The sound of a human voice

I watched the television for hours and left the radio running at the same time. The human voices coming in over the waves did not fill the void that had opened before me like a Grand Canyon. From time to time I would look out the window, waiting for my working husband to come home, listened for the sound of the car coming up the dirt road, but it seemed he never came. Well, he did, only it was evenings and I had the major part of the day to fill up by myself. When he arrived, he wanted to watch television. He was short on conversation and shorter on listening skills.

Now, I’m not a lady without talent. I can play two musical instruments, a piano and a flute, and I had the flute with me. My vocation is artist; I love to draw and paint. I read books voraciously, enjoying the language, the plots and sub-plots, the symbolism, the visual flights of richness that authors conjure. I even write some, as you can see. It’s not as if I didn’t have anything to do. But all of these combined could not take away the loneliness. Nor could the tasks of repainting the walls to my taste; cleaning and scrubbing the house into a glistening jewel; or doing the laundry and folding it, patting it flat and obsessively straightening it, just to pass the time.

On country roads, the trees whispered to each other; crows croaked away at their family gossip. Some blue herons nesting above the flat rock edging Oyster bay rasped at their fledglings, chastising their awkward possession of the family nest. But when I called them they didn’t answer; anyway, we didn’t talk the same language. The forest sounds around me were as if a deep silence had shrouded the land. Visually, there was so much beauty around me – the blackberry thickets in flower, the new ferns establishing plume-like fronds from tight fiddle heads; eagles soaring above, papa eagle teaching eaglets to soar, to turn, to dive; the ever shifting colours of the tidal flats that bound one side of our property; the lovely colours of Mount Aaron across the road from our tiny skid house home.

At first, it was joyful to walk alone and then, despite the visual richness around me, it became flat, listless, and ordinary as cabin fever set in. Like the tree falling in the forest – if no one saw it or heard it, did it exist? Recounting what I had seen on my walks at end of day when finally I had a body to relate to seemed empty. What interested me visually did not mean a thing to my spouse. It would be too active to say that he dismissed it. It was as if my voice had not made an imprint. As if I had not spoken. As if it had never registered and been taken in.

If I did not register with some other human entity, did that mean I did not exist? I was not used to loneliness. I grew up in a family with four siblings. There was always something going on; someone talking; someone sharing the day’s events.

Mid summer, the children in the area discovered I was going to be their teacher in the fall. Curiosity led them to me and, like open and generous children, they came with a gift, a barebacked white pony for me to ride.

In a way, it was a test of my mettle. If I accepted their challenge and could do it, I’d be OK as a teacher. If I refused, it would be the talk of the small community. Everyone would know. Everything in a small community is known, even the stuff that isn’t true.

And so they helped me up onto the pony, laughing and joyous at my willingness to try, and gently derisory of my inability to ride. The oldest girl took the reins in her hands and led me, wobbling and nervous as I squeezed the horse’s haunches with my knees, down to the next house some two hundred feet away and back.

I had risen to the challenge and been accepted by this motley passel of young children; made some tenuous acquaintances; but most of all, I’d had a wonderful day. I’d related to human entities, marvelous open minded children eager to know the new teacher and the shape of her personality.

It took a long time to make friends in that community. The original settling families of loggers and fishermen, stuck together, barricading themselves from the invasion of city folk and hippies returning to the land. I fit in the latter batch somewhere between the two descriptions – not quite hip enough to be hippie, still too bourgeois and too young and hip to fit into the “straight” community of other teachers. Thirty years after, I still meet with one friend from that era and that slice of my life, a jazz and classical musician. All others are lost to view.

In my four year sojourn in Pender, I made good and wonderful friends. It took six months to feel secure in the first real friendships. The others came bit by bit, like iron filings to a magnet, until the magnet was full and rich with those who shared that time with me.

I had met my spouse in unusual circumstances in Hippie Land. I suppose I was exploring alternatives after the “normal” world had let me down, or so I thought then. From this perspective, I’d simply fallen deeply in love with Michel Grantamour and when that split up I became one of the walking wounded. When I was out and about, I suppose I looked like a regular human being, but inside, my self had shattered, much like a thermos that looks alright but doesn’t function anymore and shards of broken thermal glass rattle between the inside and the outer shell.

I had bitterly thought about having no one in my life, but I am a social creature. I was lonely. Then along came spouse number one who paid considerable attention to me. I mistakenly thought that anyone would be better than no one. If one didn’t love too much, if the relationship did not last, ergo, one would not hurt as much when it failed. I didn’t have a positive outlook at the time, as you can see.

We actually would not have married had we not been coerced. It was around the time of the Viet Nam war, and draft dodgers were looking for a Canadian spouse to legitimize their situations. His illegal entry into the country had been discovered and either we married or he went back to the United States in dishonour. I added noble motive to my reasons for marrying. I was protesting for peace; and that changed my history.

So four years after coming to Pender, I left, to escape an intolerable, loveless situation. And yes, my logic was good. If you hadn’t loved someone too deeply in the first place, you weren’t too deeply shattered on the outgoing side of the relationship.

By this time I was without work, so I had to find some quickly. Teaching, though not my vocation, was my profession. In late August, after most appointments were made, there were always a few isolated places still trying to find someone to teach their children. I found one community willing to take me on, though they were worried that I would not stand up to the isolation. I assured them that I had many talents to keep myself occupied. Isolation was not a problem.

So there I was in a small town of the West Kootenays, a week after school had started, living in a motel room so small that one could not walk around the bed in it. I didn’t know a soul there.

Small towns know who is new and who’s not. One of my lovely students came to say that her grandmother was looking for a teacher to rent her little house, one of those ones that the Japanese had lived in during the internment during the Second World War. I met her grandmother and I rented the house, just big enough for one.

The community of teachers was friendly and soon I was invited to dinner at Janet’s house and then to Barbara’s and then Doris’. Each of those welcoming people introduced me to another group of people. Even so, the transition took six months.

At first you don’t want to spill all your personal information, specially since I had just divorced and was leaving a messy situation. I’m a bit shy anyway. But slowly I sensed whom I could trust with details of my unstraight life so far. I made lifelong friends there. It was beautiful country. If only.

If only the school had been more reasonable, I might still be there. But I have this unstraight, hippie tendency and the expected norms were far beyond my tolerance. The school principal was from an English boys’ school background, strict and disciplinarian, but not necessarily logical. By the end of the year, I’d had enough. My sister Lizbet had encouraged me to go to Europe. She planned to do it by going to Art School, with a secondary goal of learning French.

I’d never been travelling (except to these small communities that I taught in) so it sounded super to me. The stars were in harmony because my divorce came through and all of a sudden I had money from the sale of our house on the coast, enough to go be a gay divorcee in Paris for a year. I applied to schools, found five that would have me, wrapped up my year at the school in the Kootneys and headed out for France. Lizbet asked me not to go to the same school as she did. We would talk in English, she said, and we wouldn’t improve our French as a result. So she went to Switzerland and I went to France.

That’s where I developed my theory on loneliness. Or my theory on divining how long a person had been in a community.

The first month, everything was wonderful; everything was new. There was lots to explore. One was so busy looking after getting a student visa, lodgings, a telephone, a bank account and some furniture to camp out with that one didn’t have time for loneliness. Many foreign students hung out at the Youth Hostels so there was a place to meet people, even though they were transient.

Tarnish started to spoil the picture in the second month. Letters home kept up a modicum of contact but the replies were weeks, months between. They had busy lives at home. Mine was becoming lonely. It was risky for a young woman alone to go out at night. Where could I meet people?

The students at my Art School all spoke French. Not me. I had work to do before I could hold a conversation. It wasn’t that they weren’t kind. It was just that, once I had deciphered a morning hello sentence like “The weather looks just great out there, don’t you think” word by painful word, they had long gone. They probably were muttering that I was unsocial and unresponsive. It was just that it took me too long to figure out what they had said, to be able to answer. They left me in a corner to do my own work and only came by to comment when they were puzzled by the Canadian way of drawing. I was grounded in Abstract Expressionism; it was a far cry from their very classical training in Greek plaster statues.

I could barely order in a bakery or butcher shop. I was a liability in a conversation. Month two I was feeling vulnerable and exposed because I could hardly talk with those I met day by day, but I had contacts.

I began to recognize those in the city who fit in the same immigration time slot as myself. Their eyes looked vulnerable, haunted.

Then anger set in. Those damn French. They were rude, abrupt. They couldn’t take the time of day for me. They would turn their back on me when I asked them something. They wouldn’t help you when you were trying to find something on the map. Clerks would push you aside when other French speaking customers were waiting. At the train station, they mocked my pronunciation and made me write the name of the place I wanted to go. They would laugh at me when I said something wrong, but wouldn’t explain; my accent was funny or I had said something gauche or absurd. I started to take French lessons at the University and that improved my ability to respond. I read my text books out loud, in my solitude, so that I could discuss medieval illuminations and cathedral builders with the best of them. It wasn’t great conversation but I was beginning to have something to say, if only there was someone to listen. Month three was characterized by anger.

Month four, I was understanding French better, responding better, able to reply to a “great weather ” comment. I held their arrogance in disdain. I softened towards them as they were beginning to soften to me. I was invited to join them at the artists cafe on Rue de Vesle. Alain had a gathering at his house; I was invited. Veronique had students to her apartment that she shared with Martine who made a huge paella for us. I was included. They were nice after all. That was month four.

By month five, my French colleagues were restored to my good graces. We had become tolerant of each other. I could talk, understand more. I realized that the local people could not see Lonely or Foreigner printed across my forehead. Besides, they were all busy with their lives. How were they to know that I was in need of company?

By the half year, I had made some good friends amongst my colleagues. I still write to some. I have a standing invitation to stay with one in Verzy and another in the outskirts of Paris. I’ve lost contact with others, but I know if I met them in the street, we would take time for coffee, maybe even dinner, and chat as if there hadn’t been thirty years pass since then.

That was my theory – a six step transition from wonderment to emptiness, from hardly tolerable deep loneliness to anger and dislike, changing to tolerance, acceptance and then deep friendship.

When I returned to Canada after seven years in France, I saw a young girl crying at a bus stop and asked her if I could be of help. “Damn Canadians,” she said. ” I’ve been here six months and I haven’t gotten to meet a single one of them. They are cold and unwelcoming. We would never do this to a visitor in our country.”

At the end of my first year, I met a Frenchman on the train to Paris, on my way back to Canada. We spent a few days as tourists wandering through the city and then I flew out one April morning, back to the West Coast and home. Little did I know then that his friendship would last thirty years. That is, Franc is by my side still though we’ve had our ups and downs.

He came to live with me at the end of my third year at the Art School. The factory where he had been working in Paris was letting people go as the economy turned downwards. He was looking for work and found something that kept him on the road five days a week and then he came back on weekends. We spent them exploring around Rheims, taking long walks, enjoying the sidewalk cafes.

When I came back in September, we simply lived together. I had the time to continue on with my art work while he was away during the week. The connection with the art school was gone. My friends from the previous years had scattered to various retreats – one to an ancestral home, to continue on painting; another to make his living as a vintner; another to work on book illustrations. Most everyone had gone to work. There was no one to talk to during the five day hiatus. My creative ideas began to falter. I finished what I was working on but no new ideas formed. Without the chitchat of peers the imagination had slowed to a halt. I had artist’s block!

Then the professor wrote asking me to see him. The government had changed it’s policy about foreigners. They could now give foreigners a diploma. If I would like to come back, he would be happy to have me in his atelier. I went back. Ideas flowed. I had discovered that a balance of human contact, of the flow of ideas and conversation led to a healthy spirit.

One more tale to tell on myself before I come to the point:

Franc found a more promising job in the South of France. It was July of the year I had graduated from the Art School. We stored some things in the apartment which was very inexpensive , so we kept it; then we went down to stay near Montpellier near his coffee packaging factory.

Here was a different kind of loneliness bred of shunning, almost. In the four months we stayed, we met with prejudice and residual hate for the Germans. I’m of good Dutch stock, so I look like a big blond northerner. The locals didn’t distinguish between a German (there were lots of holidayers from Germany) and the Dutch. A butcher ignored me at his counter for a long time and finally as I was about to give up, he turned and hissed at me “We don’t serve Germans here”. “That’s alright,” I replied,” I’m Canadian, but now I don’t want your meat.”

I applied at the Art School but I was told they didn’t take foreigners. I wondered if they thought I was German. When we went looking for a more permanent place to stay, we were directed to the “Germans” in a villa at the top of the hill nearby. When we got to the villa, we found the owners were from the Lorraine district of France, just as my Franc was. The Department of Lorraine bordered on Germany and had been lost and won during successive wars. It was French now, but the southerners considered it “German”. We were turned down time after time when we looked for apartments. Finally we found a tiny studio apartment far from the centre of town and he started work.

In the four months I lived there, I never met anyone who spent more than five minutes talking to me. Franc was working during the day, a very busy and active day. He did not want to go out, nor even much did he want to talk, when he came home exhausted. We were out of balance. He had too many contacts during the day in his work. I had none.

I must say that I did some of my best art work during that period. All of them were drawings because I didn’t have either space to draw nor space to store. When I wasn’t drawing, I would go into town and talk to store clerks just to have conversation, until they realized I wasn’t going to buy something and excused themselves back to their own work. I was back in month one of my theory of integration and the dissolution of loneliness.

All that I have recounted has been to tell you that I have a great sympathy for people who are lonely. I recognize cabin fever in others. I reach out and try to assuage the mental anguish that comes of not having anyone to confide in, to tell a little daily story to. It did not need to be important or intellectual. It was sufficient to be able to tell someone that you had gone to the store in the morning and seen something beautiful or ugly or curious; that you had made a soup of carrots, onions and cream, spiced with a bit of curry; or that you had written a letter to a friend.

One of my close friends challenged why I spent so much time with my mother in her last years. Simply, she was lonely. It wasn’t her fault that she had so few friends.

She had played bridge with a group of four. They met regularly once a week, rotating the place they would meet. One got Alzheimer’s disease and began to forget either that the others were coming or that she needed to go to a friend’s place for the weekly game. Soon that friend was in a home and another joined the group. Another had her cataracts removed and she was out of the game for a while. Then mother’s eyes were attacked by macular degeneration. She could no longer see the cards well enough to play. She was out.

Friends started to disappear. Families would scoop up an elderly person and put them in a residential care unit or bring them to live in their own homes, but they wouldn’t know who that person’s friends were. When mother called, the phone line had been discontinued or letters would come back “no such addressee” or simply “moved”. It was distressing because she had no way of finding them, no one to ask, no way to find out if they were dead or alive, cognizant or not.

My grandmother who died at the age of 109 said “I’ve no friends left, but it’s my own fault”. The fault was in outliving them all.

Until we found that marvelous device that amplifies telephone conversations in the high register only, Mother could barely hear someone on the the telephone. People stopped calling.

Mobility was another factor. At one time, independent as she was, she would take the bus. Then as her risk for falling increased, she used Handidart, but only for medical and dental type visits, not for visits to friends. Her friends were aging as was she. They too were having mobility problems. They stopped coming to see her.

Bit by bit, her contacts with the outside world were taken away – her sight, her mobility and her hearing failed her and drove her into a world of silence. It caused her unreasoning and imbalance. She waited impatiently all day to have a conversation with someone. Most often that someone was me.

We found ways to make evenings more interesting – by watching television that we could discuss afterwards; by my reading her a book; by doing a crossword puzzle together to be able to untangle the meaning, the double sense, and the play of words.

She took computer lessons at the age of eighty eight in a class led by my sister at the community college. Struggling with those new concepts kept her busy but they didn’t give her voice nor did they give her company. Alone, she would practice typing blind so that she could use the computer despite her failing vision. We set the font on the biggest type and she could spend hours deciphering letter by letter until she got a message. We also spent hours, me typing, she dictating to her nonogenarian pals who also had computers; and we got answers back.

Thousands of lonely people wait endlessly in this world for a word of compassion or understanding. A great concentration of them is in Residential Care Facilities. You can’t imagine how many families do not visit their elderly aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, siblings and friends and they must try to make new friends though handicapped by loss of sight and hearing. What a reward it is to see a person light up with joy just because you have noticed them and spoken to them as an individual. For those of you with good heart and strong legs, there is no need, my friends, to be lonely. If you no longer have a mother or a grandmother, father or grandfather, go visit a seniors’ residence, adopt a new one and make both of yourselves happy.

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One Response to “The sound of a human voice”

  1. suburbanlife Says:

    Kay – I too am grateful for how you extended friendship and support to me and “R” when we moved back to suburbia from the bush. That helped to mitigate feelings of strangeness and loneliness, and I thank you!

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