A Letter of Openness for Ayanna Jolivet Mccloud

Dear Ayanna,

Last night, I attended Hear Her Ear: Women in Sound at Art League in Houston. Here are some words about what I heard (or attempted to hear) through the rushing stream of constant thoughts I attempted to divert, dam and slow.

There are still small things in the wreckage. There are still sounds. Ephemeral bits of language and noise, and something rubs against something else and it's making a sound out of the universe. Vocal cords rub up against their own. An object rubs up against another.

I've been thinking a lot about dying. Maurice Sendak in an interview talk talk talks about dying, talks about those last months before he died when he recognized the trees and the flowers for what they were, for their brilliance, for the way they shone in the sun and soon, he said, he wouldn't be around to see them. Sound is like that. How it shows up and then disappears, how it occupies a space temporarily. What is held in the space once the sound has moved on? How do the vibrations linger in the reds and greens and oranges? How does sound impregnate the color and the color impregnate the sound? What do our bodies leave behind?

I've been thinking a lot about our bodies being sick or being well. About bodies, about my body getting older and about all of our bodies getting older. About the bodies of our kids getting older. I've been thinking about writing letters to artists and writers. I think a letter can be an act of generosity or a letter can be a love letter or a letter can be a way to reach out across the bounds. The bounds aren't always complex. Sometimes they are as simple as the distance between here and FM 2234 or the difference between seeing a photo of a party and being able to attend the party or seeing a person unwell in a photo or a post and being able to attend to that person. The bounds.

Tonight as I first start writing this note, maybe I'm thinking a lot about dying also because so many plants will be dying tonight. It's the first time in some years we've had a real freeze on this stretch of the Gulf Coast and the brief period of a few hours when the temperature gets below freezing seems so small and yet those hours are going to kill off years of work, years of slow-growing bananas and scheffleras and all the other tropical plants. Now, it's the early morning hours of the dawn, and the weather says it is 24 degrees. So many plant cells are freezing outside. What is the sound of so many living things freezing in the cold?

Is Houston a trick? A trick to make us think this is a hospitable place for tropical things to grow. Then down from the north sweeps the cold front erasing years of growth. Who was meant to grow here? What was meant to grow here? You read from an interview that Pauline Oliveros gave, in which she said, "Now the earth sounds that I experienced in my childhood were really dense and beautiful canopies of sound that came from all of the insects, birds and animals around. I lived in Houston, Texas. I was born in 1932 and grew up at a time when humans had less impact on the environment than they do today. I mean, now the frogs are leaving and vanishing. The frogs in my childhood could be heard loud and clear. Then of course, now so much is paved over with asphalt and cement that the cicadas are trapped and can't get out. But you can still hear wonderful stereophonic cicada sounds in Houston as you walk or drive down the street." 

Pauline Oliveros grew up with the sounds of cicadas and frogs, and you know what, she was right to leave. She was ready to leave. Like Gloria AnzaldĂșa up and left and went to California. Like Forrest Bess took paints out to a small house off the coast of Bay City. Like John Biggers picked up his pencils and went off to Ghana to write and to draw. It's a righteous thing to leave a place that was never meant to shelter you.

The focus is still on the small things. Pauline's cicadas couldn't get out of the dirt, sealed underground by the vast blanket of concrete laid out on the gulf plain, on this prairie, upon this swamp. A nation of cicadas trapped underground, unable to emerge. A horde of cicadas. One cicada living forever under the concrete. Pauline's frogs were vanishing. But I wonder how our children will remember all of this we are living today. Are they ever lulled to sleep by the croaking after a heavy summer downpour? Will they recall it? The croaking so loud it is troubling or so loud it seems like the house might shake with their mourning. Yes, Pauline, the wonderful stereophonic cicada sounds. And even as the frogs vanish, the kids hear the frogs and the cicadas or at least see the frog that was run over by the car in the subdivision or at least observe the shell of the cicada left after its molting. Maybe finger that shell with curiosity.

Sound lingers in the space, it must. How do the ones who are left keep track of the remains? Against all the odds? How do you keep track of the remains? What is left after so many years in such an inhospitable location? What is it that makes the sounds go on? Or at least what might a silent bell sound like? Is it ever silent really? How can we hear an un-ringing bell? How can we hear her ear? What is the sound of that dried, flattened frog or the cicada shell? What is left of the feelings?

Yours,

JP