The heart must speak, and its search for the perfect outlet is the premise of all artistic expression. When words are insufficient or impossible, and physical gestures fall short, music is a language by which the soul can be heard. But when music itself is unattainable, the silence can be more than one spirit can stand.
— from Music to My Ears, by Timothy White
I was watching Once last weekend – have you seen it? It’s amazing. It’s a love story about an Irish street performer and a Czech musician, and it’s told largely through the music they write and perform in their roles. If you haven’t seen it, you are really missing something wonderful.
The day after their first meeting, she takes him to the music store where the owner lets her play the piano for an hour at lunchtime. He gives her the music to his song, Falling Slowly (the Academy Award winner for best song this year, by the way). He teaches her the basic parts of the song, then he begins to play on his guitar, and she joins him on the piano. He sings the first verse, and she comes in on the chorus, and it was at that point that I started to cry. I just sat there watching in the dark, listening, with tears streaming down my face. The thing was this: I could tell that the song was gorgeous and full and beautiful, but I knew I wasn’t hearing it all, if that makes any sense.
Ever since I lost my hearing, music isn’t as rich of an experience for me as it used to be, and that makes me unspeakably, and sometimes unbearably, sad. Most days, I’m good – this is just how I go through life now, you know? It is what it is, and it doesn’t do any good to lament what I lost. But there are moments every once in a while where I just get blindsided by the heartache of growing up as a hearing person – someone whose life was enveloped in music, who used to play instruments and dance, and more than anything else, sing – and being reduced to this.
I haven’t sung in public since I lost my hearing because I’m afraid that I won’t be on key and I’ll embarrass myself.* Some days I’m sure I could do it, after almost 5 years with my implant, but I never take steps to try, because if I fail, I’ll be devastated. Once, about 9 months after I lost my hearing, a friend asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday. I told her I really wanted to get people together and go do karaoke, but that I was afraid because I was never sure if I was on pitch when I sang along with the radio. She looked at me sadly and said, “You aren’t.” She said it gently, and she meant well, but it broke my heart then, and it’s always in the back of my mind when I think about trying now. I still sing – my nephew has his own theme song that I made up for him, the Princess loves to hear “Winnie the Pooh” (House at Pooh Corner, by Kenny Loggins), and I sing out loud to myself when I’m alone – but singing for yourself is a distinct experience from singing for an audience, and I miss that so much.
And I can’t just turn on the radio anymore, because without context – the title of the song on my iPod screen, for instance, or knowing the order of tracks on a CD that I’ve owned since before I lost my hearing – new (meaning post-2002) music is mostly just noise to me. I’m am very much out of the loop when it comes to whatever’s hot these days. I’ve downloaded a fair number of songs I didn’t know before I lost my hearing, but to recognize them without cues requires finding the lyrics online and listening along multiple times. Even then I’m never sure if the melody I hear is the true melody of the song.
So this, you see, is the great sadness of my life. There’s nothing like music, is there? I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, several years before I lost my hearing, and looking back over some of the quotes I copied from it makes my spirit ache a little bit:
She had just drawn whatever came into her head without reason – and in her heart it didn’t give her near the same feeling that music did. Nothing was really as good as music.
But all the time – no matter what she was doing – there was music. Sometimes she hummed to herself as she walked, and other times she listened quietly to the songs inside her. There were all kinds of music in her thoughts. Some she heard over the radios, and some was in her mind already without her ever having heard it anywhere.
I copied that down when I read it because I think it describes me to a tee, even now. And I do still have music – anything I knew before I lost my hearing is mostly readily available in my memory, and when I hook my implant up to my iPod, the music fills my head and I can still hear that opening guitar riff from Boys of Summer or the organ on Hear Me in the Harmony, the clarity of Celine Dion’s voice (shut up; I’m a sucker for a power ballad) or David Gray’s wavering tenor, the perfect harmony on the chorus of When I Said I Do or the gorgeous piano melody of Mandolin Rain. It makes me cry and uplifts me all at the same time, because just knowing that music even exists at all is really something, isn’t it?
* Edited to add: I just remembered that I have done karaoke once since I lost my hearing, in law school, but I didn’t sing by myself, so I don’t count it.