The Day I Heard the Birds Sing

Reading Time: 9 minutes

I’m going to tell you a story about how birds changed my life. Yes, that’s right, birds.

My path to the birds began in the spring of 2019. I started waking up at three in the morning and could not get back to sleep. My mind had many questions for me, and they could not wait until the morning: 

Is your girlfriend good for you? Is this the right job? Why did you say that joke at dinner?

I don’t know Mr. Brain, but can we revisit this in a few hours? I need to get more sleep!

The restless nights turned into uneasy days. Simple problems suddenly felt less solvable. I laughed less often and had a gnawing tightness in my chest. And my thinking, typically clear and grounded, turned into a circular and muddy web of looming worries about this and that.

At 26 years old, I was familiar with these symptoms. They were signs that change was on the horizon. What change? Only God knew. Like a storm that’s still far out at sea, I only knew that something was coming. As to how bad it would be, time would tell.

In truth, I was not too worried about this particular storm. Sure, there were a few cracks in the foundation of my life, but no water flowed into the house just yet. With enough journaling, meditating, and traveling, I thought I could seal the cracks before the storm arrived.

But then I received a call from Rob, my right-hand man at work. Rob’s agreeable nature and bookish proclivities made my life both easier and more fun. His call came a few days before we were supposed to meet in Lisbon to lead a week-long event for 50 people.

Rob had bad news. His grandfather had fallen ill and was not going to make it. He would still come to Lisbon, but after that, he was leaving the company to pursue his dream of becoming the next Hemingway. He had realized that life was too short to do anything else.

His story struck a chord. Eighteen months earlier, I had lost my mom to suicide. And a few years before that, I lost a mentor to cardiac arrest. I understood what Rob meant when he said that life was too short to delay his dreams. And I began to wonder if I could really sweep my looming problems under the rug. Wasn’t life too short to ignore the call for change when it arrived?

Ten days later, Rob and I headed to a rooftop bar to celebrate the end of the event in Lisbon. One drink turned into another and another and another, and five hours later, we were deep into a discussion about the brevity of life and what we were both going to do next.

“I’m going to miss working together. I’m not sure if I want to do this without you,” I said.

“You’ll be alright. What else would you do anyway?”

“I’m not sure, but I’m heading to the Azores Islands for a week to figure it out.”

As we said goodbye, Rob said he was heading to France to take a class with his favorite writer.  I told him to remember me when he was famous and left to catch a flight to São Miguel Island.

Waking Up to the Birdsong

On my third day in the Azores, I woke up at dawn in a small surf hostel. I had spent the last two days with Apa, a squat and affable local surf instructor. He taught me how to read waves on day one, and on day two, we took longboards out in sloppy, two-foot summer surf. At the end of the session, Apa said, “Don’t be so stiff. Be more like a monkey.”

I had my next session with Apa in four hours. I needed more sleep, but my mind wanted to rehash all of my troubles. Instead of fighting it, I cut my losses and tip-toed to the kitchen to make coffee. I scooped grounds from a weathered bag, placed them in a fresh filter, and filled the tank with water. As I waited for the coffee to brew, my mind peppered me with questions: 

What are you even doing on this island? Do you really want to be with this girl? How are you going to afford rent if you quit your job?

It had now been two months of these questions and I still had no answers. By this point, I had stopped looking. My experience with prior existential tailspins had taught me one thing: When my mind is lost in circular ruminations, it is not the place where I will find the path forward. I had to live my way forward. Patience and action, not thinking, would illuminate the path.

And I suppose that’s why I was in the Azores. I was here to live, to temporarily escape my responsibilities and create space for whatever came next.

A sputtering sound broke my mental trance. The coffee was ready. I poured a cup and headed for the front door. As I stepped outside, the cool cement soothed my bare feet. The sun peaked through a cloudy sky and found a home on the right side of my face. I closed my eyes.

My mind drifted to a familiar exercise. I visualized myself on a map. Starting with a flat image of the world, I zoomed across Europe and toward the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to find the spot where I now stood on São Miguel Island.

I realized that I was thousands of miles from anyone I knew. That meant that no one on the island had any expectations of me. Anonymity offered a comforting paradox: By isolating myself from everything I knew, I was free to do and be whatever I wanted.

I had visited 30 countries over the last three years and used this visualization exercise to ground myself in unfamiliar lands. It was like a secret game that only I knew and that often filled me with gratitude about passing my twenties on an unfettered adventure around the world. 

And today, that game was helping me see that I had the shield of anonymity on my side. The problems of the “me” that existed around the people I knew did not have to be here with the “me” on this island.

The sun broke through the clouds, covering my entire face and chest in a warm bath. I began to feel the carefree joy of a golden retriever who has nothing to do but chase a yellow ball and return it to its owner. The chatter in my mind faded into a barely discernable whisper as I let out a long, hearty exhale that eased the tension in my forehead.

And that’s when I heard them. Chirp, chirp. Chirp, chirp.

The soundscape transformed into a beautiful melody of hundreds of birds both near and far. They grew louder and louder as my attention narrowed.

Was this birdsong for me?

The song had a cheerful tone, almost as if these birds were grateful to be alive on this sunny morning. But birds don’t feel happiness, do they? Maybe they do. I would never know.

I opened my eyes. Where were all these birds? I could not see them, yet they were certainly around. I imagined how nice it would be to be a bird. To glide freely through the air, unbounded by the silly human concerns that sat on me like a wet blanket during the past few months.

It occurred to me then that surfing, like the life of a bird, offered me an escape from the constraints of land life. When I entered the ocean, I danced freely with the energy of the waves.

Like a bird gliding to its nest in the wind, surfing required me to be fully present and integrated with the world around me. The tides, winds, and swells determined my fate. Surfing catapulted me into a world where the problems of my land life did not exist. I became one with nature, and nothing else mattered.

A small bird with a light brown body and a black head sailed above me and landed on a tree in the yard. I took a breath of crisp morning air and released it in my second long exhale of the day. This time, the tension in my shoulders dissipated and my lips curled into a soft smile. 

As I looked at my new bird friend and listened to the collective birdsong, something within me said: Don’t worry Cal. Everything will be okay. It was as if my mom had come down from heaven to give me the loving embrace I needed to let go of all of my existential unease. All that remained was the stillness of knowing that I am loved and interwoven with the natural world.

I still had some things to figure out, but my anxiety about the task had faded. Today, I would not solve anything. I would simply be like a monkey on the wave, and that would be enough.

Finding the Birds in All Places

I traveled to Lisbon, Denver, Boise, and New York over the following weeks. Every morning, I ventured outside and listened for the birds, hoping that I could find some semblance of the stillness I experienced on that day in the Azores. And the birds were always there. Not just on remote islands, but in small and large cities around the world. Even in New York City!

Once I started hearing them, it was hard to believe I had not heard them before. I must have been in the presence of the birdsong thousands of times, and yet, I never heard it. How was that possible?

I realized that hearing the birds had very little to do with where I was. The presence of the birdsong was a mirror of my internal state. When I was trapped in the madness of my mind, there were no birds. When I was present with the world around me, the birds returned. They were always there; I wasn’t.

It’s now been four years since I heard those birds in the Azores. The storm that was brewing in the spring and summer of 2019 wreaked more havoc than I originally thought. I blew up the foundations of my career, romantic life, and home within a month of leaving São Miguel Island. Those were painful changes, but they led me to the places that I needed to go.

I’m now living in San Francisco, married, and settled in a new career. I surf four times a week and still think of Apa as I do my best to “be like a monkey” on the waves. Many storms have come and gone since the day I heard the birds, and I realize that there are many more storms to come. But I also now have a ritual that grounds me during the calm and chaotic moments of life.

That ritual is my morning visit with the birds. This morning, for instance, I woke up hungover and irritated with myself for having one too many drinks. I made an espresso and walked outside into a fog-filled morning. I took a deep breath and started paying attention. 

In front of me, I noticed a large spider with a brown belly who had built a home on my aging wooden deck. He was wrapping up an unlucky fly who would surely be a tasty lunch. A cool breeze slid across my face and moved toward a tree with dark purple leaves that swayed gracefully in the warm morning light. In the distance, I heard a wind chime sing.

And then they arrived. Chirp, chirp. Chirp, chirp. 

The birds were here again, and like a baby playing peekaboo with a friendly uncle, I was just as surprised they were here today as I was on that day in the Azores. I closed my eyes and allowed the morning birdsong to wash away my hungover agitation and thoughts about all that I had to do on this day. 

I simply listened, and their song reminded me that everything would be okay.

Embracing Gökotta

I recently learned that my morning ritual has a name. It’s called gökotta, an untranslatable Swedish word that means “to wake up at dawn to go outside and listen to the birds sing.” I’m happy to have a name for this wonderful practice and to know that I’m not the only one doing it.

Embracing gökotta has changed my life for the better. Unlike the endless supply of lame, self-help hacks that promise more productivity with less stress, gökotta has fundamentally reshaped and deepened my relationship with the world.

Gökotta is a way of being, a simple practice that reminds me of the transformative and always-available pleasures of nature. 

It’s a few minutes of stillness during which I can begin the day unchained from the prison of my mind and become more attuned to the small details of where I am. It’s a gentle nudge to remember that I’m never really alone and that everything will work out in the end.

Just as focusing on the breath is a way for meditators to connect with the present moment, gökotta is a pathway for reminding me that I am a part of an interconnected web of life that is far more vast and beautiful than I could ever understand or communicate with words. It is a test of my presence and willingness to surrender to what is always around if I simply listen.

And now that you know about gökotta, perhaps it can be a pathway to help you live more fully as well.

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