04 Nov 2015

How to Listen

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unnamed-2“Will you tell me about her?”

Her eyes widen and fill with tears a little. “Of course!” she says. She seems genuinely surprised I asked. “I’d love to tell you about my sister.”

She gestures at the elaborate altar, pointing at pictures and trinkets. She tells me about her younger sister, diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 34. She was given six months to live; she lived another seven and a half years. She tells me about her laughter and spirit. About how she’d never painted before her diagnosis and took up acrylics to process her emotions. Her first paintings were angry and dark; her later paintings become lighter and more reflective. A gorgeous painting of a woman’s face sits on the altar. She presented it to my new friend six months before she died.

“This is my first time at Dia de los Muertos, my first time to make an altar for her. She’s been gone several years, and I’m ready to tell her story. It’s my mission to tell her story now.”

I thank her. We hug several times. She tells me I’m part of her Tribe now. I tell her about my own health struggles lately–far less dire than her sister’s, but still challenging–and how her sister’s story reminds me to be grateful for every day I have.

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I’ve always been a Listener. When I was young, I was the friend people came to for advice and support. I held everyone’s secrets. For some reason, people found me trustworthy. As I got older, strangers began to open up to me as I made my way through the world. I’ve held hands in bathrooms with crying women in whose names I never learned. I’ve listened to Waffle House waitresses’ custody sagas. I’ve learned more about strangers’ relationship drama in a short elevator ride than their therapists ever did.

I don’t mind taking on this role. The truth is, I love to listen. I feel honored when people trust me with pieces of their lives. It’s no surprise I sought out graduate training in Counseling; my diploma might as well read “Master of Arts in Listening to People.” People who know me well laugh at how easily I slip into the listener role. Just this week, a friend asked me over lunch, “And when are we going to talk about you?” I laughed, because we probably aren’t. I’d much rather hear about you.

Why do I love listening so much? People’s stories are magic. Our stories are the tapestries that trail behind us like superhero cloaks. To listen is to examine the threads of those cloaks and find the nuance and sparkle in each one. To listen is to truly connect with someone. To feel heard is to feel valued. Listening is a gift to the listener and the storyteller.

Through listening, I’ve gotten to know some amazing people who otherwise would have been nameless and faceless strangers. I’ve met an Uber driver who was writing a pilot for Netflix, a security guard who marched with Dr. King, and an Irish missionary who’d spent a surprising amount of time exploring the Ozark mountains. In one particularly awe-inspiring encounter during a training at Kripalu’s yoga retreat center, I stepped off an elevator and into the arms of a tiny, shuffling, 92-year old man with a thick European accent. “Will you walk with me?” he asked. Yes, of course. He unraveled for me the tapestry of his life, in which he survived the Holocaust in Estonia and came to America to study at the feet of a renowned guru for the next 40 years. He had dedicated his life to studying and teaching at Kripalu, then retired a few years before we met. “Now I spend my time walking the halls, talking to foxy women,” he said. I laughed. What have you learned in all these years?, I asked, as we paced up and down the empty hallway. “Life is not so bad,” he answered. “You just take things in stride and keep walking.”

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She thanks me again for letting her tell her sister’s story.unnamed-3

“Now you know Hope,” she says.

My breath catches. This always happens when I share a moment with strangers. There’s always a tiny nugget of wisdom to tuck in a pocket in my heart and carry with me.

Now I know Hope. Both the person and the hope she had for her life. As well as her sister’s hope that sharing her story might touch people in some way.

I hug her again. “Thank you for sharing your Hope with me.”

We part ways and a slip back into the festival crowd. I may never see her again, but I’m taking part of her with me. She has added another thread to my tapestry. A thread that glimmers with Hope.

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2 Responses to “How to Listen”

  1. julie says:

    Thank you for sharing. I am continually awed by the incredible power of story to heal and change.

  2. Matthew Layne says:

    “Our stories are the tapestries that trail behind us like superhero cloaks.”
    I love this so much.
    I also love that you shared your story of others sharing their stories and how stories bind us all together.
    You weave a beautiful tapestry, Melissa Scott.