Mystery Songs and Tactless Jokes: On Listening (For Better and Worse).

I fell in love with a song I didn’t know back in July.  It was when we found ourselves at The House on the Rock in Wisconsin– a rich man’s ploy to turn his home into a stage.  It’s packed with the largest carousel in the United States and a creepy doll museum and self playing instruments you spend your tokens to play songs from the 1920’s through the 1970’s.  It is the Disney of the underground.  The epic, disastrous playground for the lovers of Tim Burton, Neil Gaiman, roadside stands, and kitsch.

It took us three hours to get through– and we glided quickly through the circus section and skipped the history of flight museum entirely.  And we were euphoric.

But before our heads exploded and our senses retreated from the over-stimulation, we listened to a player piano play the loveliest song I could imagine.  We hummed it the rest of the way through the House– past the larger than life sized squid fighting a whale, through the displays of hot air balloons, past the calliope and the recreation of an early 1900’s village.  The song persisted.

We sang it that night over dinner as we sat staring into the woods, trying to process all that we’d seen that day.  We sang it the next morning when we woke up.  I took to the internet a couple weeks later when it still hadn’t left my mind.  I asked my social media for answers.  I got, in return, several pretty songs and a couple of voicemails with my Someone’s mom and another friend’s mom singing me their guess.  They were all wrong.

But it was so nice to be listening again.

With all of my flashing screens and passing highways, it had been a long time since I had been enamored.  It had been a long time since I called out a question and waited for an answer.  It had been a long time since I sat, waiting to listen.

I have been working lately to put down my flashing screens.  I have been working lately to sit still breathing while I wait for food in restaurants and for my gas to pump at gas stations.  I am failing.  But when I do remember, it’s as if a small part of my life is returned to me.  The part of my life when a radio song can make or break the ride to school.  The part of me when the sound of a V-8 engine rolling up the driveway could make my stomach rumble, because it meant that dad was home and dinner was ready.  When I can remember to listen, I remember to live.

It’s a little like praying.  Except I am not sweaty and scared of not getting an answer from whatever still-small-voice everyone else hears.  The sound of the gas pump clicking off is answer enough or a plate clinking down on the table is answer enough.

The first problem with listening, though, is that it also causes me to fall in love.  Like when I am stirring a sweet-and-sour sauce on the stove before our show, and the whisk rushes around the bottom of the pot.  I am willing myself to not touch my phone.  I am willing myself to not look out the window for my Someone.  I am willing myself to only stir.  And then, the thin swirling sound suddenly changes.  I look at the sauce, and it is amazing.  The whisk is resisting.  The sound becomes deeper.  The sauce thickens.  And that is when I fall in love.  By merely staying still and listening, I have heard transformation.  I have heard ingredients become sustenance.

How does anyone have room for all of this?  How does anyone manage to carry around all of this miracle?  How does the sound of a whisk in a thickening sauce pot not push out a hundred other sonic memories?  And all this before dinner.

It tasted pretty good, too.

I had been calling House on the Rock for months, getting voicemails once a week from Jenny, who had the list of the songs the piano played, who just needed to get in touch with me to give them to me so we could be done with this ordeal.  But then Jenny was out sick.  Then I was in a show.  Then the phone lines weren’t really working.  Then dozens of flashing screen reminders to call.  Then frustration.  Then almost giving up.

Here is the other problem with listening.  It leads you to a lifestyle of persistence.  Once you let that song in, you also let in the sound of the trains going by at night that suddenly feel like they are about to drive right through your camper.  You also let in the joke that didn’t feel like a joke by your Someone.  And then, you let in the small talk of a cashier in Boise, who is taking your exact change for four postcards.

“Actually, I don’t need a bag,” I said, pulling out a penny to complete the transaction, “Or a receipt.”

“So, don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, “but you’re easy.”

The other woman behind the counter laughed.  I looked down.  What’s confusing is that, once you start listening, you start listening to all of it.  You listen to the man behind the counter, you listen to his smirk, you listen to his unnecessary qualifier, and you listen to the pulse of blood that sounds like embarrassment come to your ears.  You stop laughing at the jokes that didn’t need to be jokes because you listened to the jokes– and they are an echo of a long line of jokes made to make someone else laugh at the expense of pointing out something about you that may not be true.  You listen to all the laughs that happened in your whole 31 years about your sexuality.

How does anyone have room for all of this?  How does anyone manage to carry around all of this heartache?  How does the sound of an tactless joke not conglomerate with the hundred others and swallow you up into a burping, sloppy mass of despair?

I decided I was done listening for a while.

But then this.

Jenny called.  I called her back.  She gave me the list– the list!– of all of the songs.  Some of them were already familiar.  But I put them all in my own list, downloaded on my flashing screen device, and kept them there for a couple of weeks.  The mystery was nearly over.

We left Boise.  We drove for a few hours to Oregon.  I looked at my flashing screen instead of the sunset.  I closed my eyes instead of opening my ears.  I holed up in the misery that listening makes.  Forty minutes outside of Pendleton, my Someone asked for music to keep his own eyes open.  I put on the list– the list!– and sat back.  I wasn’t really listening.

“I don’t think it’s on here,” I told my Someone vaguely.  “I think she gave me the list from the wrong player piano.”

“Yeah,” my Someone said.  We were mostly through the list, and the rest looked mostly familiar.  I closed my ears further.  I watched the dark mountain range get taller.  I sunk lower.

“What?” I said, not really listening.

“The song!” my Someone said.

“What?” I couldn’t remember what we had been talking about.  So I sat up.  I opened my ears again.  I saw the light of the town come into view from the top of the bypass.  And I heard Gladys Knight croon out the fluttering second verse of the Song.  I had nearly missed it!

“It’s my Song!” I said.

“It’s your Song!” he said.

We listened to The Song.  We listened to a second version of The Song.  We kept listening in disbelief that we had finally, after nearly four months, found The Song.

It was over.  The search was over.  The mystery was done.

How does anyone have room for all of this?  How does anyone manage to carry around all of this happy and sad?  How do we keep on living when every memory has to, at every new memory, be pushed and carried to another place to make room?

“Help Me Make it Through the Night.”  That’s the name of the song.

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