A few weeks ago, I come across what is now considered an “old-fashioned” mp3 player/digital voice recorder because it was quite a few years before the first iPod made its entrance. In my constant attempts to de-clutter and be the minimalist I never shall be (but relentlessly believe I can be), I find this voice recorder in a top drawer of relatively unorganized sundries: paper clips, stationary, a business card holder, a clear box of Muji thumb tacks with Japanese writing on the cover.
My husband bought it for me when we were still dating. We were making music together then, recording a CD, and playing out in small venues. He surprised me with it, and he explained how it worked- how when I came up with a song idea, I could record the basic melody so I didn’t forget it. He was always encouraging my creativity even though he ended up being the first person I blamed for those times when I was not creatively inspired or when I just didn’t do the work, procrastinated, or shut down. That was unfair.
So there it is in the drawer, and I know it as soon as I see it- it’s going to be one of those painful things that I will force myself to explore- to listen to- to revisit. Because…how can I not? I have an obligation to objects like this. It would’ve been just something old, something to move around in the drawer of other things I’m not quite sure what to do with, before. But now, four and a half years since I’ve seen my husband alive, it’s a relic of a vanished life that I must hold with care and feel its weight.
I pick it up. I walk into my bedroom and sit on my bed.
It turns out there are four miniature folders on the digital display: A, B, C, and D. Each folder has different tracks.
Folder A has the very first tracks recorded. My husband is teaching me how to use it back when he was only “my boyfriend”- his voice saying “He-llo, he-llo, he-llo,” in a sing-songy way. I hold it up to my ear like oxygen to the face the second and third time I play it. The next track is me doing the same, “Oh, wait how do I stop it?” I ask before the end of the short track.
There are short tracks with my voice singing wordless melodies I wanted to remember, some for songs I completed, some that were never written but I recognize nonetheless.
Folder B has a track that opens with a phone ringing, and the ringing is from a foreign country. What follows is the complete phone interview of a well-known Korean soccer player by my husband for an ESPN article he was writing. He is uncomfortable speaking in Korean and sounds nervous. The track just before is him practicing. “Ahn-young ha se yo.” “Hello,” he says. And then in Korean, “My name is Daniel Cho.” I listen to this one a few times, the speaker again close to my ear.
There is another track in folder C that I know immediately. It is the unformed, raw melody of the song I wrote to sing him on our wedding day. We both wrote and performed songs for each other. This one was written in my childhood home, holding my guitar and the recorder, sitting on the rug in the hallway.
And then this one. Folder D, track 2.
It starts out with just a lot of loud background noise and my strong humming. I’m recording a melody that came to me so that I don’t forget it- and it sounds like I’m in the middle of commuting somewhere because there is a lot of outside noise. And then, there is a thump, and the magnified movement of a zipper. I’ve forgotten to turn off the mp3 player. It keeps recording me, secretly, silently, from inside my bag. There is the thump of the bag against my body. My footsteps.
In present day, sitting here on my bed, my throat dries, my heart beat quickens. I have already heard the sound of my husband’s voice introducing himself, the sound of me composing a wedding song for him, but neither elicit the emotion I feel now as I realize I am about to eavesdrop for the first time on a regular day in my twenties, years before I would give birth to a daughter, or bury a young husband, or sit here in the suburbs, listening. I steady myself…hungry and afraid at the same time.
For a while it sounds like nothing but static, but then at minute three and seventeen seconds there is the faint, but distinct electronic chime of the subway doors closing in the background. The sound of a passing train. The far-off music from a subway musician, voices of strangers, laughter. There is that loud zipper again at four minutes and thirty-one seconds. Another roar of a train that sounds mostly like loud static, another electronic chime, clearer and louder this time. And then a different space, quieter, but moving. I’ve gotten on the train.
It is only indistinct noise to most, but it’s surprising how, years later, one can still recognize the sound of one’s life. Because it doesn’t take long before I realize where I am, what I am doing. I am at 23rd Street between 5th and Madison after leaving my job at a publishing company, waiting for the local train to Union Square so I can transfer to the Q Express that will take me home to the first apartment we lived in after we got married in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I know all of this from what sounds like static, a train chime, a passing subway, and a zipper.
It goes on. There is the up and down of a conversation- a man’s voice, a woman’s. The words are undecipherable. Just a cadence and the dim roar of being on a moving train. But I know we are on the Manhattan Bridge now, there is the view of the Brooklyn Bridge that I enjoyed every day. I imagine similar to the way a blind person’s other senses adapt to a sightless world, I sense my life then so sharply, from a distance of many years away and through only the sounds that come from a small metal instrument that fits in my hand. And I see, not only what is taking place and where I am, but I feel what it felt like to be me at that time. I hear the outside world from a place inside (the recorder in the bag) much like I did then from my own ears and my eyes and my brain. I feel my aloneness on the crowded train. Then, the sound of my shifting in a seat. The loud announcement at 24 minutes and 36 seconds. “Next stop is Atlantic Avenue,” says a man’s tired voice-and the loud chime of the doors in two beats. More indecipherable voices. Chimes.
The zipper at 29.47. I am probably reading a book- maybe putting it away as I get ready to get off the train. The chime. The subway din dies away. Then, just the rhythmic sound of walking- that is more likely the swaying of the bag than actual footsteps. It sounds like someone wearing corduroys whose thighs rub together as they walk. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. It is the sound of me contentedly heading home. Cars pass. The rhythm is spellbinding. Have I turned left yet? Am I going past the artsy little frame store I liked on 7th Avenue. The one where I interviewed the owner for a writing piece and asked him about the strangest things people had ever had framed. A horse’s tail. Have I turned right onto my street a few blocks down? Am I passing the old little stone church the street was named after – St. Johns. The zipper at 33.05. I’m getting out my keys to open the door of the brownstone where we lived. Zipper closes. More walking. The door closing. Walking up the three flights of dark red, carpeted stairs.
My answering machine at 36 minutes. We had answering machines then. “One- new- message,” says the computerized female voice. It’s a wrong number. Someone saying, “Hello? Mary?” I play it twice and then delete it. I lay down the bag. It’s quiet for a few seconds. And then I hear my voice and my guitar strumming. I sing the same few words over and over trying, rather unsuccessfully, to find the chords that match. It is the melody I had recorded at the beginning of my commute home, the very reason the recorder is still on, unbeknownst to me. The words I repeat maybe 20-40 times, “I am drown-ing…” This is odd to me now- “drowned” being my least favorite word in the human language. But I often inserted words when I was songwriting that had nothing to do with the song idea or how it would turn out- they were just placeholders, kinda like how Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” started out as “Scrambled Eggs.” By minute 42.35 I’ve found the chords and the song is developing. It’s not a song I ever finished- but I recognize it deeply. I had written hundreds of songs by then, but I’ve never listened to the process of it coming together from a phrase and a few notes, the finding. And here it is. The working out part- probably on my bed in Brooklyn.
I am struck that in my 20s I would come home from work and pick up my guitar to write a song before doing anything else. There was a level of concentration then- before motherhood, before smart phones and Facebook, – that I find hard to achieve now creatively. I’m at minute 51 and thirty-two seconds when I begin to sing a different melody and the recording cuts off- more likely because I’ve exhausted the time limit for a track than because I noticed it’d been on all this time.
And that is all. I’ve eavesdropped on what seems an unremarkable fifty one and a half minutes of my life almost ten years ago.
I’ve poured over so many photographs in the last four years. Pictures with no sound. Frozen faces. I’ve watched videos. Sound and picture. But none of those were taken unintentionally, without my knowledge. None of them showcased a sliver of time so common. And none of them captured the unique, fluid perspective of being inside of myself the way this commute home, from tucked inside my bag- on my person- has. Even though we take photos and videos by looking through our eyes and then another lens, we don’t capture the world exactly as we view it (children come closer to this when they photograph). If we took videos of life the way we actually see it, we’d get dizzy. We are always shifting our gaze and moving around. Cinéma vérité, which means truthful cinema, the type of observational filming often used in documentaries, comes close. But this now somewhat personified “digital voice recorder” captured my audio life exactly, (OK, maybe a little more muffled) as I would’ve heard it and experienced it.
It’s emotionally jarring- this time travel from my bedroom to my twenties. I have listened to almost a full hour of the pure soundtrack of my life on a typical day in ordinary time from what must be the rarest and strangest point of view I’ve ever had. How beautiful the sounds of our ordinary days! What will I hear in the most mundane interlude from today if I listen ten years from now? From another world, another life, sitting on my bed in a different state and different town, I listen to that young new wife in Brooklyn. Now a widow, now a mother. Now always aware that he is not on this earth. Then he was. I hear that too. I hear it in the rhythm of my walk, and in the the lilt of my singing voice. I did not know that one could hear such things.
Wow, such a new thing to experience! I bet we all wish we could go back in time and see how we were even on a unremarkable day.
*neat, not new
Chills here, not from the snow but from your exquisite writing. Thank you, Julia.
Thank you Lori.
Hi Julia. I’m new to your writings. But, you have brought me back, through your post, and realizing that we have a parallel story, to all those feelings 32 years ago. Being left a widow by my 29 year old husband, with a 18 month old little girl….
I have only read a few posts to see what happened.
My little Amanda is 33 now, with children of her own. Life has been good. The Lord provided. At 4 years out, I think it helps to hear that. But, music is usually the only thing that takes me back there, until now, visiting your blogs.
Glad you are leaning into Hope.
“The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Looking forward to eternity,
Oh my gosh, this post really struck a chord. If only we all could have those secretly recorded minutes of our youth… The lilt in your voice, the ease of your steps, how you could hear that, sense it, that is so wrenching and incredible.
Interestingly, I worked on 23rd and fifth in my twenties, at St. Martin’s Press in publicity while in my early 20s. Probably around 1998-9. I loved the Flatiron building… Though I’m sure I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time. Wonder if we passed each other by.
Dana- I loved the flatiron too- I remember one spring I took the most beautiful photographs of the blooming trees in front of it- will see if I can dig it up for you…I worked there in my late twenties so I think we missed each other. I was up on 45th at Random House in my early twenties. I couldn’t put my finger on what was so striking about the experience of hearing this recording at first- which is why I had to write about it to figure it out. I finally did when I got to the last line. My steps, my voice, were different then- I was younger, and my sweet husband was in the world- probably to arrive home shortly after me.
This reminds me of “Our Town” – how wonderful and painful it felt for Emily to relive an “ordinary” day.
I had a recorder similar to the one you describe. Being zealous about “traveling lightly” I sold it on ebay a few years ago (it wasn’t compatible with my macbook). I could almost hear my own recordings again as you listened your way through the folders. Thank you for taking me back in time with you.
I totally get the zealousness to “travel lightly” as you put it.