Listening for Sounds of Hope

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.”

the tree

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?

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.

Night Driving

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.IMG_5201

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!”

Stopping People

Stopping strangers has become a habit of mine. Habit might be too strong of a word. Tendency, perhaps.

Before moving to the city, I explored a Vancouver neighbourhood to see if it was an area I wanted to consider living in. I walked the streets and stopped a girl who looked about my age. “Hey, do you live around here?”

My neighbourhood

She did. She liked it. That was enough for me.

A week later, I moved and ran into her on the way to Granville Street. This time she stopped me.

“So you moved here?”

“Yeah, I did!” I was excited to make my first friend in the neighbourhood.

Turns out we live four buildings away from each other on the same street. A few days later, she came over one evening to help me eat brownies. We shared our stories.

There are so many people to meet, I can get overwhelmed thinking about it. So many possibilities, so many conversations, so many intersections.


My friends laugh when I tell them about my street-stopping antics. I think they think I just go up to everyone now and talk to them. This is hardly the case. There are some people who I won’t stop. Or just don’t.

I started thinking though, is it really strange to stop people? It’s normal for this guy, and look at all the amazing stories he hears because he simply stops people on the street and asks them a few questions. I know it’s his job, but still. What a great job.

I recently met my apartment neighbour for the first time. I guess I could have knocked on her door if I really wanted to meet her earlier, (I was fairly certain she was a girl because of the wreath on her door), but I like when things happen more naturally. For instance, we both happen to be locking our doors at the same time, climbing up the stairs, or collecting our mail. And so it happened in such a way the other day. I arrive on my floor and hear the sound of a key turning. It sounds like it’s near my suite so I walk a little faster to make sure I don’t miss the few seconds between the opening and closing of a door. I’m not too late.

The open door

“Hey neighbour!” I exclaim. “I’ve been waiting to meet you!” (No, I don’t say the second part, but I’m thinking it).

“Hey!” she says back. She’s slightly older than I am, fiddling with the handle on a piece of luggage. Turns out she wasn’t around earlier anyway because she had gone abroad for a month. She welcomes me to the building. I welcome her back to Canada. We don’t talk long, but long enough for me to think I’d like to invite her over sometime. She says at the end, “Thanks for saying hi. You’re the first person who’s ever introduced themselves to me in this building.”

“Oh, really? How long have you lived here?”

“Four years.”

Four years and no one’s ever said hi?! Not even over the one token laundry machine in the building shared amongst thirty people where you’re bound to run into someone? But I’m not really shocked. You can see how easily it happens. Wake up, go to work, come home, eat, sleep. Repeat. Everybody in their separate apartments, separate cars, separate spaces, separate worlds. As I asked last week, “Are we together or are we alone together?

Are we together or are we alone together?

I’m finding I’m getting stopped myself more often. Maybe it’s that idea that what you put out into the world, you get back. Some kind of magnetism.

I got stopped for two hours on the Seawall last Sunday from a grandfatherly Greek man who approached me with the question, “How’s the book?”

I am slowly working my way through The Brothers Karamazov (my summer project) and the answer to that question is not a simple, one-word answer. It’s mentally and spiritually exhausting and exhilarating at the same time and maybe I was relieved to have someone to talk about it with. Some books scream to be discussed and when you’re not sitting in an English class anymore, you have to work harder to make it mean something. The funny thing is, we didn’t end up talking much about the book, and I didn’t end up doing most of the talking. I think he really needed to tell his story to someone so I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I sat on the bench and listened. He wants to write his story in a book one day, but he told me the time is not yet. He has to go away to write it.

How’s the book?

In my Ottawa life, I lay on a bench one afternoon, eyes to the sky, soaking up the sun behind the Parliament buildings when another stranger stopped me. He asked me what I was thinking about. I don’t recall I was thinking about anything profound but his question intrigued me. Hardly anyone begins a conversation this way.

What are you thinking about?

In one of my short stories, a girl stops a guy who is painting en plein air and it is the start of something new for each of them.

I think I like stops so much because they aren’t really stops in the sense that they’re roadblocks or endings. They’re more like beginnings. Time out of the day to see someone or something differently. I wrote about another one here.

Time to see differently

After encounters like these, I often think, “This should happen more often.” There’s something kind of magical about strangers’ lives intersecting at a particular moment in time, in a particular space, for a particular conversation that both people probably need to have.

You come to someone and they come to you. Of course it’s a little scary, but then I remember Jim’s words to Laura in The Glass Menagerie:

People are not so dreadful when you know them.

And it’s true. They’re lovely, actually.

The Yellow Room

Last week I wrote about spaces that famous authors have lived and wrote in. I said I would invite you into a former writing space of mine, so here it is:

I knew happiness whenever I entered my Anne of Green Gables loft with yellow paint that complemented the Jack Vettriano hanging above my bed. The angled skylight amplified the sound of West Coast rain drumming me to sleep many a night; the south-facing window offered a cropped view of paragliders sailing effortlessly through the skies above Victoria’s Dallas Road. They say different spaces make you feel different ways, and I felt home when I turned the knob of that bedroom door I was almost too tall to walk through. I remember the morning sun streaming through the blinds, making patterned rainbows on my wall that could be the subject of an Impressionist painting; the smell of the ocean when I opened the window and let the salty Pacific air waft through my fairytale space in all its glory. I even had a little writer’s desk that looked towards the ocean that I couldn’t see as much as I could sense. I couldn’t have asked for a better space. I think I could almost endure windowless, dreary basement suites for the rest of my life because I had one year in that yellow room—a room of my own, thank you Virginia Woolf. It made me want to write in it and about it, although I wish I had written less fact and more fiction. I got through grad school pouring copious cups of tea for myself while poring over books, articles, and notes that ate up all my energy for creative leftovers, every last drop, and what little I saved I brought to the ocean to contemplate, rejuvenate, and forget.

Okay, so I tend to be a bit melodramatic when I write for myself (this was an excerpt from my journal), but from looking at the room, does it not live up to the image I painted of it? I think so. Oh how I miss that yellow room, that space that apparently I grew so exhausted in writing academically that I gave up on writing creatively, although what was I thinking? When will I have such an inspiring place again, or so much mental stimulation?

What’s your writing space? Do you have “a yellow room?”

Where they Wrote

I have this fascination with where writers lived—it is as if seeing where they dwelt, called home, and took up a pen and paper gives remarkable insight into the words they wrote and helps me understand them a little better. I like to know the space they were inspired in—and, I’m sure, equally struggled in, fighting the demons of distraction and a blank page.

This was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village — just a sliver of a building between the two trees. According to my NYC guidebook, “rising real-estate prices inspired the construction of this house—the city’s narrowest house at just 91/2 feet wide—in 1873.” Millay was an American writer best known for her poetry–perhaps you’ve come across this sonnet before?

Sonnet XLIII

What my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning; but the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply,

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,

Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,

Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:

I cannot say what loves have come and gone,

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more.

The oval plaque on the brick exterior above the door reads,

The irreverent poet, who wrote “my candle burns at both ends” lived here in 1923-24 at the time she wrote the “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Staying in New York and the same time period, I’ll show you another literary abode—that of American author John Steinbeck famous for The Grapes of Wrath (for which he also won a Pulitzer Prize) and Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck lived at 38 Gramercy Park from 1925 to 1926 where he apparently struggled as a reporter for a New York newspaper.

Moving to Canada and the West Coast now, I’ll take you to two places Vancouver author Wayson Choy lived in on Keefer Street when his family first arrived from China. The mixed-use space on the left consists of a grocery store on the bottom and a Taoist church on top. As it was cramped, his family shortly moved to the house on the right in a more residential section of Keefer Street. The house has been dramatically fixed-up since the time he lived here, and he didn’t do his writing there, but still, visiting these sites helped me better understand his characters who grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the 1930s and 40s that he describes in his book All that Matters and that I analyzed in my master’s essay. Space played such a big role in forming the characters’ friendships and sense of community.

Sneak preview of next week’s entry — I’ll invite you into one of my former writing spaces (where I wrote about said spaces above), so check back later!