Saturday, July 15, 2006

Sounds of life

It is difficult for me to understand why people who are miserable choose to stay miserable when all they have to do is get up and leave. Many of my friends have been in loveless and even abusive marriages. I don't mean physical abuse. I'm talking about emotional and mental abuse. Their spouses treat them with contempt, often demanding to know where they are at all times and raising hell when they can't account for every single second of the time they're away from home. Their spouses are emotionally cold and verbally abusive. Sex is almost always an issue, either in not getting enough or being forced to have sex on a set schedule every week just to keep the peace. My friends and their spouses seldom talk as friends or even indifferent acquaintances, limiting their conversations to demands, bills, expectations, arguments, complaints and lists of chores. There is often a lack of touch, even so much as a hand on the shoulder or reaching for a helping hand. They live separate lives that just happen to take place within the same walls. They might as well be boarders in a rooming house or co-eds in a dorm the first week of the semester for all the contact and communication that takes place. So why do they stay?

It isn't always about the material things they would lose, although for some that is the most important consideration. It's about the background sounds of their lives that keeps them in the marital trenches, and the fear of what the future would hold for them.

This morning one friend and I talked about this. She has never lived on her own, going from her parents' home to a home with her new husband. Another friend lived on his own for about four years, but they were difficult years spent in a different state where he didn't know anyone. He doesn't make friends easily for all his friendliness and smiles and joking. Those years were miserable. He had just lost his high school girlfriend and was far from home. He moved back home for a few months and moved out again, eventually spending most of his adult life married.

As I talked with my friend this morning I realized that although I have lived alone for most of my adult life, I am not alone. It's probably why I often chose to live in an apartment instead of a house, although I have had a couple of houses. It's the sound of life.

When I moved into my first house alone I had trouble sleeping. It was too quiet. There were the usual sounds of appliances humming in the background, but there were no voices, no sounds of movement. It was quiet and I mean QUIET. I missed the sounds of people walking overhead, talking in the apartments on either side of me, and even arguing and partying. I had taken the sounds for granted because I was used to them and it took time to get used to the quiet, time for my hearing range to extend enough to pick up the sounds from the houses around me through open windows and back yards. As I noticed the sounds and allowed them to recede into the background I became comfortable with my surroundings and was able to sleep again.

I had the same problem when I moved to the cabin a few years ago. Not only was it really quiet but it was very dark, a dark so complete it was palpable. The background sounds that kept me from going mad were the sounds of nature: raccoons prowling, deer and elk moving through the woods and calling to each other, squirrels and pine martens running up and down tree trunks, woodpeckers tap-tap-tapping for insects, whirring hummingbirds, bird songs and rain and wind tip-toeing or clumping across the roof. I have no such problems here in my haunted converted Victorian apartment.

During the week at 4:30 AM I hear Nel in the bathroom getting ready for work, the front closet door sliding open and closed when she gets out her work shirts, the muted sound of the television or the stereo while she has her breakfast, the murmur of her voice when she talks to Miss Kittysocks and Iggy as she feeds them and the glass door sliding open and shut when she leaves for work. Downstairs at the same time, the landlady grinds coffee beans and soon the scent of French vanilla coffee rises and wafts through the open windows. Not long after, the landlady calls Pastor and they go for their morning walk, the remote control unlocking the car door when she leaves and locking the door when she returns. Then there is the sound of her clients coming and going all day mixed in with the sound of the neighborhood coming back to life after a night of silent sleep. Dogs bark, kids call to one another or laugh and argue in the streets. Cars whoosh past, garbage trucks clank and chew, aluminum cans bang and big rubber cans thump as they are emptied. Wind whistles and whispers and crows caw and chatter while squirrels chatter and race through the trees. These are the sounds of my life, sounds I hear every day that anchor me and remind me I'm home.

Even in the most dysfunctional and silent marriage there is sound of life. Whether you're working in the basement or your room or the home office and seldom speak to your spouse you aren't alone. Children have their own special orchestra of sounds and the simple passage of people through rooms, the clank and shuffle of daily chores and cooking, telephones ringing, televisions, radios, music and conversations barely heard and often ignored anchor you to your world.

I wonder if the fear of walking away from a long term relationship is so much about losing things or status or even an ingrained and well known habit but rather a fear of getting used to different sounds, the fear of not recognizing the background sounds of life that anchor and define us. Like Beethoven's discordant crashing crescendos and dissonant harmonies, even the most dysfunctional relationship has its own comforting sounds, the sounds of home.

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