By Janice Lindsay
One summer night when I was around 10, I lay alone on the grass near my grandmother’s secluded house, gazing at the stars. Except for an occasional soft undercurrent of adult conversation from inside, all was silent.
As my eyes filled with the vastness and far-off brilliance of the universe, I heard, for just a few seconds, a sweet harmony. It didn’t seem to come through my ears, but from somewhere deep inside me. I thought, “the music of the spheres,” a phrase I knew from a hymn we sang in church.
I didn’t know, then, that “music of the spheres” refers to a medieval concept of the planets’ movements in relation to mathematical formulas of harmony. But I believed I had heard it, and felt privileged to do so.
Skip forward a few decades to a visit to Fruitlands Museums in Harvard. The museums include the restored farmhouse where author Louisa May Alcott lived the summer she was 10. In a portion of her diary, she wrote, “After breakfast I washed dishes, and ran on the hill till nine and had some thoughts…”
Imagine. One little girl hears the music of the spheres. Another little girl has thoughts. The only requirements are outer silence and inner openness to the world around them.
Now, skip to another year, another summer afternoon. As I walked in an upscale suburban neighborhood. I approached a house where a young man sat on the front steps holding a little girl of about three on his lap. I heard his voice and thought, “How wonderful of this young father to be talking with his little girl.” But, alas, no. As I drew near, I could hear that he was talking on his cell phone, some business conversation about shipments and meetings. The little girl sat patiently, waiting. I don’t know what happened after I walked by, but the conversation continued for all the time I could hear.
For me, that young man represented a disturbing irony of contemporary life. As we acquire more and more ways to receive and share information, we become more and more isolated – isolated from our surroundings, from other people, and even from our own selves.
It’s a cliché to observe that if you see a group of teenagers, they’re not interacting with each other; each is interacting with a cell phone. It can be true of adults also.
I can easily allow my beloved iPhone to isolate me from myself.
I’m tempted to check my emails frequently, even though almost no message requires an immediate response and I don’t even need many of them.
These days, with so much going on in the world, I can become obsessive about checking my news apps, even though there’s nothing I can do right now about anything I read. Many news items don’t inform or enrich me in any way. And I know in my heart that if I read a newspaper and watch the evening news, maybe listen to the radio once a day, I will probably learn all I need to know. But the iPhone tempts.
Then, we have music apps, radio apps, game apps, nature apps, movie apps, cooking apps — apps or podcasts about any imaginable subject.
If we choose, we can beam a constant stream of other people’s thoughts through ear buds directly into our brains, all day every day.
So when do we have the opportunity to observe the world for ourselves? Where do we find the silence to hear our own thoughts?
How do we hear the music of the spheres?