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Thought-Diving: An Essay photo

“Chances that a deep breath inhaled today will contain a molecule from Julius Caesar’s dying breath: 99 in 100 (Apr ’89) #HarpersIndex”

--Harper’s, March 14, Tweet.


“Hearing the sound of your breathing as you sleep,
with the dog at your feet, his head resting
on a shoe, and the clock's ticking
like water dripping in a sink
-- I know that, even if reincarnation were a fact,
given the inherent cruelty of the world
where beautiful things and people
are blasted apart all the day long,
I would never want to come back, knowing
I could never be this lucky twice...”

--Bruce Dawe


Eight years ago in the Gulf of Aqaba I sat in a bakery. The town of Eilat is small but scenic, with the white hot sands near the ocean water baking in a sun that is also touching the massive mountains of Jordan, the buttery light melting down the sides of the imposing peaks and mixing in the ocean like oil-wet water. Three hours north, cold air billows in over the dividing wall of Palestine and Israel. I called for a taxi. The first one that heard me stopped, and I argued long enough to get a decent deal on the ride.

We began our drive back to what some describe as The Holy City, or Jerusalem, or the City of David, or al-Quds.

 “God willing, one hour,” said my driver.

I leaned back into the dry, sunbaked, cracked leather of the old Mercedes. Echoes of Allah and God is Great reached my ears, only partially translated by my limited knowledge of the local dialect.

A man walked into that bakery one hour later strapped with confusion and resentment and loyalty and misguided spiritual and political vigor. The explosion from his chest took the lives of three other people in the bakery that day. The pastries and door hinges and mixers and chairs and so-sweet-it’s-almost-cloying baklava and sounds and breaths and human responses all melted softly in the backdraft of white-hot heat as the windows snapped with hairline fractures running every direction. Their lives were lost and moved from one sphere to another like a whisper into the ears of death himself. 

 I breathed in deeply, not knowing at the time I was breathing in the lives of all those at the café, those I sat with just moments before, molecules sliding from the rubble of the explosion into my lungs, bones nestling behind bones. It turns out the chances of my breathing in three other lives that day were 99 in 100. Not just Argon from breath, or a unification of all breathing things, but I breathed them in at over 10,000 meters a second, an incredible velocity of detonation. The sound of the blast was moving at 797 mph, and I don’t recall hearing anything. Perhaps I did.

The minarets came to life as we came over the hill and down into a valley awash with the quietest snow I had ever witnessed. January in the City of David, and the snow was blurring all auditory details, muffling my navigation of the city’s depths.


“We are excited to work with Maine hunters and non-hunters to ban the inhumane, unsporting and reckless practices of bear baiting, hounding and trapping. Dumping millions of pounds of pizza, jelly donuts and rotting food into the woods – to lure in bears for an easy kill – is wildlife mismanagement at its worst, providing heaps of supplemental food for bears and training them to raid garbage and other human food sources.” 

--Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting

My niece Gracie asked me what sound bears make when they bite into a jelly donut. She was born partially deaf, and her words slide into one another as she speaks and signs. I told her to put on her ears, so she grabbed her hearing aids and slid them in, having just been swimming in the lake by the cottage. I made the best jelly donut sound I could, and ended up spitting everywhere. She laughed, took her ears off, and went back out to swim.

I thought of how we use duck calls to lure ducks to their deaths; of using the sound of an elk in pain to bring it to its own pain, its own end; of using food to lure in the great bears of Maine. There are ethics to hunting, and there are ethics to sound. Gracie is protected from this, but not the ducks. Not the elk.

Animals, just like humans, use music to communicate. The finback whale uses the SOFAR Channel in the ocean (no, it isn’t a cheeky acronym simply saying sounds go So Far as I’d first hoped, but rather it is the Sound Fixing and Ranging channel). The great blue whale uses this same channel.


“In 1935, a simplified explanation of the challenges of supersonic flight led to the creation of the term "sound barrier," which seemed to imply a physical wall that could not be overcome. Bullets and cannon balls had exceeded the speed of sound for hundreds of years, but the question loomed as to whether or not a plane—or a man—could withstand the pressures that accompanied it”

--Taylor Redd

“The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”

--Chuck Yeager, who in 1947 became the first pilot confirmed to have traveled faster than sound.


Gracie loves horses. She is now at the University of Kentucky. A few weeks ago one of her friends posted on Facebook about Secretariat:

“The vet that performed the necropsy on Secretariat works at UK. The average horse heart weighs 9-12 pounds. He said Secretariat's heart weighed 22 pounds. So freakin cool.”

Normally the human heart beats 60 - 100 times per minute.


My friend calls me Shogun. He thinks it’s hilarious. He also calls me Yankee Ninja. He lives and teaches English in Northern Japan.

I heard him one morning praying. I didn’t ask what he was doing. I just listened.

“Scattered throughout Northern Japan around the Yamagata Prefecture are two dozen mummified Japanese monks known as Sokushinbutsu, who caused their own deaths in a way that resulted in their mummification. The practice was first pioneered by a priest named Kuukai over 1000 years ago at the temple complex of Mount Koya, in Wakayama prefecture. Kuukai was founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, which is the sect that came up with the idea of enlightenment through physical punishment. A successful mummification took upwards of ten years. It is believed that many hundreds of monks tried, but only between 16 and 24 such mummifications have been discovered to date.”


Monks that lived centuries before my friend slowly took away their own music, their own sound. Their heart rates were closer to 55 beats per minute, and their prayers were closer to breaking the heaven-earth barrier than mine, I’m sure. No wind. Just silence. Ten years to reach the ultimate silence.


There's a really good chance that right now you're breathing in the same Argon molecules Beethoven breathed, but more likely you'll never hear the sound of his voice. You can, however, hear the sound of his music. And oddly enough, Beethoven's best music was composed when he was nearing his most silent times.


I spoke once with Gracie in Northern Pennsylvania on a trip to her grandparent’s farm.



Gracie: “What is the most silent thing you’ve ever heard?”



I didn’t know how to answer that. She can’t hear the real quiet things. But she knows a lot about the beauty of silence.


I often wonder how long I can outrun the sound waves of that prayer in the bakery that day from the man determined to find silence. Maybe I’ve been close to hearing that prayer a few times.

“Speed of Sound: speed at which sound waves propagate through different materials. In particular, for dry air at a temperature of 0 °C (32 °F), the modern value for the speed of sound is 331.29 metres (1,086.9 feet) per second. The speed of sound in liquid water at 8 °C (46 °F) is about 1,439 metres (4,721 feet) per second.”

--Encyclopedia Britannica

That means sound travels about a mile every five seconds or so. It should have only taken that blast 300 seconds to reach me, or thereabouts. That’s how close I was. However, it was pretty windy that day.

I imagine those in the café could only hear themselves breathing one last time. Or perhaps they heard something else. But I’m sure some human cry was made to me as I drove away from that bakery. Perhaps I didn’t hear it for the sound of my own breath. Perhaps the sound reached a barrier it couldn’t move past. Perhaps the speed of the car outmatched the speed of the bomb’s noise at that distance. I’m not sure. I just kept going.


 “Aeolus keeper of the winds,
and he could calm or rouse them, as he wished.
With a shining silver cord he lashed that bag 
inside my hollow ship, so as to stop
even the smallest breath from getting out.
He also got a West Wind breeze to blow
to carry ships and men on their way home.
But that’s not how things happened to turn out—….”

“They untied the bag. All the winds rushed out—
storms winds seized them, swept them out to sea,
in tears, away from their own native land.
At that point I woke up. Deep in my heart                                                                    
I was of two minds—I could jump overboard
and drown at sea or just keep going in silence…”

--Homer, The Odyssey


“Even sound seemed to fail in this air, like the air was worn out with carrying sounds so long. A dog’s voice carries further than a train, in the darkness anyway. And some people’s.” 

--Faulkner, The Sound and The Fury


Some say we choose what we want to hear. That’s not true for Gracie. She tries her hardest to hear every possible thing she can. She says she’d like to hear the Tibetan monks chant their Oms in their ancient temples. She says she’s fascinated that a people found a way to turn sound into a religion. God has become a vibration of the larynx.

“The sound appears to have first cropped up in the Upanishads, a collection of sacred texts that inform Hinduism. The Mandukya Upanishad, which is entirely devoted to om, begins like this: ‘Om is the imperishable word. Om is the universe, and this is the exposition of om. The past, the present, and the future, all that was, all that is, all that will be is om. Likewise, all else that may exist beyond the bounds of time, that too is om.’ That pretty much covers it; om is big indeed.

“That sense of infinity you feel as that final "mmm" gradually fades into nothing is enhanced by what many call the fourth syllable of om (sorry, trinity-lovers!): silence. ‘So often in my classes we will sound om, letting those three-voiced parts go very consciously through the cathedral of the mouth, and then sit for a moment in that silence after and simply observe what that feels like,’ Bhavani says.”

-- Valerie Reiss

The sound was sucked out of those lives in the bakery so quickly they had no time to send up a spoken prayer. But a vibration?

I told her they've just turned sound into a prayer. No words. Just sound. Then I remember al-Quds and that snow and it's glorious prayer of silence.


“SOFAR Channel: In full sound fixing and ranging channel, zone of minimum sound speed in the oceans that occurs at depths of approximately 1,000 metres (3,300 feet). In this region, pressure, temperature, and salinity combine to inhibit the movement of sound through the water medium. If a sound is generated by a point source in the SOFAR zone, it becomes trapped by refraction. Dispersed horizontally rather than in three directions, the sound is able to travel slowly over great distances. Hydrophones lowered to this depth many kilometres from the origin of the sound are able to detect the sound pulse.”

--Encyclopedia Britannica

The finback and blue whale have been known to dive down to the deepest parts of the ocean, to this channel, in order to sing to their own kind.


"Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."

--McCarthy, The Road


“Like other whales, males make long, loud, low-frequency sounds. The vocalizations of blue and fin whales are the lowest-frequency sounds made by any animal. Most sounds are frequency-modulated (FM) down-swept infrasonic pulses from 16 to 40 hertz frequency (the range of sounds that most humans can hear falls between 20 hertz and 20 kilohertz). Each sound lasts one to two seconds, and various sound combinations occur in patterned sequences lasting 7 to 15 minutes each. The whale then repeats the sequences in bouts lasting up to many days.”

--SOFAR Channel, Wikipedia

They can hear one another from over 300 miles away.

Gracie likes to be right next to me when I talk.

We wonder together what it would be like to press our heads up against Secretariat’s chest after the Baltimore Preakness, to hold our hand against the heaving withers and just listen. Listen to that heart pound away, vibrating the very dirt from the tip of the crest down to the muddy hooves.

The blue whale’s heartbeat can be heard from two miles away. Its heart weighs over 1,300 pounds. Michael Phelps could swim through its arteries, and so could you. It only beats 5 to 6 times a minute while at the surface, and 3 times while diving.


"I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he don't attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can't fashion the plummet that will. I'm not talking of Mr Emerson now—but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began."

--Herman Melville


My eyes have been blood shot since that day in the bakery, but only because of astigmatism in my left pupil. Light bends oddly in that eye.

I can’t seem to figure out how to dive deep enough to solve my leaving that bakery earlier than I planned.

Maybe people in the cafe heard nothing but a prayer before death. Maybe they heard shouts and crumbling rubble first. Maybe they heard the minarets humming in the distance.


"You have to carry the fire.

I don't know how to.

Yes you do.

Is it real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I don’t know where it is.

Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it."

--McCarthy, The Road


“Backdraft: a phenomenon in which a fire that has consumed all available oxygen suddenly explodes when more oxygen is made available, typically because a door or window has been opened.”

--New Oxford American Dictionary


I didn't hear it for a while, but the sound of that blast eventually reached me. Where I was it was snowing. The snow was snowing and the wind was nonexistent and the trees were spikes in the hard ground, shooting up into the sky and swallowing the clouds. And I eventually did make it home. I opened my bag and found the right wind.

And since then the world has attempted to mummify this memory of mine, to perform Sokushinbutsu, to make it less alive, less real. I sometimes think of the prayer call from those beautiful white-stoned minarets calling out God is Great before the thick light pools in the cold, white stones at my ankles. I imagine the bodies of those from the bakery wimpling softly in the cool depths of the Gulf of Aqaba, sinking deep into the SOFAR channel and sounding out their siren call to the colossal blue whales plying their giant souls through the waters, moving through the cool lightless depths, their massive hearts throbbing with a measured hum, pulsing in the curtained black before they rise for one more breath.

Since that day eight years ago I’ve been having trouble breathing. I need more oxygen. Perhaps my friends do as well. They will certainly live to fly another day, those people in the bakery. We all will unknowingly carry their souls forever, breathing in their molecules, their life nestled into ours. Their bones nestled behind ours. We now carry the fire for them. They are simply looking for more oxygen, to enter into our bodies and breathe deep with us. Their prayers are still fluting the mountains to the east and west of that bakery; their supreme vibrations are still humming in the riverbeds, in the amber currents, alive only as maps of the world in its becoming. And they cannot be put back. I cannot make things right again. But I’m still looking for a window to break.

And in the end all we really do through this crazy, waking life is listen to one another hum onward, to our four chambers pulsing yawning thrums. We breathe in one life after another and dismiss the horror and move on at an incredible rate without taking stock of the barriers, whether we’re pumping past them or falling just short. We dive as deep as we can and hope somebody is listening to our cry, our call across the blanketed deep.

I’ll never return, because a man can’t be that lucky twice. Or so I’m told.

image: Tara Wray