Before the pandemic, my life was defined by noise and movement. My body moved with the rhythm of the city –– rushing to work, rushing to class, rushing to rehearsal — and rushing home feeling anxious about how exhausted I’d be in the morning when I got up and did it all again.
The constant feeling that I was running out of time would catch up with my body sometimes, leaving me trembling and struggling to breathe. But for the most part, I regarded my struggles with anxiety as fluid waves. No matter how violently we collided, they propelled me forward and inevitably passed.
My never-ending to-do list adhered to the law of inertia, propelling me in continuous motion until acted on by an outside force — like a global pandemic. This life of racing from one place to another left little room for quiet. In my echo chamber, my ears rang from constant chatter surrounding me, the blaring noise of the city and the sound of the anxious voice in my head.
Despite the cacophony, I was never truly listening. I heard what I wanted to hear –– what I needed to hear –– pulling out just enough information to keep moving from point A to point B.
Now, almost a year into the pandemic, my life is quieter than I’ve ever known and my body more still. Wading through my own fear of silence has made me more attuned the richness of life I once took for granted. It has led me to a daily practice I desperately needed: listening.
Before the pandemic, my love for podcasts was primarily reserved for long drives or the occasional walk through the park. I had an endless list of shows to listen to eventually, with “eventually” indefinitely postponed by assignments to complete and places to be. Sometimes it took me weeks to get through an episode of This American Life, constantly stopping and starting.
When the pandemic hit in March, I had nothing but time. The life I had so tirelessly built around constant movement vanished. My body struggled to accept the stillness, as if in a state of emotional whiplash. If anxiety had once felt like a passing wave, it now felt like stagnant water I couldn’t lift myself out of.
To get through the days, I invented tasks for myself. I attacked my shower walls with bleach and an old toothbrush, scrubbing as if underneath the layer of grime, I’d find the sense of purpose and fulfillment I used to know. Now, I worked my way through my old list of podcasts at an impressive speed — the voices of strangers becoming an underscore to my new to-do list, with one item on it:
Alie Ward’s Ologies kept me company while I reorganized the pantry. I learned about philematology, the science of kissing, at a time when swapping spit with a stranger may be a death sentence. I learned about nassology (or taxidermy) at a time when I, too, felt like a hollowed-out version of myself. I rearranged the furniture to Invisibilia, color-coded the bookshelf to It’s Been a Minute, and vacuumed the couch cushions to Rough Translation. Eventually, I began to sit still –– simply listening, with full attention and presence.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve begun to miss everything I once took for granted. At first, my new solitary, hidden life was especially disconcerting. Where had the hectic sounds of Chicago gone? Where were the casual acquaintances I’d chat with on the way to class? I missed the glimpses I’d once caught on my commute, innocuously eavesdropping on their conversations. Without the voices of strangers, I lost the soundtrack to my life.
With each episode I listened to, a new soundtrack emerged. I learned something new and gained perspective outside of my apartment walls. My busy schedule and my all-consuming anxiety had once blinded me from seeing the world beyond the lens of my own experience. Now, I identify my reality as merely a small part of a bigger picture.
I was moving forward –– changed for the better –– if only for knowing one more fact about taxidermy than I knew before. Receiving stories from strangers made me feel as if I knew them despite my lonely reality. I began to trust the company of these new voices in my headphones.
Somewhere along the way, I began to trust the company of myself. Months have passed and the frenetic energy of my body has subsided, adjusting to the rhythm of this new life and becoming more comfortable with being alone. As the world accepted the reality of the pandemic, work and school picked up once again and I abandoned my concocted to-do lists.
Still, at every possible moment, I listen to podcasts. I listen in stillness and in gentle movement, taking long walks without destinations and watching the seasons change as a witness. Many days, I watch the waves of Lake Michigan –– gray and turbulent in the way I once characterized the tides of my anxiety. Now, I can see with clarity the waves are not inside of me. I am safe in my body and I am safe in my headphones.
Despite the isolation of a year in quarantine, podcasts have allowed me to feel connected to strangers across the globe and find peace in solitude. The act of putting on my headphones is always a well-needed reminder: you are not alone.
Header illustration by Phoebe Nerem