My Life Without Headphones

I can hear the typing from the cubicle across the way. The mouse clicks from the cubicle next door. I can hear the shifting of fabric. The creaking of a chair. The sounds of breathing and sniffing and coughing. The hum of the air conditioner has always been a comforting blanket in the background of any work environment and it makes me feel at ease. I stand up to ask a question and see that everyone else has headphones.

The honking of horns – near and far – accompanies the roar of the engines of airplanes just taking off. I can hear the wrappers two cubicles away as somebody opens a snack. The lid of a water bottle twists off and releases with a rush. A young woman starts up a conversation with another young woman, or maybe herself. Footsteps falling on carpet become tapping sounds on linoleum as somebody enters the kitchen.

There is a melody of dings, beeps, buzzes and chimes as messages flow in and out with the tide of information. Musical ring tones play and abruptly silence with familiar greetings. “Hello? Yes…”

Nameless, faceless voices exchange pleasantries and work ideas and lunch orders. Sometimes, it’s personal information. I don’t mean to overhear. Will they be offended if I am the silent third party in the conversation? I don’t mean for it to be that way, I just don’t have headphones. The woman on the other side of the wall – we’ve not met in person – but I know the pain and sorrow and venom in her voice over her divorce. I know the love and tenderness, too, for children and family. I hear her heart. Even though I am not meant to listen.

There is motion in the air and I hear the waves passing by my ears bringing messages. Sometimes there is something deep and sweet beneath the layers of the sounds. It feels different from sound – more like a pressure. A vibrant, alive sort of thing, that reminds you of something deeper than noise. The most powerful of tools that allows for being and such a rare commodity. Silence.

“Bethany, can you do this training? It’s online.”

“Oh. I don’t have any headphones.”

“You’ll need headphones. How can you work without headphones?”

Pisa, Italy – Day 7

 

On our way back to the hotel last night, several other students and I discussed the prevalence of smoking in Europe.  In the US, smoking is prohibited inside of buildings and on public grounds.  I believe some states have banned smoking in cars with minors present.  Some playgrounds do not permit smoking.  But in Europe, you can still smoke inside some bars, there’s no limit to it on the streets, and they even have vending machines that sell cigarettes – which are illegal in the US.  It’s really crazy that it is still so abundant the cigarette boxes say in big letters “THIS WILL KILL YOU”.  It made me appreciate the legislation back home that keeps the air clear.

We headed to Pisa today, to see the famous leaning tower.  I researched some of the particulars of the construction, as I couldn’t remember everything our tour guide said about it.  Apparently, they built the first four floors, constructing the southern columns an inch taller than the northern ones as the building began to sink.  When that didn’t work, they stopped construction for a while.  It was still sinking, so they then continued construction, now making the southern columns 6 inches taller than the northern ones.  Then they stopped again because it was still sinking and after another 50+ years they put the bell tower on.  Construction began in 1174 and finished in 1372.  In the 1920s they added some concrete to the foundation to stabilize the whole thing.  Honestly, it’s pretty impressive that a medieval tower leaning that far over can still be standing and that you can go inside of it.  If your mistakes are big enough, they might just be tourist attractions.

On our way to the tower, several of us were discussing Michelangelo’s David.  None of us had actually gotten to see the real David as we didn’t have enough time, but we did see the replica in the square in Florence.  It was so impressive.  Michelangelo had sculpted him in 4 years out of a solid block of marble.  He studied human bodies intently so that he could bring David out of the block and make him real from the way he stood to the veins on his hands. As we were discussing this, Professor Strokanov asked if any of us had noticed that Michelangelo hadn’t circumcised David.  I turned to another girl and whispered that I hadn’t really inspected him that closely.  But it was an interesting question – why would Michelangelo choose not to circumcise David who was clearly Jewish and would most certainly have been circumcised?  Professor Strokanov left us with the posed question, though and didn’t offer an answer as we arrived in the plaza with the church, baptistery, leaning tower, and cemetery.

We didn’t get to go up inside the leaning tower, but we did get to go in the baptistery and the church.  The leaning tower is the bell tower for the cathedral complex which includes a baptistery, church, and cemetery.  The white marble of which they were all constructed shines so brilliantly in the sunlight.  In the baptistery, we had the opportunity to look around and then to hear the most amazing demonstration of the acoustics of the building by one of the staff.  The single voice echoed and filled the space – perfectly intoned and layering upon itself over and over again.  It was such an inspiring, coveted sound that technicians cannot seem to recreate with any of their modern technology.  The single human voice inside that chamber was so haunting and spiritual.  I took the little video below:

 

Before the demonstration, all the signs say to be silent, but there was always a dull hum of voices.  It really bothered me, actually.  People don’t know how to be silent.  We are always needing to fill silence with sound or noise or pictures or our phones.  How hard is it to not say anything at all?  Those moments of silence are so much more valuable than indulging an urge to say something meaningless.

When we got into the church, I was very much impressed by the stone work and marble.  Again, the craftsmanship is just astounding in these places.  So much talent.  Every man must be an artist in his own way – I cannot think of another reason why so many beautiful things have been built.

I am not certain if the overstimulation of all the brilliant experiences finally caught up and overwhelmed me, or if I felt some inexplicable stress from travel and the companionship of all the people around me all the time… but it was here, in the church in Pisa that I suddenly had a few moments of silent reflection and I began to cry.  Perhaps I was overtired, or sad, or frustrated… I am not sure.  But I found release in the tears.  I wondered how many people had come here to cry over the centuries – angry or hurt or sad or forlorn or desperate.  The human condition that can craft such exquisite tapestries and create such incredible beauty often has such deep wells of suffering and angst and pain.  It gave me comfort to think that I am not the only person to have cried for no reason or any reason… sometimes, you just need to cry.  That’s all.  Because you are a person.  We are all people regardless of the places we live or the language we speak or whether or not we can build our towers straight or leaning.  We are people.

While exploring the area around the Leaning Tower of Pisa and enjoying free time, I thought back about the question Professor Strokanov had posed.  Having gone to bible school back in the day – I tend to blush everything with shades of religious meaning and I wondered if there was some religious statement that Michelangelo was trying to make. It’s easy enough to imagine as the church was such a force during the Medieval Times and even in the Renaissance.  I mean, Pisa itself was Galileo Galilei’s hometown.  He was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his scientific theories.  He had to leave Pisa and ended up in Florence where his ideas were a little better received.  I suppose Pisa was inspiring some of the thoughts about religious motivation. When we reconnected with the group, I asked Professor Strokanov about it.

In turn, he asked me what movies I had watched for our assignment (to watch two Italian movies prior to the trip).  I replied that I had watched Life is Beautiful and Marriage Italian Style.  He asked me what I thought of Life is Beautiful.  I told him I thought it was a very moving rendition of a father’s protection of his son during the holocaust and surviving a concentration camp through humor and positivity.  He asked me what I thought the Jewish community might think of the movie.  I realized that it might be very much offensive to them – having such tragic events portrayed in an almost light-hearted manner.  He agreed that the movie romanticized the concentration camps.  His next question was whether or not the story should still be told.  I said that it should.  He agreed; his point being that art sometimes must take creative license in order to tell every story that must be told.  So that statue of David is art – it was not an engineered rendition of an exact image. In light of that discussion, I wondered if maybe the reason was much simpler than making a statement or a choice.  Michelangelo said that he saw David in the stone and that it was his job to release him from it.  I think he simply released what he saw – that vision of that King – regardless of accuracy, it is perfect.

As we continued making our way west, I watched the landscape go by with fascination.  I am very impressed by the civil engineering in these countries.  I took a photo of a storm grate that fit into the town of Pisa’s decoration easily.  They have so much history to protect and such small spaces, I would be so interested in visiting some place where I could ask about the utilities and infrastructure in these small towns.  We had passed prefabrication factories and some equipment staging and steel yards early in our crossover from Switzerland to Italy and now we were seeing the huge marble pits and material excavation areas.  I grabbed a photo of one from the bus as we drove by.  The equipment is so interesting and I recognized some of the names.  Liebherr in particular has some fascinating equipment.  They are a German company that made their debut in the USA in the 1970s.  The invention of the crane in post WWII Germany was the key to their success and now they are a worldwide firm.

We stopped for the night in a town called Lavagna that is right on the border of the Meditteranean Sea.  As we were waiting to walk to the ocean in our swimsuits, I talked a bit with our bus driver – Alexandro.

He was telling me that Lavagna is not just a name, but an actual word.  He lifted his hand and began to draw in the air.  “You know, when the teacher is in front of the class… writing with… it’s white… um… maybe stone?”

“Chalk?” I asked.

He didn’t seem so certain of that, but nodded.

“Um… and what the writing is on is a what?”

“Chalkboard,” I supplied.

“Yes,” He said, his face lighting up as if we had discovered something together. “Yes, I think that is it.  No – we will be sure.  I will check.”

He pulled out his phone and opened Google translate.  He typed in the word as I patiently waited.

“Blackboard!” He declared triumphantly.

“Hooray!” I replied.  “We figured it out!”

We smiled at our accomplishment just as the group gathered together and headed down the Mediterranean Sea.

I was so excited to swim.  I had never swum in the Mediterranean before.  The water was deep and blue, blue when the ground disappeared.  I swam out to a jeti and back ten or more times over the course of an hour.  It felt so good to be in the cold sea that wasn’t too terribly cold.  It didn’t hurt my face or take my breath away so I estimated it to be in the range of 60-65 degrees.  (I’ve lost touch with my internal thermometer due to lack of exposure.) Later on, our tour guide told me that he overheard several Italians exclaiming that the water was cold.  Again the open water rule is proven: no matter where you swim – Ireland, England, France, Florida, Maine – people will say the water is cold.

I think I can say “the water is cold” in just about five different languages now… a good phrase for a cold water swimmer to know.

Lucerne, Switzerland – Day 2

 

 

We had a bit of a lazy morning before heading down the mountain to Lucerne.  It’s incredible to me how much space we occupy in America for our roads and our bridges and Right of Way and just in general.  When you come to Europe, your hotel might very well be up a goat path of a road that the bus huffs and puffs its way up so that it can pull off in a little side space to let the line of cars pass it by.  It’s crazy how steep and narrow some of the streets are.  They must have very good drivers in these countries.

Another thing I noticed about transportation – because you know, I like that kind of thing – is how many bicycles there are.  So many people ride bikes and they ride them up those crazy hills!  It’s incredible.  My friend and I were commenting on how we wouldn’t ride a bike up one particular hill, and seconds later a female cyclist came around the corner and started up toward us.  We wanted to cheer her on.  I wonder if people are used to the athletic nature of their counterparts in these countries?  Back home it’s always surprising when somebody bikes to work or runs home afterward or swims more than two miles.  I wonder if these things are just as surprising in cities across the world?  Is it weird in Washington DC or New York City where there are so many cyclists?  Is it American culture that is surprised by athleticism?  Or is it a global thing?  Do the Swiss or Italians or Germans find it normal to seek alternative transportation?  It’s an interesting question.  The snapshot of Swiss people we have seen all appear to be in good physical shape and very healthy.  Switzerland is awesome.

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Anyway, we made our way to Lucerne and the first thing we saw was the monument to the Swiss bodyguards who lost their lives defending the French monarchy during the Revolution.  There were 1100 Swiss bodyguards at the time.  (When the tour guide was telling the story, he kept calling them lifeguards – which was really wonderful imagery to picture defending the monarchy in the late 1700s.)  The monument was of a lion dying, his hand on a shield with a French emblem and a shield with a Swiss flag emblem behind him.  It was so tragic.  Over 600 men lost their lives defending a castle from invasion – and the entire time King Louis and Marie Antoinette had been relocated to safety and weren’t even there to defend.

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PSA: You’re all going to die.

We took a walking tour of Lucerne afterward, seeing the old wall that was part of the original city then down to the water front.  We walked the old wooden walkways that have been there forever and were a part of the defense of the water ways into Lucerne.  The walkways had old artwork hung over them along the way with strange depictions of men with skulls for heads and people either fighting it or running away from it or something.  I asked Frank about them and he said they were reminders to people about death.  They show death coming for people of all kinds – rich, poor, old, young, beautiful, etc.  How’s that for a public service announcement?  How about public service announcements being considered artwork some day?  Good times.

We finished our tour in front of the premier Rolex and watch dealership in Switzerland!  I didn’t go in, although it would have been neat to see the price tags.  We had lots of free time after our tour finished.  Winter (curiously enough, she’s another 30-something young person from Rutland that I had to go to Switzerland to actually meet) and I went to take in the Museum of Modern Art.  One of the displays had swings so we actually got to swing in a museum!  It was great.  We had to take a selfie.  Also, in the kids section, we got to draw cartoons of our life.  My hair has been crazy since my hair straightener doesn’t work, so I drew my comic about it swallowing my face.  It made me laugh!

We enjoyed the artwork and walking around in the sunshine and 70 degrees.  It’s been so gorgeous and clear.  On another environmental note – THE WATER!!!  The water is so clear here!  I just want to swim in it in the worst way!  It reminds me of Lake George and I just ache to feel the cold of it and get to know it.  I want to dip right in and surrender to the unfamiliar nature of it and see how it compares to my water back home.  What color is it?  What sounds will I hear?  What’s the texture and the smell and the taste of it?  I think I might carry my swimsuit around with me from now on.  Just in case of an emergency.  That’s not weird.  It’s only weird if you wear it all day in case of an emergency.  We passed by some dams or locks, perhaps, too that caught my attention.  My VTC counterparts and I were speculating about the construction and the use of some of the dam, but the tour guide didn’t say much about it.  I found an English sign so I got to read about it a bit at least.  I like environmental controls and turbidity readings and water clarification processes and stuff like that.  It’s neat to observe these things in other countries.

The bells are tolling nine o’clock.  We’ve heard the cowbells being rung on the hillsides as the sun goes down – I’m not sure what type of livestock they are actually calling in or if they are even for that, but it was really neat to hear.

My only complaint so far is that my ankles swelled up on the plane and they have not unswelled.  It went down a bit during the night last night, but we’ve been walking over 6 miles a day and they are not improving.  It doesn’t hurt, I just feel… gross or something.

I am having such a good time, although I am a bit nervous about presenting about Dante’s Divine Comedy and need to be a weirdo and do some research now.  Tomorrow we head for Italy with a stop in Verona before we go to our destination just outside of Venice.  It’s going to be amazing.

Recovery

I overdid it.  Again.

It started as a tightness in my neck and ended with me physically holding my shoulder in place with my opposite hand.  I listened to it crackle and pop. I tried to keep it still and in place.  I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad.  It doesn’t hurt too much.  It’s fine.  It will be fine.  I need to swim.  You don’t understand.  I need…

To recover.

Again.

Too much energy.  Too much passion.  Not enough strength.

But I need…

I don’t know what I need.  I need the moonlight.  I need to listen to her silent echo across the black sky.  I need the stars.  I need the crisp, cold air.  I need the trees to hide me in their beauty.  I need the mountains.  I need to sink into the cold water with breath and will power alone.  I want to be lost and found, wild and free.

It takes so long to gain the strength particular to the journey.  The one comes as you participate in the other.

When will these steps forward not be marked by steps back?

So we stop.  But we don’t stagnate.  Back to step one.  Strengthening.  Devote your passion to the pursuit of wholeness.  Funnel your energy into embracing the earth without injuring yourself.

You are not taking a step back.  All of them are leading forward.

It’s not too much to ask to take just a little more time.

The Mountain

I hear the voice of the Mountain.  Close your eyes and feel the blood pumping just below the surface of your skin…  A current.  A whisper. I can hear my own heart beat in that river; a steady rhythm that gives me life.   Just below the surface of my skin with my eyes closed…

That is how I hear the Mountain.

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I have to go.  I have to go and be in the wilds and the woods and the waters.  I have to.  My spirit needs the silence between the gusts of wind.  The gentle cascade of water.  The creaking trees and their tousling leaves.  The footfalls on the path…

It is home.

I know I am soft and small in her vastness and we are not friends.  I know I am not disciplined or strong the way I ought to be.  I know that I do not understand the voice I hear. Still there are barriers between us…  I have been sheltered and safe for so long.

But I know that you have a voice, Mountain.  And I know that I hear it with my alien ears that long for understanding of what the earth would ask of me.  How can I serve you?  How can I shelter and steward and bless you?  Tell me.

I must go.  I must press into the sound I hear all around and within me.

Oh steady rhythm.  Just below the surface of my skin.

You Always, Never Change

The alarm went off at 4 am.  Because some things never change.

The smoothie filled with spinach and berries and coconut milk.  The coffee smell filling the air.  The brown dog wiggling in excitement at another day, watching me intently.  Because some things never change.

Surveying.  Chemistry.  That HP calculator I don’t know how to use and it’s sticky number 3.  The field book and my painstaking notes that I hope are good enough.  Did I remember to do everything?  Don’t forget –

The book of coaching materials – workouts and drills.  A stack of notes on other people’s stroke work.  I love the bird’s eye view from the pool deck and the chlorine smell. It satisfies me in a way that my own achievements haven’t.

Running from the pool to class. The calculations trickling from the faucet in my brain down my arm and out the end of my pencil.  I’m not sure.  Is it?  

… I can do this.  Because some things never change.

Work calls.  Some kind of drama with something.  And a report due.  Can you do it?  Of course I can.  Because some things never change.  The hours disappear.  I’m not sure where they went.

I sit at a table by myself for lunch.  I look around for a familiar face but there are none.  Just me, today.  I am content.  Because some things never change.

And my brain switches from one flow to another.  The notes are frantic and disjointed – I am tired. 12 hours?  Already?  Just make it through this class…

Down to the water.  Slipping into the secret abandon and whispering under the calm stillness.  I believe in me. I believe in me.  Because some things never change.

Drive an hour and a half to get back home.  Back to the brown dog.  Back to more work and homework.

I want to watch TV.  Maybe this weekend I can schedule it in…

Because some things never change.

I kinda like you, Bethany Bosch.  If anybody is going to get something done, it’s you.  Because you always, never change.

My Friend, The Sea

I couldn’t tell you the last time I swam in the sea.  I tried, but couldn’t pinpoint it.  I used to be in the ocean once a month or more.  Long swims, short swims… the cold and the salt and the bags of feed and clothes and everything.  How much time?  How much money?  How much energy getting back and forth?

It was my purpose, it didn’t matter what it cost me.  Not really.  The investment was worth it.  The investment.  In myself.  In my athleticism.  In my confidence.  In who I was meant to become.  Now, that must shift.  I have other purposes.  New investments.  New growth.  New dreams to pursue.  I must evolve.

But as I dove into the green gold salty fluid – I heard my name in the bubbles swirling around my head.  I heard a song from the deep.  I felt the ocean squirm with delight around me as the wind and waves churned and swirled and wrapped me in fond hellos.

Oh my friend the sea!  I think I was born for you.  I think I was yours from beyond the deep.  I think the sky and the water are twins and somehow I am their kin.  I would not presume to know them, but I could spend a lifetime discovering all their secrets.  Today, I know, she was glad to see me.  She reminded me of Guri in her wild enthusiasm as she frothed and laughed and tossed me to and fro in her surf.

I missed you, too, my friend… I whispered as I sang into the sea whatever sound I felt in my being to release.

I missed you, too.