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(The accompanying photo shows part of a picture I made several years ago depicting the notes of my wind chimes.)

Recently I went away for three weeks. I was glad to come home as always, and especially to sleep in my own bed after moving around from bed to bed every few days. But I woke in the middle of the night and knew I was missing something important. A beloved voice that was always there had been silent since I came home.

It was the wind chime that hangs outside my bedroom window, and provides a muted accompaniment to every daytime activity in my next-door office and every dream. This wind chime has been in my house for almost 20 years, made by J. W. Stannard in the US, and consists of several metal tubes hung vertically in a circle, with a sounder of wood in the center. My own chimes are 6 in number, the longest of them about 40 cm, and they play one octave of a pentatonic scale. (Think “Camptown Races”.) Though a tiny bit out of tune after all these years, they have become a beloved voice in my home.

But why didn’t the wind chimes ring now, even though there was a breeze that night? In the dark I felt my way to the window and opened it. I actually thought the chimes had fallen or been taken down. But on feeling around, I felt the chimes in their usual place. I felt something else as well. A wayward vine had managed to crawl from the nearby nandina bush and strangle the chimes. The next day I went out and chopped back all the summer growth of vegetation near the chimes, so they would ring out again.

This wind chime is one of only a few sounds around our home at night. The only other sounds are of cats jumping on and off the bed, and occasionally in midsummer, a fan. I like it quiet and dark, and will go to great lengths to keep it that way. When new neighbors bought the house only about five metres from my bedroom window (which I like to keep open and uncurtained in summer), I was very uneasy. I immediately went out and bought lightproof curtains, and because the hedge around our house is particularly thin between our house and theirs, gave my husband the project of building a fence just there. Thankfully these people are very quiet, not given to late-night loud parties or pacing their back yard talking on the phone. We have been lucky that way. There is also a carpenter with power tools nearby, but he doesn’t work at night.

Wind chimes have been a custom in Japan for centuries, especially where summer nights are unrelentingly hot and there is no A/C. Typically a furin (wind bell) is made of metal or glass, with a clapper attached to a piece of thick paper which may have a poem, or a picture of something cool such as fish or green leaves, inscribed on it. When the breeze blows, it moves the paper and thus the clapper. It generally rings only one note, sometimes shivery like a cold breeze across the skin. Having lived here for decades and observed the people, I think that Japanese generally are much more bothered by heat in summer than by cold in winter. There are many traditional ways to “give a cool feeling”, one of which is the wind bell. I used to have a one-note glass furin made of a recycled bottle. But I had to put it away because its note clashed with the notes of my Stannard chimes. I couldn’t listen to them both together.

During my recent travels, I slept in many different places. I fell asleep and awoke to many different sounds. Most of the places I stayed were thankfully quiet, but a couple of times my window opened onto a busy road, and the swish of cars, similar to the crash of waves on a beach but arrythmical, kept me awake for some hours. I’m sure there are many people for whom that swish of cars going by is the beloved voice that lulls them to sleep. Very fortunately I was awakened in some places by unusual bird calls at sunrise. But never wind chimes. It took me a couple of days back home before I was aware of something missing in my nighttime life, and needed to investigate that. Now things are back to normal. These hot summer nights, with all the windows wide open, sometimes a breeze will awaken the wind chimes and I will hear, either awake or in my dreams, a little flurry of notes or a single round note ringing out, reassuring me that yes, this is home, and the beloved voice is back to soothe my days and nights.

How important are our little rituals! I am amazed when I think that throughout history, each person had his own little sleep rituals. What are yours? As well as the above, I need to read for five or ten minutes before sleeping. I must have, nearby, a clock with fluorescent hands, a night guard for my teeth grinding, a box of tissues and sometimes a glass of water. These days I sleep before 10 and wake around 5.

Every human being who has ever lived had things that made his sleep either peaceful or tumultuous. Some slept on silken pillows, some on straw mattresses. Some were bothered by ghosts or illness. Some had wild animals galumphing through the ceiling (or across the floor!). Some had nagging spouses who poked them in the back to get in the last word, or snored. Some had restless children who shared the bed, or a newborn baby that needed things in the middle of the night. Some could lie in all morning, some were up and doing with the sun. Some slept badly, some slept well.

I am reminded of the Billy Joel song, “Ah, but sooner or later you sleep in your own space, / Either way, it’s okay, you wake up with yourself.”

I’m getting too old to really enjoy traveling. I’d just rather stay home, if I have enough projects to keep me happy. I like having my things around me, and sights and sounds that I’m used to, including the beloved voice of my wind chimes.

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