Tuesday, February 8, 2011

This, Too, I Might Be Inclined To Believe

I used to know somebody who insisted that if you stopped whatever you were doing and really concentrated on listening beyond the sounds of the city you could hear the dead clearing their throats.

This was a long, long time ago, drugs were involved, and the person who believed this is now somewhere among the dead.

A number of years ago I was traveling west from Minnesota, headed for the Rocky Mountains. I was in a car with someone beloved to me, and at some point in perhaps eastern Montana we pulled off the road at a place where you could see the land rolling unbroken for what seemed a hundred miles in any direction. We had been traveling along a two-lane highway that saw very little traffic, and I seem to remember that we had gone something like an hour without seeing another vehicle. We had been keeping track.

As we were standing there surrounded by all that space and silence I mentioned to my traveling companion the story about listening intently and hearing the dead clear their throats.

"Out here you can sometimes hear the dead sing," she said. "It helps, of course, if it's a still day, and sunrise and dusk are the best times."

"Is this speculation?" I asked.

She shrugged, and then said, "I might know. I might have heard the dead sing."

We both stood there for a moment, listening.

"What do the dead sing?" I asked.

"Whatever they want," she said. "And whenever they want. They're so far away that you shouldn't necessarily expect to be able to make out what they're singing. There are so many of them, and it's not like you might think. There's not some giant chorus in heaven. No choir robes. There's no reason the dead should have to put up with direction of any kind anymore. I also don't believe the dead are bound to conventional human ideas regarding harmony, and even when a bunch of them are singing at once they most likely aren't singing the same song. I think they just sing all the songs they ever loved. I guess the best way to describe it is that it would be like hearing millions of transistor radios playing all at once, from far away across a big lake at dusk."

"Maybe they clear their throats in preparation for singing," I said. "Maybe that's what my old friend claimed he could hear."

"Maybe," she said.

"What about dogs?" I asked. "Do the dogs among the dead sing?"

"Of course," she said. "They're even easier to hear, if you've spent any time in this world tuned into a dog's heart. They sing nothing but 'Howdy! Howdy! Howdy!' and 'Yup! Yup! Yup!' and all sorts of variations of 'Hooray!'"

We listened some more, and then she nodded emphatically and said, "This is definitely the kind of place where you can hear the dead sing. Sometimes I imagine that they are singing the names of all those they ever loved and had to leave behind, and they're singing purely for the joy of remembering and translating those beloved names into music."

I said that I liked that idea. This woman wasn't by any stretch of the imagination a hippie, and was certainly not given to this sort of talk. That was probably why the experience was so memorable and kind of unnerving for me.

She said we should all shut up more often and just listen. "Names are faces and voices, and faces and voices are memories, and all memories are music," she said. "I'm sure that's what the dead must believe, and what they give voice to when they sing. Someone might be singing your name at this very moment, your name and the names of all those you love in this world and have never properly regarded or celebrated as music. What if someone at perfect peace was out there somewhere singing, 'Bradley Dean, Bradley Dean, Bradley Dean'? Wouldn't you love to hear that? Or if they were just singing, 'Baby, baby, baby,' and you recognized their voice and knew they were singing about you? Wouldn't that be worth listening a long time for?"

Yes, I said, or certainly thought. Something like that would definitely be worth listening a long time for.

We eventually got back in the car and continued west, and in the remaining time we spent together I don't believe we ever again talked about the singing of the dead.

4 comments:

  1. i like reading your blog before heading to bed, as there is usually a novel and striking image to dwell upon in the brief quiet moment before sleep slams upon my exhausted body like a sledgehammer. i never really thought about the dead missing me as much i miss them. i'm one of the hurried harried americans who doesn't have the time to shut up and listen, but when i finally do, now i know to listen hopefully for my name.

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  2. I can't imagine a better compliment, oreo. Thanks. I keep listening.

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  3. It makes me feel a sort of pain remembering the wide places under the wide sky, where the world is terrifyingly and exultingly not for human people. Many years I was in love with those places, and spent long years of my life looking at the sky.

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  4. I swear that's me dialing back the length and pompousness.

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