January: A Moment of Sound

It is February 1, 2021 as I write this and I’m not yet sure what form my monthly challenges will take. Last year it was a poem a month with an alliterative title using the first letter of the month. Maybe I’ll figure it out by March? In the meantime, here’s something I did for every day in January:

While outside, either near the gorge, before/during/after a run, on my deck, leaning out the front door, I took out my phone and started a recording in my voice memo app. I tried to record for one minute, but sometimes I went over or under. That is the beauty of a “moment”: it can stand for any amount of time. I embedded each recording in my log entry for the day or, if I took a day off of running, in the next log entry. I also briefly described the moment and tagged the entry with a moment of sound.

preliminary thoughts/ramblings

Most of the time, I enjoyed this exercise, especially when I heard a sound I wanted to record and then recorded it. Sometimes, I struggled to find an interesting sound. Because I was committed to doing one a day, I decided not to worry so much about capturing the best (as in, the coolest, most fascinating, distinctive) sounds, but to focus on just completing the task–making sure I did at least one “moment” every day of the month. I gave some attention to the sounds as I recorded them, but often gave much more attention to listening back to the recording and trying to identify and give some type of meaning to the sound: a story, a memory, what it sounded like, who/what was making the sound, etc. Two big benefits of this new habit: 1. it forced me to get at least one moment of fresh air, no matter how cold, everyday and 2. it encouraged me to listen to my neighborhood–the birds, the wind chimes, the dogs, the drips, the scratching noises. Now, a month later, I know a little bit more about the place I inhabit. I know what that irritating scratching noise is that I would often hear when I stepped out on the deck at night to look at the stars. I thought it was rustling leaves or a critter in the bushes or some in their backyard. No. It’s my neighbor’s scare rod, spinning in the wind. I know who has wind chimes. I know that the black-capped chickadee is here, singing away, all year.

I’d like to continue doing these moments of sound and maybe develop them into something more. A question to ponder: how many limits/rules/requirements should I place on this assignment to shape it? I always struggle with this question as I try to figure out how best to encourage creativity–mine, and anyone else’s who might attempt the exercise. Creativity often needs some limits or focus or guidance to become something greater, to be shaped into a thing (a poem, a story, a lyric essay, a more complex/deeper understanding). This prompts another question: does this exercise need to become something greater? Could it work as a low-stakes activity designed to get you in the habit of listening? Maybe I could put these two together?

Possible Future Assignment:

what it is/what it’s like: Record a moment of sound everyday. Listen back to the recording. Take 5 minutes and try to describe, in as much detail as possible but without metaphor, what you are hearing. Do this for 2 weeks. Next, continue recording a moment each day. Now take 5 minutes and come up with a metaphor/simile/onomatopoeia that best fits at least one of the sounds. Do this for 2 weeks.

some other things to think about:

  • Some possible goals and objectives: to get in the habit of stopping to listen; finding better ways to describe/capture the sound with words; to become better acquainted with a place (to exhaust a place?); to become better acquainted with a sound; to learn to listen–to notice the world through noise/sounds; to learn to rely on senses other than vision
  • Pick one location to record at each day or a time of day or only during a run or pick a particular type of sound (birds, crunching snow, dripping water)
  • Decide which is the priority for the assignment: the act of listening and recording the sound or the act of listening to and describing/giving meaning to the sound

Thinking about priorities reminds me of a great poem by a local poet about the Mississippi River:

2 Mississippi/ Steve Healey

Standing next to the river, I recorded the sound
of the river in an attempt to represent that sound
more accurately than my earlier description of it,
which compared the river sound to someone
saying “shhhh.” I rewound the tape and played it back,
and the recording also sounded like someone saying
“shhhh,” but then I remembered that I was listening
to both the recording of the river and the river itself,
and I could not with absolute certainty distinguish
one from the other. It sounded like the two sounds
synchronized into one “shhhh,” but at times they
seemed to separate, as if telling each other to be quiet,
like accomplices committing a crime. Or they may
have both been telling me to be quiet, despite the fact
that I was producing no sound, or so I thought.
Retreating swiftly and quietly to the privacy
of my own home, a safe distance from the river itself,
I listened again to the recording of the river sound.
This time it sounded like a perfectly preserved memory
of the river, a solitary “shhhh” moving inexorably
toward the Gulf of Mexico, and just as I felt liberated
from the burden of having to remember the river
through my own mental activity, the recording stopped,
precisely at the moment when I had turned off
the tape recorder. Then I remembered that the river
itself was elsewhere, continuing its perfect sound
forever, and that I would never be able to represent
that continuousness accurately. I remembered,
however, that I could take a length of magnetic tape
on which that river was recorded and splice the ends
together to form a loop which I could then play
continuously. The sound could keep going “shhhh”
all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, telling all the cars
and condos to be quiet. It’s worth remembering,
however, that a river is not a person, and that a person
saying “shhhh” eventually needs to stop making
that sound, either to inhale or die. There would be no
other choice, unless of course I recorded myself
saying “shhhh” and played a loop of that recording
continuously, in which case I’d no longer need
to remember myself. I’d be immortal
in the privacy of my own sound.

A Few Favorite Sounds

I’m sure I’ll have more ideas about this as I continue recording my moments. For now, here are some of my favorite sounds from January.


The bells from St. Thomas


O, these birds!


“feebee feebee feebee”


the delightful irritation of crunching, cracking ice!


My son’s new favorite phrase, “Let’s gooo!” and, as always, the birds


falling and melting snow


the drip drip drip and someone yelling, “WHOO!”