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listen

“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.” Hildegard von Bingen

All day long, we listen to others. The constant churn of news and the pithy statements of acquaintances stream across our screens, while music and advertising, Netflix and the buzz of our phones pulls us away from our inner voice until it is so faint we can hardly recognize it.

Other people’s messages, some of which might be well-developed and robust but much of which is vapid and tinny, fills our ears and eyes. We live through others’ lenses, through others’ voices.  Recently, I canceled all of my therapy appointments, not because I don’t like my therapist, but because I realized that it was another way in which I was blocking my own inner voice. Ironic, yes, since therapy is theoretically one way we learn to listen; but it can also be a crutch when we let another person’s voice tamp out our own.

I returned last week from five blessed nights of being in silence on a retreat. By the final day, I was beginning to discern a small gurgle, the original source of creativity and wonder, the deep well of my own voice. Now, back home in the noise of the news (“disloyal slime ball”) and school forms, of the dog whining and the dryer singing its end-of-cycle tune, I am trying to listen.

I wonder about this world that is so full of noise. Does the noise — and I use that broadly to describe the fear-laced, hurry-up static that crackles through so much of our daily lives — make us anxious? Or, do we create the noise in order to avoid the silence because it makes us anxious?

In talking with a friend who also has high school kids, we shared notes on how prevalent weed is with teenagers — like, really prevalent; like aspirin prevalent–including a lot of very successful, high achieving kids. We agreed that it’s a form of self-medicating to deal with the stress of their hyped up lives that bounce from one form of testing and competition to the next.

“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” If so, may I suggest you listen harder, breathe more deeply, and live more vividly? ~ Mary Oliver

Few kids are okay with silence. It’s not even a known quantity to them, and when it does occur it’s as unsettling as the sudden soundless gap that arrives just before the monster attacks in a horror film. (The new horror film A Quiet Place plays with this cultural fear.) It can’t be good; that’s the message our society gives us about silence.

Because there in that pond of quiet lives our selves. Lives our real desires. Lives our truest hurts. And none of this — beautiful and difficult — is something the world wants to cope with.

Take schools, for example. Sure, they’re noisy by nature. But I’m not talking about “outdoor voices.” Rather, it’s the noise of testing, the noise of worksheets, and the relentless pace to do more — even if for very little clear reason — that keeps kids (and their parents) so stressed they can hardly pause to question the system or demand something different. Everyone is just too zapped attempting to keep up with some phantom line in the sand.

If they could pause and feel into what they really want to learn, would it be geometry and American literature presented in the same way without a nod to personal relevance, or even to real world application? And if they could pause and think about how they learn, would they want to sit in rows of six and take in facts in order to regurgitate them on a test without a nod to personal passion, or even to the world’s very real needs? I doubt it.

It’s scary to stop and listen. You hear just how deeply broken things are. But you can also find the spring. In geologic terms, a spring is water that comes to the surface from an overflowing aquifer. We need to get in touch with our own geology. Quiet is what will allow us to refill our wells to the point they can bubble over. This may sound like metaphor, but I’m certain — from my own being’s experience — that it is truth.

Silence leads to boredom. Boredom leads to curiosity about heretofore unnoticed things — our breath, the crack above the fireplace, the song of the returned robins. Curiosity leads to new ideas. New ideas lead to creativity. Which leads to greater understanding of one’s self and one’s world. And can, sometimes, lead to rabble rousing of various sorts–mischievous, political, artful, compassionate; but no matter what or how it leads to a way of being that does not swallow anything whole.

So, just this: Listen.

 

A sampling from Saint Hildegarde: https://soundcloud.com/rachmaninov-1/o-euchari-de-sancto-euchario

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April snow

All night, the flakes have come. Yesterday, on the drive home from Wisconsin, they came. Now, at noon on a Monday, they fall. Singular. Slow. Lazy. And yet they come.

It is April 9, the anniversary of my father’s death. Don’t ask me how many years; my mind doesn’t work like that. But too long.

I remember his voice. Dictating notes into the night in the room next to mine. Good natured teasing. Asking if my insurance was up to date.

I used to never dream about him, but now he appears. I can always hear him. That deep voice.

He wears a yellow mustard polo shirt over faded Levi’s. Clenches his jaw. Laughs. Drinks a beer. These were things he was good at.

“See you outside,” he tells me from one end of an Irish pub, which I then try to wend my way through and across, but when I finally reach the back door and push into the evening air of the alley, I can only see his backside disappearing around a corner.

All day. These flakes cover up the tulips that are an inch or two out of the ground.

All day. These flakes confuse the spring birds.

On the highway last night, the flakes smattering on my windshield, a heron flew across the highway. It’s large, dark body such a surprise, as though pulling the sea behind it.

Inches below the earth, the peonies I transplanted to my father’s grave are waiting for their turn to go on. The curtain call seemed to be imminent, but now they’ve gone back to sleep.

And yet they’ll come. They always come. A brilliant, fragrant reminder of the awful loss.

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barstool

The best thing about traveling might be the slices. The moments. The unexpected, unsought slivers of other realities that reflect back to us how ephemeral and yet resilient, how unique and yet shared our lives are.

Two nights ago, as my family sat in a bar on Frenchmen Street listening to our friend and his band literally play the blues and eating cheap BBQ wings, I went in search of something less meaty. The Lebanese place a few doors down was oddly quiet, so I tried the divey place across the street with an unlikely menu that included seared tofu, an avocado and egg sandwich, and vegan chili.

I chose a place in the middle of the bar and the bearlike tender took my order, which included the drink I’d discovered earlier on the trip–a Pimm’s Cup. This one turned out to be the McDonald’s coffee equivalent of the earlier drink’s single origin pour over.  I sipped on it a bit reluctantly as I took in the view from my stool.

An older woman was propped on her mobility scooter in front of a slot machine, a red plastic drink cup of change in one hand. A 20-something kid with high cheekbones and wind rumpled hair charged in from the street, pushing his bike in with him and propping it against the wall. He immediately went to the woman standing over her and announcing, “I followed them and told them to fuck off. They won’t be back.” She nodded only the slightest bit, whether in agreement or gratitude, I couldn’t tell. “You okay?” he asked, to which she nodded again. Then he planted himself at one end of the bar and began to harangue the bartender. Whether he was a regular or a fellow employee on a break, I couldn’t tell, but the tender’s lack of appreciation for him was clear. They had an ornery exchange about the time —the tender having asked the younger guy, who was on his phone what time it was, and the guy complaining that he wasn’t his servant.

At the other end, a pair who were also friendly with the bartender, devoured a giant plate of tachos–a combo of tater tots and nachos–that the cook, a tall, muscular guy wearing one of those Polo shirts with an absurdly large pony logo on the breast–brought out. “Hot sauce, please; the good stuff,” said the woman, and the tender went straight to a little fridge and handed her a plastic squeeze bottle that seemed to be made just for her.

Looking over all of this at the far end was the eye of a television. It was tuned to CNN, and I squinted trying to read the latest Trump firing, before the cook sauntered over and changed the channel to a movie. Two women were driving an old hotrod of a car through what appeared to be sunburnt California hills, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. Chained to the hood with handcuffs, a third woman was sprawled on her back, screaming with pleasure at what was evidently a bizarre joy ride. From a faraway hill, Kurt Russell spied them and gave a malevolent smile from his deeply scarred face before taking off toward them. Once he caught up, the next several minutes of the movie–all the way through the delivery and first piping hot half of my egg sandwich–were of Kurt ramming his car into theirs as they all hurtled over hills and off road, the woman on the car losing one of her handcuffs as she whipped this way and that on the hood. There wasn’t much dialogue, but I did catch, “Honey Pie, I’m real scared!”

A couple in their fifties came in wearing cardigans and slacks, nice haircuts and expensive-looking eyeglasses, and planted themselves at the farthest slot machine–the older woman now having taking up residence on the middle one. They ordered glasses of wine, which arrived in plastic flutes, and were still there when I left, not talking as the woman pulled the arm.

The kid with the bike disappeared out the back, and a short guy with a reddish beard and a swoop of hair that he tucked behind one ear took his place. He and the bartender started exchanging friendly notes about the new Fantastic Beast film. “Yeah, that’s definitely the brother,” said the leprechaun newcomer; “I slowed it way down and freeze framed it.”

As I was paying my tab, I turned to him, “When does the film come out?” They were already a few minutes beyond that conversation, so he paused. “Fantastic Beast?” At this, he burst out–I’m pretty sure jocularly, but I wouldn’t put all my money on it; “I knew it! I knew you were listening!”  I gave him a smile and a thumbs up, left a few bucks on the bar, and walked out into the waning light and growing crowds on Frenchmen Street.

 

 

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framed

It’s that endless gray and deep cold of February that suggests there never was such a thing as summer, and there will never be anything akin to spring. All of that is a dream. This is the now. This is the reality in which we will live forever.

That is how it feels this morning at 7:30 as I drive my son to band practice. With just a half a cup of coffee in me and a bit of morning meditation to wakefulness, I notice the world.

Every day the same drive. There is the orange cat that sleeps on the back of the sofa in the picture window across from the school driveway, one leg stretched over the back. The speed humps, intended to slow fledgling teenage drivers on the side streets, are so covered in snow that they’re hardly noticeable. I pass another mom driving her son. I knew her back when the boys were in grade school, both of us recently divorced. She’s been married and divorced again since. Does she know that her right turn signal is on? The bare branches of oaks and maples stab at the sky, angry at their nakedness.

And there at the corner standing outside his half opened door in a robe is my friend the artist. He’s holding a small garbage bag and is looking ahead, not moving, as though testing the morning air and wondering at getting from the house to the curb, through the snow, through the cold. He looks like a painting. Not moving, draped in the fog of his breath, lit by the thin grey morning sky, framed by the doorway.

I take him in — the ineffable beauty — and drive home to make lunches, to shower, to wait for the plumber, to walk the dog. To carry on with this life.

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Sunday morning

In and out. Up and down. Noise and silence.

There is a pattern in the house that rises and falls with the kids. This morning, I came downstairs and Chris was on the sofa, drinking coffee and reading. We kissed. We talked. And then I started to make pancakes. He went back upstairs, and I was here with silence.

Last night, it was similar. I was downstairs alone – just me and John Coltrane – as I chopped and stirred, creating a soup. Happy in my space.

The first one down this morning was Bella. She was in a good mood, and given that mornings and Bella can be a crapshoot, I was glad. We hugged. She made tea. We talked about her painting. Once the tea was done, she went back upstairs to work.

Then came Tobey. As he often does, he started in with several items of business—scheduling and money questions. Then he sat at my computer where an old video of him doing a “review” for a Star Wars Lego set had popped up on my Facebook feed. It was from seven years ago, and he laughed at his mispronounciations – asking people to join his “scription” instead of “subscription” to a fledgling Youtube channel that never actually took hold – and also nodding to the wisdom of his younger self for recognizing that one of the Star Wars figurines was rare. “Yes, it was,” he says with pride. Even at that age, he had a knack for arcane knowledge.

Inside, I was melting at the little voice in the video. We never see Tobey, other than a single socked foot; he was careful to have the person doing the filming (probably me) focus on the Lego set. So, it is the voice where my maternal attention goes. A boy’s voice, not the baritone he is now. I can hardly remember that small person. Why didn’t we take more video? Why aren’t I better at documenting? But then I’m happy to just be here, with the kid who is now, rather than longing for the one who was. At one point in the recording, he makes a verbal tic, a tic he still makes today, and I remember it’s the same person.

The pancakes get done, two at a time, with Tobey flipping while unwilling to put the batter in the pan because it means touching the batter, and he is and always has been squeamish about such things (so much like his grandfather, it’s crazy). When they’re all done, he texts up to his sister and stepfather (a household practice that my mom finds absurd, but it seems to be to be the modern version of the supper bell). Everyone lands at the table and the talk goes to video cameras, because Tobey is making a film, and then to music. Tobey starts playing bands he’s heard. One is ska-punk and it turns out that Chris knows them from way back:  “Turn it up!”

And now the music is all around the living room. Tobey is dancing. Chris is drumming on the table. Bella is making more pancakes. One song leads into another. It’s good – a kind of pumping, loud, joyful music with sardonic lyrics – drugs are better with friends, friends are better with drugs – that are far from the Krishna Das and Ella Fitzgerald that I tend to listen to. I let it sink into me, and watch as both kids move and laugh and share stories.

Then Chris goes upstairs. Bella cleans her plate and thanks me for breakfast, before heading to her room. The song ends and Tobey leaves – he never says goodbye, he just leaves. I can hear him above me now, talking to friends via his computer.

I’m still here. At the table. In silence. A silence that is different than the silence of an hour before because of the joy-filled noise that penetrated it. I think that every practice of silence now is preparation for the silence that will come. Soon. I’ll have to remember to turn up the music now and then, just to feel it in my body and remember.

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Screwing up is part of the program.

Somewhere in the midst of cutting long sheets of plastic, duct taping them together, and then passing these sheets around another layer of plastic stapled to the rafters and walls of our garage, it occurred to me that it might not work. Our plan to save a thousand dollars (or more) by removing the asbestos insulation from two pipes, one of which is now leaking and needs attention from a plumber, might not be as failsafe as it had sounded the day before when Chris described it.

But now we were thick into it. We possessed several roles of plastic, a new staple gun, fancy air masks, long “farm chemical” gloves, topnotch duct tape, and several rain ponchos that were doubling as hazmat suits.

We were in that calm that comes with the storm, and we super on top of it. Every previous fight we’d had over something inane — like the hollering match we’d had while raking during one of our first years together — was gone. Instead, we were precise. We were focused. The situation called for marital meltdown, from the potentially astronomical bill to not knowing what the fuck we were doing. But in our quiet, plastic womb, we kept it tight. “Scissors.” I handed him the scissors. “Tape.” I handed him the tape.

It didn’t matter. Two hours into the project, Chris stood on the ladder with the plastic draping between us and punctuated the silence. “I don’t think so.”

I didn’t ask what he meant out of fear that my words might disrupt the carcinogenic fibers that he was trying to cut through at that very moment. In the online videos, the wrapping had just slid off into the plastic bag. So easy. It looked so easy.

“Don’t think what?” I finally prompted him.

“Don’t think it’s going to work.” He was motionless, still looking up at the pipe. Water was no longer dripping from it but was now flowing.

It would have been an okay moment for some expletives. But we stayed quiet. Nothing felt lost. Nothing felt dire. Or wasted. We’d tried. And that’s how things get fixed, sometimes improbably. Fleetingly, I thought of every space movie I’ve seen in which someone in the NASA control room suggests an unlikely fix. “Couldn’t she use the adhesive backing from her maxi pads?” It all has to start somewhere, right? Sure, we’re not handy. And of course it was a long shot.

We went upstairs and took long, hot showers and then washed our clothes on high with extra detergent. When I went to get dressed, I pulled on a pair of socks with writing on the insole: Screwing up is part of the program.

It’s all screwing up. Until it’s suddenly brilliant. Pollack screwed up. And Pasteur screwed up. Childs burnt plenty. And Jordan no doubt slipped. There’s so many pieces to each day, to each life that can’t be viewed through a prism of success or failure — it’s just the next thing. Try it. Who knows. It might be brilliant.

The plastic is still hanging from the rafters in the basement even though I sent emails tonight to the professionals to see just how much this will cost. Maybe they’ll laugh at the system we were devising. Maybe they’ll nod that we were on to something. It was worth the effort. That’s good enough.

 

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of saxophones and death

The night before I left for college, my dad came into my room and sat on the edge of my bed as a sort of final tucking in. I don’t remember being sad — after all, I was just moving into a dorm that was about a 20 minute walk from our house — but I was curious by his energy. It had that Parental Moment to it. And, indeed, he started by saying, “If there is one thing I regret …”

The opening statement hung in the room as my mind went through possibilities. I’d had a sometimes lonely but contented and unremarkable childhood, so I couldn’t image where he was headed. The best I could come up with was the lack of religious upbringing I’d had, though as a devoted atheist, it seemed an unlikely route for my dad to take at this late moment.

“I regret that we didn’t let you play the saxophone,” he said with earnest contrition. There. That was it.

It took me a moment to even understand that he was alluding way back to 5th grade when my classmates and I had a chance to try different instruments and begin lessons. I’d been interested in the saxophone, taken by its sound, its shiny and substantial golden body, and the intricate valve system. My parents countered with the flute. And that was that. No instruments. The tiny window into a musical future quickly shut by two non-musical parents whose tolerance for squawking noises and a somewhat hefty monthly rental fee were low. As a kid who had yet to discover Clarence Clemons–that would come in about three years–much less Coltrane, I didn’t put up a fight.

I told my dad that it was okay, no hard feelings, and went to sleep in my narrow bed for the final time as a child of that house. On the wall above me was a bulletin board still filled with ribbons and medals from the swimming career I’d abandoned several years before. The rainbow wallpaper I’d picked out around about the same time that I’d had my brief flirtation with the saxophone intoxicated the walls of the small room. Interview magazine covers were tacked to one wall. And the clock radio on which I’d listened to Casey Kasem so many times, especially for the New Year’s Eve countdown (I still recall the year I correctly guessed that “Silly Love Songs” would get the top spot), stood sentry on my little side table.

—-

This Monday I woke up across town in a king-sized bed on New Year’s morning. Outside, I knew it was frigid, but the sun was bright and strips of it fell on my face. I breathed in the year, the opportunity to begin again. Like a crisp sheet right off the line, the new year breathes me with possibility. As my mind started its slow awakening, the first firm thought that arrived was, “I could die this year.”

Whoa. Where the hell did that come from? It didn’t feel ominous or like a morbid prediction. Rather, it just felt real and possible and full of the short, sweet potential that is life. Death and the brilliant sunlight coexisted in my bedroom for a minute or two, and I held them with mutual esteem.

I am over 50. Not old, but not young. My daughter is teetering on the edge of leaving the house; I feel her practicing her wing skills with great trepidation and occasional moments of joyful expectancy. My grandmother is teetering on the edge of life’s end, and I feel her quietly wrestling with the heavy blanket of old age and memory loss that takes more and more of what she recognizes. We all teeter. We all consider what could be the first — first kiss, first steps, first drive, first dance — and what could be the last — last kiss, last meal, last words.

So yes, I could die this year. And I could learn the saxophone (which is celebrated in this single village in China). I could keep up my attempts at learning Spanish. Like the people in this video, I could stand on the edge of a 10 meter platform and stare down my fears. I could dance more. I could love myself better–perhaps even come to love my belly and the creases around my mouth, love myself into sweet stillness. I could see Yosemite for the first time. I could meet new people. I could sleep till noon in this giant bed. I could live without regret.