It was on a New Year’s Day, more than half my life ago, that I heard it. I’ve only told the story a handful of times; I’ve seldom felt that anyone would really believe me. I’ve also never felt brave enough to take the chance that my listeners might think me crazy. In the telling of this story they’d know that I wasn’t entirely legitimate or believable anymore. There was the great possibility that my audience might think that I experienced something entirely in my imagination. Maybe even pity would ensue. “And she seemed so together..”. What still surprises me about this event long ago was that I was in no particular way educated or prepared to receive such an experience; I wasn’t focused on things metaphysical or spiritual nor was I in any special state of mind that day when I set out for a walk in the woods. It was a snow-covered New Years’ Day like any other here in upstate New York.
It was cloudy and gray on that first day of January. That’s always been my favorite kind of weather – I love the mood it sets. Timeless, directionless, calm. It just feels centered, peaceful. We four Conants were in our tiny farmhouse, each doing nothing much out of the ordinary. Without much to occupy myself, I decided to take a walk outside. All my growing up I’d spent hours upon hours in the woods in wintertime. My brother Andrew and I had so much fun as kids playing on the frozen expanses of water that lay in low spots in the forest, breaking the ice like glass and marveling over the beautiful shapes and patterns it made. Today, rather than head out to the low parts of the woods, I thought instead I would head up the hill and explore the woods just beyond the edge of our open yard. There was a stand of many uniform-sized Scotch pines that clustered together in that spot, creating a space in the woods that was unlike all others. Only recently did I learn that the trees had been planted there by the property’s previous owner. That explained the perfect, almost surreal quality to the area.
I’d been walking only a very short time when I arrived at what seemed to be the center of the trees. I drank in the vision; hundreds of pine trees, all the same shape and size, going on in each direction as far as I could see – trunks, straight and black against the snow, me in the middle. Me, nowhere. Me, anywhere. I might even have panicked as to how to get home but for the tracks I left in the snow. I was truly free to feel the essence of what it was to be here, now. The forest was quiet. Not a snap of a twig, not a rustle of a rabbit, nothing. All was softened by a foot of snow. Then, after a few moments of silence, something began to change, almost imperceptibly at first. I may have thought my ears were ringing. I do remember wondering – if only for a split second – if I might not be hearing music coming from the old house. But any wondering vanished as the phenomenon began to grow. Something was happening. I was imagining nothing. I was hearing music. Gorgeous, sophisticated music. This was very real.
I don’t remember feeling scared. I do remember feeling a sense of urgency; I knew this was a rare phenomenon and that I had to understand it as best I could, and as quickly as I could. I would be methodical and identify its elements. First, where was it coming from? I turned in circles, looking out to the branches, hearing the music flowing around me, from above, from below. From everywhere. As soon as I thought I’d found the right direction, and stood facing it, even cupping hands to ears, it would slip somehow, and it then seemed to come from another direction. And I cannot say it changed directions, it was more like it truly seemed to come from each direction equally. “Ok”, I thought, “Forget that. Just try to concentrate on what kind of music it is.” So I listened a moment more. It was contrapuntal, with several different voices. They were moving toward each other, away from each other, moving in parallel – many lines that wove themselves together in the most organic way. The first thing that came to my mind was Bach. That would have to do for now, I had to identify the instruments. I listened. Bells, clear, pure-toned bells. Yes…. No… As soon as I was satisfied with my answer, the sound morphed. Into voices. Yes, voices. Male? Female? Can’t tell. Both? Yes… No… no, wait… then again, it changed. It became horns. Pure, sine-wavelike tones that seemed to be French horns, no, kind of, but not exactly… I realized that the music was all these things at once. After I’d spent maybe three or four minutes trying to identify its components, I realized that I’d done all I could. All that was left was to simply enjoy it. To soak it in. So I just stood there, marveling. Dumbfounded and yet not. I just stood there, alone, in the music.
Within maybe a minute of having given up my efforts to identify the music, it began to fade. Now I did panic. I remember calling “No! No! Please, don’t leave!”, turning in circles, trying to recapture the source, the moment. I was begging it not to leave, and realized that tears were coming down my face. But it continued to fade, as gently as any sound could ever disappear, and then in a few more seconds, it was gone. And the woods were quiet again. Not a thing felt any different than it had just a few minutes earlier. I’m surprised I wasn’t more shaken up. Rather, I wiped away my tears, collected myself and stood there. Wow. What had just happened? Why had it happened? Did it have something to do with it being New Year’s Day?? I knew it might never make sense to me as long as I lived. But even then, I knew I had been very, very lucky that the music had chosen to come to me. It would just have to be my secret.
I didn’t spend any more time in the woods. I walked down the hill, back to our small house. Without disclosing too much, I thought I’d at least inquire whether Dad had been playing records on his mother’s ancient all-in-one stereo cabinet, as he sometimes does over the Christmas holidays (I can hear him in my mind singing in a bold voice along with the music…”dance then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the dance, said He…”) but no. He hadn’t. “Why?” my mom asks, facing the sink, finishing some dishes. “Oh, I thought I heard some music when I was out in the woods.” I answer in the most non-committal way possible. Even if he had been playing records, there’s no way that tiny box could have carried all the way out there… “Maybe you heard something from the Michel’s?” she posits. ‘Forget it’ I thought, and let it drop. I didn’t mention it again to anyone for years.
A few years later, my parents sold their home in Chicago and moved year-round to upstate New York, where they then built their dream home, just up the hill from the small cottage where we’d spent our vacations. Once, after one of my father’s Baroque concerts, a group of friends and musicians enjoyed some food and drink ‘up at the house’ afterward, as was always the tradition. A woman who’d known me all my life, and who in the early years had sung at my father’s music festival was in the group that night. Perhaps because she was a dowser, and unapologetically so, as well as being a church-going woman of gentle character (loved by all who knew her), I felt comfortable enough to tell my story. I remember Ruthie looking at me, with that smile of hers, unsurprised, listening. When I finished, no one but she had anything to say. She pointed out that the house itself stood where those trees once did. Perhaps, she suggested, that the universe may have known of things to come. Hmm. Was that all it was? A heads up? A little nod from spirit that this is an auspicious spot to build a new house? Perhaps it was part of the equation. Don’t know. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I was very lucky that day. So I’ll just take it at that.
There is a sad and beautiful song called “The Night We Called It A Day” in which the lyrics mention hearing ‘the song of the spheres’. Sometimes, when I’d sing that line, I’d think to myself that I actually had heard that song. I wondered, had Mr. Adair? Or was he just using it as a poetic lyric? Just how many people had actually heard the ‘song of the spheres?’ Besides – was that what I heard? If so – if that music had been given a name – I must be one of many who’d heard it too. I’ve googled and searched. Never found any account similar to mine. Not until this past summer. I finally met two other people who’d also had their own unique and unexplainable auditory experiences. Made me feel a little better to hear their stories. Validated. Not so crazy, not so alone. That feels good. And I’m getting braver. That feels good too.
Now I’ve told my story. A nice way to start the new year, I think. May we all grow braver in the coming year, ears attentive and hearts wide open.