I got up before the crack of dawn, opened the bedroom window, put my ear to the screen and listened. It started slowly, a chirp at a time, but pretty soon there was a chorus of birds singing from one end of the neighborhood to the other, a regular avian performance of Handel’s Messiah … or maybe it was the rock opera Tommy.
There’s no greater joy than the morning serenade of songbirds looking for mates during breeding season. It’s a sympathy of tweeting, whistling, chirping and trilling.
To keep my brain active, I’ve been trying to distinguish different birds by their songs, even though my family thinks my time would be better spent playing Powerball or fixing the broken light over the garage door.
When they see me standing outside, with my eyes, ears and binoculars raised toward a bird in the branches of a tree, they wonder, “What the #%@#*! is wrong with him? Why isn’t he doing something productive like other guys who barbecue and guzzle beer?” With my high-powered binoculars, the neighbors probably think I’m a Peeping Tom and rush to draw the shades to make sure I’m not spying on them in the bedroom. But I have more important things to do.
Last week, I bought a book of bird recordings that talked about the importance of “deep listening” to help identify the kind of bird that’s singing — robin, meadowlark, titmouse, nuthatch or chickadee. You have to pay attention and listen hard. The problem is I have trouble listening. It’s been like this since I was a kid when my mother would say “no,” and I thought she said “yes.”
“Deep listening” is such a strange concept in a world where many of us listen with half an ear … if we listen at all. Most people are talkers, who are preoccupied with telling one another how wonderful they are or how unfair life has been to them or what great things they did or plan to do.
My instinctive response when I’m in the company of a compulsive talker is to nod my head in agreement even though I’m usually daydreaming about kayaking down the Housatonic River or shopping on Amazon.
My father, who spent the last 25 years of his life as a recovering alcoholic in AA, used to tell me, “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” I’ve tried to follow his advice, but it’s not always easy.
With four daughters, listening is a difficult but necessary skill, although most of the time I prefer not listening. I’m not sure who’s the worse listener — me or them. Very often, someone will screech, “You’re not listening to me!” And they’re probably right, although I’m pretty sure they NEVER listen to me, or if they do, it goes in one ear and out the other. An example from their teenage years:
“I want you home by 10. Did you hear me?” Heads would nod agreement in unison.
Well, 10 came and passed and they still weren’t home. They may have heard me, but they sure didn’t listen. Sometimes I think it’s a trait they inherited from their mother.
When I call my wife, Sandy, the conversation goes something like this:
Me: “What’re you doing?”
Her: “Nothing.” I’ve often wondered how people could be doing “nothing.” What exactly does that mean? I want to learn how to do nothing because it sounds remarkably relaxing.
Me: “Oh.” I wait for a response, but there’s silence, probably because doing nothing requires total concentration.
Me: “What’s for dinner?”
Her: “I don’t know yet.”
Me: “OK, I better get back to work. This conversation is taking a lot out of me.”
Why do I get the feeling I’m not being listened to? In all honesty, she’s probably following my example. The other day when she called to give me an update on the dog’s visit to the vet, my grandson’s first tooth, and possible thunder storms, I responded, “Oh, that’s nice.”
“You’re not even listening,” she grumbled.
“I am, I am,” I insisted even though the only word I remember was “thunder.”
A woman was recently telling me about her sick daughter, and I was thinking about a hike in the White Mountains … until I remembered the times I tried to tell someone about my pain, and noticed they were looking over my shoulder or not paying attention. It’s a hurtful experience.
We’re all accustomed to the experience of being ignored by bosses, spouses, children and friends, and it should be a lesson for us to listen deeply. That’s another reason I’ve adopted “birdsong therapy” because it will train me to pay attention.
Contact Joe Pisani at firstname.lastname@example.org