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  • Valerie Brooke, MD

The Listening Path - Part 1

I recently began a six-week writing course called The Listening Path by Julia Cameron. One of the assignments was to write down, from the moment I woke up until the moment I fell asleep, all the sounds I heard in an entire day. Unless you are blessed enough to live off the grid, most of us are inundated with noise all day long, and most of it, not pleasant. I did take care of a patient recently who was fortunate to live in a log cabin with her husband, deep in the woods. They had no electricity, no running water, no car, no TV, and no radio. I imagine their lives were immensely quiet, surrounded by the varied sounds of nature and one another. So, in the spirit of being a good student, I set about the task of writing down and paying close attention to all the sounds I heard in one day of my life.


Which began quite early, around 4:30 am, with my tuxedo cat Bandit scratch, scratch, scratching at the bedroom door, with an urgency reminding me it was time to wake up. He was hungry, despite the automatic feeder that had already dispensed food for him at 3:30 am in an effort to stop him from waking us up to beg for food. I jumped out of bed and opened the door, quickly returning to the warm cocoon of my comforter, hoping to get a bit more sleep before the day really began. I listened to the steady rhythm of my breathing. Breath in…breath out…breath in…breath out . . . I had just started to go under when my husband Ronando tip toed in and set my steaming cup of coffee quietly down on the ceramic coaster, a gentle tap to jump-start my day. I heard the patter of his bare feet connecting with the wood floor as he went over to the patio doors, then the clatter of the curtain rings sliding over the rods, inviting in the soon-to-rise sun that would peek over the still mountains. We sat up in bed, I brought the aromatic coffee up to my lips, heard the rush of my breath blowing over the coffee, and we sat in silence. Eventually we started to talk and share what was on our minds that morning. A dream from the night before, an interaction we had with a family member or co-worker the day before, something funny and memorable we saw on the computer. This ritual sharing time was interrupted by my alarm, which played a softer rendition of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ sung by John Mayer. It’s not a raucous rock song, but it’s also not a soothing transition into the day.


After my coffee and our morning chat, I headed out to my writing desk and noticed the next series of sounds: the soft clicking of the gas fireplace, followed by the loud hum of the blower fan pushing the warm heat into the living room. The birds were slowly starting to wake up and flitter about our feeders, each one with its unique morning song. I heard the rising shrill and piercing metallic call of the red-winged blackbird, then the soft coo-oo, coo, coo of a morning dove, followed by the sharper cheep-cheep-cheep of a goldfinch.


I next heard the sounds of Ronando in the kitchen. The short and crisp high-pitched buttons on the microwave, the definitive clunk of the microwave door being shut, followed by the longer shrill reminder that the warming up was done. He opened the freezer door with a pressure relieving whoosh, followed by the shuffle of ice cubes being grabbed by hand, falling into his glass with a sharp clink, then the rumble of the freezer door wheeling shut. I heard the rush of water from the filter filling his glass, and then the clinking sound of his metal spoon circling the ice around and around in his glass. Next came the toaster, a dull clunk when he pushed down the lever, followed by an explosive pop when the toast was done. I heard the scraping of the knife spreading butter on his toast, and quickly thereafter, the crunch of his first bite. These sounds were interspersed with the noise of water rushing in the sink, the dishwasher door clanking open and closed, dishes clinking into one another, and Ronando whispering to the cats, “No, I already fed you . . .” as he headed over to open the harsh creak of pantry door as he went to get them a treat. Then I heard the clicking sound of the treats hitting the wood floor down the hallway, followed by the frantic clattering sound of Bandit and Strider scampering down the hallway to find their treats.


After I finished writing, I bundled up and headed outside for my twenty-minute listening walk, another assignment from The Listening Path book. In the past, I would have headed out for a walk or run with ear pods in, listening to energizing music, or a podcast. Now I walked in silence, although as I live next to a wetland, there is never really silence, especially in the morning. The sun was now up and spreading its light over the clouds; many more birds had joined the melodious chorus. The extraordinary trumpet of honking geese as I approached the water was loud enough to wake anyone whose home was next to the path. The quieter, yet still discernible quacks of the female mallard ducks joined the geese’s alarms as I unknowingly wandered closer to their nests. The geese and ducks drowned out the softer squawks of the American coot, so I could not hear them this morning. And then there were the California quails, making their distinctive three syllable screech as they looked for their mates. The only remotely human sounds that broke up the morning bird ensemble were the occasional deep woof of a large dog or the rumbling start-up of a car getting ready to go to work.


It was such a pleasant start to my day, close listening and close attention to my environment, both inside my home and outside in the wetland. I found it to be a wonderful way to connect to the present moment, to get out of my head, and into the world. Soon I myself would be leaving to go to work, a place that I soon learned had a quite different repertoire of sounds, many not enjoyable at all.


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