birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.


I’m listening to one of my favorite sounds right now via YouTube. It is the sound of someone rummaging through a bag of makeup. It’s on a favorite playlist of closely miked, high quality videos, though I only listen, of people doing things like turning pages in a catalog, rustling through wrapping paper, rummaging through purses or make up bags or art supplies or fingernail polish bottles, and other clinking, tingling sounding activities.

When my husband was still in college I used to lie in bed and listen to him studying, turning pages in his books, flipping his papers over, writing on the pages. I told him this was all I ever wanted for any present, to lie in bed while he studies. It put me into a blissful zone. But this sweet scenario is not why these sounds are important to me. There is nothing, no emotional event I can connect them to. They just are.

It's difficult to describe the sounds, not as difficult to tell you how they make me feel. Each perfect rustling pulls at something behind my knees, inside my joints, and through my skull. It’s as if hundreds of tiny kittens are walking on my neck and arms. I can feel my lids grow heavy as my brain sinks into a trance, not sleep, mind you, because then I wouldn’t be able to hear the sounds. But the deepest relaxation imaginable.

The sound of twenty five school children’s pencils skritch-skritching on a paper test. The sound of someone in the library reading and taking notes. The sound of Bob Ross scraping paint onto a palette. The sound of walking on rocks at night, of water lightly lapping a shore, of cows shifting their weight on grass.

Though they are all different, they are the same. These sounds are gentle interruptions in perfect silence. These sounds have a feeling of sharp and dull at the same time, each sound a tiny package of completeness and comfort.

Once my daughter Anna, she was about three, said how much she loved a particular book. “Do you like those funny elephants?” I asked her. “No, I like the sound of the crinkly pages,” she answered. Once I was painting our daughter Emma’s room when I decided to blindly press play on her cd player. It was a homemade cd of crinkly paper sounds. She’d been listening to it, and my own mother made it for her. When I told our daughter Sarah about finding these YouTube tapes, she told me she’d been listening for years. So it’s inherited?

There’s a name for those of us who react to these sounds, or our condition: ASMR. I won’t bore you with the words, but I’ll tell you that it changed my life when I discovered it’s a Thing, and there are hundreds of YouTube videos I can listen to with my nice headphones at work. I get things done to the sound of fingernail polish bottles being disturbed.

When I was away at college, I went home to my friend Husky’s farm and made audiotapes of my footfall on the rocks in the evening, of the cows quietly mooing in the distance, of the swinging barn door and the dog running up behind me, tags jingling lightly. Back in Boston I listened to it for hours, thinking it was just the sounds of home I missed.


The Dishes