Playing by Ear

We enter into a story through the door of inner hearing. The spoken story touches the auditory nerve, which runs across the floor of the skull into the brainstem just below the pons. There, auditory impulses are relayed upward to the consciousness. . . .  Ancient dissectionists spoke of the auditory nerve being divided into three or more pathways deep into the brain. They surmised that the ear was meant, therefore, to hear at three different levels. One pathway was said to hear the mundane conversations of the world. A second pathway apprehended learning and art. And the third pathway existed so that the soul itself might hear guidance and gain knowledge while here on earth.
(Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, 21-22)

Dear reader – or should I say dear listener? – for this is a story to be delivered through the ears rather than the eyes. It would be best if someone else could read it to you, but if this is not possible (and never force anyone for resentful reading is damaging in every way), it would be fine if you read it out loud to yourself. Out loud. Your inner voice is not enough. And sound effects are also helpful. We are looking for that third pathway.

This story happened not long ago. It is about a woman who is still alive. Perhaps you know her. Conjure up a woman of a certain age. Certain in that her age is precisely known in years and days, but perhaps uncertain in how we might describe it. Green old? Late middle age? Slightly over the hill? Perhaps we need to be specific. The woman in the story is sixty-one years old and she looks precisely sixty-one, although none of her friends would ever tell her that. Her hair is partly grey and the remainder is that leaden color that used to be mahogany or auburn or golden brown, but which has lost its glow, if not quite all of its pigment. She wears it very short with large earrings to reclaim the femininity she thinks she forfeited by cropping her locks. Her eyes are mostly brown and are hard to see because her eyelids are puffy by nature. Her freckles have glommed together into age spots, but are generally not noticeable if the light is muted She wears glasses with tortoise-shell frames when she reads, and they often leave a red mark which takes a long time to fade on the bridge of her very slender nose. This woman’s bottom lip tends to protrude and overlap her upper lip, and this characteristic (which she inherited from her mother) has become more pronounced as she has gotten older. Her right eyebrow is always slightly higher than the left, leaving her face a little asymmetrical and making her glasses often look askew. And yet, it is a nice face. If she stands behind you at the market, she will smile and you will remember the smile. Do you recognize her yet? Even if you do, there is no way that you could know this story. She never told anyone but me.

Where in the “once upon a time” to start? It could start with her name, which is Celia and was a compromise. Her mother had wanted to name her Caroline after her own mother. Celia’s father did not dislike the name, but could not abide doing his mother-in-law any special favors. He suggested Cynthia. Celia’s name was the first of many compromises in her life. But that was not where I want to start this story, and I am not sure this is a story about compromise. Although you might think so.

I am going to start this story in a Hampton Inn hotel room.

Celia opened the door of Room 245, put down the quickly-packed bag clunk and her laptop case thud and surveyed the predictable furnishings. We have all been in similar hotel or motel rooms. Many of us lost our virginity in such rooms, but that is not what this story is about either. There was nothing unfamiliar about the room’s combination of clean severity and decorative inanities. All the surfaces were clear, there was not a wrinkle in the duvet or pillows, no shoes cluttered the floors. There was a desk and armchair, a bureau enclosing a television set in its upper cupboard, and a closet with sliding doors which were also mirrors. And adorning all these somewhat austere necessities were silly paintings on the walls – ocean scenes in this place far from the ocean and mediocre still-lifes full of unidentifiable flowers. But even these frills were unencumbered with any associations or memories. Celia found the atmosphere restful in its anonymity. She did not want to be anywhere that reminded her of anything. She wanted to forget that there was even a place where she might have belonged, where anyone belonged.

And it was invigorating to be in a hotel room by herself. It had been a long time since she had been on her own. Sometimes she went to her daughter’s house alone, but that was not the same. When she stayed with Amy she was put in the guest room – temporarily displacing her son-in-law Gabe and his computer. Gabe always said (quite passively) that he did not mind, and then obnoxiously left his computer running on the kitchen table the whole time she was there. But there was no one to aggravate Celia in the Hampton Inn. And she quickly put her unopened laptop case in the bottom drawer of the bureau, ensuring that no one would be able to aggravate her digitally. Her cell phone had been off all day.

Then Celia did what everyone does upon arriving alone in such a hotel room. She sat on the edge of the bed, dropped her heels out of her shoes, and used her toes to fling the driving moccasins across the room. Whoosh. Whack. Whoosh. Whack. And then she dropped backwards onto the white coverlet. Ahhhh.

What next? Maybe a hot soak with the bathroom door open so she could listen to CNN and catch up with the world. Another car bomb… That other world. Not hers. She did not have a world anymore. She was too tired to think about the consequences of that – at least any consequences that went beyond a long bath and an evening curled up with the mystery novel she had bought at the Borders next door and a bag of trail mix (M&M’s included). Heaven. For a day that had started off catastrophically, it didn’t seem to be having a bad ending. Of course, Celia had been wise enough not to give herself time to think yet. She had driven while shifting between listening to Emma (for her book group)…The bell was rung and the carriages spoken for; the news … the New York Stock Exchange was up ten points at the closing bell, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue album … Songs are like tattoos. Celia switched audio modes whenever one of them started to lose her interest or when her throat got dry from trying to sing along with Joni. But night was coming and she was going to have to get some sleep. Celia had sleeping tablets, but she was not sure that pharmaceuticals (even when combined with a fictional world where justice ultimately prevailed and a healthy dose of peanuts, salt, and chocolate) could override reality. Celia went over and grabbed the remote control. Too much thinking.

Finally, after Jon Stewart (chortle), a dose of Sominex and four chapters of following a middle-aged (but gorgeous) lady private eye, Celia dozed, only to be awakened by the deep chimes tolling. Dong, dong. . . . Celia hadn’t counted from the beginning, but it was eleven by the bedside LCD display. The Hampton Inn was on the outskirts of town, close to the highways. Celia could not remember any churches or bell towers nearby. The really odd thing was that the tolling sounded exactly like her mantel clock at home. That clock had been the very last Christmas present they had gotten from her Great Aunt Johanna before she died – almost two decades ago. It was electronic, but tolled in a realistic way, pleasant but loud enough so that they kept it downstairs and away from the bedroom. Even so, if Celia was awake in the middle of the night she could hear it and would know whether to give up trying (as dawn was near) or to roll over and try a little harder to slip back into oblivion. It was disorienting to hear the same sound in her hotel room. She thought maybe the people next to her had some kind of strange electronic gadget that kept time for them. Celia’s form of counting sheep was to recite poetry in her head. She got back to sleep before she reached a third Shakespearean sonnet, and so she never heard the chimes at midnight.

The clock did not bother Celia again, but it was another familiar sound that woke her up in the morning. Eow-ee. Eow-EE. It was the cry of a hungry and lonely cat. This was the noise that sleek grey Stella made in the morning if someone had forgotten to replenish her bowl before bed or if there was no human companionship downstairs by the customary time. Eow-ee. Eoooow-EE. Celia lay alert, but there were no more animal noises. Someone must have satisfied the cat. Satisfaction was the only thing that shut Stella up; no amount of stern tones or shut doors made any difference to Celia’s frustrated feline. Celia wondered if they allowed pets in the hotel. She had not even considered taking Stella with her. For one thing, she had no idea where she was going and she knew that Mac would take good care of his doting admirer. No matter that Celia was the one who had rescued the cat from the shelter or who kept her litter box clean and clipped her claws; all of this only solidified the cat’s assumption that the female two-legger was just a servant of the household. It was the master that Stella adored. Celia missed Stella, but her simmering anger reminded Celia that the cat was all that she missed.

Even if credit card limits were no problem, Celia knew she could not make her home at the Hampton Inn forever, and a trip to the breakfast bar reminded her that sterile food was not as appealing as sterile decor. Calling relatives or friends for a free bed was not an option; the price she would pay in explanations would make the Hampton Inn seem like a bargain. Her mother would love to have her and had a spare room all ready, but her hospitality would entail sharing a tale that Celia was not ready to share.

But what if her mother called the house? What would Mac tell her? She decided she should call and pre-empt that situation. A personal visit (Mom was about ninety minutes away) was out of the question. A daughter had far more control in a phone call than she did while looking at her aged and eager mother over a steaming mug and a piece of sour cream coffee cake.

“Hi Mom.”

“Hi Sweetie. I was going to call you today. Everything went fine at the doctor yesterday. Don’t have to go back for six months.” Celia had forgotten that her mother had a check-up with the heart surgeon who had unblocked her arteries a year ago. Thank God it came up right away.

“That’s great. Terrific. Mom, I just wanted to let you know. . . .”

“And he was really pleased that I had lost eight pounds. I thought I had lost ten, but it was only eight by his scale. He said to keep at it, but I really think I’m at a good weight now. Being too thin is not good. What if I had been as skinny as your sister when I had my surgery and couldn’t eat for a week? That can’t be a good thing.”

“Mom, I think you look great. Just eat sensibly and stay away from butter and cream and saturated fats. Follow the diet they gave you.” Mom loved butter and cream, and if they were combined with chocolate it was even better. And, at eighty-five, what difference did it really make? “Listen, I just wanted to let you know. . . .”

“Did you know that your sister sprained her ankle? She’s got to stay off it for a week and all she can talk about is that she won’t be able to exercise for a month. It will do her good. That girl is too thin.” That girl was Celia’s younger sister Ginny, who was working very hard at not getting old. Celia herself sort of liked getting old; it took all kinds of stress off.

Mom, listen. I am away from home for a while. I just needed a little vacation, so I am going on a road trip, but I wanted to let you know in case you called my house. You have my cell phone number, right?”

Silence. Celia had finally said something that stopped the train in its tracks.

“Where are you going? Is something wrong? You can come here. Come here. Dotty’s coming for dinner. You like Dotty. Tomorrow we could go to a show.”

Celia did not like Dotty. “Nothing is wrong. Just needed to get away for a while. I’ll call you in a day or two.”

“Did you fight with Mac? But you never fight. Are you having a mid-life crisis?” Mom had apparently been watching Oprah and did not seem to realize that her daughter was probably beyond the mid-life crisis stage.

“No and no. Don’t worry. I have to go. I’ll call you in the next day or two. Love you.” Celia pressed end to terminate the call and pressed it one more time to turn off the phone. It was easier to deal with static messages than with live voices.

Not that you could really turn off the voices. Her father had been dead for a decade and his voice was still in her head, reiterating things he had barked at her when she was five, ten, sixteen, forty. You’re a nuisance, a tomboy, a slut, a hypocritical liberal. And even posthumously criticizing things she did long after she had gone with her mother to bring back the plastic box of ashes from the funeral home. Why on earth would you spend that kind of money for a car? A weird kind of auditory immortality. Shame transformed into guilt. She had a hard time visualizing how he had looked over the years, but no trouble hearing his voice. She could just imagine what he would say now. He never liked Mac (there weren’t a whole lot of people he did like), but she rather thought he would tell her that running away was cowardly. Chicken-hearted. That was the word he had used when she had left college. Yes, she could hear it now.

Celia had never learned to shut off the voices in her head, but she had gotten good at drowning them out with more immediate concerns. Now that it was morning and she had had her coffee and instant oatmeal, she needed to come up with a plan. Up until yesterday, short term planning had involved menu selections for the coming week and long term planning meant deciding when to take a vacation, visit her mother, or get the house painted. Celia dug a pad out of her purse (the one she used for grocery lists in conjunction with menu planning) and starting thinking about alternatives. For a good ten minutes the page remained blank.

Celia kept thinking about how much she had liked the severity and anonymity of the hotel room − nothing personal, nothing extraneous. But it was a hotel and expensive and everyone else here was obviously on their way somewhere. And, while she was running away, Celia felt like she needed a place to be still for a while and let her swirling feelings settle and see if there was anything solid behind the chaos of her emotions. Somewhere impersonal. Quiet.

Genesis House. Celia suddenly remembered going to stay at a retreat house that used to be a large convent. She had signed up for a workshop on journal-writing over a long weekend when Mac was going to be out of town. She was no Catholic and had been a little abashed when her first sight on pulling her suitcase out of the car was a gaggle of old nuns peering at her intently, uniform in their navy veils and skirts, white polyester blouses and black orthopedic shoes. It seemed that some of the retired sisters lived there, as well as a half-dozen of the younger ones who organized everything from massage classes to seminars on the power of prayer.

The nuns had turned out to be wonderful. If the old ones snored, they were housed somewhere far away from Celia’s austere little room. Even though there was no carpet – all of the floors were well-scrubbed and well-worn linoleum tile – the place was serenely silent at night and most of the day. The workshop had been taught by a professor from a local college and meals were taken in the communal dining room where the sisters were eager to mingle. Genesis House. Celia wondered if they took guests on a weekly basis. She went over to the hotel’s “convenience” computer in the corner of the breakfast room and soon came up with the phone number. The elderly woman at the other end assured her that she would be welcome and quoted her a daily rate which was half that of the Hampton Inn and included a real breakfast. Lunch and dinner could also be arranged. Celia was going to the convent. It felt perfectly appropriate. Off she went. It was about a two-hour drive and all but the last ten minutes was on an interstate – much too boring to interrupt our story to describe.

When Celia arrived, she found few visible changes. The linoleum was a little more worn and the spigots through which you could get hot or cold water (but never a mixture of the two) were more slightly corroded, but there was no change in the single bed made up with hospital corners and the crucifix over the bureau. No mirrors. Hooks on the wall but no closet. There was a desk where Celia set up her laptop there and soon got the little bars that meant that there was a strong wireless signal. She sat for a minute trying to decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

As she sat there she heard a dog barking, Oooof. A whining vehicle came to a stop, and there was definitely the squeak of a mailbox door creaking, being filled, and closed. And then the vehicle speeded up again. VrrrrRRRR. Just like at home. This was the time of day that the mail got delivered and she always knew when it was coming because the neighbor’s dog Boomer would start to bark before human ears could even hear the white jeep. But Celia was at the back of the building, far away from the road. Celia felt confused, but not upset. The sounds of home were somewhat comforting.

My listeners might be wondering why, at this point, Celia did not doubt her own sanity. I suppose many people would have, but such people make for very boring stories. Celia is not young and not prone to hysteria. Knowing that the definition of psychosis is that you can’t tell the difference between reality and unreality, Celia calmly reassured herself that these were real sounds. They were just occurring somewhere far away. And they did not seem malicious; perhaps the sounds were just attracted by the vacuum her new abundance of silence had created.

Sounds. Voices. Celia knew that her friends considered her a good listener. She was well-trained. Speak when you are spoken to. When hearing their grievances and confessions, Celia had mostly just been overwhelmingly thankful that she did not have their problems. Oh. I’m so sorry. She had been talking sympathy but practicing gratitude. Now she realized that she should have been rehearsing for when it was her turn. She had even been a good listener when the woman from Enfield had called to tell her what she and Mac had done. She could still hear that angry voice. He might have stayed with you for now but don’t think you’ve really got him. After all those years. Mac said it was his only lapse, a mistake, that the woman from his book group was upset when he stopped it after the second time, that he didn’t know what he was thinking. For once, Celia stopped being a good listener. Ding. Bong. There was the signal for dinner.

There were not many guests mid-week. Celia sat with some of the retired nuns, who asked the question but did not seem particularly disappointed when she told them that, no, she was not Catholic, and, no, she was not a regular member of any other church. But rummaging through her mind for a relevant story to tell, she shared Gabe and Amy’s dilemma about her grandson’s desire to make his first communion. Gabe had been raised Catholic, but was seriously lapsed, and Amy had been under-exposed to Methodism as a child. However, the best elementary school in town was St. Bernard’s. Now all the children in her grandson Amos’s class were about to start preparations for their first communion and Celia’s enthusiastic grandchild wanted to join in. Do you believe in God, Nana? Nana was not sure what she believed in, but as two bells – BongDing – pealed a perfect fourth for the end of the meal and the start of clean-up, Celia recognized the combination as the first two notes of Amazing Grace. God’s music had stuck even if his credibility had not.

Celia wasn’t sure what she believed in anymore. Forty years of marriage had provided a level of peace and predictability, but where was that now? Could she even be comfortable in her own skin anymore thinking that Mac would be comparing her to that awful woman on the phone? And how old was that woman anyway? Celia had been too upset to ask and it didn’t seem to matter now. If she was younger, it would mean that Celia’s body wasn’t good enough and if she was older (or uglier), it would only mean that Mac was really desperate for someone else. He said he was sorry. Cee, I’m so ashamed. . . . She knew him well enough to know that he meant it.

Celia sat through the Mass that a local priest came to offer for the nuns. They told her it was St. Anne’s birthday, a special day for them. She enjoyed the chanting of the priest and the reedy response of the elderly nuns. It wasn’t her own tradition, yet the sound struck something deep and peaceful within her and she rested with it. Chink-a-ling. The bell rang to signify that the wine and bread had been transformed. Sound as the signal of transformation, a sign that something had changed, something holy was taking place. Like the bell towers that used to toll the years of a person’s life when they died. Life distilled to sound. The priest looked up at her questioningly after he had finished giving communion to the sisters and one retreatant, but Celia shook her head.

Good sleep that night was accompanied by strange dreams. Celia’s dreams were usually highly visual and silent; people chased her but did not speak. She tried to explain things but could not get the words out. She was lost but no one could give her directions. You have these dreams, I know. We are all lost in one way or another. On good nights Celia dreamt of hushed flight through a still world of white stars above and yellow lights below, a dream I also hope you have once in a while. This night, however, all her dreams were filled with voices − human voices, animal voices, the voices of musical instruments, booming voices, and voices so low that she could not make out what they were trying to tell her. She thought she might still be dreaming when she woke up to hear Mac murmuring to the cat and the sound of kibble being dribbled into the ceramic bowl. But the sun was pouring into the uncurtained convent window. This was no dream.

Poor kitty. You miss mama too, don’t you? Don’t get used to sleeping on the bed, though, kitty, because mama will be back. She has to come back, doesn’t she kitty? She has to come back because we miss her so much. Celia listened to the water running as Mac made the coffee that had been delayed until he satisfied a hungry cat. Her husband’s voice continued to murmur. She could not always make out the words, but somehow she knew what he was saying. And then the chimes started ringing. She didn’t need to count. The clock would strike six times.

Celia sat up. These were exactly the kinds of sound she heard every morning. Like the nun’s chanting, this morning kitchen litany gave her a deep calm. The ceremonial sounds of her life. Holy sounds. Sounds that transformed a material existence into blood and spirit. And somehow more essential than some of the ways that life unrolled in its ups and downs.

One more day away to regroup her thoughts. One more day to talk to the nuns and hope there would be another Mass to sit through. One more night when she hoped Winken, Blinken and Nod would fill her head with more echoes of her life. Not the words themselves. It was the sounds that mattered. What mattered was beyond words.