Stop, Look, Listen

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by Hayden Hollingsworth

That’s what the bars on the railroad crossing signs used to say.  It was not an idle warning.  In the early days of automobiles, carburetors had the unhappy habit of shutting off just as the car made the grade onto the tracks, stalling in the face of an onrushing locomotive.  I had an uncle who didn’t live to tell that tale.  That was decades before the days of product liability claims and plaintiff’s attorneys.

It’s still good advice.  In the pace of daily living with all the instant news demanding our attention, we rarely take time to stop . . . look . . . and listen.  What we miss in the maelstrom may be more meaningful than morning headlines, which today outlined three murders and their consequences.

Contrast that with the following:  A coolish, early summer morning; the sun just clearing the horizon and shining through the tulip poplar tree at the edge of the forest. The top a glass patio table is frosted with droplets of dew.  As the sun treks through the tree, the grungy tabletop is transformed into a million diamond chips.  The entire spectrum of light delicately dances, changing by the second with a slight turn of the head.

Not a human sound to be heard, but the air is filled with awakenings.  The birds are sending out their headlines of the morning.  One wonders what they are saying.  It surely is not for our entertainment, delightful though it is.  The bluebirds have fledged and are, perhaps, giving instructions on where the grubs are hiding in the grass.  The crows are out in abundance identifying the still-occupied nests to be plundered.  They succeed, followed by screeching blue jays robbed of a hatching.  Far down the hill side, the 20 per second drumming of a piliated woodpecker is either terrifying a bark mite, exercising his neck muscles, or sending Morse code—who knows?  The mourning doves send their tranquil tone to whoever might be listening.

Then–come the humans, but eight miles above; a moving sparkle in the eastern sky, a tiny white rip in the blue.  In that winged aluminum tube is a cargo of cares.  Where are they from?  At this hour and direction probably from New York bound for Atlanta; the flights from Barcelona are just becoming airborne and won’t be over us until early afternoon.

Who is up there?  People with joy in the hearts flying to see a new grandchild or returning from watching a young relative walk across the college stage and step into life.  The flight crew, with the lives of all in their hands, hoping to beat the Atlanta traffic for an afternoon little league game.  A young family, with the grim news that there is no treatment, even at Sloan-Kettering, for their little girl’s glioma.

In the 200+ people on board there is a microcosm of life.  They were never together before; they will never be together again.  It’s the airborne equivalent of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge at San Luis Rey. Is anything happening up there that will change a life?

But life is changing down here. The sun is above the tulip poplar.  The diamonds on the table are now dull as dishwater.  An army of ants march single file toward a dead fly, decide it’s not worth the trouble, and move on to greener glass. The birds are still at it, but a new group with different messages, still beyond our knowing.

Does all that change the starkness of the headlines, the problems of daily living?  Does it have anything to say to the unemployed, the worried well, or the sick and dying?  Probably not, but it does say something about the intersection of all of us. Taking time to be silent and observe may be as important as listening to the sometimes confused music of the mind.

As Alan Alda, of MASH fame, said many years ago at a commencement address to the medical graduates at the University of Pennsylvania, “The headbone is connected to the heartbone.  Don’t ever let them come apart.”  That requires some real work and it’s worth doing.  It may happen best in the quiet of a summer morning.