I was lying in bed with my lover, arguing, when she put her hands over her ears and said, “Stop yelling at me!” And I thought to myself, “I’m not yelling. How would you like to hear some real yelling?”
The thought brought back vivid memories of my father, then young and arrogant and impatient, now somewhat mellowed. His voice was always powerful, especially to a young child, and when he yelled, the walls seemed to shake. His deep (to me), basso profundo voice seemed to penetrate my bones. Terrified, I would run to the next room. “Running away will only make it worse for you,” he would say, as he removed his ring “so it won’t leave a mark” when he slapped me.
The voice is thinner twenty-eight years later. He is more loving, less sure of himself and what he believes in, and more open to my ideas. We both yell.
I hate cameras. They’re all right for other people but not for me. I can never figure out what to exclude from the picture. So instead of collecting photos, I collect voice prints. Most of my friends are aware of this, and it motivates them to leave charismatic messages on my answering machine tape.
The best messages I get (“best” meaning funny, cute, enthusiastic, historically significant, or just plain characteristic of a particular individual) are transcribed onto another cassette which I keep forever. So while others pull out their photo albums for a trip down Memory Lane, I just pop my “messages” tape into my cassette player and relive my history that way. I do it about once every six months; I just listen to a random section of the tape for about ten minutes (comprising twenty to twenty-five old messages). It never fails to amaze me how it evokes subtle emotions of times past. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a voice is worth a thousand pictures.
Internal voices, however, are a different matter. More often than not, they tend to confuse things. When I have a tough decision to make and the voices argue back and forth in words, the truest answer seldom comes from them. As a matter of fact, I knew a man years ago who suggested that, when called upon to make difficult decisions, one should take notice of which choice will render the mind most quiet, and this will invariably be the best choice.
Sometimes, perhaps, coyotes howl at the moon. Mostly, though, they howl, sing, yip, bark, and laugh at each other, with each other, or alone, for their own ends, not to fit human ideas of why coyotes howl.
When our dog was so injured that he could move nothing but his eyes, we brought him into our bedroom and put him on a pad on the floor, where Laura could take care of him. That first night, two coyotes came across the meadow, almost into the back yard. Then they howled their loudest and wildest howls.
Dog moved his eyes, tried to move. Maybe he knew what they were saying. I only knew it was something to or for the dog. They knew him. He’d been all over this country with me and mingled his messages with theirs. I think they thought he was dying. Certainly, if he had been a coyote, with no Laura there to take care of him and to pray for him, he would have died.
Wapiti whistle. The young whistle in their exuberant play. Mothers whistle for their calves. In the spring, the bulls bugle, an ascending, then descending, reverberant bugle, followed by several resonant grunts. They advertise their suitability as fathers for the species, and they challenge and warn other bulls.
Pumas scream. Some say it sounds like a woman screaming. Perhaps. If she is very full-voiced. Some naturalists say this is a myth; pumas do not scream. But I am still telling you what I have heard.
Canadian geese honk. When they do this face-to-face, I think they are speaking of love, though their stentorian tones would leave my hearing stunned if they were that close to me. They also speak of danger, and of disagreements among themselves. They sing for joy and for keeping a flight together.
Snow geese have a softer, more musical call than the bigger Canadians. On a foggy night, I can impute loneliness, lostness to their calls, but I know that’s a human perspective.
Whistling swans call a high-pitched, musical woo-woo, woo-ho.
Ravens croak, a hoarse, rusty sound.
Wilson’s snipes fly high, then come down fast, and their wings make a rapid whoo-whoo-whoo sound against the air. It is a sound that bothers some people. It could be maniacal laughter, and when several do it, it is a constant sound, coming from all directions. Strictly speaking, it is not a voice, but I think of it as such because it is intentional and it is communication to others of the species.
The big diesel trucks on the nearby highway apply their jacob brakes coming down the hill, and their voices sound a little like contained thunder. Sometimes cars or trucks honk. These voices are not mating calls, but sometimes they are territorial definitions. Some autos have multi-toned voices. This, however, is not wildlife and is an aberration in the environment.
Sometimes I sing when I’m working on the meadow. Raven thinks it is a pale sound, of little merit on the wide meadow. Coyote thinks my song lacks volume, verve, and spontaneity. Cranes and geese think it goes on and on without definitive statement or conclusion, but they allow it.
And the female ruddy duck has no voice at all, but she does very well at living, nonetheless.
Three years ago, our twenty-four-year-old son became acutely paranoid and began to hear voices. These voices tell him what to do and how to act. For the past three years, he has mostly listened to these voices and has landed in quite a few psychiatric wards around the country. My wife and I have talked to and read of many people hearing voices which they listen to and usually obey on some level. Our lives and our background had not prepared us to fight these voices our son was hearing.
During these past three years, I have learned to listen to my own inner voice. This is where my son and I are different. I can shut the voices off if I feel I will hurt myself. This inner voice is my intuitive guide and helps me feel better about my life. In a way his voices have taught me to listen to my own voices. I thank my dear son for this teaching.
The first voices I heard this morning were the animals outside my window. Then my mother’s deep cough, which scares me. The solemn traffic man on the radio: “Delay on the Gowanus Expressway. . . .” And Dylan singing in my mind: “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?”
I barely squeezed in the subway and a man said, “One time I saw a woman stick her foot in the door so she’d get in, and they left anyway. She hopped halfway down the platform.”
Two women shorter than my shoulder spoke in Chinese.
At the bank, a white-haired woman told the teller, “When you own a house, you’re never finished. Never finished.”
“Have a good day,” the teller told me.
“You too,” said my voice.
Brooklyn, New York
I’ve been slightly obsessed with tape recorders since my grandparents bought one when I was eight. I remember sitting with it for hours, with my brother, inventing “interviews” and “radio shows,” where, more often than not, I’d play all the major parts and Martin would be everything non-essential. The best imitation I ever did (at least I thought so at the time) was of someone being electrocuted. Never having heard an electrocution, however, it probably sounded more like bacon frying.
No one can get used to his or her voice on a tape recorder. It sounds so . . . wrong. “That’s not what I sound like!” I remember saying, embarrassed, the first time I heard. I spoke more quickly, and with a higher-pitched voice, than I’d thought. I’d always been so proud of my low voice; even now, I speak one pitch higher than my mother, who was embarrassed herself the first time she heard her odd New York Jewish accent. “I look so sophisticated,” she said, “but I sound so . . . it ruins the impression, everything.” But when she stops, and enunciates, she sounds — well, she sounds like me. One step lower.
I’ve gotten myself into trouble with tape recorders, too, taping phone conversations I shouldn’t have, wanting to hear how one end sounded by itself. Could I figure out what the conversation was about, years later? As it turns out, yes. But then, the taping made it memorable; there was no way I could forget.
Other uses of the tape recorder: rehearsing important conversations (like breaking up with the boyfriend, confronting the boss, anything nearly impossible to improvise); making music (I remember sitting there with the small Panasonic in the middle of all of us, staying on as we bitched, tried again, the songs finally coming together); interviews.
One day, when I was nine, Martin and I went into the kitchen and dragged my grandmother back into the room where the tape recorder was, and had her talk for awhile. Afterward, we all listened to it, and laughed (she’d said innocuous things to pacify us, trying to get back to cooking dinner). Then we erased it and put something else on.
About a month later she was dead. And what I remember then, as everyone sat shiva, was going back into the empty room, looking at the tape recorder, turning it on, trying to will her voice back.
Brooklyn, New York
It was about 9:30 a.m. on a Monday. The sky was overcast, and I was driving on the freeway, on my way to see a friend with whom the conversation would inevitably turn to AIDS and cancer. I was wondering, as I had wondered before, why were so many dying, why now and why so young?
When I heard the voice there was no sound, neither internally nor externally, only the undeniable presence of a voice. The voice said, “If there is a chance to save the planet it is only through altering consciousness and behavior so profoundly that a nuclear holocaust will not be inflicted. Humanity is dangerous not only to itself but to the cosmos. More than the planet is at stake. The work is not to prevent nuclear war, but to establish a vision, so that a nuclear holocaust will not be required.”
When I “heard” it, I understood what I had not understood, had refused to understand before: how very close the end is, how very precarious we are.
“Forgive those people who seem to have died prematurely, without fighting sufficiently, whose deaths seem such a global and personal loss. They were pulled out,” the voice continued, “or had done what they had to, or had not volunteered for this last stand. Try not to be angry with them for leaving when it seems to you that a change in their consciousness could have turned their disease around.”
“A few of you,” the voice went on, “are here to see things through to the end.”
Then I was given to understand that some of us have undertaken the monumental task of shifting consciousness against all odds; we are, it seems, volunteers. And worse, if we don’t succeed, we have also undertaken the unspeakable task of bearing witness and bringing comfort at the end.
I couldn’t turn to the voice because I didn’t know its direction but I was moved to object, a crazy person in the car, screaming silently that I wasn’t certain I had volunteered for this. Immediately I was reminded of a dream I’d had some years ago.
In the dream, the holocaust had occurred. Anguished, I was looking out the window of a white frame farmhouse onto devastation. There was nothing to see except a flat ashen landscape. Desperate to kill myself, I decided to slit my wrists in the bath only to find that the tub was filled with the body of an enormous dead black woman, too heavy for me to lift. Agonized, I returned to the window. A car drove very, very slowly down what might have once been a road. It stopped and a dark man, Ethiopian perhaps, came toward the house. As he approached, I felt relief. I intended to ask him to kill me or to help me die. Then, in the dream, a voice ordered, “Make a child.” I refused and yelled back, “I can’t. I’m forty-six. I’ve had cancer. I’ve had two children. The world is destroyed. I cannot, will not make a child!” The voice remained kind but adamant: “New life,” it demanded. “New life!”
Was the voice in the car the voice in the dream? Was I now listening to the very same voice calmly insisting, “You see, you volunteered.”
I was shaking and considered pulling over to the side of the road. As I came slowly to understand the words, if not the meaning, I knew I had never had these precise thoughts; they were not mine. The voice was clear: nuclear war cannot be prevented directly. We can make all the right political moves, impose checks and balances, create detente, keep our fingers off the red button, and still be annihilated if we don’t shift consciousness.
But what does shifting consciousness really mean? And how do we do it?
I vaguely understand that we can’t do this in half measures, that the change must have complete integrity, come from the marrow of our psyches. That neither the most impeccable public action nor the most impeccable private behavior is by itself sufficient.
I know this was not a dogmatic prophecy of doom, “repent and live,” from some latter-day Jeremiah. The voice was gentle and did not indicate any master plan. To the contrary, it seems the paths are ours to find, each individually within our own nature, while thinking with our hearts.
For myself, it seems the demand is to change my life from the inside out, finding the unknown places where I sabotage nature or spirit, so that private and public, personal and political, are in accord, and all actions become consistent with the heart.
It’s clear that any action undertaken without a change of consciousness is wasteful (when there is absolutely no time to waste), despite our sense of urgency and political and humanitarian necessity. To be honest, I am apprehensive about how meticulously I must scrutinize my own life. I don’t know where to begin. It feels like total revolution inside.
The most powerful voice there is may contain no volume or tone or words at all. I speak of the voice of silence — so powerful that very few of us can tolerate it in each other’s presence. In fact, most of us cannot tolerate it at all. We compensate for this inability to listen to silence by keeping the voice inside our heads going all the time.
The year before she died I recorded my great-grandmother’s voice. I was visiting her in Lenoir and simply walked in the house with the machine slung over my shoulder, record button locked down, red light aglow. Unfamiliarity with gadgets left her vulnerable; had she known what I was doing might she have felt I was stealing a part of her soul?
Now, listening to the tape, I think perhaps I was. I listen to the tape and the room fills with her ghost. How is it tiny particles on plastic recreate her presence? What gives the voice power to evoke living memory?
It has led me to believe the voice, not the eyes, is window to the soul. Contrary to rumor, the eyes can deceive. The perfect blue iris can hide the perfect lie. But the voice is made of air. It is weightless and easily punctured, like a balloon. It erupts from the gut to imprint the ear in a mysterious way, and exists, like the soul, in mid-air, gaseous and corruptible. It is true the eyes are mirrors, for in them we see ourselves and what we believe others to be. But the voice has no reflection. It is the body’s vampire, thin as wind, the flimsiest appendage. Yet it stands closer to eternity than flesh to dust. In its ten trillion disguises the windy nothing of voice speaks the very center of being. God may have created light first, but he did so by speaking to the void: “Let there be light.” Sound is first cause, and the voice sound’s preeminent moment.
Johnson City, Tennessee
The voices that echo in my mind are real voices, speaking to me eternally.
“You’re not going to wear THAT, are you?” (My mother.)
“You’re beautiful and I love you.” (Ex-husband.)
“This is a very good poem. Where did you copy it from?” (Fourth grade teacher.)
“The President has been shot. Repeat, President Kennedy has been shot.” (Radio newscaster.)
“You can be anything you want to be. Remember that.” (Harry Belafonte.)
“You’re not going to wear THAT, are you?” (Ex-lover.)
“We love you very much.” (My mother.)
Renais Jeanne Hill
Pain turned my attention to voices. The doctor was puzzled: “We don’t usually see this sort of thing except in people who are professional singers or who overuse their voices.” The thing he saw through his laryngoscope was a node on my vocal cord. The thing I had been feeling was pain when I shouted, sang, read aloud, or talked a lot.
Somehow I had been using my voice with abnormal tension, and my body had responded with abnormal growth. I began to read about voices. Relax the throat and jaw muscles, the experts wrote, and use the face muscles. I found I talked with little face or jaw movement. I observed other people and listened to their voices. What a beautiful voice my wife’s Aunt Catherine had! I heard its deep richness resounding, booming but quiet, and I saw her mouth open, mobile, expressive.
I did speech exercises and found that I, too, could speak with that richness. When I finished the exercises, however, I stopped paying attention and my voice became stiff and cramped again. When I paid attention and tried to correct it, I felt a resistance, a resentment, an outrage as if I was invading my own privacy.
I think of my father in church, singing through his teeth. I think of my mother with her pursed, prim lips.
To gain a new voice I must lose my old voices.
Every person has opposing voices within. I want to do this, but wait a minute, I ought to do that; this would feel right in one way, but that would feel right in another; and so on. We struggle to get on what we think are the “right” sides of these conflicts — to do the “right” things, to think the “right” thoughts.
Over time, a strange thing comes to pass so gradually that we don’t even know it is happening. The more thoughtful we become, the more we become removed from these opposing pressures by becoming their referee. A referee does not seem to be a bad thing; the problem is that a referee has to concentrate so hard on doing his job that he can’t really enjoy the game as a game any more. He has to be indifferent, aloof, outside of the game.
In time, after many years of refereeing, an illusion forms. We thoughtful people get fooled into thinking that if we can just see the game right, make the right calls again and again in the battle of voices inside us (ice cream vs. carrot sticks; lust vs. friendship; mind vs. body; calculation vs. spontaneity; health vs. debauchery; now vs. later), then we have mastered life; we are in control and are on our way to heaven, even though our pictures of heaven get more and more vague and joyless.
In so mastering life, we somehow, oddly, paradoxically, are no longer in it. We are no longer abundantly alive.
It seems to me that the transcendent life, the risen life, depends on coming back inside the tensions of these opposing voices, these polarities — living them instead of judging them. We’ll never get life right by refereeing, only by playing, first on this side, then on that, whichever side that is ready to take the ascent or offense at any particular time. Like the tides, like the rhythm of the day, the flow of seasons, life will balance out on its own. This is the true meaning of yin/yang; this understanding is the holy ghost, the union of opposites, spirit and flesh, father and son becoming one on the cross, uniting in cosmic sex, dying, but in dying, living, oh god, living.
Petersburg, West Virginia