What the sound was, was two otters (I think it was two) swimming, and barking, in the water beneath the ice. My friends and I reasoned that the ice created a big echo chamber, and the otters were perhaps barking for the same reason we yell, "Hello!" in a canyon.
What it sounded like was something akin to sonar mixed with the bellowing of a seal. But that doesn't begin to cover it, because the sound was ... so big. It sounded like the lake was an enormous mouth, talking.
Just when I thought this place couldn't astonish me further.
I've seen an eagle lift into flight not twenty feet away, and felt the wind from his wings. I've heard the call of ruddy ducks, not quacking, but sweet and plaintive. I've seen a mole - a dead one, but perfectly formed with soft gray fur, tiny hands and a small fleshy flower on the tip of his nose.
I've heard the sound of ice cracking down the length of the lake, another amazing noise, like gun-shot and thunder.
Annie Dillard says this is a clue to the meaning of my life: "You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment."
I can live with that. Sometimes I think I read novels, and write them, simply because I want, in the largest possible sense, to get it. I remember something I heard once in La Jolla, California, a favorite vacation spot for my family when I was young. (Younger. I meant younger.) Speaking to a girl my age who lived there, I gushed, "You are so lucky. You see this amazing, immense, crashing ocean every day." With whales in the distance, and dolphins, and tide pools filled with mysterious creatures, and surf so loud you can't think, you can only feel. Her reply was, "After a while, you don't notice."
It seemed wrong - a shame, certainly, but less like something to be regretted, and more like something to be repented. It was an insult to something holy. To Someone holy.
But there are things I don't notice. Maybe a little less than there might be, because I am a writer, and I'm always thinking how to describe things. Still, if I really understood what lay before me every day, if I had eyes to see and ears to hear, wouldn't I go around gob-smacked all the time?
One day, I'll get it.
Meanwhile, I'm going to need a lot of stories. I'm going to need Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and Walter Wangerin's In The Days of Angels. I'm going to need the novels of Bonnie Grove, and Patti Hill, and Latayne Scott, and Sharon Souza and Debbie Fuller Thomas. I'm going to need a lot of authors who at least get it a little bit, to give voice to their astonishment so that in their light I can see the beauty before my eyes.
Without these writers, I am at the mercy of the marketers who tell me what is beautiful based on what they manufacture that they want me to buy. With that kind of propaganda, I might look at an ailing old woman without her teeth, and be repelled or amused, but fail to be amazed at the beauty Wangerin sees:
"Odessa Williams was frowning—frowning and nodding, frowning with her eyes squeezed shut, frowning, you see, with fierce pleasure, as though she were chewing a delicious piece of meat." (From In the Days of Angels.)
When I see you, or you see me, we might notice things the magazines have trained us to see, like hair and complexion and style. If we're very spiritual, we might see goodness or shame, and miss the deeper truth that one loving man finds, in Gilead:
"When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the “I” whose predicate can be “love” or “fear” or “want,” and whose object can be “someone” or “nothing” and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around “I” like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful."
The great thing writers must do, even in fiction, is to tell the truth. You might think the real goal would be to create an exciting plot. Truth can be boring, after all. Check out the millions of truths driving the highways on Monday mornings, and you'll see how boring truth can be.
This is where great writers earn the big bucks. (That was a joke.) They never settle for easy facts and call them truth. They know that Monday morning traffic is only the ice on the surface of the lake. Truth is what happens underneath, and how it resonates like a great voice through a vast impossible mouth.