Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘listening’

stronger together heart graffiti three lives

You Have to Be Careful

You have to be careful telling things.
Some ears are tunnels.
Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.
Some ears are flat pans like the miners used
looking for gold.
What you say will be washed out with the stones.

You look a long time till you find the right ears.
Till then, there are birds and lamps to be spoken to,
a patient cloth rubbing shine in circles,
and the slow, gradually growing possibility
that when you find such ears,
they already know.

—Naomi Shihab Nye

I came across this poem last spring, in Shihab Nye’s collection Words Under the Words. I posted it on Instagram at the time, and have thought of it occasionally since then – mostly when I’m remembering how glad I am to have such ears in my life.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry on Fridays here this month, as I do each year.

Read Full Post »

becoming wise book sunflowers tea

After I read Krista Tippett’s memoir Becoming Wise last spring, I did something I’d intended to do for a long time: subscribed to her weekly On Being podcast, which is the foundation for her book. I quickly realized a few things: one, the podcast is fascinating and lovely (as I expected). And two, I could never hope to stay “caught up.”

I wasn’t trying to listen to the whole On Being archive – that would take years. But even the current episodes, each nearly an hour long, ask for more time than I sometimes have (at least in one long spell). They also, critically, ask for my attention: these are not conversations during which you can zone out. Krista and her conversation partners – who are poets, physicists, activists, musicians and above all, deeply thoughtful people – are fully engaged in their talks about the big questions of being human. As a listener, I don’t want to miss anything.

My solution? I have been listening slowly.

I’ll turn on an episode of On Being while I cook dinner, some nights: peeling carrots, chopping peppers, stirring a pot of soup on the stove. I’ll listen to a chunk or two – 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there – while I’m running errands in the car, baking a batch of scones, or folding laundry. My head has to be in the right place: open, curious, sometimes a little melancholy. (The episodes, while they wrestle with real and sometimes insoluble issues, always leave me feeling heartened about the state of the world – and usually jotting down the title of a book written or recommended by that week’s guest.)

Generally, I hit the pause button at least once during an episode: when dinner is ready, or it’s time to go pick up my husband from work, or I arrive at yoga class or the library. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to an entire episode at once. But I’m coming to prefer it that way. These conversations contain so much that’s worth mulling over. They are slow, wise, witty, sometimes meandering. And they reward slow listening.

Some of my favorite episodes so far have featured Mary Karr, Michael Longley, Maria Popova and Naomi Shihab Nye. But there’s a wealth of honest, thought-provoking, warmhearted conversation to be found in the On Being archive. If you’re looking for an antidote to the rapid-fire headlines, I’d recommend listening – slowly.

Read Full Post »

emily advent reading

So said my husband a couple of weeks ago, as he opened a church service in which both the worship leader (him) and the preacher (our friend Robert) were struggling with coughs and raspy voices. We congregants crowded into the first few rows, and moved the small podium forward between the front two pews. (It’s a difference of maybe 20 feet, but when you’re fighting to be heard, every little bit helps.) The red, foil-wrapped poinsettias, flanking the altar, cast a warm glow onto the white wood.

Emily (who did not have laryngitis) read aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah: A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. And, a few verses later, They will not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain. (That phrase always gives me chills.)

Advent is a time for listening to prophetic voices: Isaiah, John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel. It is a time for acknowledging what is far from right in our world: the injustice, the sadness, the hurt and the evil that threaten to overwhelm us, threaten to quench the hope we carry around. But the words of John’s Gospel, read aloud at Morning Prayers later that week, brought sudden tears to my eyes: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. These words are no less true in such dark times.

It became a running joke this month at church: three of our preachers (we have a regular rotating cast) were struggling vocally on the days they were asked to speak. J, who leads the singing most weeks, has been coughing and sneezing intermittently for nearly a month. And I lost my voice entirely on the weekend of the church Christmas party, which meant I couldn’t participate as we sang carols in Joe and Kelly’s living room. I simply had to sit and listen. But that felt like Advent in its own way.

In the wake of the past few months – not only the election, but Orlando and Berlin and so many hard things, both public and personal – I have been bombarded by a lot of noise. We live in a loud society, a clamoring and strident world, and people are angry right now, and scared. Worried for their loved ones, anxious about the future. I know I am. The voices of the prophets – whoever they are – can be muffled, or at times silenced altogether.

As we head into Christmas week (and as I struggle to regain my physical voice), I am doing my best – since I can’t talk much – to listen.

I am rereading the words in my Advent book, from Henri Nouwen, Gail Godwin, J.B. Phillips and others, about waiting for God and (meanwhile) doing our part to bring his kingdom about in this world. I am remembering the good words I’ve heard at Morning Prayers this fall, from a variety of voices I might have never encountered otherwise. I am thinking back on conversations with a few friends, who serve as prophetic voices in my own life. And I am reading, online and off, the stories of people whose experiences are wildly different from mine. (We must – I keep saying – be of interest to each other.)

I heard, recently, an unusual meditation on Mary, the mother of Jesus: the speaker named her “desperate and fearful and running for her life, yet brave, courageous, the mother of God.” I have long loved the image of Mary from the end of Luke 2, when, overwhelmed by momentous events and new circumstances, she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” In a time when I often feel desperate and fearful, and when there is so much to ponder, I am trying to be like Mary: brave and thoughtful, and willing to listen for the hope I know is there.

If you’re celebrating this week, merry Christmas, friends. And no matter what holidays you observe (or don’t), I wish you joy and peace – and the full use of your voices – as we head into the end of 2016.

Read Full Post »

atomic weight of love book sunflowers

I was humbled by the thought that our lives, however briefly, had touched. I thought about how lives bump up against each other, whether for moments of superficial conversation in line at the post office or a deeper enmeshment. […] How much meaning should I ascribe to knowing a stranger for the moments it took for me to donate to a V-book [war stamps] campaign? What were the evolutionary implications of kindness?

—Elizabeth J. Church, The Atomic Weight of Love

I came across these lines recently in Church’s stunning novel about the life of Meridian Wallace, an ornithologist who studies the behavior of crows. They reminded me powerfully of that Elizabeth Alexander poem, the one I have carried with me during a spring and summer fraught with personal changes and national tragedy:

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Every time I turn on the news, there is more heartbreak to absorb and to bear: shootings by and of policemen, black families afraid for their lives in the U.S., refugees struggling to find a safe place to land, military unrest in Turkey and political turmoil in Britain. I have wept and I have ached, and I have wondered, What now?

I have failed, so far, to come up with any answers except this one: we must stop reacting to each other out of hatred, disinterest and fear.

I moved to Boston six summers ago from the plains of west central Texas, where I had lived nearly all my life. I’d heard that people in the Northeast were cold and unfriendly, and I was unsure how to carve out a place for myself in this bustling, unfamiliar city. It took me a long time to build a community here, to form real bonds with colleagues and friends. It took me even longer to start reaching out to others without fearing rebuff or dismissal. I cherish the friendships that have grown from that slow work: the brilliant women in my book club, the far-flung but genuine community at our church, my coworkers at various offices around Harvard.

When I read these lines about kindness, though, I thought about a different group of people: the ones whose lives bump up against mine in small but important daily ways.

The florist in Brattle Square, who always has a kind word for me when I go in to buy tulips or roses. The mail guy I used to work with, who would pause on his daily rounds to chat about Boston sports or the weather. My elderly Italian landlords, who live downstairs from us. The woman who makes the delicious tamales at the farmers’ market, tops them with freshly made salsa and calls me mi’ja. And the coffee-slinging, sandwich-making crew at Darwin’s, most of whose last names I don’t know, but whose smiling faces and cheerful banter are a regular and indispensable part of my workdays.

I am fascinated by the idea of all these lives constantly bumping up against each other, against my life, as I go about my daily routine. I am even more fascinated when I get a glimpse into one of their stories, when I break out of my self-focus long enough to truly connect with someone else. More and more, I am convinced this is the only way to begin healing the deep wounds of our common humanity: to listen, to look, to pay attention to one another.

It takes no work at all to encounter other human beings: we are surrounded by each other constantly, especially those of us who live and work in cities. But it sometimes takes work, and it always takes intention, for us to engage one another with kindness.

I’m not sure about the answer to Meridian’s question: I don’t know what the evolutionary implications of kindness would be. But they have to be better than the results of racism and hatred, fear and indifference, that are tearing our nation apart.

I know that smiling at a stranger will not solve the problems of the world: finding a better path forward will be the work of years. But kindness and attention must be where we begin. We must – I will keep saying it as long as I have to – we must be of interest to each other.

Read Full Post »

katie bethany coffee shop

Here is one thing I love about deep friendships: you develop a kind of shorthand after a while.

Some of this shorthand is topical: my friend Abi and I love so many of the same books and TV shows, and we can discuss/quote them for hours. Some of it’s geographical: my friend Kristin, a fellow West Texas transplant to Boston, knows exactly what I mean when I talk about missing home and loving the life I have here. (Even better: she knows the particulars of certain Texas cities, and how tough it is to find great Tex-Mex food in Boston.)

I’ve been thinking about another kind of shorthand, though: the kind that comes from knowing each other’s casts of characters.

Pretty much everyone I meet knows I’m married: if my wedding ring doesn’t give it away, a comment about my husband is bound to come up before long.

katie jer beach san diego

I also talk frequently about my parents, sister and two adorable nephews – and I’ll show pictures of those sweet boys to anyone who’s willing to look at them. (Here are Harrison and my sister. Adorable, no?)

betsy harrison

But my good friends (and family) also know about the other important people in my life – even if they don’t know one another personally. I tell stories about Sunday nights spent at Ryan and Amy’s, long talks with Abi (and snuggles with her baby girl), college and post-college adventures with my roommate Bethany. (That’s her at the top of this post.)

I talk about my writer pal Hannah (who runs our occasional book club), my snail-mail pen pal Jaclyn, my work buddies Adam and Anissa, my long-distance lifesaver Laura. And in turn, I get to hear about the supporting casts of my friends’ lives: their parents, spouses, siblings, best friends, the people who help anchor them.

It’s a gift to reach the place in a friendship where you don’t have to explain all of that, where the person who’s listening to you has heard, and remembered, the stories about the people who matter. I love hearing stories about my friends’ loved ones – and it’s even more fun if I get to meet them in person. I feel like I know my friends better after getting to know the people they love, because our people are so much a part of who we are.

Do you have this kind of shorthand with your friends? Who’s in your supporting cast of characters?

Read Full Post »

purple crocus buds

Back in January, I decided my one little word for 2015 would be gentle.

After an intense, often difficult autumn, I wanted to slow down, take a few deep breaths, treat myself and others with a little more care. It’s so easy to channel the snark when I’m stressed, to snap at my friends and co-workers and husband instead of really listening to them. I wanted to step away from that, to value being kind and gracious over having the last (witty or sarcastic) word.

It has not (you may have noticed) been a gentle winter around here, weather-wise. The blizzards, the piles of snow, the piercing cold, are the opposite of gentle – they are brutal. The stress of daily life doesn’t slow down when the weather behaves like this; if anything, it gets compounded. But I have been trying my best to be gentle, with myself and with others. (As you can see below, it has involved lots of chai.)

red journal chai darwins

Being gentle has sometimes meant biting my tongue: just because a remark is true doesn’t mean it’s kind or helpful. Sometimes it means stopping myself from rolling my eyes. Sometimes it means listening when I don’t want to. I chose this word partly because I want to be a safe place for my friends and family. (The older I get, the more it matters to me that my friends are safe instead of cool or beautiful or witty.) Being gentle is sometimes – I admit it – a royal pain.

Being gentle also means giving myself a break. I do not have to eat all the vegetables, clean the whole apartment in a single evening, finish all the work projects in one day. I don’t have to like a book or TV show even if I feel I “should.” I tend toward high expectations for myself, which can lead to self-criticism and anxiety. So being gentle means dialing back the critical eye I sometimes turn on my own life. I’m only human.

I saw the new Cinderella movie with my mom and sister when I was in Texas, and while I loved the gorgeous costumes and sets, I especially loved the film’s central line: “Have courage and be kind.” Since brave is a vital word for me and gentle is my word for this year, that line felt exactly right.

If you’re following one little word this year, how’s it going?

Read Full Post »

Nearly four years ago now, three months after I got engaged, I hopped a plane to Oxford to spend a year earning my master’s degree (and, obviously, browsing bookshops and strolling gardens and eating my weight in scones and Digestive biscuits and paninis from On the Hoof).

This dream year was not without its opportunity costs, most notably the steady full-time salary I’d been enjoying (hello, student loan debt), and time with Jeremiah, my longtime boyfriend and newly-minted fiance. He stayed in Abilene to pursue his own master’s degree, and while we emailed every day and had weekly Skype dates and visited each other at Christmas and Spring Break, man oh man did I miss him.

Most people were totally understanding about this, as long as I didn’t whine about it all the time. One of my Oxford housemates was in a similar situation (her fiance was in North Wales). But a couple of friends had one standard response to any complaints I made about missing Jeremiah, the exchange rate, the wet English weather or any other difficulties. It consisted of one phrase: “Well, you chose it.”

Translation: Stop whining. You landed yourself in this situation on purpose, so you better suck it up.

Now, I don’t discount the power of an occasional dose of tough love, particularly when someone is engaging in self-destructive behavior, or when they’re doing nothing but complain. But usually, when I was venting my feelings, that wasn’t the case. I didn’t really wish my situation were different. I knew I’d chosen this year in Oxford, and – let’s be clear – I was having the time of my life. Those struggles were part of the deal, and I knew it. But I didn’t always have to like it.

That tough-love phrase has stayed with me since I left Oxford, and I’ve wondered about it in the context of various day jobs (some of which were true choices and some of which were necessities), and especially since our move to Boston. Lately, in the face of wet, dreary summer weather and missing Texas and crowded commuter trains and a case of the general blahs, I’ve wondered: Just because I/we chose Boston, does that mean we always have to like it?

I don’t think so.

Now, I really do believe in making the best of any situation. I believe in blooming where you’re planted and practicing gratitude and all those other platitudes (which can actually do wonders for your spirit). I don’t believe in whining, constant negativity, or refusing to see the good in a person or place or situation. But I believe in being honest about how things are going; I don’t think ignoring the bad stuff will make it go away. We all need to vent sometimes, and responding with that knee-jerk phrase when someone’s asking for empathy can make them pull back in hurt and frustration. (Believe me. I know.)

So I’m trying to be gentle with myself these days, when this still-new Boston life brings with it frustrations or loneliness or other kinds of strain. And I’m trying to be gentle with others who vent about their jobs or their cities or other frustrating things in their lives. Because honesty and a listening ear go a long way toward true friendship and being seen. And that is ultimately what I want to pursue – even if it means listening to – and voicing – a few complaints along the way.

Read Full Post »