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  • Writer's picturecherylmurfin

Nothing is just a sound

Updated: May 23

With a big breakfast under our daypacks, we continued our walk from St. Boswell's to the beautiful town of Jedburgh. Moving through the senses, the word we carried with us over these 7-plus miles of country walking— much of it along the meandering River Tweed—was "hear." What did we hear along the way? What did the sounds sound like? 

Nothing is just a sound. A sound is a story. It comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. It means something different depending on the hearer. It changes as it moves over space and time. It has diminsion. Sounds, or the lack thereof, impact our stories, characters, poems, and reportings. 

That's why taking a walk dedicated to listening and noting what I hear is one of my many approaches to getting unstuck, especially when I've been staring at the page so long that it's starting to melt before my eyes. I walk, I listen, and I write down what comes.

Once I've done that, I'm usually ready to return to the writing I was struggling with. More often than not, a sound I captured on my walk wiggles its way into the writing. 

Today was not the riot of birdsong my fellow walkers and I were stunned by yesterday. Then, while we were focused on seeing and looking closely at things along that path, we were surrounded by an entire orchestra of cooing, calling, and singing.

What I learned from that 4-hour concert is that the Merlin Bird ID app is beautiful and dangerous. Wonderful as it picked out grouse and grebe, dove and widgeon by their voices alone. Dangerous because an app like that makes you want to stop every few feet to grab a new sound, even as your fellow walkers leave you in the dust. Although, now that I think about it, isn't that what a pilgrimage is all about? Slowing down? Finding grace in nature? So you just take Merlin with you on your next long walk.

Here's what I heard today:

  • The swish and scratch of waterproof pants that turned out to be unneeded

  • Cooing pigeons singing a long song

  • Whippish whirlpool river sound

  • Anxiety: "Is that the sign?" 

  • An echo inside my head: You are not lost. You are not lost.

  • The thrumming whir and scritch of a mower rolling over golf course

  • "Aye, love" in answer to a question

  • Tingling laughter, but sometimes full-throated

  • The almost silence of water gently falling

  • The gangly bitchy caw of crows in a tree

  • What grass has a sound when it moves

  • L aughing, laughing laughing, but this time from water

  • The trickly remembrance sond of a grotto 

  • Mmph mmph mmph mmph: boots on soft ground

  • The quiet shooshing in a yellow rapeseed field

  • The slurp of mud sucking down a shoe

Speaking of the latter, this portion of St. Cuthbert's is known as "the boggy way."

Our seven miles were hard as we slipped and slid through bogs of red mud and water. One of our walkers nearly lost her boot to the thick muck. Another, unfortunately, injured her ankle, which meant she'd have to taxi forward rather than walk the next day. (More on her journey later.)

We stopped by the river to do an excellent writing exercise shared by Ann. She gave us each a cutout cardboard frame and discussed how a place or a thing differs depending on how you frame it. We use a frame to capture a particular view of a thing or a place. Remove the frame or hold it to a different part of the view, and the story changes completely. We held up the frame and sketched what we centered it on. The writing prompt was the idea of framing or reframing.

With my mother's vial of ashes tucked close to my heart, the word reframe struck me deeply.




Reframing my mother

By Cheryl Murfin

The thing about a piece of art, particularly a painting or a photograph, is that you can always reframe and, in doing so, change the piece completely without changing it at all. 

A new frame–moving from wood to metal, from gilded edge to bright-colored plastic, from glass-covered and matted to naked-rimmed canvas—changes the way the viewer sees the work. It changes how they feel about it, what they focus on or don't, what pops to the eye at first glance, and where that gaze goes next.

I believe that is the gift of death: the pull, or in some cases, the need, to reframe a life or one's connection to it. Death is where we decide what to hold onto. It's where we decide what part of a person will continue forward with us.

In the last years of my mother's life, the frame I saw her through was often one of gunmetal annoyance and frustration. 

She often took her prescribed medications with a glass of wine, thinking there'd be no impact. I wanted to hang up when she called with a belligerent chip on her shoulder or when I thought I heard a slur in her words. I often did. I joined a 12-step program to stop trying to save people I love, including my mother, from themselves. What I wanted more than anything for my mom was serenity. My boundary setting helped me to stay sane in our relationship, but they didn't help her. I worry my mom felt abandoned by me.  

Beyond that, she could be manipulative. And if inducing guilt was a sport, she'd have been an Olympic medalist. She hated it when I called her a board-certified gossip. She regularly misinterpreted what I said to her (thank you texting, you cold, hard bane of communication), creating an unbearable tension where it shouldn't have existed.

But as she sank into her dying, I noticed this narrow, tinny frame of my mother beginning to dismantle. I have not discarded the old frame edges; I can call them to mind as easily as these fingers move across these keys. But for the short window between the stroke and her exit, I saw my mother in the whole spirit and color in which she was created.

As I do the work of reframing who my mother was to me and who I am without her presence, I have chosen a softer material. A rosewood that brings out the pink of her cheeks after a good laugh and the bright yellow of that laughter. She had a sense of humor I envied, and when she enjoyed something, she radiated—a movie, a ring, a rock. "Would you LOOK at that," she might say. "Isn't that NEAT?" 

I am inlaying this new frame around my mother with the cool blue-green of her fierceness and the jolly red of her mischievousness—both present the time my dad, who was piss-pink angry at all of us gathered around the dinner table, forbade us to speak–or suffer for it. My siblings and I sat wide-eyed as my mother placed one of the squares of jello she'd made for dinner into her mouth, wrapped her lips around it in a smile, and spat it across the table at him. We trembled with fear, trying to hold in our laughter. I peed myself, I think. So she did it again, causing all of us but my red-faced dad to collapse into hysterics.

She dared him to call out any of us in that flying piece of jello. He did not. My memory is foggy, so maybe I'm making this up, but by the end of that dinner, I see him shooting one of those green giggly blobs back across the table. My mom was a superhero.

This new frame, for however long it sits around my mother, contains other colors: The purple of unspeakable childhood trauma, the burnt orange of years of physical pain, the indigo of compassion for the sufferings of her friends and family. 

But most, importantly, the inner edge, the part closest to her image in this frame, is the bright red-maroon of her heart. The magical Christmases she created year after year. The trip to Disneyland, for which she dressed us in matching blue windbreakers promoting a mortuary business. 

The way she saved me from me when I was dead-bent on self-destruction.

My mother was a wonder. A spitfire. A silly, creative, intelligent, hard-working cat-lover, obessesed with vacuums. She was the one I called in the middle of the night, crying, "Mom, I'm PREGNANT! What am I going to DO??" Her calmness in moments like these was unshakeable:

"Well," she laughed. "It sounds like you might have a baby. Whatever you decide, I support you."

We are each a complete picture, a full work of art that began with a single perfect stroke and expanded line by line, color by color, old wounds, vicious mistakes, astounding challenges, and unrecognized strengths and achievements, each buried under layer after layer of fresh paint. 

And we are, each of us, artists innately able to reframe what we see when we ask ego and sometimes memory itself to step back—that is, to change the lighting, right an angle, creep over borders and break the molds we feel locked in and in which we lock others, especially those we love and hate and love again; those on whom we place the expectation of being more than human.

That other frame is always near at hand. I remember each difficult phone call. And I assume there will be times when I will or must drag it off its shelf and reattach it to my mother. There are five stages of grief, after all, and perhaps this new frame and where it directs my gaze is simply a denial of who my mother was to me. 

I hear I will be angry angry.

But right now, I simply miss my mother. And I need this multi-colored frame to show me where to look as I feel the missing. 

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