Sound Off

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When I walk I don’t listen to music. I just walk and listen to whatever is out there. At home it is the small birds, osprey calls, and the river sounds; sometimes an early morning oyster boat not far from shore, and always the gulls. At the oceanfront it is the waves, of course, but also the plows moving sand around, the sweepers cleaning the boardwalk, radios, tourist chatter, children’s laughter. At the oceanfront the occasional fighter jet passes five hundred feet above heading to Oceana, and at home a Cessna, a Piper cub, or sometimes flight instructor Mike’s World War Two replica P-43 headed out over the Bay with a passenger who paid for a thirty minute tour.

A few months ago I asked my students about their listening habits. The average (way above average actually) routine is to get up and put on music, drive to school with music, at school have their ear buds in with music going except (not always “except”) when in class, and then the same the rest of the day. I asked how often they left the music off, left the buds out, and just sat and listened to life around them. They all said, “oh yeah, every day,” and one young woman in class called “bullshit” on them and an argument ensued. She won. By the end they admitted that “quiet time” simply does not exist anymore in their lives, if it ever did at all.

I remember growing up and when the television was on and we were all talking sometimes my mother would say, “Can you please be quiet I can’t even hear myself think!” Exactly.

When I walk I don’t usually like to walk with anyone. It is different when I travel and we are taking in the sights and sounds and people, but even then when we were walking all day downtime was common, and my son is a quiet person anyway. But at home I prefer to walk alone. I like to hear myself think. It is the only way I recognize my own voice.

It seems so many students are so accustomed to hearing other sounds—music, television, friends, games, teachers, parents, and on and on and on without a break even falling asleep with earbuds in—they don’t know the sound of their own voice.

I, of course, don’t mean that literally. When I walk I find my thoughts, my opinions, my rationalizations and motivations. When I walk I move from exhausted and mentally drained to calm and in perspective to hopeful with new ideas, different thoughts about old ideas; I figure out what to leave out there on the road and what to keep close for more thought. I solve problems, I talk myself out of making new problems. I remember and plan and organize and dismiss. It is a thorough cleansing of the mind. I never feel healthier than when I let my thoughts run free without bumping into earbuds on the way out, or competing with someone complaining or asking questions. I understand myself better and am able to make decisions without influence, or, more likely, make no decisions at all and just stand by and let it all be.

I have learned the sound of gulls when they circle looking for food compared to their call when confronted by something strange. I can close my eyes and know the direction of the tide and the pull of the current. I do not know most smaller bird calls—Michael has to tell me (over and over) which is which when home on the porch—but I well know the call of a hawk or osprey or eagle, especially when they teach their young to fly. It is a sight to behold, and more, it is a sound I will never forget.

There is nothing “silent” about nature. There is nothing quiet about night. On the river at night when the stars blanket the sky above the Chesapeake and up the Rappahannock, the most muffled of sounds carries across the water. It could be a car crossing the bridge, a late night fisherman dropping traps, rigging against a mast, the gentle, familiar, eternal lap of water on the sand. It always, absolutely always, seems calmer at night.

Paul Simon wrote, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance; everybody knows it’s true.” Yes, across the night, when everything seems silent and the distant call of a train comes across the space between. There is life out there carrying on. Likewise on a foggy morning and the call of the fog horns on the fishing boats comes across the reach.

I wish my students would listen. How often have I said that? But I really believe if they would pay closer attention to the quiet sounds around them, the natural pace of life, they would better understand their own thoughts and recognize their own voice. Then, perhaps, they would not simply hear what I say, but would listen to what they hear. At the end of the day there is nothing I can do but what I do at the end of the day: be still and listen to the intricate and miraculous passing of time.

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