I hear voices

This essay is about creativity, care work, childhood promises, and mornings when it’s hard to wake up.

I hear voices
collage by me

My dad took me to Borders every few weeks when I was a kid. We split up as soon we got into the store. He’d go left and I’d go right. I’d wander, carefully piling books into my arms, a paper cairn. 

After we found our books, we’d meet at the cash register. He always got there first, two or three books held by his side.  I usually needed my chin to steady the structure I’d built. My dad had a rule about never saying ‘no’ to books. I always got to take my cairn with me. 

All those book piles leaned into one another over the years, forming a long barrow. I can stand in its forecourt and then walk into its book-built passage. There are doors to chambers on either side of me. They hold versions of myself as a child and versions of the people I loved when I was a child. I don’t know how to open the doors.

Up ahead, there might be other things in other chambers. But I can’t be sure. The passage stretches beyond my sight.

Last night, I stood outside the door I slept behind when I was in the fifth grade. 6-panel and painted swiss coffee white. I read the names on the spines around its frame. Some of them were obscured by time. But others retained their gilt - Jane Austen, Mildred D. Taylor, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Steinbeck, E.L. Konigsburg, Anne Frank, Madeleine L’Engle, Octavia E. Butler, Betty Macdonald, Ray Bradbury.

I pulled a book out of the wall, carefully, and took it to bed. 

The October Country, a collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury. 

First published in 1955, The October Country is full of the weird and wonderful. My copy is a 1996 Ballantine trade edition, part of a stack I built when I was eleven years old. It had a new introduction by Ray Bradbury titled, May I Die Before My Voices.

Now what in the blazes does the above title mean? 

It means that voices have been talking to me on early morns since I was about twenty-two or twenty-three. I call them my Theater of Morning Voices and I lie quietly and let them speak in the echo chamber between my ears. 

At a certain moment when the voices are raised higher in argument or passionate declaration or are like rapiers’ ends, I jump up (slowly) and get to my typewriter before the echoes die. By noon I have finished another story, or poem, or an act of a play, or a new chapter for a novel…

My voices are still speaking, and I am still listening and taking their wild advice. If some morning in the future I wake and there is silence, I’ll know my life is over. With luck, on my last day, the voices will still be busy and I will still be happy.”  - Ray Bradbury, forward to The October Country, 1996

This was the most weird and wonderful thing in the book. I had voices too. But until I read that introduction, I didn’t know what to call them. Sometimes there was a vibration in my head, a hum that sounded like light and left behind words that weren’t my own. It felt different than thinking, but I hadn’t thought about it very much. The difference seemed worth considering.

I knew from a fourth grade science experiment that our lungs pushed air through our vocal cords to make vibrations. Those vibrations produced voices. It seemed possible that something similar was happening in my head. I didn’t know where the air or ideas came from. But they suddenly seemed special. I didn’t want to live without them either. 

So my eleven year old self entered into a kind of death pact with Ray Bradbury. We would both die before our voices. It didn’t seem like such a risky hope. I just needed to wake up, listen and write before listening became forgetting. 

I’d always felt the voices. At eleven, ‘always’ seems like an unbreakable promise. There was no reason to think they’d leave me, or that I wouldn’t be able to feel them while they remained. 

As a child, I didn’t understand Bradbury’s gender, race and connections helped him hear and heed his voices. I didn’t know he could lay in bed listening in his twenties because he lived with his parents. Bradbury only moved out when he was twenty-seven years old, once he’d married.

His wife worked so he could write. Bradbury heeded his voices in the morning and afternoon. Then he cleaned the house and cooked dinner. 

When children came there was a new Theater of Morning Voices, this time echoing from outside Bradbury’s bedroom door. His wife stayed home to raise the children. He was able to listen to the voices in his head because someone else was listening for the voices in the hall. 

Bradbury could “jump up (slowly)” to write because someone else jumped up quickly to care. By thirty-two, he earned enough from his writing to support the family. 

Bradbury’s marriage seemed to be a very happy one. He and his wife were partners. Each pursued their ambitions. Ray was a very involved father, helping with night feeding and filling filing cabinets with his children’s scribbles. But his work depended on his wife not listening for her voices at the same time he listened for his. 

By the end of my twenties, my life felt like a negative of Bradbury’s. I had my first baby when I was twenty-four, my second when I was twenty-seven. Twenty-eight when my dad died, I took on much of his care work. My third baby came when I was thirty-two. I began to suspect what no author introduction ever taught me, 

Some men get to listen to the voices in their heads, but most women have to listen for the voices in the hall. 

The din of domesticity disrupted the other frequencies in my head.  A liturgy forged in factories and blessed with holy oil.  It thrummed across centuries, carried to me through policy and pulpits. The doctrine said the world contained many homes but the home could not contain many worlds. 

Women were housekept. Some women sweep through homes, some women sweep out homes and some women are swept under homes. Some women are swept through, swept out and swept under. 

I woke up to the canticle that told me the morning was not mine. During the day it  rang from the surfaces of my life, the kitchen table, the halls, the carpools, the screens, the crumbs.

It’s been almost fifteen years since I became a mother. Nearly ten years since my dad died. I still live in a separate sphere cast reality. But I can see the cracks that betray the mold’s defects. The chanting still echoes, but it doesn’t sound like a prayer.  It’s just an auditory inclusion from the casting process.  

I can feel the humming voices in my head again, sometimes.  It seems best to not notice them in the mornings. There are children to wake, feed and ferry. Afraid of the echoes dying away, I’ve decided it’s better to not hear what I can’t remember. I know I am wrong. 

And I know it isn’t just the chants and the children that keep me from hearing my voices. There have always been days when I’ve woken up to silence.  Not a voice, not a hum, not the beat of my own heart. And ‘always’ still seems like an unbreakable promise. 

Every time I wake up alone, I wonder if the voices have died. Or if I’ve killed them. 

Some men get to listen to the voices in their heads, and some women can’t hear voices at all. 

There was one morning, after waking up alone for days or months or years, when I laid very quietly, wondering if I’d failed to live up to my childhood pact. There were footsteps outside my door, the quick-quick-quick of our three year old. She pushed open her older sister’s door while shouting, 

“It is time to get up!” 

I listened to the voice in the hall and jumped up (slowly). 

I couldn’t read past Bradbury’s introduction last night. It made me afraid. I dropped the book on the floor and then stared into the dark until I fell asleep.

I woke up in a cold room. Not the chill of a winter morning. It was a deeper, keeping kind of cold. I was in a bed, under quilts stitched with the thread that mends. 

The sound of steps and murmurs echoed in the hall outside the door. There was a vibration in my head, a hum that sounded like light and left behind words that weren’t my own.

Do not forget. A hall is a passageway, a place of crossing. We are often constrained by the partitions in our realities,  but there are other structures. Do not forget. 

Where did Bradbury’s voices come from? He called them his but he could not summon or dismiss them. Perhaps the voices were their own. When they weren’t in his head, where were they? 

Maybe they were outside their mother’s door, asking for breakfast. Or in bed, with their eyes closed, listening for a hum in their head. 

I knew then I was in a chamber in a long barrow. It belonged to another version of myself. She knows more and less than me. So I couldn’t read the lettering on the walls.  Or recognize the shape of things in the room. And I couldn’t stay. I jumped up (slowly) and stepped out into the hall. The door closed. It won’t open again. 

I was alone but could hear steps and murmurs around me. And was that the sound of my dad’s boots on hardwood? I walked after the footsteps, quickly. They were still ahead of me when I knew I had to stop. I thought I heard the boots pause, for just a moment, before continuing on. But I can’t be sure. So much remains beyond my reach. 

I was back in front of my fifth-grade door. The October Country open on the ground, just to the side. I picked it up, closed it gently and put it back in its place. Then I stood back to look at the door.

Was it always ajar?  I wanted to push it open, to warn or comfort or love the girl inside. Instead, I dropped to my knees and pressed my mouth into the thin line of empty space and spoke words that will echo until she can hear them, 

Sometimes we sleep, but we never die. 

I jumped up quickly, walking until it was time to stop again. There is the door I sleep behind now, a 2-panel round top finished with a bourbon stain. I know how to open it. Turn the knob and push hard, shouting,

It is time to get up!