I just finished listening to Austin Kleon’s keynote at the Scratch Conference 2018. Since I religiously read his blog posts, I had heard several of the ideas previously, but that’s sort of what we expect from people, right? For people to represent themselves as we’ve already decided to see them.
In the address he talks about one of his inspirations, the artist and nun, Corita Kent. He has a slide with images of students holding up notecards with small rectangular boxes cut out of the middle. The idea was for students to peer through the smaller rectangular at just a piece of the larger scene in front of them, take in bits of an image at a time. Notice what you let in, what you cut out.
I’m someone who is susceptible to sensory overload. It’s not one thing that does it: color, contrast, clutter, voices, noises, sound in general. It’s more just the whole idea that the world is so much commotion, and so many people are having thoughts that even the silence of holding them in is like weight. In the pool this summer, my friend Nat talked about how she taught her students that sound never really disappears. It’s one of those half-life phenomenons where it just gets smaller and smaller, but still reigns wide in the universe far after it’s been spoken. All those little whispers out there like lassos. I’ve come to believe that even though we can’t hear them necessarily anymore — all that excess conversation, mumbling, yelling — the mass and force of the still lingering sounds is a static I can feel. It doesn’t have a name, I just know it exists around me and utter silence is impossible.
How does someone continue to create with that ringing, those vocal left-overs?
I find that idea kind of hard to bear, to be honest. When she said that, I was thirty. I immediately thought about all of the nasty things I once said or continue saying knowing they’re ugly. Even those little nasties, those passive aggressive voice notes, just continue to resonate. That might be why I let the missteps in conversations cyclically spin over and over just before I go to bed. I can overthink any conversation if given enough time. Maybe it’s because I’m actually still just hearing it as it performs its dying ritual. It’s another way we can relapse, finding those words and bumping into the memories that carry them.
Sometimes this makes me feel like I’m always on the road, maybe the same road in the novel The Road. There, food is scarce and silence is good, but even the sound of a ripening fruit can be deadly. There are so many ways life can scare you. There are so many ways life is making too many sounds. Since watching Castle Rock, this is a rotating thought I have: what if sound is the parallel universe? Now, bear with me, I’m not going on a weird, science rant. (Well, sort of). But since sound refuses to die off like all good creatures, what if that echo is part of how time can be traveled in any direction?
If I can go back to the sound of my dad’s voice on my answering machine in 2006, the night I moved into my dorm, and he says, “Goodnight, I love you,” what then? I can hear him saying it in his sing-song voice, letting the “I” in goodnight go up a little hill in his vocal chord and come back down again. It’s one of the most comforting sounds I know, my dad’s crooning of ordinary, everyday phrases. I married a man who hums or sings when he’s happy because that is one of the traits I love so much in my dad. Those sounds don’t overwhelm me, but they do the opposite. I want them to keep on ringing. I want to place myself in a time when I can conjure them to make myself comfortable. Sometimes, I can hear it perfectly and I think that’s maybe a gift from the leftovers. The sounds are still crystal, still alive enough to be plucked from their dying space with the dying stars and the dying gases and the dying beings. In that universe, I want them to stay, to keep their form, but we don’t have control of how the sounds come, or what memories come with them. When I got my last phone upgraded, that voicemail was lost in the transition. I cried about it. Maybe that voicemail and the sounds of that episode of crying are living together, being sifted through the colander.
Even this letter is a little out of control. I came here to talk about how instagram feels like a curated crop of our lives. A portion that we’ve chosen to boundary off, fence in, and let people sort of walkthrough, but without rotating the frame. Here is my whole notecard of a self. Here is everything, but the sounds I make. Like the math test in high school when the teacher told you that you could have one notecard as a cheat sheet on the test and you wrote in your tiniest print every single algorithm, and formula, all the ways you’d learned to come to the answer of cosign. It had tangents that you would never need, but you thought, just in case. I think those tangents are the things we lose in the curated space of the internet.
We don’t give ourselves over to the mistake-making inevitable in every single day. All those tiny squares are too perfect, too Pleasantville. Our house isn’t always clean, but you’d think we could have a dinner party every evening if you look at my instagram. My cats aren’t always precious, my books aren’t always color-coded, my journal pages are sometimes just scraps of thought that the night refused to let sleep bury. BUT I’ll photograph something I spent an hour coloring within the lines, some lettering I’ve drawn that is impeccable and opposite of the scratch hook of my normal writing. The expectation being that we lead lives other people should care about witnessing. That people are “hearing” from us based on our captions, but really everything is framed in silence, stillness, momentous.
I used to think this was a good thing, that I could capture a moment and hold it later. I could put a moment in a drawer, a frame, post it somewhere so other people could be a part of the moment — a live audience. By the time, I’d done all of that, it wasn’t a moment anymore but a series of procedural things I try to do to make a moment visible. Sometimes I think the internet is just a way for all of us to create half-lives that never disappear. In some ways, I hope for a giant black out. What would we even do? Would we turn back to the memory of sound, make our new focus smell, the one sense the internet hasn’t figured out how to give us yet. I fight the battle a lot of leaving a lasting memory for an objective audience of the future that will love me and lie about me the way we do with Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. My journals won’t be burned, but posted in frames in museums. Today, I just feel like the sounds in the present are enough, the frames I’m looking through that don’t get curated, filtered, edited, posted, are the ones that deserve to stand time.
How the internet, the instagram, can’t bring me the exact smell, softness, stillness, natural comfortability I get from nuzzling my whole face into my dog’s neck after he’s been asleep beside me for a good hour. When he’s still a little groggy and he sighs from me waking him to cuddle that crook, that deserves to live in the universe forever. That deserves to grow smaller and more stuck.
The time when I’m must supple in words and creativity is the evening when I put the entire world of my phone away and it’s just me and that easy light, my dog, my husband’s half laugh from something on Reddit. It’s so loud out there, it’s always loud. The internet is a late-night rager that you can’t leave. It’s that song in Hocus Pocus where the parents are forced to dance forever.
The whole thing is making me tired, but good news is the sound of this keyboard will live on after the internet loses these words. I’ll be here trying only to make noise that deserves to stay.
I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.