Listen, Seriously, Just Listen


The husband and wife at the restaurant didn’t notice me staring, how could they? They were absorbed in their texting. Who were they texting? Their kids were already sitting at the table playing Angry Birds.

I couldn’t help but think that this broke the hearts of the birds overhead, singing so sweet and so clear, it made you want to tip them. What I really wanted to do though,  was walk over to the parents on this first warm evening of spring, and diplomatically suggest that they might want to ask their daughters to set down their cell phones for a moment and just listen. I did not, however, recalling an incident in which a friend of mine who witnessed an irate mother smacking her kid upside the head at the zoo, approached the mother and asked if she help her in any way and the irate mother cold cocked her. Charges were filed.

I refrained. But in this snapshot of what could become the front cover of “America, We’re in Trouble” magazine, was the embodiment of a broad cultural malaise that has the nation’s premiere trend spotters all a twitter. In the annual  JWT 100 Things to Watch in 2014 report, three of this year’s trends center on curing our collective obsession with digital devices. The floor show by the family at the restaurant hit the trifecta.

  • Arrested IRL Development – Basically means the inability of younger people to function “in real life” as opposed to the digital world in which they’ve been suckled. The trend calls for IRL coaches to help them navigate the physical world. Okay, let’s get physical.
  • Mindful Living – Really? Like this hasn’t been talked about since, like forever? I have a book on my nightstand entitled, you guess it, Mind-Fullness. (Ellen J. Langer, PhD., Life Long Book, Copyright, 1989) Maybe 2014 will be the year this trend takes hold.
  • Heads-Up Movement – I am for this. In fact. My mother was always a big supporter of people looking up. She told my little brother J.R. one time to quit looking at his shoes when he walked, because he’d run into something. He did, a telephone pole. Cured him.

While we wait in breathless anticipation for these 2014 trends to take root, there’s a hold over from last year’s list which I’m hoping still has legs. Even though I am somewhat jealous that I’m not the person who hatched this concept and capitalized on it, like the Madison Avenue marketers who charge exorbitant fees to other marketers who figure out how to monetize such things, I am grateful that somebody has brought it to our attention. It’s called Nature as Antidote and I’ve been worried about this for years.

In 1999, on the eve a the new millennium, I wrote an essay called Dead Cats. I know, repugnant title. My point was this: children were being so over scheduled, so herded, and so separated from the opportunity to be outdoors, that collectively we were  raising far too many human beings with no awareness whatsoever of the natural environment in which they lived. Sometimes in an urban setting, such natural environs carry with them an occasional waft of things which have met an unnatural demise, like a dead cat in an alley. This was a nod to a gross but instructive childhood experience I had cutting through the alley on my way to Winnell Teeter’s house. Clearly, it made an impact. The larger warning in my cautionary tale was that kids were being stunted by barriers, whether it be the air-conditioned car pool, shuttled to locked down schools and back to locked up houses, with a complete absence of time alone, much less time alone outside. On the eve of a new century, and a trend setter fourteen years ahead of THIS year’s thing to watch, I was sounding the warning bell that we were producing a generation with no free time, solitude or opportunity for contemplative thought.

When do kids get to think about those kinds of things now– their place and time on this earth? Are they ever permitted enough unstructured time to observe clouds pulling their shadows across the an open field, to listen to the wind, or the endlessness of water flowing over rocks, or bugs buzzin’ in the trees. Do they ever get to lay underneath a tree in the splendor of its summer fullness or in the noisy, bright brittleness of fall and marvel at its function and form?

In my Off the Leash journey I had the privilege of revisiting my Aunt Opal’s farm in northwestern Texas. For most people, it looks like a God-forsaken, dried up plot of snake infested, mesquite-tree-covered misery. To me, it was a cathedral. I remember the sound as much as the visuals, the drone of the grasshoppers in the dry grass, horse hooves on dirt and rock, flies buzzing, horse tail flicking them away. There were no planes, no hum from power lines, no traffic noise, just the cleansing rinse of the wide, wide open.
In a profound and beautifully written story published on the NPR Science Blog this week, “When Nature Speaks, Who Are You Hearing?”  Adam Frank refers to this experience as sacredness. Frank explains it as “the ability to hear the whispers of what lies beyond the boundary of the expressible and the inexpressible.”

Graford, Texas

Shade, blessed shade. Near Graford, Texas.

To that, I say “Amen.” I am blessed to find the pockets of sacredness in everyday sounds, the rumble of the semi-trucks on the freeway still invokes passionate memories of my road trip across the country. The comforting squeak of the floorboards makes me grateful to be home. The plop of a dog on the rug after I turn out the lights gives me comfort. In the morning, I know what day of the week it is and what the weather is like even before I open my eyes. Work day, school day, trash day, snow day, rainy day, even funeral processions, I can identify eyes closed. Motorcycle, followed by car, after car, after car, far different from the bikers who tear up this busy road come Saturday. I hear all of this. It  informs and ofttimes, delights me.

What will we do if people don’t unplug enough to notice things like this? What happens if paying attention becomes passe’? If one never has the opportunity to listen, just listen, my God! What will they miss? What happens if our caretakers, 30 years from now, have no earthly idea how astoundingly beautiful bird song can be? Will they roll our wheelchairs to the door? What happens to people who never have the opportunity to absorb through every pore, a singular moment! A moment so powerful, fueled by the presence of things they can neither describe nor explain, but instead,  humbly submit to, how can they possibly be okay?

I submit, that it takes training. Like anything worthwhile, it takes training. Or maybe, a trend! I know, a TREND! Forget those Madison Avenue lug nuts, please, please, I beseech you, let’s start a trend ! All we have to do, is listen. Just listen.

If you click here, I’ve recorded some springtime from my backyard. Happy Spring, y’all.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Yes! I, too, witnessed a scene in a restaurant where a father sat with his two young children, who were happily telling about their day at school. Dad was too involved with his cell phone to notice. I thought, “You are missing the best part” as these happy kids excitedly vied for their father’s attention. Helllooo, has anyone heard Cats in the Cradle? Does this song need to go into heavy rotation at the radio station?

    Slow down. Listen. Breathe. Repeat.

  2. Wow, Jean, this is so profound and true. I can really see the disconnect in families and relationships of all kinds. It’s heartbreaking to see people out eating or on vacation with phones in hand, not enjoying being in the moment, or, gee, face-to-face talking and spending time together. The Internet is a great tool but I think it’s one of the worst things that has happened to society. It’s already showing. And with that, I’m going outside on this beautiful, sunny, long-awaited spring day and take in nature, something I’ve always done and still do!