flutter of an endlessly clicking fan, and the sensation of the ear being totally plugged up.
I’d come to California to attend a conference on soils for my new book (on The Ground—and if you’re reading this and have ideas for unique grounds for me to visit, please let me know). But as I was listening to people tell me about their projects, I could only half-hear them. I could hear nothing in my right ear except the swirling and whirling and whistling and ringing and the distorted noise from a concrete-floored conference center. I felt embarrassed having to ask a graduate student to stand on my other side so that I could hear her. She smiled and patted me on the shoulder, “No problem, grandpa.” (She may as well have.)
One of the most interesting things I’ve read about this past year was a program in London where they teach young people to work with the elderly by having them wear a suit of weights that mimics what it feels like to be old. A BBC reporter went to investigate, and first they had him run down to the coffee shop and bring back some coffee. Of course he did this with ease, actually running down the stairs and coming back in no time. Then, they suited him up in the old age suit and asked him to do the same thing. This time it was entirely different. In addition to the suit making it feel as though your limbs are stiff, your balance off, and your fingers almost immoveable, they had him wear goggles that smeared his vision, and they put ear plugs in that blurred his hearing. At the coffee shop, he could barely read the menu, couldn’t count his change, and—when he dropped some of the change—couldn’t bend down to pick it up.
I’d like to wear this suit sometime. I’d like to wear it knowing that I will be able to take it off when I want to. I’d like to wear this suit because I know it would teach me empathy and gratitude in a way that just telling myself to be grateful for my relative youth and health can’t. Even as someone who tries every day to give thanks for these qualities I still often feel like you just can’t know what you have until it’s gone.
That’s just how I was feeling this past week with my ear. I didn’t like the noise—the noise that paradoxically goes along with not being able to hear—but the thing that worried me most was that I could not hear. How I wanted my blessed hearing back. I so take for granted the ability to hear when someone speaks to me—in the airplane seat next to me, at a restaurant, at a conference—and I found myself looking around meeting rooms and conference hallways at peoples’ ears, thinking, all you people with your ears can hear just fine!
After a few days, my hearing began to return in my right ear, and the noise began to die down. It’s still ringing, and more than normal, but at least I can hear. I will take a little ringing in my ear over losing the ability to hear, that’s for sure. And as I find myself now on another flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta, and then tonight on to Amsterdam, I am sitting here cramped into a completely full flight thinking I can hear, I can hear, I can hear.