Summer bells

Last August I was sitting outside of a coffee shop on first hill, writing, when I heard a bell begin to toll noon. It was a beautiful sound, coming through the quiet moments in my music. I’d never heard a bell tower there before, not as far as I knew. Sitting there in hot sunshine with iced coffee and listening to the bell mark the time I felt like I was traveling. I felt far away from work and worry. But time ticked on and I had to leave. And I didn’t hear the bell again, not until a full year later.

A few weeks ago I heard the bell again. I was sitting outside the same coffee shop (we’ll call it a ritual not a rut, shall we?) when I heard it once again. I’m convinced I had not heard it once between those two times. It seemed like a strange coincidence, that the only two times I’d heard it had both been in the end of August. I started to wonder why. Did it only ring in summer? Or very infrequently? So, of course, I decided to look into it. The next time I walked up to that coffee shop I asked the two baristas. I know both of them by now although saying I “know” them is maybe stretching the relationship. After a year they have sort of recognized that I come there a lot but we’ve never had much of a conversation.

I asked if they had heard the bells. The guy said yes, sometimes, but that it was hard to say because he didn’t really notice most of the time. I asked where the sound was coming from and the girl said she thought it was from the Church just around the corner, the Lutheran church. The guy said it sounded like it came from that direction and pointed vaguely in what I believe was a south-eastern direction. I walked up the hill and found myself self at the base of an impressive Catholic cathedral. Peering up I saw what appeared to be a bell-tower at the peak.

that's a bell tower, right?

that’s a bell tower, right?

I finished my coffee because walking in with a drink seemed a bit irreverent. There was a small side door open which I sort of peered through before entering. A man snored quietly on a bench to my left at the beginning of a long hallway. It was so quiet that I tiptoed down the hall and silently opened the door into the cathedral. I found myself in a huge, dimly lit space, the peace of which I don’t think I can quite convey. The air was so still and quiet and cold. As I sat I felt like all the frantic movement in me flow out into that great space and left me empty, calm. I would have sat there for a long time if curiosity had not moved me. I walked back out into the surprisingly warm September air and walked around the the office. The door was locked but a smiling woman buzzed me in. I asked her if the bells were theirs and she looked at me like I was sadly simple. “Yes we have the bells.” I think I managed to convince her that I was not demented, merely abnormally curious, through a conversation about how beautiful the sound is and by complimenting the majesty of the cathedral. She seemed mollified and no longer appeared to be wondering whether buzzing me in had been a terrible mistake. It’s surprising to me how frequently my curiosity is met with suspicion, but I suppose that is a story for another day. As I was entering I had noticed a line of people outside and I asked her if the Church provided services for them. She said the church did outreach and she gave me a pamphlet about volunteering with them. I decided at that point I had assured her that I was not insane and could pursue my curiosity again. I asked her when the bells tolled and she told me every day, at eight, noon, and five, and whenever there was a funeral service.

I thanked her and took the pamphlet and left to ponder. Every day? How had I never noticed the bells if they really tolled every day? I thought back to the barista, who had said it was hard to say because he didn’t really notice them anymore. It’s funny isn’t it, the things we noticed and the things we don’t? We make bells to toll and remind us of the constant passage of time but we still manage to miss it. Time slips by and we lose track of it. Suddenly it’s been an entire year since the last time we stopped to listen to the bells— to note the passage of time. This mystery was an easy one to solve but I’m glad I went looking for the bells. It made me take a minute to sit, to think, and to step back and watch time pass for a moment without being swept up in it. That’s all I ask for really, a moment. Because in a moment is eternity. As Joseph Campbell said, “Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out. This is it. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. And the experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life.”


One thought on “Summer bells

  1. Yesterday I took my weekly walk from the office to the grocery store to stock up on lunch and candy and other things I shouldn’t be eating. Usually I leave the office at about 1:00, but yesterday for whatever reason I decided to leave right at noon.

    Now, I work in downtown Bellevue, which is, to put it politely, not exactly the most culturally interesting place on its best days. However, the city has been slowly, hungrily, and desperately growing more alive for the past ten years. Food carts, apartments, transients, musicians, and even children are becoming an ever growing proportion of the city.

    So yesterday, right in the heart of lunch hour, I stepped out of my lifeless, anonymous corporate office building into a street bursting with real life. For the first time in ages, I didn’t put in my earphones. I stopped thinking and simply took in the sounds of the streetscape around me. I really, honestly, listened to the raw world around me. So many people, so many conversations, drifting past. Any other day, any other time, there would be no one out on these streets. The pedestrian plazas would be empty. The restaurants would be closed. Everyone would be in their homes, doors and eyes and ears locked away from their anonymous neighbors and empty suburbs.

    But yesterday, for that one half-mile lunchtime walk, I let myself pretend I was in a real city. And, to my ears at least, it sure sounded like one.


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