Listening to What Matters

I have been reading again this charming and deep-felt book by Emma Hooper: Etta and Otto and Russell and James. A book that makes me want to get up from my chair, put down my laptop, grab my backpack and a few clothes and beloved things, and start my walk east towards the ocean. To be that free is something this book gives me permission to dream about. Most of us would say “I could never…” I often say it to myself: I should not, I could not… ” but Etta bravely does. She gets up one day and listens to how her heart encourages and inspires her, and so she leaves her long-time husband Otto a note on their breakfast table, and off she goes on her journey towards a beautiful body of water:

“Otto, I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back. Yours (always), Etta.

Etta makes us think about what is stopping us from doing the things we dream of, the things we need for healing and making sense of our lives. And along the way of Etta’s story, we learn that part of the answer is learning to listen differently. For Etta, she learns to listen differently to what is both inside and outside of herself.

This book reminds me of my own attempts to listen differently. Over the years I’ve been learning to listen, but sometimes I can be a slow learner. How to notice that which seems so subtle, even unnoticeable? The world, the city, nature is teaching me. When I was a child, the call of a killdeer was one of my teachers. A mama killdeer near her nest of babies, in the long row of tall pines that lined our driveway to our old stone farmhouse. I wandered along the orange sun-glowing pine needles matted under my feet, and followed her as she called killdeer–killdeer–killdeer and pretended her wing was broken. I listened and followed her down the path as nature would instinctively have me do. Her babies were safe as she led me away from the nest.

I remember, years later in Fredericton, the beginning of my own journey, listening to the sharp sound of ice breaking in the Saint John River. The call of the deeper winter river with its watery dark secrets and moments of death moving into the breaking-open of ice and the crack-crack of my heart with each large white ice-raft floating away from another. Breaking open to make room for new life in spring and being astonished by the poems that found me there. The wind so strong and sure that my pink-stone earring was lost somewhere along the walking bridge with its huge truss design built of steel and the night overhead howling songs from the stars. Other years, the sound of wind jostling branches of the blue spruce outside my window–the tree that was planted when I was 8 years old, that grew up with me, until it was left behind, and I kept moving forward. Forward to the East Coast and Atlantic Ocean, just like Etta. Something called me–I didn’t know what–the sea, the creative heart in me, the whales I longed to see and hear perhaps, the salty wind saying come, come–and I left my job and life to move there.

All of this listening was part of my journey. And as I write this story, it’s the almost inaudible sound of hundreds of tiny red bud shells falling all wet and shiny in the wind like confetti onto our backyard garden and patio table. It’s the hot snap of thunder, kettle boiling for tea, soft whoosh of a candle lighting, sound of seeds cracking open under the soil. The clinking of dishes downstairs on the kitchen table and then I realize that while home can be the ocean, it’s also right here in this very present moment. For Otto, home is their kitchen table, the sound of Etta’s voice in her letters as he opens the envelopes with love and her words fall on the table. As he listens for her differently than he ever has before. For sounds of her. For sounds of life. We all have a kitchen table.

Musicians would call these sounds music. Meditation experts would call this mindfulness. The poet Mary Oliver would call it ‘paying attention’ to the world: “Instructions for living a life.  Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”


Etta pays attention. She allows herself to be astonished into a 3,232 kilometre walk from rural Saskatchewan eastwards to the sea. She learns to listen differently and she follows where the sounds of the present moment call her, and where the sounds of her past and memories propel her:

“Etta in the new openness that surrounded the schoolhouse and teacher’s cottage, learned to listen differently. As the months passed, her ears learned to distinguish shapes, patterns, life, in the big silence of this place. Smaller sounds, broader sounds. Insects calling against or with the wind, the conversations the wooden walls of her room had with the sun, the tread of boots on gravel miles away. And, of course, the calls of children and their dogs across the fields as they made their way toward her, toward the school. The brushing of the grain away from their bodies as they passed through” (p. 99).

Later it would be Etta brushing the grain away from her body as she passed through fields, starting her journey towards the ocean. She listens intently to shapes and sounds and voices and memories. But mostly, it is about the sound of choices that she makes, that Otto makes, that Russell makes. It is the sound of words from her wild coyote friend James. Is he real? Does it matter? Etta learns to listen differently–James is a wonderful example of that.

What is journey made of, I wonder? What does Emma Hooper teach us? Perhaps journey is simply the sound of walking towards the sound of something we have never heard before. Towards the direction of an ocean. Towards the unexpected voice of a coyote. Towards regret, and then towards new choices. Perhaps it’s about listening differently to our hearts. Perhaps it’s the courage Etta listens to, before she gets up and goes. In this story, it seems that journey is about not being alone in the world. Think of the title: Etta and Otto and Russell and James. The journey is in the ‘and‘ between names. This connection that comes… from listening to others and the self and the world differently. The journey that comes from noticing what matters. From having the courage to pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.

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Some stories from home, some from travel adventures (usually in autumn), some happening in community, friendship and faith, and some about the vulnerable, lonely and excluded. To honour them because they have changed me for the better and taught me how to love more fully and be loved more fully. Some days are great, some good, some not always good. But overall, it's been a beautiful journey so far, and I feel more like myself every day. -- Debra, writer / photographer / blogger / traveller

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