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Listening Days
by Terry Tempest Williams

It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do--" says my grandfather Jack. "But everyone goes through it." He shrugs his shoulders and lifts his eyebrows. "If you sit here long enough eventually you leave with a philosophy."

Now, after many months of frailty, my grandfather has stopped eating. Call it the hunger strike of the elderly, their last act of control. He waits. We wait. The days slowly pass in autumn.

"I am a falling leaf on our family tree," he tells my cousin and me, his veined hand swaying back and forth in a downward motion.

We savor his words, desperate to know something of his ninety-one years. My grandfather is not a verbal man. He prefers listening, his blue eyes steady.

In 1923, J. H. Tempest, Jr. received his amateur radio operator's license. W7JOE has been his call name for almost seventy-five years. He was the youngest "ham" in Utah, and now he is the oldest. When we were growing up in our grandparents' home, Jack was always in his room sitting in the swayback chair tucked between his radios, listening. He was dwarfed by the huge machines. The static, the Martian-like voices speaking from the metal boxes day and night, taught us that there was a larger world outside, a world we didn't have access to but our grandfather did.

His conversations on air required no eye contact, only a turn of hand, fingers manipulating dials, scanning voices until a tone or an idea stopped him. He would roll the black dial back and forth, sharpening the frequency until the band was clear. Then he would listen. He would enter in when he wanted to and leave when he was no longer interested.

I use the past tense because Jack has stopped listening to his radio. My grandmother always told us that when Jack quit his radio he would be dead. Jack is not dead.

Our grandfather is breathing. We sit in his bedroom, my cousin and I, noting the rise and fall of his chest beneath the down comforter. His eyes are open, staring at the ceiling.

"What are you thinking, Jack?" I ask as I rub his arm that is more bone than muscle.

"I'm not thinking, period. I'm a blank."

"So you're just existing?"

"That's right. I don't want to think." He takes his hand, makes a straight line in the air. "I'm flat."

He is flat in bed. He turns to us. "You wouldn't be asking me these questions if you were facing what I am. You'd choose to be a blank too. If you think too much you can make yourself crazy."

"Zen masters spend a lifetime striving for an empty mind," I say smiling.

He lies in bed like a corpse with his mouth open. My cousin leaves to return to her new baby boy. I close my eyes and listen to Jack's breaths. They have a steady underground surge, like a tranquil sea.

While he sleeps, I sit nearby reading Krishnamurti's Journal, one of my grandmother's books. In the late sixties, Jack accompanied her to Ojai to hear Krishnamurti speak. I am struck by a particular passage:

To be full of knowledge breeds endless misery. The demand for expression, with its frustrations and pains, is that man who walks.... Sorrow is the movement of that loneliness.... September 15, 1973... It was a marvelous morning and you could have walked on endlessly, never feeling the steep hills. There was a perfume in the air, clear and strong. There was no one on that path, coming down or going up. You were alone with those dark pines and the rushing waters.... There was no one to talk to and there was no chattering of the mind. A magpie, white and black, flew by, disappearing into the woods. The path led away from the noisy stream and the silence was absolute. It wasn't the silence after the noise; it wasn't the silence that comes with the setting of the sun, nor that silence when the mind dies down. It wasn't the silence of museums and churches but something totally unrelated to time and space.... On these walks, with people or without them, any movement of thought was absent. This is to be alone.

It is another day. "How are you this afternoon, Jack?" I ask, taking off my jacket and pulling up a chair alongside his bed.

"Here," he replies.

He wants to know what the weather is outside, what day of the week it is, and if my husband is in town.

I tell him it is a glorious blue sky, a bit chilly, quintessential October, and that the temperature dropped below freezing last night.

"It's Thursday, Jack, and yes, Brooke is in town."

"Good," he says, closing his eyes.

We sit comfortably with the silence.

"Did you know the average person blinks eighteen to twenty times a minute?" Jack says suddenly.

"No, I didn't."

"And that a person who is working at a computer only blinks four to five times a minute. What's that going to do to our eyesight?" he asks. "It seems to me, eventually you're going to strain something."

I look at my grandfather who is lying on his back in bed staring at the ceiling. He rarely blinks at all in these last days of his life. It make sense to me that his mind, as agile as it has always been, would be contemplating the effects of technology.

"Where did you hear those statistics?" I ask.

"On the air," he says, "awhile back."

More silence.

"Something's not right."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"I mean all this fuss about information on the Internet. We're losing primary contact with each other. No more rubbing shoulders. No more shaking hands. We've got to have human contact and we're doing away with it. Everyone is so busy. We want too much and in the process of getting it we miss so much." He pauses. "It's lonely." He turns his head on the pillow and looks at me. "I just want to hear your voices."

I think of all the voices on the radio he has spent a lifetime listening to, and the silence that must be enveloping him now without his "rig."

"Jack, how did you become interested in radio?"

"I don't know," he says. "It was another way to reach people. I was always interested in striving for a better signal, a cleaner, crisper, more powerful signal that could communicate with someone somewhere, anywhere."

He pauses.

"I spend a lot of time wondering."


"Wondering about sound waves, how electronic waves keep moving outward until they become fainter and fainter, wearing themselves out until they are overcome by something else. Someday equipment will be able to pick these sound waves up. Nothing is ever lost. The sound is still there. We just can't hear it."

"Hmmm..." I say, shaking my head.

Another silence follows us.

"And I'll tell you another funny thing: you can electronically eliminate all manner of noise on the air--manmade noise--but you can't get rid of natural static, static or interference caused by thunder and lightning, rainstorms, or snowstorms. Ham radio operators always pay attention to weather--light, too. In the day, radio bands expand way out. At night they contract, shut down. You see that the sun pulls the signals out while sunspots can cause blackouts altogether. So you wonder about these things."

He closes his eyes and smiles.

"What?" I ask.

"I was just thinking that in spite of all our technologies, maybe we haven't progressed that far as human beings. We still have the same fundamental needs. Sometimes I wonder if we have evolved at all."

I sit by him for another hour or so, kiss his forehead, and drive home.

To wonder. To contemplate that which is never lost but continues to move outward forever, however faint, until it is overcome by something else.

To wonder. To throw pebbles in pools and watch the concentric circles that reach the shore in waves. Waves of water. Waves of electricity. Illumination. Imagination. To say "I love you" one day and shout with rage on another. Our words are still moving, churning; this sea of spoken languages oscillates, around us.

What do we hear?

Harold Shapero writes in The Musical Mind that "a great percentage of what is heard becomes submerged in the unconscious and is subject to literal recall. "

If we in fact have a "tonal memory," what do the voices of our ancestors, our elders have to say to us now? What sounds do we hold in our bodies and retrieve when necessary? What sounds disturb and what sounds heal? Where do we store the tension of traffic, honking horns, or the hum of fluorescent lights? How do we receive birdsong, the leg rubbings of crickets, the water music of trout?

What do we know?

I wonder. To wonder takes time. I walk in the hills behind our home. The leaves have fallen, leaf litter, perfect for the shuffling of towhees. The supple grasses of summer have become knee-high rattles. Ridge winds shake the tiny seedheads like gourds. I hear my grandfather's voice.

All sound requires patience; not just the ability to hear, but the capacity to listen, the awareness of mind to discern a story. A magpie flies toward me and disappears in the oak thicket. He is relentless in his cries. What does he know that I do not? What story is he telling? I love these birds, their long iridescent tail feathers, their undulations in flight. Two more magpies join him. I sit on a flat boulder to rest, pick up two stones and begin striking edges.

What I know in my bones is that I forget to take time to remember what I know. The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves. We are animals, living, breathing organisms engaged not only in our own evolution but the evolution of a species that has been gifted with nascence. Nascence--to come into existence; to be born; to bring forth; the process of emerging.

Even in death we are being born. And it takes time.

I think about my grandfather, his desire for voices, to be held as he dies in the comfort of conversation. Even if he rarely contributes to what is being said, his mind finds its own calm. To him this is a form of music that allows him to remember he is not alone in the world. Our evolution is the story of listening.

In the evening by firelight in their caves and rock shelters, the Neanderthals sometimes relaxed to the sound of music after a hard day at the hunt. They took material at hand, a cave bear's thigh bone, and created a flute. With such a simple instrument, these stocky, heavy browed Neanderthals, extinct close relatives of humans, may have given expression to the fears, longings, and joys of their prehistoric lives. (John Noble Wilford, "Playing of Flute May Have Graced Neanderthal Fire," The New York Times)

A bone flutelike object was found at Divje Babe in northwestern Slovenia recently, dated somewhere between forty-three thousand to eighty-two thousand years old. Dr. Ivan Turk, a paleontologist at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences in Ljubjana, believes this is the first musical instrument ever to be associated with Neanderthals. It is a piece of bear femur with four holes in a straight alignment. Researchers say the bone flute may be the oldest known musical instrument.

I wonder about that cave, the fire that flickered and faded on damp walls as someone in the clan played a flute. Were they a family? Neighbors? What were their dreams and inventions? Did they know the long line of human beings that would follow their impulses to survive, even flourish in moments of reverie?

Returning to my grandparents' home, I notice the fifty-foot antenna that rises over the roof. I recall Jack telling us as children how important it was for the antenna to be grounded in the earth, that as long as it was securely placed it could radiate signals into the air all over the world. Transmit and receive. I walk into his dim room and place my hand on my grandfather's leg. Bone. Nothing lost. Overcome by something else. Ways of knowing. My fingers wrap around bone and I feel his life blowing through him.

John H. Tempest, Jr., passed away on December 15, 1996, peacefully at home in the company of family.

Terry Tempest Williams is the author of Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field, and Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape, among others. She has served as the Naturalist in Residence at the Utah Museum of History and is currently the Shirley Sutton Thomas Visiting Professor of English at the University of Utah. She is also on The Orion Society's Advisory Board, and is a contributor to Orion magazine. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This essay was originally published in the Spring 1997 issue of Parabola, Vol 22, No. 1.

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