The Sounds of the Day

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I don’t listen to music when I walk; I just walk and listen to whatever is out there. At home it is the small birds, osprey calls, and the river sounds; sometimes the diesel engine of 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 just a few hundred feet above heading to the Oceana Naval Air Station, and at home it is a Cessna 172, a Piper cub, or sometimes flight instructor Mike’s World War Two replica P-19 headed out over the Bay with a passenger who paid for a thirty minute tour.

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 when my son and I walked all day every day across Spain, we were mostly quiet, taking in the Pyrenees, the vague distances. My son is a quiet person anyway, but still, when I’m home I prefer to walk alone; I like to hear myself think. It is the only way I recognize my own voice.

I find my thoughts, my opinions, my rationalizations and motivations when I walk. When I walk, I move from exhausted and mentally drained to calm and in perspective, to hopeful with new ideas, or different thoughts about old ideas, or sometimes I figure out what to leave out there on the road and what to keep close at hand for further contemplation. 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 needing to compete with someone’s complaints or 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) when we are home in the yard and the thrush are in the bushes or the Carolina wrens are behind the patio—but I well know the call of a hawk or osprey, 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 sunset. 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. When it’s late and I’m on the beach and I stand still, it is easy to believe I’m the only one listening.

Summer is almost over. Classes, in one form or another, start soon. There has never been a more important time for people to know, really understand, how to listen. 

Last year, I asked my students about their listening habits. They mostly 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 leave the music off, take the buds out, and just sit and listen 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.

None of them, not even the quiet ones, had ever stood still and listened to the wind and the distant sound of thunder ahead of a storm coming down from the Piedmont.

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–that they even fall asleep wearing earbuds.

I asked them, “Did you ever go to the water at night down at the beach and turn around and just listen? There is life out there carrying on. Or head to the entrance to the inlet at First Street on a foggy morning and listen to the call of the fog horns on the fishing boats as they come across the reach. It is a sound you’ll never forget,” I tell them, remembering the boats on the Great South Bay when I was young, before earbuds were invented.

I wish my students would listen. I don’t mean listen to me. That will come. First, they need to learn something no one ever taught them, to simply listen to life unfold around them. 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.

Still, 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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