In the beginning, sound was all there was. Before the word, a mouth. Before the gardeners, a garden.
There was a thought, and the thought had a song, and the song was growing: stir-scrabble-shudder-slink-climb-out-upward-sink-shudder-quake-burrow-slow. A soft begin. A creeping go.
Now the earth has no ears, except those canals that worms carve, so before worms the dirt heard nothing, and knew nothing of the song. The trees have no ears, except for those holes that beetles make, or woodpeckers bore, so without bugs and birds an aspen heard nothing of its own quaking.
The ocean’s ears it cast up from itself.
The north wind has ears, of course, little knots where it ties the trunks of pines, but the wind’s story is many seasons in the telling—it has no time for secrets other than its own.
Listening was born slowly.
But oh, we humans liked it.
Music was the earliest form of storytelling. In fact, we told our very first stories to our mothers with our heartbeats. What they heard from us enchanted them, and they carried our little rhythms with them wherever they went, sometimes exclaiming, sometimes urging others to listen, to hear with their palms, their seashell ears, our overtures. Our Movement Is.
Later, we made instruments outside of our bodies. Whatever else we’ve done, we taught the stones to speak; we turned trees into their own tongues, stroked the stretched skin of our animal brethren until the voice of the dead thundered among us.
When the wind sawed through our teeth we heard it whisper—but through a whittled flute, we heard our own souls clearly for the first time. They were so beautiful, caves relaxed into tunnels. Swamps eased to rivers. Lakes leapt in joyful hives of steam.
That’s probably why we’re in this mess, if I’m honest. We fell in love with the sound of ourselves, and we never looked back.
Forgive me father, for I have sinned—last week I listened to Vance Joy’s “Georgia” thirty-six times on Monday alone. Work was terrible and lobotomies are a rather permanent coping strategy when you’re twenty-six and still nominally charming to non-relatives.
On Tuesday, I blared Japanese theme songs in my headphones for three straight hours and then blamed my headache on a lack of sleep. Yes, I’m aware gluttony is one of the seven deadlies. No, I do not think turning the volume down would make much of a difference in the long run.
Wednesday was a hard day. Morning and afternoon passed in a haze of horror, while I sorted image after image out of a manuscript at work. My employers publish criminal justice textbooks—their authors have a fortitude I lack, fearlessly engaging those subjects at which I can hardly bear to glance.
There is a grimness to the slump of a body bag that suggests there will be no victory over the grave. I sat, poring over the broken teeth of a bombed-out bus, the ache of a shattered elementary school window, until Tchaikovsky wrestled me from my chair. In the bathroom, I hunched at the sink and felt the spines of a million feathers needle into my flesh. I don’t care what the DJ calls it—Swan Lake is never “easy listening.” In fact, that whole term is misguided. Listening is hard.
On Thursday I wrote an essay about music. It wasn’t a very good essay—I’m not much of a musician—but if Eudora Welty is right, and the voice that speaks in your head when you read is really the voice of the story, then writing is a kind of listening, sure as anything. Maybe that’s why writing about writing is so difficult; it’s a way of eavesdropping on the eavesdropper: reflexive, chaotic, and generally fruitless.
More often, we’re better off listening to the stories the world is trying to tell us. The ones that stick, like little bits of pop tunes, hanging around our brains. When we concentrate on those stories, whether it’s to hear the reader-voice, or just to catch the last notes of that sweet, lingering tune, something amazing happens. We shut the hell up for a minute, and remember that we’re part of a story.
I’m not going to lie—this is a fucked up time we live in, and a fucked up time we leave behind. Stories of transformation are so often plagued by tragedy or violence—not every curse is lifted; not all who suffer are freed. But our story—the song of humanity—doesn’t end in darkness. I was resting in the garden when the north wind told me so.