Every writer is trying to describe old things in new ways. It’s a good bandwagon for me to join, to distance myself from my high school days when I was dubbed “the queen of clichés.”
I’m looking out my apartment window and see a tree. I live in the city but on nights like these, I am back in my childhood home of tire swings and hedges and well pipes you bang your car into when you’re sixteen and first learning to drive. I listen closely, trying to describe what the city sounds like to my imaginary readers. How do I describe the sound of tires going across a road at 80 km/hr to someone who’s never heard a moving vehicle before? When I hear a dozen or more cars flying down my street, halted by a changing green, I hear an intermittent waterfall. But how do you explain a waterfall to someone who’s never heard water drip from a kitchen faucet, let alone nature’s caverns?
Everything has a referent in this world. It’s like when the dictionary defines a word using another word you don’t understand, and you’re now looking up another word in the dictionary, only to look up seven other words. You’re caught in a cycle of referents so deep you don’t even remember the first thing you were trying to define.
I pay more attention to sound these days after watching a video of a British woman deaf from birth who, thanks to science, can now hear. Joanne Milne: a modern miracle.
If this doesn’t give me hope about recovering what was lost—something you thought was irretrievably lost—I don’t know what does. She probably never imagined her story would be rewritten to read: “Be opened!”
I imagine the deaf and mute man brought to Jesus in Mark 7:31-37 didn’t either. Jesus took him away from the crowd and spoke to him in silence. Fingers in his ears and spit on his tongue, he looked up to heaven and shouted for the silence to be broken. “Ephphatha!” For the doors to open—two doors, actually. Sound and speech restored. And how did the crowd respond? They were “overwhelmed with amazement.”
“The world is just sounding so, so loud to me at the moment” Joanne says in her BBC interview. She had to take the battery out of her clock hanging on the wall.
I don’t know what Joanne’s new world is like. I willingly moved from the suburbs to the city so I could be surrounded by loud and big and exciting and all those adjectives that cities have to offer young twenty and thirty-somethings searching for post-secondary meaning. I fall asleep easier to sirens and honks and activated pedestrian signals than I do to the low hum of a refrigerator or to nature’s insects chirping in the great outdoors or to absolute quiet. When I’m driving, I turn up the volume of my car stereo three or four notches higher than the default setting it was turned to when I bought it. It happened gradually.
I don’t know what it’s like to be surprised by loud. I grew up with it, so I don’t know if I ever did.
Joanne Milne is waking up to sound for the first time and it is a beautiful thing. It is an emotional thing. But, from her interview, it also sounds like it is an overwhelming thing. How do you go from utter silence to utter loudness? Was there something peaceful about listening to a blank soundtrack, images without audio interpretation? Did it foster the imagination in any way? And then I think of music and the beauty of waking up to notes played over time, at different lengths and pitches, tones and volumes, and if I would cry over the sound of a doorknob twisting to open, how much more would I cry/die over a Bach’s Air on the G String or Yann Tiersen’s Comptine d’Un Autre Été?
I wonder if the ideal process for an education into the sounds of the world would be to start small and work up. Clocks and hand clapping, doors and foot tapping, running water and cackling fires, church bells and street hustle, music concerts and outdoor festivals. But in our world of noise, you are educated not with a whisper but a bang—a big bang. You don’t learn things in increments. It’s everything all at once. Everything has a referent.
Joanne Milne is embarking on a life-changing education in middle age and I am a little envious of her wonder. I would like to hear the world through her ears—to remember what it’s like to be surprised by sound again. And then to listen closely and to write this hope in new and beautiful ways.
A group I recently discovered on NoiseTrade does this so well. I cannot help but imagine Loud Harp (note the name) is responding to Jesus’ fingers in their ears, their eyes, their mouths: “Ephphatha! Be opened!”