Writing is Deep Listening
The dog days of summer are here. It’s been so wet and sticky outside that even the edges of the day offer no relief. When I get up in the morning, the windows are blind with condensation and I can’t see out for their weeping. At night when we sleep, we dream of cool things: popsicles, pools of blue lake water, the breeze off the ocean.
This morning I peered in close at the dewdrops on the panes of our back door, trying to turn myself into water. At least then I could flow, move with little effort along with gravity. It began to rain—a light, penetrating drizzle that did nothing to curb the heat.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says that writing is “90 percent listening.” I think of this as I peer through suspended water droplets into our back yard. “You listen so deeply to the space around you that it fills you,” Natalie says.
When we were on holiday last week, a Brown Thrasher became familiar with the quiet of our empty yard. Usually shy, these birds with the brown-spotted breasts get their name from the robust way they search for food in the underbrush, thrashing about in search of insects or fallen berries and nuts. While we were away, this young bird had grown bold, foraging on our open lawn, grousing about under my finch feeder for fallen tidbits of sunflower or thistle.
Deep Listening in Morning
This morning I glimpse him through the condensation-laden window, scratching at the mulch underneath my bird bath. It’s enough to break the heat spell and I slip out the door to get a closer look. Despite my stealth, he takes wing at the hint of my presence, disappearing behind the lilac bush. I wait, listening.
“If you can capture the reality around you,” Natalie says, “your writing needs nothing else. You don’t only listen to the person speaking to you across the table, but simultaneously listen to the air, the chair, and the door. And go beyond the door. Take in the sound of the season, the sound of the color coming in through the windows. Listen to the past, future, and present right where you are. Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck … This kind of deep, nonevaluative listening awakens stories and images inside you.”
Again, the quick thrum of wing pushing against invisible air, the soft landing and swish of a light-studded lilac branch. Metallic scent of rain, thick with clover, wet grass licking my ankles. The moist air clings to my skin and I bisect the earth rushing beneath me, a vertical axis with no beginning, no end.
Listen. Listen. Listen.
What do you hear?
there is no sun
the white sky fills
with young light
heat rises in waves
from the damp grass
a heavy, insulating stillness
the day clings to me
like dew, like a second skin
the leaves on the maple
have all turned upside-down
there is more rain
in the forecast
if I listen deep enough
I can hear the storm
of the Brown Thrasher’s wings
beating a song of
Another listening poem:
Long Island Sound
I see it as it looked one afternoon
In August,—by a fresh soft breeze o’erblown.
The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon,
A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon.
The shining waters with pale currents strewn,
The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,
The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.
The luminous grasses, and the merry sun
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide,
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide,
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon.
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.
—Emma Lazarus – 1849-1887
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