In search of story


Ears, part 3: Why not quiet?

Is it the silence of the dead
what we long to know
but not telling?

Is it the predator stillness
before the storm
bristling quiet
on thick cloud haunches?

Is it the muteness
of gasping
wordless grief
wordless rage
wordless despair?

I think not.

It’s the well
Look down
it’s you
it’s me.

We fear self
soul owning
met in too-eloquent silence.

The lone buzz

the shy creek gurgle —
pianissimo —


the contemplative
continuo of leaves —


too like silence?
Must they be
covered over?
Must quiet
be silenced?

noise is safe
silence threatens
there is no other explanation.


Ears, part 2

It started when I was very young. Both my parents were musicians. When Mom went to choir practice, Dad played records for my brother and me. The “Largo al factotum” was very big on the dad playlist, and we were good at the Figaros. “Peter and the Wolf” was regularly featured. Listening was the game. My ears had a sharp growth spurt.

In kindergarten, I started piano lessons. In sixth grade, organ. Listening stretched from two hands on eighty-eight keys to both feet, manuals, stops, foot pedals. My ears grew muscular.

Piano study continued for about sixteen years, and my ears became Olympian in stature.

One day I discovered I was alone with Mom’s cancer and Dad’s dementia. And I also discovered that most other people did not have ears. They could not — or would not — hear about caregiving.

Meanwhile, I heard: the sounds of caregiving built up within me. They were relentless, soulless sounds, from all the rookeries where razor-beaked anxieties bred: hospitals, doctors’ offices, midnight vigils. I was the trapped, the carrion. I couldn’t get away from it. Suffering, dying, fear and sound. Endless sound. Televisions, loudspeakers, tapes, videos, medical machines, floorboards, plumbing in eternal crescendo.

Do you think I exaggerate? Then you don’t know about caregiving.

I didn’t realize until after the deaths how deep the damage. Sound, especially music, suffocated me. I’d have to get away from it, get out so I could breathe. Or I would focus all my energy on not running, unable to concentrate on anything else.

Caregiving had made sound intolerable, and I couldn’t not listen.

I’m better now but not all right. Ears remember.


Ears, part 1

Music. As personal a preference as fragrance, color, chili recipes. You like this; I like that. It’s so simple. Except in how the preference is lived. If we could just honor each other’s preferences, how much calmer life would be.

If I have to listen to your music, I become agitated, depressed, paranoid, homicidal. MAKE IT STOP, sobs my brain. No, that’s wrong: it’s my spirit sobbing. Music speaks to our spirits. That’s why you love your music and I love mine. And sometimes the twain cannot meet.

I do not insist that you listen to my music, so why do you insist that I listen to yours? Well, no, dear reader, not you, of course, but the world in general.

I love various kinds of music, none of which includes popular singing, which causes my entire brain to writhe in empathetic agony. To me, most performers sound racked, strangled, not because of pathos in the music but because of the strain in their voices. They sound like my smoke alarms. Yet these contorted voices are enjoyed by others. I don’t understand that but I don’t have to. As long as I don’t have to listen to them, I am magnanimously enthusiastic about the pleasure they afford others.

We react to music. Not just with toe-tapping or head-banging, but with something deep inside. Music reaches into us while something inside us reaches out to it. That is not insignificant.

So what’s your point, Maureen? My point is we should respect each other’s ears because in so doing we respect each other’s spirits.


The hurly-BURLy

It is with abject horror that I approach this season. My ears quail in anticipation; my brain quivers: it’s time for Christmas Shopping Music. By all the gods and fates and muses, even the culture that spawned reality stars doesn’t deserve this!

At all times of the year, most retail businesses have their “music” turned up to unhealthy decibel levels. But at Christmas time, they go one worse: Burl Ives. Should be Burl Hives because I can feel the brain histamine rush as the holly-jollies fill the air and my neurons swell and itch.

I have voted that goatee’d jingle the most like torture, the national anthem of the overwhelmingly unmusical cacophony of it all. Sound that wraps us in a kinetic swaddle of twaddle: rhythm and volume and mindlessness. Is it supposed to make us spend? It makes me run. I am a danger to others when Burl Ives comes through those ceiling speakers.

Did Burl know that he would come to be this obnoxious? And how about Bing? Did he know that his mele-kaliki-whatever would weary us in footsore lines? Did Gene Autry, whose voice conjures memories of 78s and a distant childhood, know that he would be sucked into this sameness? I’d rather hear Champion. Which, of course, brings us to The Chipmunks. My knees buckle.

Tune it out, you say? At this decibel level? It would be like trying to tune out a jackhammer. Besides, I am not one of the lucky ones who can shut out sound. Even were it all quietly played, I’d still hear it. The monotony of a billion parumpapumpums is — for me — inescapable.

The obvious solution to this problem is to shop only at the library until January. I’ll let you know how that goes.



He died.

You met David in my blog last March. I’d just received word that he was losing his years-long battle with cancer, and I did the only thing I could: I wrote. I cried, too.

There are some people in our lives who are — in our hearts — always eighteen, and David was one of those. It’s a self-congratulatory thing, I know: if he’s still eighteen then I am too, right? I’m filled with vigor instead of disease. I have hormones and bones, collagen and memory!

But it isn’t so, as David’s death attests.

I am not young any more; I had my turn and it’s long over. So it’s delusional to feel those hormones. But the fact is that friends from our growing-up years awaken the eighteen-year-old that was, and that’s a real bliss point. Being eighteen was imperfect, but it had a lot going for it. People who were eighteen with us have their roots in the same imperfections and in the soil of that time, which for us was searingly eroded by the lava flow called The Sixties.

David went to college and to Viet Nam. He left eighteen behind rapidly. But whenever I saw him over the years eighteen was still there. It was unmistakable though maddeningly elusive. It was fun and melancholy at the same time: that matchbox of eighteen and the freight train of age.

David loved trains. He even knew “Up and Down the Monon,” one of several neglected classics of Indiana railroad lore. So trains bring David to mind in a very colorful, gritty, nostalgic way. We grew up in a spaghetti bowl of railroad tracks and heard the same midnight trainsongs.

May the angels lead you, David. Save a place.


Putting by, part two: deep purple

Our back yard had a grape arbor, and our basement had an ancient stove. Our family had a mother and a grandmother. And that’s how we came to have the deep purple putting-by.

Magnificent Concord grapes — taut-skinned purple ping-pong balls, many-seeded, deadly messy — grew on the arbor. When those grapes drooped for harvest, we knew that it was time for jelly-making. Word went out: run for your lives!

Mom and her mother, the grandma you have met here previously, donned their grape hazmat suits, clothing already stained beyond redemption, and started picking. From arbor to basement, where the labor-intensive business of turning grapes to jelly transpired in a sweaty explosion of purple splotch and purple words. Grapes were cooked and strained — as were Mom and Grandma. The purple inexorably seeped from fingernail to shoulder while splatting spontaneously here and there. The heat from the boiling grapes and the melting wax and the sterilized jars, the stickiness, the trips up and down stairs, the overwhelming purplization of life did not make for a peaceable kingdom.

And did those two women enjoy any part of this domestic industry? Not that I could tell. The jelly was flavored by warfare.

I think that’s when I started asking WHY? Why did they do that every year? They hated the work and hated the mess and hated each other — or so it seemed to me. Eventually Welch’s was deemed good enough, and the grape vines were replaced by climbing roses. Mom and Grandma stopped putting by. But they never stopped being mother and daughter. Like the grape vines twisted tightly in on themselves, like the eternally infernally messy grapes, mothers and daughters.

There’s a fruit cellar in my head where memories have been put by. Some are green beans, some peaches, some grape jelly.


Putting by, part one

Do you know about “putting by”? The animals do. The mornings now sparkled by frost, winter looms nearer, and the beasties know that food is everything: eat, drink, and put by.

The nimble bee in the October garden feels the urgency.

As the marigolds crinkle into seed pods, he twists among the petals, seeking summer leftovers, some for him and some for his family, no doubt. I picture tiny Mason jars put by in the hive, and I am transported immediately to our old fruit cellar.

It was a ghastly place, closed off from the basement by a wooden door straight from “Alice in Wonderland”; as you stepped up into the cellar through that shortened door, you became instantly too big and had to duck to avoid concussion from the ceiling. A bare lightbulb with dinky chain hung about two feet from your forehead. Straight ahead, a window with a murky view of grass. To your right, shelves with Mason jars. To your left, a cramped subterranean dungeon with neglectibles and more shelves. Another bare bulb. Jaundiced newspaper shelf-liners. Crawling things with many legs. It was damp, cold, and creepy.

Everything Mom and Grandma put by was kept in the cellar. Thus the rows of home-canned green beans and freestone peaches, the beans a putrid don’t-eat-me color, and the peaches ever summery. You may believe that absolutely nothing erases the memory of green-beans-gone-bad in a creepy fruit cellar. Putting by had its risks, both gastric and visual, and, for all its virtues of frugality and (usually) flavor, home-canned was not mourned when it gave way to store-bought — not in our house.

But there was more to putting by. Another post, another day.