I wish I could buy laser surgery to improve my hearing, like I did with my eyes. I wouldn’t have to, though. My girlfriend would pay for it first.
I shout up to her from the kitchen in the morning, “Do you want me to make you coffee?”
If she only shouted back a yes/no, I could understand it. But she’s getting dressed and laughing about it. We’re debriefing about the night’s dreams. She calls back down the stairs, “_________.”
I walk to the bottom of the stairs. “Can you say that again?”
I got LASIK in part so that I could see birds better. Like the woodcock I saw last week out my office window. A woodcock might look like a common brown sparrow except for its larger size, and long beak. The one I saw last week appeared to be moving its beak in and out of a ruffle in the ground between some dead leaves. A mating ritual?
When I went and got binoculars I couldn’t find it again. There was only a clump of brown leaves that looked like a sparrow.
I’m much better at hearing woodcocks. That also seems to be true for woodcocks themselves. At dusk and dawn this time of year, you can hear them calling for a mate. They sit for a short time in a tree, calling “peent.” If they don’t hear a response, they’ll soon fly a few hundred feet to another perch and start again.
That’s how I had a conversation with one once, about 10 years ago. I was in the vegetable garden at dusk in April.
The long wood handle of my shovel was loose. When I levered the shovel against the earth to make a space for elderberries I was planting, it made a sound as the wood rubbed against the steel. At regular digging speed, it sounded only like the squeak of an old garden tool. But if I slowed down and let the wood crank against the steel, it went peent.
I heard the tweet tweet tweet of the woodcock’s wings. Then a peent. Was it in the black cherry tree just above the garden? It sounded like it. For fun, I put my weight on the shovel handle. Slow. Peent.
There was a breath, and then I heard the woodcock. Peent.
Was it talking to me? I waited. Silence. Was it listening for me?
I leaned on the shovel again. Peent.
From above me — peent. Then tweet tweet tweet. I didn’t see the woodcock, but I felt it had flown closer. Then, silence again.
It was darker now. I could no longer see the earth I was digging in. I dug anyway — peent.
Again, the woodcock replied. Peent.
What do woodcocks say once they’ve found each other? In trying to figure out what the woodcock was doing outside my office window, I learned a bit about their mating dances and habits.
I’m not equipped for that, and didn’t want to waste the woodcock’s time. I uttered one more peent with my shovel as a “good night,” and then went to find my newborn son and tell him about it.
His analysis was on point. “Gug. Igilogig. Shug-a-doog.” That’s as best as I can write down his baby talk. I replied in kind. I had much the same conversation with my friends’ newborn yesterday.
How often have you thought you said X, only to learn later that the other person heard Y? George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Meaning beyond words, also known as connection or attunement, is harder to mistake.
Did the woodcock and I communicate? Did the baby and I talk? Yes, with certainty.
If we compared notes later, would our meanings agree? No idea. I love my son. I love woodcocks. I love my new niece. Nothing else matters.
Don’t you hate it when people listen only to the meaning of words? My mom and dad talked past each other in every argument. I can’t recall a shred of the content of the words they hurled at each other, gesturing and stomping around the kitchen for emphasis as my mom cooked dinner.
Glued to the red sofa in the living room, I would will them to forget meaning. If only my dad would slow down, put down the shovel. Notice my mom and how she felt after her day. What if my mom stopped trying with the words, and simply insisted on what she most wanted — a hug?
I’m writing this from a cafe in Venice, Italy. I speak English and wanted to order a breakfast sandwich and coffee from the Italian server. We found that we shared two words in common — Americano and arugula. She guessed my order and said it back to me in Italian. Soon she brought out my cup of coffee and prosciutto-gorgonzola sandwich, topped with arugula.
This worked because we were each willing to assume the other person was trying to say something. You can call this patience, or good listening skills. Linguists call it the principle of charity.
Try communicating with someone while removing the charitable assumption that they are trying to say something. Maybe it’s happened to you, or you’ve caught yourself doing it when angry or cranky — removing the principle of charity is a great way to leave a customer flummoxed or to pull the rug out from under your partner during an argument.
On the magical side, two strangers without any words in common can piece together a conversation, thanks to the principle of charity.
I took a trip last month to grieve the brutal murder of George Floyd at E 38th and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. I didn’t know I was doing that until I went there. I’m afraid it sounds presumptuous. I didn’t know him. I’m not Black. Is his death mine to grieve?
You might as well ask me the meaning of what I said to the woodcock or to my friends’ newborn baby.
The people I talked to at George Floyd Square, I talked to about composting and the art they were making and how surreal it was like to see a murder in their neighborhood become international news. We talked about what Minnesota winters are like to go through, and to come out of.
There are sheets of plywood showing a list of demands of the protesters who are occupying the gas station and the city property. The handwriting is hard to read. I looked it up online.
I’ve heard that the city leaders think they have done what they can on the key points. They would like to reopen the neighborhood. Economic prosperity is their answer to structural racism. This seems logical and reasonable if you look at the meaning of the words. But sensing the emotions of the people and the space, I thought, “What’s the rush?”
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about the “five stages” of grieving in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.” She gave words to the stew of emotions people feel with loss. Anger. Depression. Bargaining. And so on.
Kübler-Ross was conscious that she was giving words, giving the impression of literal, linear stages to a process that is beyond meaning and time.
Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21). City leaders know about economic development and zoning and traffic patterns. So the humans grieving George Floyd speak in those terms to try to get through. Are our leaders listening?
Each person grieving at George Floyd Square would have their own way of putting this. But when I look at the list of demands, what I hear is, “Give us time. We don’t know how much. If you don’t, we will put our all into planting hostas on asphalt and complicating your desk job so that you’ll wish you had listened to begin with.”
And that is how to talk to a woodcock.