I’m participating in Sharon Salzberg’s 28-Day Real Happiness Meditation Challenge again this year, and my plan for this blog series is to write a poem or reflection on each day’s practice. You can find all the responses on the landing page.

Sharon says “Simply notice that sound arises. We have a certain response to it. And there’s a little space in between those two. Stay open for the appearance of the next sound.”

Today, I was away from home most of the day, leaving at 8:15 for the seashore in Rye, NH, where the windchill was in the teens but we dressed for it so could spend 3.5 hours outside exploring.

I knew that today’s meditation, which I listened to tonight, was going to be a hearing meditation, so I became aware all day of hearing things. Hard not to, really, and I’m mostly glad of that. Not that I need to have an opinion.

The tea kettle in the morning. The sound of water I poured into the cat’s already full-enough bowl in case we met with mischief and didn’t return as planned. The sound of the drapes as I opened them to let light into the bedroom. Myself saying “brr brr brr” as I do particularly in the early morning cold in the house. The Grape-Nuts cereal poured into the bowl, clanging, pebbling, and the milk’s soft sucking sound, then the crunching as I ate them. My pen crossing off to-do items from a list. The clinking and clashing of glasses, mugs, dishes, bowls, utensils put away from the dishwasher.

Then we got in the car to go and I heard my faux down coat rustling in that plastic way it has. The sound of the car moving, the tires, the air. A lot of silence between us as we travelled. The heat, blowing audibly. Other cars passing us, fast. Eighteen-wheelers rumbling and lugging beside us, too loud, hard to let go of that sound, which felt threatening, and to not respond but just be open. The toll takers’ greetings, cheerful and not. The sound of money, coins and bills. The turn signal sometimes. Watching gulls fly but not hearing them because the windows were closed tight but imagining their cries.

Reaching our destination and getting out of the car, hearing the sounds, the tenor of the air, almost 100 miles away from where we started. For one thing, so many more bird calls, which I liked and felt hopeful about. The sounds of a mother with her baby, parked two spaces from us, asking the baby if she wanted to see the fishies, do you want to see the fishies? The fishies? (the science center has a preschool program they were heading for). Mother and child voices in another stall in the restroom. All the babies had hats with animal ears.

The water, the ocean, the wind (light here, much lighter than we expected), little waves against rocks. Then gentle sweeping of water against the rocky shore, the ledges, the smaller stones. The tide going out. So many birds, and I knew I heard a hawk, that whistle, but I tried to let it go because Merlin (the Cornell app I turned on) wasn’t hearing the hawk, but then it did! Bluebirds, which I was hoping to hear and see, and cardinals, chickadees, robins, titmouse, crows, much cawing, a blue jay, the first one I’ve heard in months and a welcome sound, and a cacophany of dozens of European starlings, which we rarely see or hear. A downy woodpecker heard and seen. Cedar waxwings, only heard (until later). I think I did OK responding to the birds, with joy and welcome, while also being open to whatever I heard next. Maybe one day I will only listen and not want to know who’s speaking, to identify and name it, but not today.

Merlin heard
European starlings

Walking on a beach filled with stones and shells is noisy, and even the almost-dried seaweed and bladderwort and other ocean vegetation has its own sounds. There’s a clatter of stones and snail shells, and the muffled softness of the thick drying vegetation like walking on carpet in slippers. Silken sand. Leaping sometimes from boulder to rock to boulder to ledge there’s the sound of my foot landing or slipping or sliding. These are easy sounds to let wash over me. And the water lapping, washing over me. The occasional gull voice. Our own oohs and aahs at ice formations and pretty rocks. And a few insects! How are they alive in this chilled world today? But answer gave they none.

snail shells
drying vegetation
encased in ice

We turn a corner toward the river that runs into the harbor and the wind speaks, coldly. It’s hard to hear anything but the wind, and ourselves saying how cold the wind is, except maybe the sucking sound of my feet in the soft sand as the tide goes out. Then the wind dies down and we can hear a gull, a Canada goose, heavy machines on the other shore that I’d rather not hear. There’s a fair amount of chatter about the waterfowl and shorebirds we’re seeing. We wish some things were different: my camera doesn’t have a long reach; the birds are too far away; my hands are cold because I have to keep taking my gloves off to take photos or use Merlin to hear the birds and tell me who they are. That’s all annoying, and more annoying to hear us, mostly me, complaining. I’m like the heavy machines that won’t stop polluting the airwaves with their clanging and growling.

far away mergansers

We turn the corner again and soon we’re on the wooded trails. I keep hearing birds that the app doesn’t hear. What’s wrong with the app?, I keep asking. Annoying, that voice, mine. Then Merlin hears a red-bellied woodpecker! But we can’t find it. We see a nuthatch and Merlin hears it, too. We walk on frozen mud laced with ice crystals that makes a satisfying crunching sound. An array of feathers on the ground, the site of a sudden death; they look like small turkey feathers, that colour and pattern. I take a lot of photos and when I get home I find out they are probably barred owl. There’s a hush, a wordlessness, in my head.

Soon after the owl site, I touch my phone to take a photo and we find out the battery has completely drained. Many annoying sounds, solely from me, escape. It’s like a giant rapacious hawk with tearing talons has surprised me, though I’ve been vigilant my whole life, and torn me to shreds, the shock of that pain … No, it’s not.

We head back to the beach toward the parking lot so I can charge the poor cold phone and we can explore another area before we have to leave. More clattering of beach stones, slight rustling of invasive grasses, barely lapping water, fewer birds in the water now. We don’t know why. We pass two or three people, what are they doing here?, and exchange greetings with these first humans we’ve seen in about three hours, since we left the science center building. We climb the funny widely placed steps up a small slope where we surprise a flock of starlings in the sumac. Starlings seem to always be talking. I remember we had a short conversation about something (greeting cards??) that led me to say “I like an edge to things,” and suggesting that could be my epitaph.

European starling in sumac
funny stairs

All the noises of opening the car and putting the phone on the charger, and then we take a short trail to another small cove. There’s some mud and I slip once but don’t fall and there was probably a sound accompanying that. On the way back, one of two dogs a woman has on a leash barks and barks at us — surprised, probably, to see other humans on this cold day, though the other dog says nothing — and she goes the other way. We visit the ocean, stand before it, look out to the rest of the world. We spy a whale in the playground, which reminds me of a friend in Florida who champions right whales. Almost at our car, we see a man stop his car and take photos over the car’s roof with a long camera lens, telling someone in the car “So it’s a female.” Or maybe “So it’s a male.” I wasn’t listening all that carefully. We look, see the bluebirds he’s noticed, so we notice, and then a small flock of waxwings lands in the next tree over, so we notice them too, and we remember that Merlin heard some earlier. But these were silent, as least to our ears.

bluebird in sumac
cedar waxwings

Off we go in the car, the Google maps woman telling us what to do and when to do it, and I both appreciate and despise that, the intrusion. She gets us through Portsmouth and into Kittery, where we’ll be eating at an uncrowded favourite restaurant we first began visiting over 30 years ago, when we lived in Maine.

We sit in the back by the riverside window and watch the loons and mergansers float by, some comically fast and tilted, in the now-strong current. But we can’t hear them through closed windows, only other diners, though most aren’t close enough to hear. One man chooses another booth because his is too small. A waiter asks a table twenty feet from us how the claws are (“red in tooth and claw,” I think, like nature.) It flows over me like water. We enjoy being here, though we’re the only ones masked at the salad bar, masked walking in and out. I wiggle and make happy humming sounds while dipping hot French fries in a cold butter pat. When we leave, we keep exclaiming how empty the parking lot is. A tree on the edge of the parking lot is filled with house finches, chirrupping away, which gets our attention, and a herring gull makes its mournful meow, its plaintive bark, as it wings along the river.

happy hum
how empty!

Then the drive home, similar to the drive away, except the sun is shining in my eyes a lot and I have to mention the irritation of that a few times. I yawn dozens of times, sleepy from the early wake-up and the chilling day, from the sun’s energy once the mackeral sky broke up, made somnolent perhaps too by the quantity and variety of discoveries made today, all my senses open, engaged, ready.

It sounds relaxing, this “noticing the sound for what it is, you don’t have to elaborate,” but noticing is concentrating, in a certain way, no matter how loose and easy you are about it, no matter how diffuse the noticing. It’s neurons firing and synapses communicating. The brain is busy. And, as Sharon says, “sound is continually coming and going outside of our control.” It’s nice not to have to control it, though of course sometimes we very much want to, but just the “coming and going” demands a little something of the listener.

Now we’re home; and the cat chatters on and on, following me from room to room, chattering, burbling, crescendoing, though he got every single meal today, and all the treats he usually gets. Maybe he is simply telling us about his day, the birds he saw and probably heard through windows, where he slept, how he feels.

A neighbour texts and brings us Covid rapid tests (they had borrowed some) and homemade muffins and a nice card. We talk outside for a few minutes and I remember, slightly late so I have to yell as she walks to the road, to tell her how much I liked meeting her Girl Scout-cookie-selling granddaughter last weekend. We shout back and forth down the driveway briefly. I go inside and try to sleep on the sofa, curled next to the cat in front of the fire, which is crackling, the cast iron humidifier on top burbling, soporific music in the silence.

After a quick kitchen jangle of microwaving leftovers, including pulling out some tuna from the casserole and giving it to the now high-pitched shrieking cat (whose smell sense is on overload), I listen to Sharon’s Hearing Meditation. And think back over my day.

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