On Windchimes

I've never owned a windchime in my life, but then again, I've never felt I had to. Windchimes don't seem to me to be the sorts kind of things that people own. They're not private. Rather, I believe people harbor them, host them, and that they belong properly to the neighborhood of sonic territory.

[The small Eastern chime hanging from a pine branch in the winter sun.]
There are two windchimes in my life right now. I couldn't be happier. Windchimes are an invitation, a crack in the wall to the outside world. Windchimes can linger at the corners of your perception, or strike you all at once like a meditation bell. Windchimes stretch their sounds out like small fingers to beckon through your window, drifting mysterious songs round corners, down alleyways, past porches and houses. Like fog lingering on drains, licking tinkling tongues into the corners of the evening, they chime only sometimes when the wind blows just peculiarly, constantly changing repeating never repeating atonal chords forming invisible bonds of attention. Wind chimes reveal why porches were made.

I still remember my favorite windchime of all time, a moment in time that caught me by surprise. I was walking westward from St Paul to Minneapolis along Como Avenue in St Anthony Park. There is a long hill sloping down from a little neighborhood node, descending toward the border between the two cities. On top of the hill sits a Lutheran seminary, its vast green fields running up toward a reclusive and unapproachable building perched like an owl on the hill. Opposite runs a wide sidewalk lined with tall green hedges and tasteful grand houses with rich views of the urban expanse that opens flatly out to the west. I was noticing all of this on my stroll in the evening, at the moment when the sun starts to slump and shadows stretch out their arms, when a breeze appeared. The most beautiful windchime I've ever ever encountered started singing.

I was arrested. I lingered there for a minute or two listening, feeling the breeze whispering my cheek. Wind itself is an invisible continual force that makes its presence known only in its effects: a ripple on water or a billowing clothesline prisoner. To host a windchime is to try and mark the wind, to trace its contours and give them form, map them musically for benefit of a small world of ears. This chime was harmonically impeccable. Its music spoke to me and beautifully danced slowly on its way across the street.

Where lay its perfection? Was it the chime itself? Perhaps a work of crafstmanship from the finest artisanal chimer in the land? (In that aesthete neighborhood, it would come as no surprise.) Or was it the wind at that moment? Did it blow in just such a way, bouncing round buildings and through certain trees to strike its blow at an exact speed and angle, forming a musical chordal pattern untouched ever again?

There has long been a relationship between bells and neighborhoods. Look at any old sketch of a city, in the era before we scraped the sky away, and what sticks out are the steeples. They point upward, flinging your attention higher than houses and into the clouds of imagination. But steeples were also instruments housing bells. Churches marked out their neighborhoods with song, rang out on the hour or on the week to demarcate celebrations and remembrances.  Bells ringing out to remind the halfway pious. Audible guilt, declarations of community. I like to think that in the old days before the ubiquitous personal soundtrack, they marked a territory, they formed a neighborhood. Consider yourself lucky if you live near a ringing steeple. It's the aural mark of urban life.

This last August, I moved to a new neighborhood on a bluff overlooking the river. Yes, there is a church steeple a half block away, visible out my study window. It rings the hours, quietly keeps time. Some evenings it will be lit from within. I'm not a church goer myself, but that hardly seems necessary in order to rest my comfort on the beautiful building.

My apartment also lies in the terrain of two windchimes, like the overlap in a Venn diagram. There is one ringing from the east, and one from the south. The eastern chime must be hanging somewhere in the low houses next door. This chime was the first one that I heard. It's a high chime, that rings quick windward replies. The proper verbs are tingle, tinkle, shimmer, and glisten. Even in the winter, I can hear it chime faintly through my doubly closed window, and it reminds me that there is a world outside waiting for me. It calls me out of bed, out of the doors of my apartment. It invites me into the world, saying hey high hey high glee hi over and again in a random everchanging nonsense music.

I didn't notice the southern chime until quite recently, one night when I was out on my back porch overlooking the back ends of the homes that close round my tall backyard cottonwood tree like a nest. This chime was low and long and lingering, slow repeating clustered tones. It lurked and was mournful. When I hear this chime it seems like ghosts. It somehow channels memories and emotions into my throat, a night time chime making sure I don't forget I'm never alone. It's beautiful in the sad ways of a minor key, and I love it more than anything.

Occasionally the two chimes will ring simultaneously, overlapping off beat, each ringing out toward me like ripples in a pond. I stand there in the middle staring off at the leafless winter trees and letting the sounds bounce off me like raindrops, the music of the city, the sound of time, the map of the invisible wind.


Anonymous said...

What a nice contemplation on wind chimes! You have given me a new appreciation for them. I also like church bells and miss living near any. Another (urban?) sound I enjoy and have always lived near is the train whistle.

Unknown said...

Amazing choice of words to decribe the experience with wind chimes. It was wonderfully crafted like a novel with so many possible meanings. You see, wind chimes are like that too. They look so simple yet can have so much influence on a person through the sounds they produce. :)
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