It started years ago. To quell waves of anxiety, I'd sit outside my back door in the morning. With a notebook and favorite pen, I'd close my eyes and listen.
The drone of distant traffic, the bang of a screen door. Then: the coo of a mourning dove, the low, sad dog whine of a roadrunner. Bushtits sprinkling themselves within the branches of the pine tree, sparrows popping out from behind the bark where they've nested in a neighbor's dead cottonwood tree. A male house finch, singing for a mate—a sound that makes me think of meadowlarks, but only because I was walking past a meadowlark in South Dakota while chatting with my young daughter, who'd just learned to whistle and belted out the house finch's song to me over the phone.
And that's how the listening game works.
My ability to identify birds by their songs isn't particularly keen. I can discern the call and response of a pair of goldfinches checking in on one another. The ham-radio-tune of a starling and the "krewe" of a Eurasian collared dove. I can't tell who makes the "pews" and husky "rees!" Most of the cacophony—especially right around dawn, when everyone in the neighborhood greets the day—is mysterious to me.
It's the act of being still, of listening that matters. I like being reminded that I'm one tiny—flightless, basically songless—member of a wild and brilliant community. I like paying attention to who comes through the neighborhood, and at what time of year. Last February, 40 or 50 cedar waxwings descended into the yard, parched for water and ravenous for last summer's crabapples. In late fall, the juncos arrive; in March, woodpeckers start rattling against the tree in my yard infected with elm scale. And of course, we all greet October's sandhill cranes.
I don't maintain this exercise regularly; certainly not consistently enough to compile some sort of environmental history of the yard. When the weather turns colder, for example, I return to sprinting through the morning—fitting in freelance or school work before waking up my daughter and moving on to the rush of readying for school and work.
In early March, I'd resumed listening, drawn out by the warmer mornings, worried about a call-back to the doctor's and fretting over work and money.
While drinking coffee—with my red heeler backed up against me, guarding and always on high-alert—I'd list the sounds around me.
Typically, I track the sounds down one page of my notebook, and try to write away the sleepless night's fears and coming day's dreads on the facing page. By the end of 20 or 30 minutes, I can walk back into the house, grateful to dwell on such a luminous planet, amazed to live in a city where, if only I give them my attention, 15 to 20 species of birds will yield themselves up to me each morning.
Then, a couple of weeks ago…Well, we all know what started happening.
It became harder to sleep through the night, and then more difficult to wake at dawn. I worry I'll never see my mom again, or that something bad will happen to my brother's family. I miss hugging my friends, hosting a bevy of smart, loud journalists around my dining room table, and inviting my daughter's friends into our home. I miss weekly hikes in the Sandias with one of my closet friends, drinks with my colleagues, going to the gym with my daughter. Every single person I care about, from my childhood best friend through my college roommate to every co-worker, relative, and friend I love–each and every one of them right now is worried, scared, and uncertain.
I want to reassure each of them, we'll get through this. We'll learn some lessons, and as my sister-in-law wrote in an email, come out smarter and stronger for the future. That's what I want to do.
And so in the mornings, I head outside to listen. I look forward to the exercise during the worrisome night, crave it as a way to set a better tone for the day. And while this has always been a solitary exercise—a way to breathe and take a break—now, I've started asking people to join me. To also go outside in the morning if they're able, to listen, and to share with me what they're hearing.
On the mornings when I feel particularly low, the thing that pulls me outside isn't even the excitement to hear the spotted towhee scratching in last fall's dried leaves. Or the hope I'll catch the murders and murders of crows streaming across the early morning sky. It's the thought that friends might be outside listening. And maybe they need to feel connected—not just to their avian neighbors, but to me, too.