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From the Mouths of Birds
Ever since I read the brilliant poet David Whyte's description of our "need to overhear the tiny but very consequential things we say that reveal ourselves to ourselves," I've been trying to listen more closely to what comes out of my mouth. But doing this is more difficult than it seems, due the chatter going on in life and in my own head. In his essay, Whyte describes a woman who sings her thoughts to herself in order to recognize the feeling and meaning behind them. I actually tried this once, to the horror of my kids, who were also in the car with me.
Now I'm beginning to think I need to buy a cockatoo. Yesterday, Australian Geographic revealed to the world that wild cockatoos were learning the art of conversation—including curse words—from trained cockatoos who had escaped their cages or had been set free. In the article, the site included this clip:
It's hard to hear, but listen to what the bird is saying: "What are you doing?" (in a frustrated, annoyed, on-the-edge mom tone), followed by "Look at that!" (in a wondrous tone, as if he'd just seen his baby stand up and walk for the first time), followed by "Uh-oh. Uh-oh," over and over (in the classic child's I-just-broke-the-family-champagne-flutes tone). Clearly, this is a family pet.
I tried to imagine what such a cockatoo might repeat after spending time with my family—or even me. Would it say in an exhausted voice, "I have so much work!"? Or, crossly, "Be quiet! It's 4 am!"? Or would it say, "God I love you so much," or even "Thank you"? Two out of the three things the bird learned above were negative. Would my ratio be the same? Or worse?
A snippet of repeated dialogue does not define the emotional character of a person's entire existence, but it is still a window into the kind and quality of messages we give each other. I not only want to start talking as if a cockatoo were about to speak my words back to me, but I also want to fill my life with all of the other sounds I would wish such an bird would imitate: laughter, doorbells rung by neighbors, violin notes from my son, the fizz of ice cream when it hits the soda in a root beer float.
This is not a completely idealistic thought. The same Australian Geographic article describes certain lyrebirds that still make the noises their mother birds and grandmother birds and great-grandmother birds learned while in captivity: the chopping of axes and the clicking of old shutter-box cameras.
David Whyte's 10 questions that have no right to go away
Are you listening to your life?
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