Note: This was first posted in August 2010 to http://open.salon.com/blog/nicki_salcedo/2010/08/20/the_sound_of_m
I loved it the first time I read it, and just stumbled back on it, and still love it.
Read as much of Nicki’s stuff as you are able. She is a brilliant writer.
A reason for silences
I don’t sing in church. I lip sync. Growing up in the church, I watched my father as he sang in the choir and my mother as she sang from the pews. Her voice a whisper. His a booming sound. I didn’t think I had a pretty voice so I stayed silent even though I knew the words to those mysterious hymns. Knowing the words was never enough to make me sing, and I wondered if the quiet made me distant from God.
I still wish I could sing. I sing when I’m alone. Sometimes. The voice I lost as a child never fully returned to me. This is why I dip my quill in ink and touch it to my aged parchment. I’m a writer not a singer. The sounds are in my head. I thought I have no voice for those words except writing them.
A Meditation on Om
After many years of practicing yoga, I had my first teacher who focused on sound. Chanting Om Shanti and enunciating the A-U-M of the Om. I’m Southern, I’ve already mastered the art of making a one syllable word sound like three syllables, but this teacher didn’t want me to lip sync. She wanted to hear the sound. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t sing in church, and I wouldn’t chant in yoga. She was a singer like my dad with a booming fearless voice. She claimed there was no way to mess up the Om. It was a perfect sound, and I couldn’t ruin it the way I liked to sing Amazing Grace off key. I tried. I open my mouth. I made a sound. It didn’t sound like music at all, but rather an escaped breath. I wondered if God felt the wind shift.
Later, my husband and I were in pregnancy yoga class where instructor encouraged us to Om. Half of the students were men, and most of those men shifted uncomfortably when directed to chant. Some of the women voiced soft and beautiful Oms. But the men, like me, weren’t going to make a sound. My husband proceeded to follow the instructor. He made the Om and my spine tingled. Another booming fearless voice. I tried to give mine more volume and depth, but I was so proud to be near his sound. The other men followed suit, not wanting to be outdone. Even a bunch of fidgety uncomfortable men who’d rather be watching football can make a lovely chorus of Om. I was still trying. My voice was less air and more a word, but not quite a musical sound.
Om, Shalom, Namaste, Salaam, Amen
I’m sick. I don’t feel well most days, and there is little that I can do but wait. I crawl into my bed and moan. The sound is my medicine. The lost Om and forgotten Amens, now come out of me in a long aching mmmmmmmms. After days of doing this, I began to wonder. Why am I making this torturous sound? The cat comes to watch me moan. She might not have much concept of pain, but she recognizes something the sound that takes the pain away.
I moan and wonder why that sound more than any other helps me feel better. Not prescription drug better, but a little better. Use my breath and make the M last the way I was taught in yoga. I wonder. I hear other words that have the M sound.
When I was in college, I worked with a woman named Sandy. I lacked the ability to make friends with my own peers, so I dined and went to the movies with a Jewish woman much older than my mother. As a child, Sandy took dance lessons from Fred Astaire. She invited me over on Hanukkah. She took me into my first Palestinian grocery store in San Francisco. “We eat the same food,” she explained. It was then that I understood that Salaam and Shalom are cousins. On my wedding day, Sandy was the first person to greet us as we exited the church. “Mazel Tov,” she said. I don’t remember the congratulations that day, but I remember Sandy’s blessing.
I love yoga, but I like the sound of Namaste at the end of class. I love the sound more at a friend’s wedding. We are all smiling. I can hear the M.
I love being in church and hearing someone in a quiet corner utter Amen. They aren’t talking to the pastor, but are sending a one word song to God. Maybe they are just sending the M sound.
When I am happy and healthy it is the song I sing to good food. When I am curious, it is the sound of my wordless question. I try sing in church. I’m learning the sound of my voice and pace of my breath. I don’t care how I sound anymore. I like the feeling of the words escaping me not just in the privacy of my car or in the shower, but in a place where my voice might be heard. I’m still learning to be fearless. I’ll even echo an Amen. There is something in the sound, in the reverberation, that is healing.
The Sound of M
Right now I don’t feel well. My moanings are bits of escaping pain. I know that when the sound reaches the wind someone, somewhere is listening.
I will feel better one day. I can’t be sick forever. The bathroom floor is cool relief when I should seek the warm comfort of my bed. The M echoes better against the tile. I try to moan and add the other words. Om, Shalom, Namaste, Salaam, Amen, Mmmmm. I hear a chorus of M. My children call to me and the plaintive “Mommy” sound gives them peace. To them the M is a humming. They repeat it with a cheerful melody throughout the day.
I’m not a linguist. Don’t want to be. I have no curiosity about words other than the way I misuse them. I’m not a religious scholar. I’ve got my religion, and it is something I also misuse. I lip sync in church, no better than a boy band reject. Finding my voice has nothing to do with my words. Being sick has help me release a trapped sound. I never moaned before I learned to Om. A-U-M is three syllables, but you hold the M as long as you have breath. It creates a wind that passes by God. It is a blessing, a thanksgiving, a release.
If you see me singing, don’t lean in close. I still sing off key. I won’t ever boom. But I might feel better at the sound of my own voice and the echoing back of yours.
EMB, thanks for the kind words. You inspire me. –NHS