Angels and Molecules

The other day my wife, Ana, and I went out for a few hours. When we came back, we parked the car, entered through the downstairs garage door, came up to the first floor and into the living room. Where we saw our intrepid dog Ben, standing on the back of the living room couch, gazing out the window. Waiting.

To explain: Ana is the center of Ben's universe, the sun around which all his planets revolve. She is his oxygen, his A to Z, his why the universe exists. He was waiting for her.

But Ben has gone deaf. He had somehow missed seeing the car's approach, and hadn't heard it come down the drive, or the motorized grind of the garage door opening, or our footsteps up the stairs. As far as he knew, we were still gone.


Moments after I snapped this picture, I clapped, loud enough for him to hear, and he turned his head and saw Ana -- and his little dog face broke into an ecstatic OMG, why didn't someone tell me?! and all was right with the world.

It made me think of Beethoven.

Late in life, Beethoven was attending the premier of his ninth (and final) symphony. "Attending" is perhaps not the right word. Although he was by this time deaf as a board, he strongly felt he should be on hand to guide the musicians along in this huge and enormously challenging composition, so he stood right up there on stage, by the conductor, and gestured like crazy throughout the performance, doing his utmost to shape the right tempi and dynamics and phrasing -- even though he could not hear a note.

After the last chord was sounded, the composer stood on the stage, breathing heavily, facing the orchestra. The audience, who had never heard anything like this before (nor, for that matter, had anyone on the planet), erupted into raucous, deafening applause.

The composer was oblivious. He had no idea anyone was even clapping. The mezzo-soprano soloist had to approach him (with tears in her eyes, and can you blame her?) and tug on his arm to get him to turn around and see the thunderous response his music has evoked.

This got me thinking:

What if we're all like Ben and Beethoven?

What if we are surrounded by all the applause, but just don't hear it? If the center of our universe, the thing we love most, has already arrived and is standing there watching us, but we just don't know it yet?

I remember as a teenager, taking a walk one morning in my neighborhood, going blocks and blocks in my quiet suburban town, a Sunday, hardly anyone about. I'd been reading about physics and metaphysics and different thinkers' understandings of how reality was assembled. I remember stopping, standing, and gazing out along a path down to a field.

It suddenly hit me that I was surrounded by billions, trillions, quadrillions of molecules, atoms, particles, all buzzing and humming and soaring in orbits around each other, vibrating like mad. I was a musician and student of acoustics, and I knew this basic fact of life: vibration makes noise. I was standing in the midst of the most colossal symphony imaginable. I just couldn't hear it.

Although for those few moments, it felt as if I almost did.

There is an ancient tradition in Bali which holds that a gamelan orchestra, that most mesmerizing of human musical ensembles, doesn't "make" its music. No, say the Balinese, that rippling stream of rhythm and melody is already happening, already going on, all around us, all the time. The job of the gamelan musicians is not to create the music, but simply to catch it, like a crystal set picking up radio waves and stepping them down to audible form.

What if we are surrounded by symphonies?

What if our ancestors, departed parents, and all those loved ones who have shuffled off before us are in fact standing right beside us, beaming with pleasure at our antics, cheering us on?

What if throngs of angels are stomping and hooting and laughing and shouting, exuberant as a sold-out Bruce Springsteen auditorium just to be there watching us, applauding our every mundane move like a chorus of thunderclaps?

You know, I think they may be.

You can almost hear them, can't you?