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A Listening

Life gets loud. Yes, it’s a metaphor. Go with me here. You know what I’m talking about. A hundred things play at you day in, day out. They clamor for attention. They mimic importance. But they really just amount to a cacophony of activities that squeeze out the truest notes. The ones you should pay most attention to.

I’m not pointing fingers. Or if I am, the finger I’m pointing is at myself. But I think we all get to claim culpability to this one. It’s easy to do, with the routines life imposes on us. Unmusical, sometimes bitter routines.

And you become aware of it when you step away from those clamoring voices. When you’re able to listen without encumbrance. I’ve been doing some listening. And here’s what I’ve heard, metaphorically speaking.

Rocks. I spent some time watching an old miner dressed as a mountain man shaping obsidian into an arrowhead. At one point, he says, “You have to listen to the rock. I’ve spent my whole life listening to rocks.” He wasn’t preaching or trying to be sage. He said it as he continued working with bloodied hands at a piece of obsidian to show me how the Native American’s made their weapons and tools.

He also said, you can’t learn anything unless you make mistakes, speaking of the hard-learned techniques he was employing to make an arrowhead. When he was done, he cast the stone down, as a failed attempt—mostly just an object lesson for those watching. I asked to buy that rock. He handed it to me free. I paid him anyway, three times what he wanted for it, which was still shamefully cheap for what I’d gained.

More rocks. My kids love to throw rocks in the water. What kid doesn’t? We made our way to a lakeside I’ve known all my life. There, we threw our share of rocks. Afternoon wind brought impressive enough waves, which came at the shore, making rock skipping a challenge. But the wind and westering sun and scent of lodge-pole pine . . . good accompaniment, these things, to the plunk of rocks big and small into the troubled water.

And while there, we had some unexpected company. Two Labrador retrievers, one gold and one black, brought a mostly deflated soccer ball to us, inviting us to throw it into the lake for them to retrieve. We did this for at least an hour. There are few things more simple and more gratifying than a simple game of fetch with a dog. We had no place to be, and more than once were soaked by the dogs shaking themselves dry at our feet, which was pretty okay with us. Rocks thrown into a lake. That’s a good sound.

Birdsong in the morning. I know how it sounds. Pretty cliché, right? Yeah, maybe. But when there’s nothing on the other side of the time you’ll give yourself to listen to birds greeting the day, you listen differently. The song becomes the thing. It’s not a moment in time. It’s not an island or oasis in the midst of all the rest. It suggests a universe of story and meaning. One you realize you’re passing every day, caught as you are in the web of your concern. People write music that incorporates birdsong. I’ve seen several on this trip alone. In the past, I think I’ve looked at them mostly as odd. I don’t know how successful these musicians are at doing this, but now I understand the desire a whole lot better.

My poet’s heart. I don’t mean any conceit in saying this. In fact, I wasn’t the first to say it. A friend of mine said it to me maybe ten years ago or more. And once he did, I realized he was on to something. You don’t always get to “follow your bliss.” I wish that happened for everyone, as Campbell urged. But the truth is, many labor without ever knowing this joy. And for me, there are two kinds of bliss, story and music. I follow them to the best of my ability. But when one’s bliss isn’t the constant thrust of their life, well, it introduces some dissonance. Frankly, this sucks.

Maudlin as it sounds, time spent in places like Yellowstone, on mountains, in forests, at lakes, they put a poet’s heart at the center of things again. That’s a damn good feeling. It’s listening to campfires, river head waters, the crunch of a dirt road underfoot, spontaneous laughter, as opposed to spreadsheets and process. I think there’s some poetry in all of us. I suppose the difference is just the balance of the voices and how much we heed them that defines us uniquely.

Best ribs and ribeye of my life. You know, I’ve eaten at the best steak houses in the world. You name it, whether New York, Texas, Michigan, my own Washington state, even Paris, London, Tokyo, hell anywhere, and I’ve made a point of going to the best places to have their best steak. You can imagine the prices I’ve paid. And for all that, this past week, I’ve paid roughly $20, right here in northeast Idaho, for the best ribs and ribeye of my life. No lie. Little off-the-road place that doesn’t look like much. Most drive right on past, moving fast toward Yellowstone to get a snapshot of Old Faithful. No harm there, Old Faithful is all kinds of awesome.

But here’s something I’ve never heard before at one of those high-priced steak houses: “The cook gets excited whenever I come back into the kitchen with a ribeye, medium-rare order.” This from our waitress. I knew I was in for a treat when she told me this.

The voice of God. By which I mean, thunder. Lying in bed late at night, while lightning lit up the cabin, and thunder rolled deep and long across the Continental Divide . . . when you do nothing but listen to thunder, you marvel. It’s a big sound. It’s a majestic sound. It’s a sound that gives you immediate perspective. And it’s beautiful.

Accompanied by rain on the roof above my head, pattering pine trees and quaking aspen outside my window, several thunder storms taught me quite a lot about listening. I suspect these are lessons I’m re-learning, and that I’ll maybe learn again. Because that’s the nature of being human: We forget. Because life gets loud, and listening gets hard.

Stars. There’s nothing, not a thing, that so immediately helps me listen, gives me perspective, than looking up into the night sky in a place where you can really see the stars. They’re indisputable. They’re up there. Far away. But there irrefutably, gracefully, in beautiful profusion. There are stories and patterns traced against them. Turnings. Mysteries yet to solve.

And with some patience, you’ll see a shooting star. This trip, I saw one that traversed most of the night sky, burning a bright gold toward the end. Seeing such a thing is nothing short of magical.

I think I saw a planet or two, as well, standing in the chill night air. Those are wages I’ll gladly pay—chilly skin—for the chance to stare up in a beautiful silence and listen. Usually, what I hear is perspective. The deep acknowledging of something larger, grander than myself. That’s good listening, I think. And thankfully, the stars make no judgment on me. Silent, vigilant friends is what they are. They have been since I was a kid.

This was very nearly my best listening in recent days.

Finding snail shells. If it weren’t for a walk on an old dirt road up through the pines with my little girl, the stars would have been—as I said—my best listening. As it is, they took a wonderful second. I don’t know how it started. Probably an observation of a shell on the ground by my daughter on a trip to the cabin early in her life. Whatever and whenever, now it’s tradition: We take a walk together and gather abandoned snail shells.

They’re small, easy to miss if you don’t pay close attention. You have to stoop. And often you have to traipse up into undergrowth, still stooping, to find them. And at the end of it, the shells themselves, while beautiful in their own way, aren’t what it’s about. Not for me. It’s a slow walk with my little girl, making small talk that winds up big. Like this trip.

My son came along. He’s a ball of impulse, that one. And I love him to death for it. But it wasn’t more than a twelve shells and he was done with this crazy tradition. He went back to the cabin with his mother, while my daughter and I carried on, with a goal of colleting 100 shells, no matter how long it took.

I don’t remember all the things we said to each other. But I remember how it felt to be with her, not hurrying, walking through dappled sunlight falling down through the tall pines. I remember thinking how sad I’d be if someday she doesn’t want to take this walk with me anymore, and the shell-collecting ends. What I’m hoping is that by the time the excitement of the activity has waned, she’ll have recognized that the walk is about more than that, and we’ll never not take our shell walk together.

This time, though, we wound up finding 203 shells. A new record. And as we concluded, we shared an observation that patience has its rewards. Like being willing to stick out a shell hunt when the first few minutes don’t yield easy or quick results. I don’t know if it’s a lesson that she’ll internalize for a lifetime, or if this is just one listening of such a lesson that, like me, she’ll need to have again and again. Because life gets loud and listening gets hard and we need to hear stuff over and over.

But for my part, I was paying particularly close attention, marking the moment. Something I was able to do because I had some separation from the cacophony of the day-to-day.

Maybe that’s one of the central values of vacation. But it does leave me a bit sad. Because I’m left with the vague sensation that I’m missing too much of the stuff that really matters.

I suppose I need to do a better, ongoing job of listening. That’s my lesson to learn. It’s like my favorite Beatles lyric, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” See, there it is, I did know this before, since I’d heard and acknowledged this truth inside the song. Listening these last few days, I’ve learned it again, having apparently forgotten.

There’s so much noise. And some of it you do have to listen to. Life requires it.

But by hell, don’t let that song define you. I can only think Eliot’s Hollow Men lie in that direction.

And I have an idea that we can avoid that by doing something as simple (and yet sometimes so hard) as listening.


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