A Womb of Sound



This is the sound a child hears in her mother’s womb. It is the first sound, rising and falling in rhythm with her mother’s heart. The developing fetus is bathed in it, waves of sound coursing through her mother’s blood and organs, through the warm, amniotic fluid, crashing on the shores of sinew and bone. Kshshshshsh… It reaches the ear canal without ever once moving through air. There is a distinct crescendo as the heart beats, followed by a diminishing cascade. Kshsshsh… It falls nearly to silence. But never silence. Always the heart picks it up again, always the waves crash back in. Constant. Fluid. It is the primordial sound that belongs to every child. It belongs to you too.


Pema told me just two weeks ago that she no longer needs shushes. It was nine o’clock, bedtime, and we were snuggling. I was too tired to register much reaction, but deep inside I experienced that strange emptiness that comes with parenting. My daughter didn’t need me anymore. At least, she didn’t need my shushes.


When Pema was first born, there were few things I could directly do for her. I couldn’t feed her. I couldn’t hold her, not like mama. I couldn’t comfort her, at least not very well. I didn’t smell like mom. I smelled like an unfamiliar ape. Within minutes of holding her, Pema would be squirming for mama - tired, bedraggled mama. This was heart-breaking for me. I felt helpless, ignorant. I had spent my whole life mastering tasks and skills, and I wanted my daughter to instantly recognize how vital and important I was. She didn’t care at all.


The only thing my little child recognized was my voice. I could talk to her, soothe her. I could sing. And, I learned within that first week, I could shush. I read about it in an article titled The Five S’s, shorthand for: swaddle, side, swing, suck and shush. I tried all five, but shushing was the real magic. From the get go, I was determined to put Pema to sleep myself, so that we did not have to rely solely on mama. I would lay Pema on her side or her stomach, rock her from side to side, and shsshshshsh…


This is the sound of a river, as it drops over rocks and sticks and swirls through pools and crevasses. It is the sound of the wind through trees. It is the crunch of leaves, when strung together in one long stride. Kshkshkshksh… It is the sound we hear when we turn on a fan, or the faucet, or when a car speeds by in the distance. It is the sound of a field of grass. Put your ear to a clam shell and what do you hear? Kshshshshsh… the sound of the ocean.


At first, I had only a rudimentary understanding. I was pursing my lips in the way we might if mimicking a librarian or a teacher. It was as if I was giving a command, using the expression as a word. I puckered my mouth, clenched my teeth, and hissed. Be quiet! It was awkward, a little bit rude, and I resisted it.


But it worked. And in time, all that shushing had its effect on me too. I began to slow down and recognize myself. My tongue was softening. My mind was quieting. I was listening. I too was being soothed. Subtly, my intention transformed along with my listening, and with this simple sound I was able to communicate calm, safety and security to my sleepy child. It was as if the sound moved through me, relaxing my arms and tense nerves. Pema, wrapped in the warmth of this blanket of sound, fell asleep readily. Out and back in, waves of sound held us here, present, in love. It was magic.


I have always enjoyed sitting by a river, listening to the soft roar of turbulent water, even more so when I am anxious or frenetic. The sound fills my head. It literally occupies me, moving into my body. It’s as if my awareness is scrubbed clean by thousands of tiny grains of kshshshshshsh… A cosmic reset button. Afterward, as I walk away and the sound lifts from my awareness, I am almost always in a new place. Having traveled into the womb of sound, I am birthed back into the simplicity of sunlight and shadows, the bending leaves of grass.


Crunch, crunch, crunch. This is the sound of my feet walking on earth. The staccato rhythm mimics my heartbeat. There is a coming and going, a falling left and right, a percussiveness. But it is all the same sound. Krnchshshshsh… I drag my foot across the dirt and rocks. My mother’s heartbeat, alive.


I have been putting Pema to sleep with this sound for nearly five years now. It has poured over my palate and swirled inside my cheeks every day since she was born. I can spill it from the back of my throat, the sound of a comet in empty space. By slowly moving my tongue toward the roof of my mouth, bending the sides of my tongue flat, the pressure of the air, my breath, moves forward and the sound becomes atmosphere gliding through a rocky tunnel. Different locations in my mouth, the same sound, with unique voices. Pierced, held, at the tip of my tongue, just behind my teeth, it takes on the quality of a whistle, a high-pitched whine like the mysterious sound of idle electronics.


Fully exhaled, my lungs pull the sound back in with a slow rise of my diaphragm. I hold the sound at my teeth, then shape it with my lips into a widening curl. Ksshshshsh… The air, dropping like a wave, splashes and rolls in every direction, reverberating through my nasal cavity, off the pockets of my cheeks. Wide open lips, my throat feels cool as I inhale, “ahhhhhhhh…”


The sound is not one sound. It is a cacophony, a turbulence, a gray wash of noise. We sometimes call it white noise, but I think gray or brown is a better word. White light is pure and calm, undifferentiated. Kshshshsh… is the sound of broken glass, a thousand leaves rustling. It is millions of tiny everythings. When I pick up a handful of brown sand and hold it very, very close, it reveals a splendid diversity of texture and color. There are smooth shapes and jagged shapes, rose colors and greens, blue and black. White is color distilled, untainted. Brown is every color imaginable.


If I could listen to each tiny grain of sand, as it dropped from my hand to the earth, it would resonate with a note particular to its shape and size. Plunk, plink, plink. There is music in everything. Everything makes a sound. But if I pour the whole handful at one time, kshshshsh…, a great multiplicity of noise erupts, so complex, so chaotic, that my ears cannot distinguish the individual grains of noise. The crash of millions of sound waves. A motion of sound so complex that the individual tones disappear into the background. All I hear is the primordial hiss of the universe. Breath. Cosmic dust. The friction of air.


When we experience this at high volumes, it is terrifying. The sound of Niagara Falls. The eerie sound of a television tuned into nothing in particular. The background radiation of the universe. It is a great unknowing, awful in the original sense of the word: fearful, mighty wonder.


When Pema was about a year old, I began talking with other parents about shushing. “Of course!” they seemed to say, “everyone knows this.” That’s why it’s one of the Five S’s. I learned that I could buy a white noise machine, or get an app on my phone. In fact, lots of children’s toys came with some variety of this sound built into the light-up, push-and-pull action. “Right,” I thought, “duh.” I planned on getting something. I talked about it. For weeks and months, and perhaps even years, I thought about it. But for some reason I never did.


When Pema told me she no longer needed shushing to go to sleep, I felt a small pang of loss. But truth be told, I felt perfectly satisfied. This was something, after all, that had remained wordless between us since she was born. We referred to it as “shushing,” but we never really talked about it. There was no need to. So when Pema told me she didn’t need me to do it anymore, I instantly knew she was right. I didn’t even really respond, except to say, “okay.”


The pattern has been set. It was there long before I ever made a sound. It was there in Megan’s womb, when mama’s heart was bigger than the whole baby. Kshshsshshssh… It must have risen slowly, so subtle and ethereal, at first. Surely, there was no sound for Pema at the moment of conception. It must have taken months to develop all the inner ear bones and tympanic membranes, to test and execute the signals along her developing network of nerves, to organize and awaken the organs of sound in her brain. All those crossed signals, the tiny executions of molecules building blocks upon blocks upon blocks, fluid in the ear. Everything makes a noise. When did she first hear it? Did it come like a sudden switch, an instant recognition? Seems doubtful. It must have taken countless technicians to equalize all those different systems, the fits and starts, till she heard the regular rhythm of her mother’s heartbeat. Constant, unchanging.


I hope that Pema will remember me shushing her. She’s old enough now to have memories that will last into adulthood. I like to think that the sound will soothe her for the rest of her life, even if unconsciously. The static snap and pop of dry cottonwood leaves shaking in the sunlight. Kshsshshssh… I have already had future conversations with my adult daughter about it all. You, me, the mystery of it all. A cup of tea in a future house, at a future visit. Tears in my eyes.


“Pema,” I’ll say, only half-modestly, “the sound was yours well before you ever heard it from me. You listened to it twenty-four hours a day in your mother’s womb. But even before that, you were surrounded by it. It’s there every time the wind blows, every time you turn on the heat fan in your car. It’s the sound of the Rio Hondo plunging into the gorge. Everything. It is the most cosmic and awful, the most mundane. Rub your hands together. Your fingerprints scrape the sound off like flakes of dry skin. Touch the sand. Listen. The wind is blowing through the grass, singing you a song. It’s not me. It belongs to you.”


I’ll be lying through my teeth.