The Beloved Voice

Listening as a way of healing

NordForsk/Stefan Tell
NordForsk/Stefan Tell

If it is true, as Sherry Turkle writes, that “our lives are peopled by those who have really mattered,” it comes as no surprise that we should treasure, and recall, the particular vocal qualities of those we love.  Each of us has a distinctive tone and rhythm, a unique grain or timbre to our voice—and, equally, a specific way of listening.

I experienced this for myself during the first weeks of the coronavirus, tossed between Skype and Zoom and crackling cell-phone lines. I spoke with my sister in London, my brother and his family in Scotland, close friends and allies across the United States. Again and again, I found myself cheered and steadied by the mutual act of listening. Most of us recognize that we need “witnesses for wonder,” witnesses, too, for an immense transition like that global shutdown. Old friends can help you with a few wise words, often hearing you more clearly than you can hear yourself. Twenty minutes on the phone with my good friend Amy was as nourishing as a 50-minute session with a kindly therapist. We had, after all, been talking to one another for years.

More structured exchanges were helpful, too. The local chapter of Extinction Rebellion, an environmental advocacy organization, hosted an online listening circle, at which each of us took turns to respond to the following questions:

• What is challenging for you about this time?
• What is precious? 
• What do you wish would continue once the lockdown ends?
• What are you especially looking forward to?

I felt glad of the chance to engage with such questions; grateful, too, simply to be heard. It was as if the fact of our gathering together—even in cyberspace—helped restore what British poet David Whyte once called “the conversational nature of reality,” clarity and consensus (and, indeed, community) flourishing in the space between the words.

But along with the practical and psychological support came something else: the lilt and sway of one another’s voices. When we listen deeply, we take in someone’s voice, allowing it to vibrate in our own ears and nose and throat, our own chest cavity, as if for a brief moment it were truly ours. In the words of writer Paul Shepherd, “I suspect that much of the real meaning … in any genuine human dialogue originates in this inchoate layer, far beyond the dictionary meanings of our words, where our bodies are simply singing with one another.”

Such singing can at times be very literal. In her brief memoir, Our World (2009), Mary Oliver writes fondly about her life partner, Molly Malone Cook. Dour she could be, but privately,” notes Oliver. “She was Irish, after all, and liked to sing and have a good time. Occasionally over the years she would phone a friend she had met in Europe; she would put records on the phonograph, the old songs they both knew, and they would sing together, long-distance, and not necessarily briefly.”

One feels that in reporting this, Oliver’s tongue is tucked firmly in her cheek. It is as if she were amused by Cook’s long-distance singing, while also finding it a trifle hard to bear. Not necessarily briefly … But such shared music or (an ugly word) entrainment, is ubiquitous. Two grandfather clocks set down side by side will start to tick to the same rhythm, just as the voices of two friends gradually fall into harmony as they converse. In the same way, the brain waves of attentive students will oscillate in synchrony with those of their professor. Only when this happens can the atmosphere in the class or lecture hall be described as “good.”

In Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, Ella recognizes from Paul’s voice alone that he will become her lover. “She knew it from the pleasure his voice gave her, and she was full of a secret delight.” I remember a similar experience as I came to know my good friend Simon, wrapping myself in the rich golden-brown of his voice. Years later, I read of a Native American elder who approached a visiting Quaker, and laid a hand on his chest. “I like to feel where words come from,” he said.

At times the voice alone can serve as a medium of exchange, even without the added freight of meaning. I think here of the wordless babyese, universal across human culture, that almost every adult uses to soothe a crying infant. And I remember an afternoon in Bhutan, when some friends and I came upon a group of Indian women laborers, busy repairing the dusty, rocky road. We had no languages in common. But we had smiles and gestures, tone and pitch and rhythm. Our interest and curiosity, and their answering warmth, was entirely apparent.

Poet Mark Nepo reminds us that the Japanese ideogram for “the heart of listening” is composed of three different pictographs: the ear, the eye, and the heart, suggesting that all three should work in unison, if wholehearted attention is to be achieved. But if the coronavirus has taught me anything, it is that the ear alone can often be enough. My friend Gwen talks on the phone to her elderly mother every other day, love and gossip slipping back and forth across the continent.  Her mother apologizes when she has no “new news,” but Gwen doesn’t care so much about the content  of what is said. Often she puts her mother on speaker phone, while she herself goes on about her daily chores. What matters most is that beloved voice.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Christian McEwen is the author of several books, including World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. She is currently working on a book on listening.


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