Listening through a wall with a glass

You have probably heard the story of how, as a POW during the Vietnam War, Sen. John McCain tapped messages through his prison wall to his fellow American prisoner, Ernest Brace. The conversation started with McCain tapping out “Shave and a haircut,” and Brace replying, “Two bits.” Later, holding a tin cup to the wall, they would recite movies to each other, among other things.

“When you are talking through a wall it’s like a confessional booth,” Brace said. “You say things you probably would never tell anybody but in a confessional.”

Just before Christmas, NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast Terry Gross’s interview with Nick Lowe about his new Christmas album, called Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection For All The Family.

Songwriters are always asked about their writing process, and their answers typically boil down to either “music first, then lyrics” or “lyrics first, then music.” They become distracted and vague when asked to articulate where the ideas come from. However, when Terry Gross asked Nick Lowe to repeat an intriguing analogy of his that she had read somewhere, he said this:

I describe it as like being in an apartment with kind of thin walls, and in the apartment next door they’ve got a radio tuned, constantly on, tuned to a really cool radio station. It’s on all the time, and you can just hear it coming through the wall all the time. And then one day, they program a new tune, and it really catches your ear, you know, because you can be doing the washing up or something, you know in your apartment, and suddenly you go, “Whoa, what are they playing in there?” And you run to the wall, but it’s finished. The song’s finished, and you only heard enough of it just to pique your interest, and you never know when they’re gonna play it again, of course, like a normal radio station.

So you can be about your business and then on it comes again — and this time, you’re ready, and you’ve got a wine glass or something, and you put the glass up to the wall and you can hear through the wall a little bit more of the song, maybe just the middle bit, this time. You know, you manage to get a little bit of the end. And so it goes on, until — because you’ve just got to, you really just want to sing it, you want to sing this song — and so it goes on, until eventually, after however long it can take — sometimes a few days, sometimes months — you piece the whole thing together.

And I think the best songs that come to me are ones that you sort of listen for, the ones– When I listen to some of my old stuff, I can tell when I had a good idea, but I forced it through and I can hear myself, the bit that I’ve written, which sounds clunkier than the stuff that just sort of comes. And the older I get, the more I think it’s this listening, you listen for it, and you have a bit of patience, and it’ll come, until it sounds — to me, the best songs I’ve written, I think, are ones that I can’t hear any of myself in it. It sounds like a cover song, like somebody else’s song, really something you’ve stolen, wholesale, off a radio that you’ve listened to in someone else’s flat.

Ironically, a little later in the interview, Lowe performed his song “I Was Born In Bethlehem,” which he said sort of came to him in a dream — yet it seems possible the radio in the next apartment that day had been playing “If I Only Had a Brain.”

In any case, this trope of messages coming through from some mysterious “other side” is a compelling concept. Psychic mediums make their livings off of people yearning for any additional scraps of information that can be coaxed through the veil of death. Giant radio receivers scan the cosmos for any tidbit of coherent communication.

The first chapter of Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, the third installment of Carlos Castaneda’s book series about the teachings of a Yaqui sorcerer, is called “Reaffirmations from the World Around Us”:

   “Do you think that one can stop smoking or drinking that easily?” I asked.
   “Sure!” he said with great conviction.” Smoking and drinking are nothing. Nothing at all if we want to drop them.”
   At that very moment the water that was boiling in the coffee percolator made a loud perking sound.
   “Hear that!” don Juan exclaimed with a shine in his eyes. “The boiling water agrees with me.”
   Then he added after a pause, “A man can get agreements from everything around him.”
   At that crucial instant the coffee percolator made a truly obscene gurgling sound.
   He looked at the percolator and softly said, “Thank you,” nodded his head, and then broke into a roaring laughter.

During his 1988 documentary series with mythology expert Joseph Campbell, journalist Bill Moyers asked about receiving assistance from beyond:

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of—- being helped by hidden hands?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time — namely, that if you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

As in Nick Lowe’s analogy, these messages are sometimes explained as a sort of special radio broadcast that one must tune into in order to receive them.

But not all messages are benevolent. One well-known paranoid delusion is called the “Influencing Machine,” a diabolically sophisticated contraption used by supposed remote persecutors to torment the victim — who may resort to wearing a tin foil hat to block the transmissions.

In meditation, mental clarity is acheived by disregarding all thoughts as they bubble up into one’s consciousness. This week, however, NPR aired the story of a man trapped in his body for 12 years. During this ordeal, Martin Pistorius says he first let his thoughts go and essentially vanished, but then gradually began to challenge the messages of despair and doom that besieged him, and thereby put himself back together — to the extent that he is now a published author (Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body) and a very happily married man. Host Lulu Miller theorizes that his engagement of these messages paved his road back from utter isolation:

So how is it that Martin has been able to achieve all this? Now, I don’t want to oversimplify it because it was many things – Martin’s naturally strong will, flukes of electricity in the brain, a really dedicated family. But I do think that his decision to lean back into those thoughts way back when, instead of just spending his life detaching, in some way helped him, in part because it probably kept his mind occupied and allowed him to emerge this kind of well-oiled machine of mental ability, but also because I think his leaning into those dark thoughts in particular gave him a kind of self-understanding and humor about the human condition that allowed him to snag the very best thing in his life.

And the messaging goes both ways. Just as we consult oracles, hold glasses to walls, and tune radios hoping to receive some sort of communication, we also put messages in bottles, tap out “shave and a haircut,” record songs, produce movies, write books, post to our blogs, and type tweets on the chance that they may speak to someone, somewhere, on the other side.

These notions have been haunting me since that Nick Lowe interview. Is there really something on the other side of the wall? Is a broadcaster trying to communicate with us? Or is it just a handy illusion — like, say, the way a screenwriter might split his internal deliberations into two characters who appear to converse. Are we really just talking to ourselves? In other words, if we were able to trace this mysterious call, would we find that it is coming from inside our own house?

I have been reading a book called Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology, by Udo Schnelle. After piecing together the limited fragments we have of Paul’s biography and then working through Paul’s genuine letters chronologically, and often line by line, Schnelle then begins to tackle an explanation of Paul’s theology.

The fixed center of Paul’s theology, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus. Paul has practically nothing to say about Jesus’s life, teachings, or ministry (after all, he never met Jesus, the man). Paul’s life-changing revelation at Damascus — and all of his preaching thereafter — is grounded completely in the fact of God’s raising the executed Jesus from the dead.

Jesus was killed. He was dead — and then he was restored to life. What am I supposed to make of this? How can I believe something I can’t even comprehend? There is a very obvious problem of how to process this information, and Schnelle states it plainly:

How is something supposed to be the foundation of my faith and thus of my understanding of reality if it cannot be brought into some relation to my reality?

Schnelle starts cautiously approaching Jesus’s resurrection as a “transcendent event,” something outside of human reality. Attempting to meet him halfway and at least get some weak grip on what he might be talking about, I wrack my imagination trying to come up with any experience remotely similar to the idea of a dead man brought back to life. I’ve got nothing.

Then he writes this:

Human beings live in a world that is ultimately out of their reach, a world that was there before them and will be there after they are gone. They can experience the world but not simply fuse themselves with it. The differences between experiences of one’s own “I” and experiences that transcend one’s self result not only in experiences of difference but in experiences of transcendence. Every experience at its core points to something absent and foreign to oneself, which evokes an experience of transcendence along with the experience of “ordinary” things.

My hair stands up. This transcendence, this “something absent” is the other side of the wall. This paragraph spells out our yearning and the barrier we long to breach.

Suddenly, I remember something. My dad died in 1980. Nevertheless, one uneventful afternoon about ten years later, I was looking out my apartment window at the street below, and he drove by, smoking a cigarette in his own customary manner. I did not recognize the car, and nothing else happened. He disappeared down the street.

I mean, sure, it must have just been some guy who closely resembled my dad. But for that moment, I was experiencing a dead man come back to life. Surely this offers at least a hint in the direction of the resurrection which so many people say they accept. Did they have to drag their concrete brains up this same mental mountain — or have they just accepted the terms of the agreement without reading it, just pressed “Like” without clicking through?

Then I remembered something else. A few years before my dad died, my first serious girlfriend, Joyce, broke up with me. I was absolutely shattered. Soon after, in the midst of my anguish, I looked out my bedroom window to see Joyce laughing and hanging out with friends in the park across the street where our whole teenage circle often gathered. I couldn’t believe her insensitivity. I marched right over to the park, where I began asking her to please hang out anywhere but in front of my house for a while. While I was talking, it began to dawn on me that although this girl very closely resembled Joyce, she was not, in fact, Joyce — another absolutely unreal moment, and a beautiful total stranger regarding me as a lunatic.

Turning back to Apostle Paul, I read next:

Thus, for example, love and pain (through the separation or death of a loved one) are experiences that are beyond us and nevertheless permeate and determine our lives; they transcend our previous experience of reality and evoke both the capacity and the necessity of meaning formation.

Bingo. Have you ever had the sensation that some invisible person has put a book in front of your face at exactly the moment you need to be reading it? It was like a message through the wall explaining messages through walls. Shave and a haircut? Two bits.

The resurrection, though, is going to take more trudging, if I ever do make it. I’m not looking to sign up, just to understand what is being said. Jesus died for our sins but then was resurrected to become our salvation? I can’t make heads nor tails of it at all — and not for lack of trying.

Occasionally, though, there is a little breakthrough.

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