Yes, sometimes…after a very long hike when I’m falling asleep and it feels like my boots are still on and the trail is still beneath my feet…when the sounds of the forest whisper quietly in my mind…chuckling streams and the breeze flowing through pine needles and leaves…sometimes then…sometimes in the middle of the day after a Yesterday’s hike, images come unbidden, scenes flash before my mind’s eye as I’m reaching for a pen or typing words into the screen…a flower-speckled meadow, silvery snail tracks across the trail and morning dew on a spider’s web, white broad-petaled flowers tucked into the shadows swaying…craggy skylines, and waterfalls drumming-up a mist before my eyes….yes…sometimes….
Does it ever exist in a pure form? If we are not deaf, can we really experience it? If we are deaf, do we really experience it at all? I cannot answer for the deaf. Their response may depend on the level or nature of their deafness. It may be that, for it to truly exist, one must have never heard words to have them become thoughts. For the hearing, however, I do not believe it exists. We are only familiar with its silhouette, the mere image of its self. This shadow is what we call “silence.”
When it appears that there is nothing present to stimulate our hearing, when we would normally say we are in the presence of silence, something creates a sound. Even when it is just our thoughts, fears, imagination, or blood coursing through our lobes urging a tingling hum, true silence is not there. Its image, however, is a normal part of our lives.
Sometimes, it enters with a sly, tiptoe step; other times, it is so vivid, one would think it is the resounding tromp of a platoon of soldiers. Casual circumstances, anticipated events and unexpected tragedies are all tinged with silence.
Walk with me…into the penumbra….
Overhead, the loudspeaker commanded certain somebodies to go or come to such and such station on the third floor. Swinging doors crashed open and closed, before and behind her. The gurney banged into the delivery-room table, jarring her through the pain, making her wonder, again, if this was all worthwhile.
A multitude of thoughts sped through her mind while she was lying there, exposed with disregard, looking up at the ceiling, pushing, breathing, hurting, waiting. But what about during that pause in her heart’s beating, in that long silence before the doctor spoke, what was she thinking then? Did that interminable moment incubate the seed of anguish or jubilation?
Agitating the silence was the lazy humming of the overhead lights, the clanging of instruments into stainless-steel bowls, the beeping of the baby’s monitor and the rustling of paper gowns. It seemed to go on forever. The silence was too long.
The doctor was quiet, he didn’t say a thing; he just worked. With swift, confident hands he untied the cord from their baby’s neck. Still the silence, a moment more. Did she dare breathe when her child had yet to take his first gasp of air? Could she live if he didn’t?
Finally…the tiny cry! “He’s fine – you’ve got a little boy!” Happier words were never spoken!
He was just standing there, trying to be someone or something that she needed, telling her how beautiful their baby was, how beautiful she was, asking her, awkwardly, how she felt. Snap-shot photographs of the last several months crashed through his mind as he watched with awe, this orchestration of birth. Tears of relief and happiness streamed down his cheeks. The silence was over!
For the last two months of his life, he would have spells where something inside of him would cause him to cry out, almost scream with a nameless pain. At first, they thought it was probably kidney-stones; then, they thought it might be his hips getting worse – they had known for years that they were bad.
Their veterinarian was businesslike in his description of a not-so-uncommon immune-disorder that affects older dogs. This miracle-worker for animals went on to detail the possibilities of tumors, intestinal bleeders, etc., that could be causing the myriad problems.
After their dog was on mood-altering, immune-system-enhancing medications for about four or five weeks, they came home one day to find the evidence of internal bleeding in several locations throughout the house and yard.
One more trip to the vet. One last trip to the vet. The doctor explained how there was really nothing he could do to fix their dog. There was nothing he could do to restore sound health to this old man of a canine they called their pet. It was time for him to go on – to go wherever it is that old dogs go when they die. After that last injection, that last yelp, that last beat of his heart, he just lay there. He was gone.
Normal sounds of life still ring throughout their home. The children and the other animals are still there; the planet hasn’t ceased its orbit; life still goes on, but…it is quieter than it used to be. He doesn’t follow the man up the stairs or down the stairs, out into the yard or around the yard and back into the house again. He’s not there waiting for a morsel to drop to the kitchen floor, not there to nudge a hand for some love. No longer is he heard breathing, lying next to the bed at night. They still step over his sleeping form when they get out of bed, but he’s not there. He is gone. Except for the quaking in his master’s heart, he is silent.
One could describe her life as very busy. There was seldom time for her and her husband to be alone. Hell, there was rarely a minute that she had to herself without interruption, without someone or something demanding her attention. Managing a house-full of children and pets, attending the university with a full schedule and perfect grades while holding down a full time job required an enormous amount of time. A full life. One with many facets. One with many colors. A life with many concerns.
Not a torment, but a near constant preoccupation with the deeper, heart-wrenching aspects of other people’s lives filled her mind. The lives of children. Not only her own kids, but the rest of them too. The ones whose lives were documented in the newspapers and chronicles of the day. Children whose lives were put to paper in big binders with case numbers attached to them. Innocent ones whose lives were casually thrown away by the give-a-damn adults who ran the world. These were the ones who filled her mind.
Most disconcerting to her was the fact that she could not do much for these children at the time. She still had to finish school. Until it was over, she was bound to her current occupation. Nowhere else could she make the kind of money she did and nowhere else could she have the time off from work to do the things she wanted to do. Essentially, she was indentured to her meaningless, mindless, of-no-consequence job. She would continue to be a flight-attendant until she had reaped every possible benefit from the company while pursuing her goal; until school was over.
From her occupation, one would be inclined to think that she liked dealing with people. One would think she was a people-person. One would also think she enjoyed the hundreds of faces and personalities she ‘mingled’ with every day at work. One could not be more wrong. She thought people were okay in the right setting, but not in those amounts and not in the confines of an airplane.
Where is refuge when one is inside a Boeing 737, traveling at 535 mph, at 35,000 feet? Where does one hide from the constant analyzing, discriminating and stereotyping eyes of everyone aboard the plane? Where does one go to flee the leering eyes of half-drunk, red-blooded males? Where does she go to escape? She locks herself in the bathroom. In that closet-sized hideaway, she finds solace from the airborne hundreds. She mutters oaths at the closed door and cries tears of anger and frustration in the company of her only friend, the woman in the mirror looking back at her. Aboard the plane, locked in the bathroom, she finds it. It has been there waiting for her. It removes her from the meaningless chores and takes her home, if only for a few minutes, where she is important, where she is loved. In spite of the engine noise and the storm of people on the other side of the door, it is there. She has found her silence.
They arrived on a Thursday afternoon in the last week of January. Nobody answered their knock at the door, but they knew where the extra key was hidden, so they let themselves in and made like they were home. In a sense, they were. This was where she had spent the last several years of her childhood and this was where they had started their courtship. Now, this was their haven from the adult world. They felt safe here. It was always a pleasure to come home after being away.
He went to visit some friends for a while and she stayed there with the kids, recuperating from the trip. After a bit, her sister came home from school and there was the usual heartwarming reunion that made the long drive worthwhile. It was so good to be home!
An hour or so later, he came home and went out to the shop to put together some toys that her mom had bought for the kids. Meanwhile, the older son was out in the acre, beyond the walled-in back yard, playing with his trucks. The younger son was following her and her sister around the yard and house, visiting and wondering at all the things that fascinate two-year-olds like himself. The phone rang and she and her sister went inside. In what may have been minutes later, the older son called from outside the gate for his dad to come and let him into the yard.
Leaving the shop, where he was still working on the toys, he noticed the big-wheel floating upside down in the pool. He let the older son into the yard and then went to see if he could reach the toy – floating out there, near the middle of the pool. He noticed that the big-wheel was just sitting there, upside down, not moving and not causing even the slightest ripple in the water. Just sitting there. Suddenly, everything was quiet. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something floating near the opposite side of the pool. Not something, but someone, a very small someone, face-down in the pool.
Rushing to the other side, he noticed again the stillness of the pool. How long had his little one been there? What period of time would it have taken for the water to calm after he had ridden the big-wheel into the pool? How many minutes had his son been floating there in that god-damned silent pool? Where was the noise that water is supposed to make when someone falls into it? Why didn’t he hear the silence of the big-wheel? Why in the hell wasn’t he watching his son?
No! What would he do without his son? It wouldn’t be the same. Life would never be the same. No! He couldn’t die! He fought the numbness in his mind and began to do what he’d studied so many times in the past. Just last month he had taken a refresher course and he specifically remembered not to breathe too hard into his baby’s mouth. Pounding on his back as if there was something stuck in his throat, he cursed and prayed for him to come back. God, how long did this take? Over and over again, breathe into his mouth, not too hard. Push onto his tiny chest. Now flip him over and pound on his back some more. Come on! Breathe! Please, come on! Yes! Cry! That’s it! That’s it! Breathe! Come on – that’s it, cry, come on! Damn the silence – Cry!
The excitement of graduation night paled somehow in comparison to the spectacular event that would take place the next morning. She and her family were going up north for a vacation and they had asked him to go with them. Each of her sisters was bringing a special friend – and she invited him, her special friend. The trip was a graduation present from her parents. As a family, they had been to the lake several times in the past, so they knew he would enjoy it.
They left home early in the morning, hoping to reach the lake with enough daylight remaining so they could work on the boat when they got there. In return for letting them borrow the houseboat, her mom’s boss had asked them to replace the carpet and fix some things that needed to be repaired.
The six-hour drive seemed to pass in less time than it actually took. New scenery and friendly conversation caused the miles to slip away without notice. Before he knew it, they arrived at the lake-town, located the boat and started to work.
With all of the work completed and only an hour of daylight remaining, they set off to find a suitable spot to spend the night. When they pulled away from the marina he turned around and looked at the sky. It had been brushed with magnificent hues of orange, yellow, rose and gold. This sunset would have made the sun-god proud.
The whole experience was an adventure to him. In his seventeen years he had never been on a vacation with anyone other than his own family. Now, he was there, at the lake, with his girlfriend and her family preparing to enjoy one of the most memorable events of his life – ten days on a houseboat with absolutely nothing to do but relax and enjoy life and its offerings.
Their days were filled with leisure. They would cruise through the waterways of the lake’s filled canyons staring in awe at the massive boulders and rock lining their passage. At different times of the day, they would pull over to the bank, tie up the boat and go hiking. Climbing the rocks to the highest point they could reach and then just sitting there, admiring it all, wondering at the forces that combined to create such a marvel. Other times, they would get out the inflatable rafts and go off by themselves, paddling along, enjoying the theater of nature before them. Whatever they wanted to do, they did. Sleep, eat, drink or swim. Whenever they wanted to do these things, they just did them. No schedules were allowed.
One of the best things about the whole trip was the time the two of them had together. Uninterrupted, they could talk for hours. If there was nothing else to say, they would sit in the quiet splendor of their retreat and simply be together. Saying nothing, just being together. Near enough to touch, near enough to feel each other’s spirit within them. A time of true communion.
At night they would lie next to each other on the roof of the houseboat and watch for stars shooting across the sky. They felt as if they were in a cathedral, looking up past the darkness of the canyon walls to see the ceiling of stars overhead. It was truly a magnificent sight. The greatest artist ever commissioned to paint a chapel ceiling would have balked at the thought of trying to recreate the incredible brilliance of this heavenly portrait.
To say it was quiet on the lake would be an understatement. Barring all other experiences from their memory, this place would be the origin of silence. There were no clocks or schedules on the lake. There was no screaming society telling them what to do and when to do it. Silence ruled…and because it ruled, they were free.
Once again, I do not believe true silence exists. For a hearing person, I do not believe there is a condition possible where there is absolutely no sound. We can only recognize the shadow of silence, its image. Whether it is tarnished or golden, blatant or subtle, mediocre or spectacular, the silhouette is what we call “silence.”
This is a Favorite re-post from September, 2009.
They rage sometimes in distant echoes, those ghosts of living in by-gone years…
…they sing and howl, sometimes, at atrocities lean and harsh that were wrought upon the land, scars that remain in hardened shadow form, of skeletons in brick and steel….
…and when the sun is down, they wonder in silent tones, sometimes, as evening light creeps low, as tiny eyes blink awake in their hollowed places, not hallowed…
…carts ring and clang on rails laid, earth’s treasures brought from below, man’s hand and mind are joined, sometimes, from pick to truck to refiner’s fire, to jewelers’ purses to ladies’ hands to settled estates, and then…
…and come around again to distant echoes and ghosts of living in by-gone years….
The skinny black man sat in his tumbledown chair and stretched his legs out long and long across the patio there. He was wearing a tattered straw hat that had a bright red and frayed ribbon laying droopily around the brim; it might have been attached at some point in its various pasts, the ribbon, but today it was laying loose against the hat’s crown with its thrice-tied knot to keep it all together with itself. A hot breeze stirred through the patio columns and caused the screen door to complain with a creaky voice at having to move so when it was content not to at this time of an afternoon and summer day.
“I tol’ you and your partner the other day that I don’ know nothin’ ’bout no Peaches,” he said from below his hat brim. His mouth moved like he was holding pebbles inside his cheeks, keeping his lips all in a pucker and moving still; I couldn’t see his teeth, as they were hiding behind his fleshy and purple lips, but I knew from a young lady’s description, that he was missing top and bottom twins on the left side of his mouth. He had caught a tire iron or a bottle there during a mid-alley brawl on a last-July evening; said people started calling him “Kissy” after that because of the way he always pursed his lips when talking so nobody could see the remnant and damaged teeth within.
– I never said anything about Peaches, Kissy; I never told you who sent me looking for you; I just said I talked with someone….
“Well, I still don’ know nothin’ about her; ain’t seen her none, leastways not in a long time, not this summer anyways.”
– Well that’s ok, really, we don’t need to talk about her. We just need to get you to the clinic and take care of those spots on your hands, that’s all. You need some medicine, Kissy.
“Yeah, you tol’ me about that before, you and that other Lionel boy from your office, but I’m ok; Kissy’ll be jus’ fine. These spots come and gone once before and I ‘spect they’ll do the same again, so you can go on now, Doctor Scott, don’ try and reason with me none either, just leave me set here of an afternoon, cuz it’s too hot to move and I’m waiting on my check besides. So go on now…and if you’ll ‘scuse me, I’m goin’ to have myself a little nap….”
Years ago I found stories in the everyday lives of the people who populated mine, those from my workplace, especially, and sometimes, and still, with my family. In those years of the past, the situations and lives of my clients easily became the foundation or the substance of the stories and recollections that I put into stories and musings. Yes, I changed the names, always, but the things and events that I shared were straight from their lives. I would change some things, as is my license when I’m the writer; I would add to or delete from what they had told me, as sometimes the truth was too raw…other times I made the truth a touch stronger so that it would bite harder when it was read, so that it would cause us to think more, you and me both, about our own lives and the importance of the people we love and the things we take so for granted in our own little orbits around the sun.
I have recently returned to the first “former occupation” that lived so vividly in my earlier writings. When they say that you can never go home again, this seems to be true in this instance as well. Things are different than they used to be. The grass isn’t greener, by far, over here, but it is still good and the rewards are similar to what they were in the past. Some notable differences, though, come in the level to which I am able to participate in the lives of my clients and the other categories of people who used to fill my work life as I did what I did in the health department context. Most of my experiences and involvement with people are now over the phone, similar to when I worked with 9-1-1. I participated in the callers’ lives over the phone, I was witness to their tragedies as they played-out through the headset, I typed the facts as I obtained them, or as they were hurled at me through the technology of a cell phone or land-line that was so utilized to request our certain brand of help. And today, or now, again, with this health department, it’s back on the phone. Most of the interviews with my clients/patients are conducted on the phone. I do, occasionally, as much as I’m able, bring people to the clinic to speak with them face to face, the contacts anyway, if I can’t do so with the original patients, so that I can deal with and participate in the human exchange again. Yes, I enjoy it being a limited exchange, 20 to 30 minutes of their lives, but face to face, looking into their eyes, watching them try to find the right words to express their concern, or watching them react to the pointed and intimate questions that I must ask them in order to do my job…it’s so much more preferable than doing it over the phone. I can observe and then respond to the nuances of their half of the conversation, those non-verbal parts that can betray the spoken parts.
And then there are some occasions, very limited ones, thus far, in which I am actually out on and in the street again, traveling, driving the new old streets in this new town and home of mine, seeing people and places for the first time that my daily routines and even weekend wanderings don’t usually allow me to see. On those few times that I was able to get out there again, I felt an odd familiarity and excitement, almost, at being on strange doorsteps and knocking on those strangers’ doors again, watching and wondering at their reactions, or wondering if they’re going to answer the door in the middle of a late afternoon snowstorm for whoever might be knocking or ringing the bell after I’ve already seen them walk past the window or move the curtain after I parked in front of their house. I haven’t been out and walking up and down dusty alleyways or sitting at a picnic table in the park, watching a dominos game while asking about whoever knows whomever yet, but that day may be here again, someday…maybe…maybe not.
At any rate, I’m back inside the stories again, on a vastly different plane, but still there, listening sometimes to the confusion, marveling with them as the light comes on or as the blinds are pulled-up on what they had been told, and hearing that “Aha!” moment come through over the phone or in person as they’re learning the truth about how they got that particular infection, etc. Back inside the stories…not on the 9-1-1 phones again, not on the radio where the cop-talk became a way of life, but back inside the stories where intimacy got defiled, or germy, anyway, and sometimes watching the eyes as realization comes, or as truth is rearranged or lost in the speaking of a few words.
Another thing that’s different and a concern of mine/ours, in this recent time, this current working with the health department that I do, is that of confidentiality. Yes, the concern was there in the past, those 10 and 20 years ago in which I did this same work, but it seems that the emphasis then was upon medical information and names, not necessarily the stories and the content of those lives. At least that’s how I remember it anyway. And today, this day and yesterday and the literal tomorrows of my work here, all of that information is confidential, somehow, especially in print. Their step into the clinic and the color of their car and the big tree under which it was parked in their neighborhood home and the 20 weeks at which they lost their baby and the husband or wife or boyfriend who cheated on the patient and the other, and whatever, those things aren’t mine to share…as much as I’d like to in some of their various forms, their disguised forms, their interesting stories and then, they’re not mine, somehow. I can almost hear a voice inside myself saying “Don’t use that name. Don’t say it aloud. Don’t spell it while you’re doodling and sitting on hold. Don’t whisper it as you’re typing your notes. Don’t think it as you’re driving home, and don’t say it in the echoes of your imagination, not even in a conversation within your hidden self. It belongs to someone else in a different place, in a different life, and it ceases to exist in yours once you’re done doing what you do with it. If you remember it later, you had better forget it just as quickly. If your pen starts to write it down, you’d better put it away. When you dream at night or in the middle of the day, that beautiful name had better stay gone from your thoughts and reflections. In all of your remembering, remember that it’s not yours. When your heart cries with your mind in knowing why you know it, when that ache transcends reason and thought, your bones had better remember what will happen if you don’t forget it. It’s not your name, so leave it alone. Years might pass and places change and the context of your rotating around the sun might be different or the same…and you might start reflecting on life and your trod steps and the people you have known. You might remember the faces of those who peopled your earlier lives in those earlier places and those other worlds, but when you start to recall their names and the places and contexts in which you knew them, you’d better remember to forget some of them. If your self fails and your resolve dwindles or your heart still aches too much to ignore, you’d better change the frame, the context, the situation, the details, the heartbeats, the coursing blood, and the number of stairs that led to the place where you knew it. You’d best make it so different that nothing is the same, not even the smell or the taste of the memory that resides in your cells. Don’t use that name…it isn’t yours.”
Anyway, if I tell stories here, they aren’t true…but they’re not made-up either.
Yesterday morning, on my drive home from the store where I had just purchased the week’s food and other household supplies, I was looking at the neighborhoods I passed and at the smoke and steam coming from roof-top chimneys and vent pipes. I also caught sight, through and beyond the clouds, of parts and pieces of the white and enormous mountains that line our eastern horizon. It was and is still amazing and weird and wonderful to find myself in this place in the middle hours of this last day of the year, in a place so new and strange and removed from where I was last year. As I drove those snow-lined streets back to our neighborhood proper, I happened to notice a mile-marker sign that was posted along the road. It said “Mile 11.” Now, I am familiar with state highways and roads that leave their freeway confines and become or pass along the same route as a city street, like US Highway 60 in Arizona that becomes or passes-along on Grand Avenue, bisecting the Valley of the Sun to take travelers on their way to Wickenburg or beyond, and I know of US Highway 89 that takes us from Flagstaff to Page, and to Kanab and Panguitch, and then marks a parallel course to I-15 as it leads north to Provo and Salt Lake, eventually becoming State Street that runs the central length of our city, but I was not familiar with any such state route or US highway that had turned into 700 East as it made its course through the city.
Seeing the sign made me wonder about the eleven miles that had passed on the other side of that mile marker and how many other miles existed in the opposite and other direction, whatever and whichever way that actually was. It struck me as odd, too, and maybe allegorical even, in the processing of what yesterday was and what today is in the marking of time in a year and this present time or era or segment of my life and my family’s lives in this time of crazy and dramatic change. We’ve come to this station and place in our lives, taken such drastic steps to find ourselves in a new state and locale, and work and living and natural environment and our heads and hearts and sometimes emotions are spinning and wondering and looking for something familiar to grasp and hold-on to as we attempt to regain our balance and direction. And here we are then, eleven miles from somewhere, remembering and thinking about the past and wondering about the future, holding-on to each other, leaning against one another in our little relocated family, awaiting the arrival of others and missing those who won’t or cannot join us…and our friends, of course, we remember and miss them too, those precious ones who, even from outside the circle of our family and intimates, loved us and brought us joy and companionship for the past twenty years and more.
So it’s not only us, but you, too, and then, who on this first day of a new year are eleven miles from somewhere. Where are you going, what are you doing, how are you, and we, too, going to measure this year when it’s gone, like we’ve done to the one that is just passed and passing?
The notes dropped softly into the quiet air of the darkened room, falling easily like thick snowflakes on a wintry and wood-smokey night. They slid sometimes in icy wonder up the scales and tinkled down again and pattered along the floor like a baby’s footsteps as he’s learning to walk, all wobbly-legged and unsure, patting his bare toes in sprinkled notes and laughs of fancy and then. They remind the man of a music box that used to sit on the shelf in other babies’ rooms in days and nights of a past that is thin and fleeting. Cars and cars pass and the furnace clicks on and a smell of warm dust and human dander swirls against the cold walls as another tune steps from the stereo and moves him further along and into the night. The muted lights from something moving on the quiet television that glow through his closed eyelids make him wonder for a second why it’s on, but then it doesn’t matter…as the notes keep rising and falling like a tiny heartbeat. A tiny heartbeat that is just below the other notes and endures with its tender strength and doesn’t go away even when the music ends, that one little note that lay underneath and within and kept on with its steady, un-fading ping ping ping ping, and then, that heartbeat. There is an Indian running swiftly in tinkling notes of raindrops and teardrops of gentle cadence, a rushing of golden tango-notes like freckles falling on a fair and tender face, and a person dining alone in a happy sadness that isn’t sad, with a movement and sway that comforts and soothes in its quietude. They are notes in their touching caress and the passing of the minutes and hours of a night that lure the man into a wakeful sleep where his heart beats slow and calm and there is nothing else, just the song.
Life changes as it does and sometimes brings with it a peace that goes beyond words. My new home and new environment have returned my soul to the place where it was born. It is not the same locale where I fell in love with the outdoors, but the geography and essence are the same. Gone are the big city and desert…and here are the mountains…and peace restored. These are some of my new favorite places: