Working in the Quiet

I have spent the past two months at home visiting my parents. Having spent two years away, there was naturally a period of settling back into each other’s rhythms and learning about how we had changed and grown. The most obvious change perhaps was that I was working now. I had hard deadlines for things I was working on, even if they were personal pieces. I did not want this trip to interfere with the system of working I had set up for myself in the UK. Before my trip, I began preparing my parents for this shift. I told her she had to give me the space I needed to work on the daily. Sure, there would be quieter times, but I needed the time and space each day without the distraction. I threatened that I’d find a co-working space if the house got too loud. She did not take this particularly well – and naturally so. I mean, we were meeting each other after 24 months apart, and here I was, telling her I would leave home to step outside at the most minor inconvenience. This was just strategic though. I knew it would leave an imprint in her mind, and I was right. This entire period, if I’ve been working, if I told my parents I had something I needed to do for work urgently – they have been nothing but accommodative. Classes have happened, project vivas, marking, and a slew of commitments, especially in the past fortnight. They have understood, learned, and adapted. I am ever so grateful.

This is not to say that I’ve just been working. I should say, that one of the first things I did when I came here was figure out precisely when I was comfortable working. I did not like the idea of working when everyone at home was free – that was the time I would rather be with them than alone in the room on my laptop. So it was, then, that I found quieter hours – the late nights, and some (although my parents will dispute this), early mornings. A few hours in the afternoons where I knew both parents would have meetings, and some such. I learned their schedules and adapted as well, and for that, I am incredibly grateful.

Naturally, of course, this has led to some discoveries about my patterns of work. One in particular stands out, and is the subject of today’s meditation.

When I was at school, all my academic work was confined to my room, which was on the first floor of our house. My mother spent a majority of her time downstairs. Given this was the case, although I had an inkling that I enjoyed working with music in the background, and I had a certain preference for multitasking, wearing earphones was prohibited. At most, I knew I could get away with background music at a quiet-ish volume in my room. Loud enough for me to hear without my mother ever finding out. This was predominantly so I could hear anything she said if she called out to me, but it also served the very helpful purpose of knowing when she was coming up the stairs. That never really changed what I was doing, but I was prepared for the break in my work that came with her presence – the conversation and liveliness she brought into my otherwise silent space.

With this pattern of work being habit, and my impending move to a hostel, in my final year of high school, my mother took it upon herself to impart critical trainings in the art of focusing my mind to work irrespective of my surroundings. She was the most disruptive. I say this with a lot of love, because I came to appreciate that she would interrupt my studying with lovely snacks, good gossip and humour, and some of the memories I hold on to dearest, but man, sometimes I think back and wonder how I got anything done at all. She told me she was going to disturb me, and she disturbed me every single hour almost. The boys hostel did not stand a chance. I knew then, when she was talking to me in the middle of a practice paper or some such, that earphones would solve everything – but I kept that secret hidden away, employing it the second I got to University.

There, earphones were usually my go-to-DND signal. Within my room, I knew my roommate and I shared a love for our own space, and so wearing earphones meant that we were on full focus mode and in our own private bubbles for a little bit. My love for working with background chatter and sounds I wanted, discovering podcasts and the art of watching TV shows while working – these were learnings from five years of experimenting with things that played while I got on with life. I carried that with me to the UK too, especially since I live with a family – and earphones provide the cut-off from the outside world I sometimes need when I work, and the opportunity to listen to something I want to, instead of perhaps, the construction from a neighbour’s house.

I got used to working with sound of some kind. Even on days I didn’t have my earphones in there was the relentless chatter of the hostel, or the hushed whispers in the library. I lost the ability to work in the silences I was used to – that I grew up on. Till I got back home.

You see, rules don’t change just because I’ve grown. I came back knowing I would only wear earphones if I was in a meeting or watching a YouTube video or some such that would disturb everyone else at home if they heard it. Otherwise the audio from my laptop or phone was fair game. And so, I began to work in silence once more. Yes, my mother disturbed me on occasion, but for the most part, if I was working on something – she understood I was busy. Yet there was silence. No music in the background, no big monitor to multitask on.

Even at night, when my parents went to sleep, given the opportunity to play music and watch something in the background as I completed tasks before logging off for the night – I chose, for an entire month, to go back to working in silence. That has been a discovery and a half, because I thought working with sound had become so hard-wired into my system that I would be unable to concentrate in silence, especially with how much my mind wandered. That’s been useful. It is probably something I will carry with me, and I know has brought some confidence into my system because I no longer lean on the crutch of my earphones to help me focus. My brain doesn’t feel like it needs external stimuli to switch on that mode anymore – and being able to work in the quiet again, comfortably, is something I am thankful for.

And Amma’s conversation in the background too.

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