Listening to Write

Thursday afternoon, I emailed a dear friend, and in the message, I wailed a bit about the tree in my front yard. It is a sweet gum tree, and it holds on to its leaves FOREVER. Everyone else’s yard is clean and raked, and my tree is lazily drifting old, dry, brown leaves down to stain the pristine snow.

So Thursday, a dry thaw day, I went out and raked up two bags of leaves and sticks and sweet gum pods, and then I complained about my lot in my email to Terri.

She responded back, as is her wont, with a thought-filled, thought-provoking message. One of the things she said is this: Oh, I love sweet gum pods! I collect them, in the fall, and put them in glass containers. I tie rustic ribbons around the necks, and my friends all beg me to give them one.

She also sent me a link to an interesting article about reading and listening (

Those two parts of her message coalesced in my monkey brain. Here’s the story I’ve been telling, I thought: I am a poor, hardworking, persecuted woman who has all this mucky stuff to clean up in my yard.

 Here’s the story through Terri’s eyes: You lucky son-of-a-gun! You’ve got a yardful of wonderful, natural art components.

 I liked listening to Terri’s story better.

I need to listen more, I thought.

I have set myself the challenge of posting on my blog every Saturday. Sometimes there is a pressing issue to write about; sometimes a story unfolds in my life, and I just have to set it down. Sometimes I scrabble for things to say; my monkey brain natters full charge, and I am lost and dazed and have nothing to write. No matter how hard I try to put words together, summon up rich and profound things to say, my thoughts just burble on and on, senseless and unfocused.

Nyahhh nyahhh, taunts my friendly inner critic. Who are you to think you have a single thing to say?

That’s the one voice I shouldn’t listen to. I need to shut down that chatter and listen to other, better things.

Sometimes a walk will do it. I leash up Greta, the little dog, and set out. Greta has her own way of listening to the world, a way that involves more than just her ears. She snuffles; she leaps. She stops and cocks her head. She paws at leaves and snow, seeking something buried.

Walking with Greta makes me listen, too. I watch her exploring her world, getting messages left in ways I can’t even fathom, and I begin to hear the stories of deer charging through night yards, and bunnies scampering away from hungry, feral kitty cats. I notice the litter left by someone intent on a beer can party. I see new growth, and I crunch the crackly ice of a puddle. I hear the hackle-raising, ululating cawing chorus of late afternoon crows. As we wander the parking lot of the elder care home at the end of the street, I see grim-faced visitors leaving, and I see happy reunions.

Walking with Greta slows me down, and I listen to the world in my neighborhood—to the hard struggles of winter-time wild animals, to the drama of aging people. I hear the silence of dormancy, and I hear the promise that sap will run and spring will come again.

I can listen when I am embarked on my ordinary days, too—when I am in the grocery store and the young man says to a little guy riding in his cart, “How many pies are on the table?” And the he stops as the toddler points and counts, grinning and slow: “One…two…three…” The young man, it seems, has all the time in the world, and when his baby has finished counting, he takes a pie from the display and puts it in the cart.

“How many left when I take away one pie?” he asks.

One…two…three,” the baby delightedly begins again, and I push past them, their unhurried shopping a classroom in life and love of learning. In another aisle, a woman parks her cart cattywampus and barks into a cellphone. “You will NOT!” she says. “I’ve told you twenty F-ing times you are not going to that F-ing party.”

Another kind of parenting taking place, a harder, more bitter kind. Was there a time when she and the disembodied voice curling out of her Galaxy counted pies in the supermarket? What happened between those years and now?

Or were rancor and discord twined in their talk from the beginning?

Two elderly women bump their carts together, nose to nose, and give each other a run-down of Christmas visits from kids and grands. Their voices rise and arc over each other. They are excited to have someone to tell; they are competing for best holiday, and rushing to be heard.

Listening when I’m out and about teaches me about people, a mirror which lets me learn about myself.

Sometimes the Muse hands me an imperative. Here, she says, write about this. And sometimes, she is stubbornly silent. It’s all you, she’s saying. Leave me be for a while.

Stumped and frustrated, I pound my head and batter the keys and I leave a trail of lifeless words. Until I remember: listen. And when I begin to write what I’ve been listening to, the words perk up and begin to dance.