My world of late has become loud.
I’m reminded of my paternal grandmother, who used to turn up her hearing aids to the point of extreme feedback; hearing everything, she could suddenly hear nothing, and she winced at the shrill whistling that stopped her from engaging with the world around her. Eventually, she turned them off completely. Eventually, she took them out, first situationally and then permanently, and they lived for the rest of her life on her foyer end table in a small porcelain dish next to a box of Coffee Nips.
A concert pianist at fourteen, my grandmother lost her hearing progressively as she got older, until there was not much left of it. One of my last memories of her took place at my stepbrother’s house in New Jersey in 1990, when she was already in her early nineties: she sat down at his highly polished black upright piano in the living room, laid her left hand on the surface above the keys, and with her right, played a full, quiet C chord. She waited a minute, and played it again.
It could use a tuning, she said, looking up.
She wasn’t wrong; the G was a little sharp, and it pulled the chord apart just the tiniest bit at its height, and tore it like paper.
We live in a world where the deaf can tell when the G at the end of a soft-pedaled C chord is a little sharp just by feeling the vibration of the piano it’s coming from. By listening with their hands.
But most of us don’t take the time to listen at all, much less with our hands.
Part of the problem, of course, is distraction: Tik Tok, Instagram, Twitter, Threads, Facebook all vie for the addictive dopamine rush of our attention in the way of likes and shares. We know this. They were planned and built this way. And they work. But there’s another side of listening — why we don’t do it; why many of us can’t do it — and that has to do with the spaces between things, the silences, and the terror that they cause for so many.
We live in a world that is frightened by quiet, by contemplation, by the existence of the miraculous in the mundane, which requires a space between.
I am, as I write this, going through a particularly anxious time in my life, personally and professionally. I’m trying to care for my mother who lives in another state, and who has not yet realized that her body is 88 years old and cannot do many of the same tasks that it used to; this is massively infuriating for her, and just today she called me at 5:46 am — twice — to tell me to do something that I didn’t have to do for another eight hours. She could have reminded me later because she’s calling, on average, fourteen times a day. My wife and I both have health concerns. Petey, our dog, is on prednisone for a chronic cough that will not abate; he also takes an anti-anxiety medication that keeps him from pacing at night. Bits and pieces of our house are beginning to break: the oven door will barely open, the freezer door is broken. The bedroom air conditioning unit is dripping condensation between the siding and the wall. We got stuck in a multi-day, completely ridiculous medical insurance snafu that was straight out of the MASH episode where the 4077th orders a thousand vials of penicillin and gets a thousand rectal thermometers instead. I’m discovering that all those happy, smiling people on social media who are no longer drinking for whatever reason — health or excess or both — have left out one key bit of information: that the body, ridding itself of a familiar, beloved toxin, will not be happy, at least for a while. It’s 105 degrees in Los Angeles. Our cat, Arthur, is talking to us all night; when we ask him not to, he chews on our bedside table lampshades, with which he is smitten.
All of this has been crunched into the space of about ten days; there is no time for either of us to breathe. Susan being Susan, she sucks it up and plows ahead. I’m caught in a cycle of anxiety aided by the fact that — literally — I generally do not have one second of stillness, all day. No peace, no silence: not even at 5:46 am. And when I do, I’m panting and poised for the next thing to happen, the next bell to ring, the next starting pistol to be fired, the next race to be run. Is this partly of my. own making?
We live in a world that is frightened by quiet, by contemplation, by the existence of the miraculous in the mundane, which requires a space between. Because generally, we don’t look. We move too quickly for that, to avoid the fear that comes with the stillness. Silence is all we dread, wrote Emily Dickinson. There’s ransom in a voice— Yes, and this has been drummed into us in another way since the days of Proverbs: Idle hands, devil’s workshop.
The other day — after the calls and the fighting with the health insurance people and wrapping Pete’s pills in sliced low salt white meat turkey and rolling up a kitchen towel and shoving it beneath the dripping air conditioning unit and the sill and making sure that we have buckets of sparkling water in the house and explaining to my mother why she cannot go out during a severe heat advisory and then she calls me from the street — I found myself dumb-scrolling at two in the morning and there it was: a video of butterflies alighting on a large turtle’s head, drinking its tears.
This is a place of interdependence and commensalism and life at its most foundational; it doesn’t care about my air conditioning unit or my writing schedule or my fights with the insurance company or the fact that my mother is strolling around in the blazing heat, at 88 years old, carrying a tote bag full of old sheet music and ten copies of her CD, in case someone asks her to sing. It cannot be commodified, branded, packaged, milked, exploited.
An old woman with no hearing plays a C chord on a piano and can tell by putting her hand on the gleaming ebony that it needs to be tuned.
Butterflies drink the tears of turtles.
This is the ineffable, the mundane, the wondrous.
For just a moment, I could breathe again.
This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The James Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.