Friday, April 3, 2009

Whispering in my ear--Can you miss someone you never met?

A little background:

I have a thing for stories, as you might know. And as much as I like to read, I love to hear a story, too. My mom would read to me incessantly when I was little, and long after I knew how to read to myself, she continued to read aloud to me. She read, late at night and her head nodding with fatigue, through many series--Little House, the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew. It must have been exhausting for her, after long long days at work.
But how I loved it! We shared the story together, discovering it, though in a way it also seemed almost to spring naturally from her as she spoke the words. I especially loved how her voice wrapped around the characters, made the pictures move in new ways, different from the way the pictures formed when I read to myself. Listening to those stories was pure pleasure.

I still love to hear a story. It's probably why I am an NPR addict, and I am usually a rapt listener to anyone willing telling me a narrative of their life, or even what happened to them that day. I love to hear it.

So it's not surprising that I have affection for audiobooks. I may have resisted the ipod for years past its introduction, but at the prospect of hearing podcasts of This American Life, and the Moth, and StoryCorps, well--I caved this winter, and now I'm often found wearing my earbuds, a story whispering into my ears.

The past few months I've been mining itunes for good audiobooks, and listening to a mixture of oldies and some new, more pulpy stuff. Heart of Darkness was amazing, real and thick and haunting in a way that, shamefully I admit, it wasn't before I heard it read to me. After Conrad, I wanted to go for something lighter, with the thought that it would be good to listen to while doing chores or exercising. My choice was James Patterson's Beach Road, which definitely falls into the pulpy junk pile, was disappointing and grungy.

So, in an attempt to find a middle ground, I stumbled across a mystery by Kate Wilhelm, a writer I'd never heard of before. Of course, I’ve since come to find out that she is prolific, talented, and lauded by many. I’m thrilled to know I will be able to explore her books for a long time to come.

For now, I am into Wilhelm’s books featuring character Barbara Holloway. Just as I did when I was a little girl, I still enjoy a series of stories. Mysteries are especially great in a series. While they can be cute and fun, a series can also leave lots of room for development of character and place. More importantly, they leave room for ambiguity and growth, and maybe that's why I like them so well. That, and the fact that my mom and I can exchange them between ourselves and have our own little book club.

Anyway, Kate Wilhelm's series about Barbara Holloway are like pearls on a string, each one smooth and well-constructed from the inside out, glowing. I started accidentally in the middle of the series, with The Unbidden Truth. Read by Anna Fields, it was engaging, lively, haunting. I was hooked.

I say hooked, and I mean it. As I listened, I was almost addicted to hearing what would happen next. In particular, I was drawn to this narrator, Anna Fields. Like my mother, her voice made the story move, wrapping itself into the plot and the characters so that it really did feel as though the story was being spun exactly as I was listening.

I was so taken with Anna Fields’s warm and mysterious voice and the way she gave life to Wilhelm's characters, that beyond finding other books in the series (which I did), I wanted to see what else she had given voice to.

A Google later, I learned that Anna Fields was the stagename for Kate Fleming. Like Kate Wilhelm, Kate Fleming was prolific, narrating over 200 books. And clearly, she was talented. She was asked to narrate the 9/11 Commission, and awarded honors from her peers. I also learned, with heartache, that she died in 2006, tragically trapped in her Seattle studio during a flash flood.

All of this background leads me to confess this:
In some strange way, for the past week or so, I've been feeling a certain loneliness knowing she is gone. I was puzzled over this melancholy, but I finally put a label to it: it's that I miss Kate Fleming. I know, I know--I didn’t know her at all, she is a disembodied voice in my head, and yet, I miss her. The intimacy of audio can foster that kind of connection, I suppose. I think of the way she could get inside a character, and get inside my head, and I know that the world has lost someone special.
Is it possible to miss someone you didn't know? Perhaps.
I suspect I have this lonely, loss-filled feeling about her for another reason. Because while her voice is firmly in my head, I have the sickening outside knowledge that at the same time she was making those detailed recordings, her fate was rushing toward her in a way she couldn’t know. She is stuck there in time, unknowing, but vibrant and powerful with stories each time I listen.

We are all like Kate Fleming, in a way. We are firmly in our own reality, with the voice in our own heads shaping and moving the story of our daily life forward. And it feels so permanent, like something recorded and tangible, something to be accessed again and again. But it’s not. For each of us rides on an unstoppable river--or that river flows toward us, I don't know. But I do know that the permanence of things is an illusion. Like anyone else, I shove that knowledge down each day to some hidden place so I can "get on with life." I only recognize the pull of the river again, if only for a moment, when I encounter beautiful and fleeting, something perfect and special. Something like a perfect whisper in my ears as I'm lulled into another storyland.

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Cheryl said...

I love listening to stories (and NPR) too. When I was a child it was my older sister who read to me and was one of the things that helped forge a deep bond between us.

The second part of your post...v. thought provoking...For me the impermanence of life is, in some ways comforting, a reminder to not take things so seriously. In other ways, with things and people I want to hold onto, it can be a cause of grief. I also think life is like a really good book, you can't be certain what'll happen from chapter to chapter but afterwards the events and conclusion seem inevitable. Though of course life is more complex...

Irene Latham said...

Oh, doesn't this go right along with my word of the year "Listen"?? I am happy your mother read to you -- I still read aloud every night to my 9 year old (currently The Underneath). And there is nothing better than an audiobook on a road trip. Do you have one of those little microphones for the computer? You should record yourself reading to your kids or reading poems you love... could be a bit a permanence your kids will appreciate someday when their childhoods are over and you aren't there to read to them. Just a thought. xxoo

Judy said...

I love to hear about your Mom reading to you. I enjoyed so much reading to the kids and of course we had so many books, with Gramdma Cox being a Book Buyer for Book World at that time. Just recently Tom told me he LOVED to have Meghan sit on his lap and read; it is something about returning to our younger years when we read to our daughters and they read to us! Such fond memories.

The Seeker said...

As always vey insightful your post.

To answer your title question... Yes, we can.
I miss you.

Thank you for the support on FB, lovely you.

Have a nice weekend

La Belette Rouge said...

I am amazed how close and intimate voices without faces can feel. I love being told a story. Like you I listen to TAL and the Moth. I love to listen to David Sedaris and other humourists on my I-pod. I love laughing our loud hysterically when going for a walk and having people on the street wondering if I am crazy or if I am listening to an I-pod.

angela said...

Hi Kirie

I loved to read to you when you were little and I sure enjoy our little book club today. It is so much fun to exchange ideas and books - thanks for introducing me to so many authors.

Your post is thought provoking - I have a sense of loss as time speeds by and I am still here at work instead of being with you and the girls when I want to be.

Daddy would like to have Ada read to him when we come out to visit. I want to read some more to her - did you finish Cherry Ames? And the first Bobbsey Twins?

Daddy says you are building good foundations for Ada and Esme. Kirie, he says you can help repair cracks in his foundation.

Love, Mom

Paula said...

Books have such a wonderful way of luring you into new worlds and meeting new people - I think you can definitely get so caught up that you actually miss the characters or the writer once the story has ended.

Here's to finding many more stories that draw you in to new and magical worlds. Enjoy! :)

I'll have to check out Kate Wilhelm now :)

Hilary said...

This is another one of those blogs from you, Kir, that really struck me. I think the feeling you captured is how I feel about aging and the passage of time. That rushing toward a fate we cannot know -- or it rushing toward us -- is a feeling I feel now and again and associate with "homesickness." I have no words to actually describe that gfeeling, but as I read your words, they certainly embody that feeling for me. It's that very infrequent yet very strong acute awareness of the passage of time as it's happening; it's a little melancholy, a little nostalgic, and when it passes, I'm relieved but also somehow ... I dunno, possibly "enlightened." It's very peculiar, isn't it?

Lydia said...

Kirie, this is absolutely beautiful craftsmanship. That might be a funny way of complimenting this remarkable post, but it is so well crafted that I was, once again, simply blown away by your writing style. That is one layer. The other is the story of your loving stories, and the special voices that tell them. I still don't have an ipod, hadn't heard of the author or narrator you highlighted here, but I'm thinking now that an ipod is in my future. So very sad about Anna Fields, yet I have a feeling she appreciates your connection to her.

Ironically, my latest post is about oral history, and the story-telling of my uncle. I think you'll be captivated by the short clip of his narration of a particular story.....

Gram said...

I loved this piece. Your writing about reading and listening to stories reminds me of the importance of books. The importance of becoming part of the story and it's characters and settings. Aren't you glad someone ready to you?

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