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Week 4: How To Listen Up
And I really should drink my coffee, not wear it.
Welcome to week 4 of Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about curiosity, the power of enthusiastically-applied stupidity (let’s be honest, that’s the best description of it) and dollops of science, psychology and who knows what else? Guess we’ll find out as we go - it’s a journey. Ensure you don’t get left behind like I was once because I got out the family car to say hello to a puppy* by clicking below:
*My parents drove five miles down the road before they noticed I was gone. Who does that? My parents, apparently.
Today, my world is really noisy and my clothes reek of coffee.
For around the 27,852nd time since Christmas (I measured this subjectively, please don’t write in) a proper hoolie is blowing through this part of Western Scotland. The wooden cabin walls around me are vibrating, and occasionally giving alarming, splintering creaks, with the force of the wind outside.
As I said recently, I’ve been taking my morning coffee outside, “to get myself outdoors as early as possible, [and] to start my day, however briefly, with a faceful of sky and a few lungfuls of fresh, clean air.”
That’s been working nicely for about four days out of every week, since the beach is close enough to walk down the road with my mug in hand:
(I have no idea who Margaret is. Neither does my landlord.)
But on the other days, I’ve had to get creative. No clutched cups for these conditions - instead I hug a thermos close to my chest as gusts of rain or sleet try to wrench it out of my hands.
Today, it all went tits-up in an exciting new way: after unscrewing the lid of my flask, I turned exactly the wrong way against the wind, and a few cubic metres of super-compressed Scottish sea air plunged into my thermos and fountained its contents all over me.
(Side note: the smell of coffee on these clothes is not unpleasant, and is waking me up something terrific. If someone ever makes a laundry detergent from used coffee grounds, I’m investing everything I’ve got.)
So, it’s noisy around me right now. But the relaxing kind. The kind of natural ambient noise it’s so fun to work to. (And if you’re missing the brain-friendly hubbub of a cafe right now, I have a few tips for you here.)
But instead of pushing this natural symphony into the background, why don’t I pay more attention to it?
Later this week, I’m talking to a Calm ‘Sleep Story’ author who quietened her world down by living in a yurt in a remote corner of Canada for 3 months.
One revelation from our chat: it wasn’t “silent” in the way you’d expect. It was just an entirely different arrangement of sounds. One that was a lot more fun to listen to than, say, the roar of traffic or the clatter of roadworks.
She quickly realised she went there not to escape the world, but to listen to it properly.
So what would I hear if I started listening properly to this corner of Western Scotland?
Not by going up onto mountain-tops and into deep forests and the like, because we’re still in lockdown until at least April - but listening to where I am, right now, at the edge of a small town with the beach nearby? What does one of these glorious late Winter sunsets (above) actually sound like?
This week, I’m taking the advice of fellow Substacker Craig Eley, a radio producer and sound enthusiast:
One of the best parts of this class for me was a very simple exercise, one that I have often assigned in classes but very rarely practiced myself: keeping a listening journal. There are a few ways to approach the assignment: some that involve quite active listening, some that involve more passive reception, ones that involve making a recording, and others that just involve a pencil and paper. In my experience, there is no wrong way to do it, as long as you find yourself listening somewhere. It’s essentially a form of meditation.
But of course, as Douglas Kahn has said, “sound leads elsewhere.” Like in meditation, it might lead you inward, but it might also point to something outside yourself. Sound tends to lead me to its source, with many possible levels of specificity (animal -> bird -> black-capped chickadee; engine -> motorcycle -> Harley-Davidson).
A “listening journal”? Written in all the different places I’m spending my day-to-days right now? Why, that sounds even better than a mugful of coffee flung all over me.
So that’s my curiosity challenge for myself this week. I’ll keep you posted.
Images: Mike Sowden