I sit on our patio swing seat, reading a book, “Cutting for Stone” (by Abraham Verghese). The page describes a young boy who follows his father to a small Ethiopian hospital operating stage where the boy is invited to bend down and listen to the unusual clapping sound in a patient’s pulse. The boy is intrigued with the magic of sensing auditory clues to bodily malfunctions. Afterward, his father gifts him a stethoscope to further his skills.
I lay the book down on my lap and start swinging, forward and back with swirling motions. I try concentrating on the errant sounds around me of which I rarely take note. The more I listen, the more types of sounds populate my mind and I make a mental list of them. I am gradually amazed to realize that they seem to be instruments in a pickup chamber orchestra, playing in unison.
Small birds chirp and large birds squawk as katydids collectively strum a high-frequency beat that goes on throughout. A neighbor’s suburban backyard waterfall contributes a constant whooshing sound, and an airplane soars overhead with a low moan. A timely railroad train joins in with a relaxing drawn-out thumping amplified by the growl of a motorcycle — until both are quieted. Again the maestro raises his baton and a nearby circular saw buzzes, grinds and rests. Domestic conversation from a house down the block floats overhead, and soon after anonymous folks chuckle happily from a neighboring sunroom. Their joviality matches the staccato of the small birds in an intertwined chorus.
Children at play call to one another as the still air muffles their words and a distant ice cream truck chimes in with an old children’s song, stopping for a few minutes for a sale or two, then resuming — and stopping and resuming until it sweetly fades away. And so it goes, for at least a half-hour. I don’t want to interrupt the unfolding composition. The sound of my gentle swinging is silent, yet I still feel it orchestrated into the musical mélange like the pulse of a regular heartbeat.
A squirrel cautiously steps within the wide diameter of my rising and falling feet and stops to peer at me before fleeing. I feel connected with my immediate world of unplanned entertainment. I can’t remember doing anything like this for scores of years, not since as a young child I lay attentively alone on the green grass of my front lawn or lazily in bed on a nonschool day, listening to the early risers already at play on the street. Their voices would echo through the air — and I could hear the whistle of a passenger train carry for miles to my bedroom window.
Over all these years, I’ve played thousands of records, CDs and mp4 files of far-ranging musical categories. Three of the CDs feature only sounds of nature: birds, rainstorms, wind, etc., but I haven’t listened to those virtual experiences in 30 or 40 years. And now, here I am listening to the real thing, a concert of ambient music — a potpourri of nature, machines and human life, all at my pleasure, totally unsolicited, but blissfully welcomed. What a gift is at my feet. May I only remember again to stop my day, truly stop, and truly listen.
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