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Learning to Listen

“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” ~Dean Jackson

listening-manListening is a lost art. Believe it. There’s something to be said for sitting still, giving eye contact, and nodding along, not because you’re waiting for a chance to speak, but because you care enough to be there. I know too many people who are waiting to jump in, to offer suggestions, and to tell their own personal stories that may or may not be relevant to the issue at hand. But sometimes, sometimes listening should be just that — listening. Being there. Proving it.

And believe it or not, but someone you just met today can be a better listener than the friend you’ve had since diaper days. Someone who just walked into your life can be the friend to whom you can be most vulnerable and just let it out. Sometimes that’s better because you have no preconceived notions of them, and they have none of you. They can come into it as a fresh page ready to receive the scribbles of your soul.

I’ve had too many friends over the years who used me as just that sounding board, from those who I had known a while to those who I had just met, but something that was common to the vast majority was the assumption that there would be no reciprocation. I know this because these friends were never really there for me when I needed them, were never truly listeners for me because every time I saw them they were too busy talking.

Beware those who can’t keep their mouths shut long enough to listen. Odds are that if you let them in on your secrets, they won’t be secrets for long. And if they’re constantly interjecting their own thoughts how can they possibly be there for you? I know a few people who are always comparing whatever I’m saying with something that has happened in their life, even if there are absolutely no parallels, instead of just letting me vent, or get out my thoughts. They eventually moved on to other friendships, which was okay with me.

Because often that’s all I need is a pair of ears, a soul that obviously cares, and eyes that look into mine with empathy, with caring, with a firm commitment to be there for me. And that’s what I try my best to give to my friends who need me in turn. And it’s not reciprocity, the idea of “tit for tat.” It’s just being a good friend, no matter how often they may need me, or no matter how often I need them. They don’t keep score. They don’t disappear from my life, and I don’t from theirs.

Learning how to listen is a skill that is dormant from way too many people’s lives. It might have to do with the selfishness social media breeds, or it could be something else entirely. But whatever the reason, we need to bring it back. We need to empathize with others, to give them the gift of our time, because nothing is more precious.

Sam

618126“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” ~Andy Warhol

I am a creature of habit, a slave to each and every one of my tendencies, which is why they’ve become tendencies for me in the first place. Sometimes I recognize when I’ve fallen into one of those routines, and other times I have absolutely no clue.

Sometimes the habits I have are good for me, and help me grow as a person. Other times they’re completely detrimental and probably should have been cut out of my life a long time ago. Even when I recognize that I’m doing them, though, I don’t always know which is which.

But one thing I do know is that after the fact I analyze, and I try to make a plan for “next time.”

“Next time” has become an echo around here, a reminder that this time I did the same thing I always do, but “next time” could be different. “Next time” could be a turning point that could completely change my life. Or it could just be me repeating the same old patterns because I’ve forgotten all about the analysis immediately following my routinized behaviors. Here are a few off the top of my head…

Behavior #1: When I know I am wrong I don’t admit it. Instead I try to create a circuitous path of misinformed logic that will lead me to freedom, or at least to a point where the other person (who knows I was wrong) just doesn’t feel like it’s worth it anymore to argue with someone who is like a brick wall.

Behavior #2: I pretend not to hear others when they’re constructively criticizing me. I make a big show of saying I’m open and willing to listen, and then I very demonstratively don’t listen when they take me up on it. Sometimes I nod and say, “Sure, okay, thanks,” but those are just placeholders, excuses for not really listening.

Behavior #3: When it comes to my friends I put them entirely above me, listening to their problems and issues and either offering advice or just listening because that’s what they need. I give myself completely to every single friendship I have (not that there are many), sometimes to the detriment of my own health. This behavior has often been seen as smothering, and I do tend to lose the few friends I gain.

Behavior #4: My mind needs time to process change, so if I’m not apprised of some upcoming change ahead of time, if it’s sprung upon me suddenly, I can be surly and uncooperative when it comes to said change. That is, if I don’t just completely shut down instead, which is entirely on the table most times.

Behavior #5: I get defensive about a LOT of stuff. From my gray hairs (“Stop calling me old!”), to leaving the toilet lid up (“I don’t ever do that”), to buying the wrong brand of paint (“You didn’t tell me you wanted the other one”), to just about anything, really, I can argue about pretty much anything, even when someone is trying to compliment me.

Behavior #6: I like to be in charge of my time, even if it’s something simple, like doing something two minutes from now because someone told me to do it right now. Or if someone leaves something open ended I tend to wait until it absolutely has to be done in order to get it accomplished. It may seem like something little, but to me it is the world. It means I have just a bit more control over things, even if I really don’t.

Behavior #7: I’m self deprecating. And while I know you might be thinking that clashes with Behavior #2, it fits right in. Because, while I hate it when others criticize me, I do it myself all the time, and to me it’s okay. It’s like when I say something negative about my mother, then someone else agrees with me. IT’S MY MOTHER. I can say it. You can’t. Same applies with myself. IT’S ME. I can say it. You can’t.

And the list goes on, but the point is clear: there are a ton of behaviors that I find myself repeating time and again with no escape valve, with absolutely no change to any of them even though I’ve analyzed them to no end. I assume that’s because in the moment we, as human beings, tend to slip back into our patterns, tend to rely on what we know, even if it’s not at all good for us. It’s why alcoholics backslide, why women go back to the men who beat them, why you’re still watching The Voice even though it’s just not good anymore.

So “Next time” comes, and we tend to do the same things we’ve always done. At least I know I do, unless I stop when it happens. Unless I analyze before, and not after. Unless I take responsibility for changing my own behavior patterns, which is a gargantuan task, but it’s what adults are supposed to do. It’s what people who want to change for the better do. It’s what people who have healthy relationships rely on to maintain those.

I’m still a work in progress. Ask me again how I’m doing… next time.

Sam

Afrodisiac

afromanAt the absolute apex of my adolescence, I sported an afro for two years. It wasn’t some kind of fashion statement, or some kind of returning to my roots, or even an homage to Michael Jackson, circa 1979. It was instead a product of laziness and the procurement of two cheap picks at the dollar store in the summer of ’91.

The laziness kept me away from the barber shop, that and a misguided attempt at better handling my own meager finances. The cheap picks went along with the aforementioned misguided attempt; they were chunky, multi-colored plastic, but I thought they were the world. They allowed me to shape said afro into an enormous halo over me whenever I wanted, giving me my natural shade in the heat, and my protection from the rain as well.

I loved that afro because it gave me an identity I didn’t feel I had at the time. It gave me a persona when I had none to my name. It gave me an excuse to live. Then, on the coldest day of the year, in the wintry chill of 1993, I had that afro shaved off.

“You got a hat?” the barber asked me as I sat in his swivel chair.

“Not today I don’t,” I replied, realizing what he meant. Having that afro meant my head was never cold. I had lived in the warmth of its cocoon for so long I had forgotten what the harsh outside world was like.

“You’d better get one right away, if you still want me to shave it,” he said, gesturing out the window.

I looked that way for a moment, and on the corner out there on the street was a man selling all manner of items, from sunglasses to copied audio tapes, to beanies and pull down hats that somehow didn’t make me feel warm looking at them. He was doing a brisk business, though, because his product was cheap and he was a convenient business destination for brothers in the hood. And maybe the barber was getting some kind of kickback from recommending him to me.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, as another customer walked in, and a gust of chilly air followed him inside.

“Such a great head of hair,” the barber told me, and I could see he meant it. You see, in 1993 all the brothers were shaving their heads to be like Michael Jordan, either that or GI Jane, and I really think it was the former. So I was an anomaly, a throwback to a different age, and I think the barber appreciated that too much to just shave my afro without a word of advice first.

“Yeah, it just keeps up my overall body temperature,” I replied, my course set, my trajectory plotted in without chance of detour.

“Then yes sir, you need to get yourself a hat,” he repeated. “It’s cold out there.”

The buzz of the clippers drowned out my thoughts as, like Samson, my hair fell down all around me, hitting the floor in waves. It gathered at my feet, a veritable sea of black, curly hair, but I didn’t feel like my strength was ebbing as a result. Instead I felt lighter, more self-assured, like that butterfly rising from its self-imposed exile to spread its wings and fly.

See, I don’t think it was just time, that I was trying to “Be Like Mike” even though that craze was starting to peter out by then anyway. I think it was all about finally knowing who I was, and not needing a gimmick anymore to validate my existence. Yes, I knew it would be ice cold out there when I emerged from that barber shop, that it would feel like little ice needles were pricking my scalp, but I needed that feeling.

Now I’d give anything to have that afro again.

Sam

That ’76 Sound

“I spent many a summer early morning with the radio very low, half sleeping and half listening.” ~Frankie Valli

There’s a space between being fully asleep and being fully awake where the awesome feeling of weightlessness, of carelessness, of being completely outside of ourselves and looking down on our world with wonder, takes over. It’s warm there, like being in utero, like hugging your knees to your chest and drifting away. All the love, and all the joy, and all the excitement in the world all come together under a brilliant light that imbues heat, and love, and joy, and excitement. But then we are awake, or we are asleep, and it’s gone.

For me it’s that ’76 sound, that radio on low that vibrates through my soul, because while I don’t remember anything before I was born, I imagine it was like that in my cocoon, safe, and incredible, and all too brief. For two thirds of 1976 I was in the womb. From April until December of that glorious bicentennial year I was biding my time, lost in a world that would both define me and be extraneous to me, hugging my knees to my chest and listening to those outside sounds, muffled and out of tune. For two thirds of that glorious bicentennial year I was a hesitation mark, waiting to be fully realized, basking in the sounds of love, and hope, and possibility.

In 1776 the so-called Founding Fathers were desperately fighting for freedom against long odds, against a system that was vast, that was massively overwhelming, but they had a vision and a tenacity that eventually won them their war. Their battle cries could be heard from hill to hill, from town to town, and from forest to forest, as they found a liberation that had long been lost. That sound has reverberated down through the years in anthems, in chants, in speeches oft repeated down the line. It resonates with me in a profound way because sounds bring with them memories and a connection that cannot be achieved any other way.

One hundred years later newly freed slaves were making their way North with no real plans except getting themselves and their families away from the plantations that had stolen their identities. They had no jobs, no job prospects, and were facing a world that was still highly segregated and discriminatory, even in the north. These slaves had one thing that kept them striving, that kept them moving up the path, and it was embedded deeply in the fabric of their negro spirituals, in the hymns sacred to them by way of religion, and of shared experience, and of shared loss. These hymns became their own war cries, their own way to define themselves in a world that left them undefined, that left them as less than human.

By 1976 the world had changed immeasurably, but we all know that with any change comes a consistency of experience that doesn’t change. From the rudimentary lyrics of William Shakespeare, back in 1576, to the burning down of the Jamestown colony in 1676, to the revolutionary verve, to the determination of the newly freed slaves, down to my own birth, when Rod Stewart’s “Tonite’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)” was the top song in America, that ’76 sound just keeps on playing. But it’s not on repeat. It picks up more verses as the years, as the decades, as the centuries go on, becoming more nuanced, creating more melodies and harmonies that we can all share. That ’76 sound is an all-encompassing reminder that we are all connected in some way, shape, or form.

I spent 1976 becoming me, and the time since has all been spent, looking backward, and looking forward, trying to understand who that is, with my headphones on, checking out that ’76 sound. And I’m still waking up.

Sam

An acquaintance of mine remarked the other day:

“That’s stupid to worry about Wi-fi signals in the middle of the wilderness. You’re out in nature, man. Enjoy it.”

To which I say:

“Nature can be an absolute behemoth, a beast that can destroy you in seconds, or take an eternity to draw it out. The wilderness is the perfect place to have a strong Wi-fi signal because you never know when you might need it.”

But I get his point. Of course I do. In this world, with all of these devices, it can be easy to get hooked in and want to stay hooked in. It reminds me of the story of the two girls who fell into a well. One of them remembered that she had her phone on her, so she fished it out, and…

They changed her Facebook status to: “I’ve fallen in a well. Please send help.”

Six hours later one of her friends finally decided the status update wasn’t a joke or a hoax and called 911 to get her some help. During the six hours after the status change both girls sat at the bottom of the well and waited to be rescued. I repeat, their friend called 911 six hours later. They had a phone down there with them. Uh.

But that’s how things are these days, in this screenage generation, where social media is king and everything else is a foreign concept. It makes perfect sense to be out in the wilderness looking forĀ  four bars on your phone because you’re so used to having four bars on your phone whenever you go. What do you mean, Uber doesn’t have tent service in the wilderness? Well, maybe, if you pay a whole lot extra, including shocks for the Uber jeep.

We sit in a room surrounded by other people and sometimes an eternity can pass before a single word is said. It used to be a horrible thing to be with others and not talk, but now it’s the default setting, except when we turn our phones to those around us to show them the latest Grumpy Cat meme, or the funniest LaVar Ball tweet. It’s not about good old-fashioned physical interaction with others. It’s about how fast you can get out your point of view without uttering a single word.

When the Wi-fi is dead we feel like we are too. We feel like life is a hopeless rubbish bin because we can’t connect to the world outside, to the world we’ve gotten used to being wrapped around us like a cocoon. The connections we tend to make, though, are superficial at best, not like the ones the outside world often affords us. There’s a book called We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and while I haven’t yet read it, I know the sentiment that the title espouses. “IRL” has become a simple acronym that encompasses everything about this generation, because it has become more and more rare.

Real life has become a caricature of itself, a reminder that life, this erstwhile life we call our own, must go on even when we aren’t plugged in, even when we aren’t sucking at the teat of the social media monster. We don’t know what we think until it explodes from us in 180 characters or fewer, and our thoughts aren’t validated until more than our immediate family re-tweets those very thoughts. Our lives are defined by the accounts we have, by the likes we collect, and by the photographs we share, not by what we actually do during our days, or by the people we share our IRL time with.

And I say “we” because I am just as much a part of this world as everyone else. I check my accounts more than I probably should. I would not have changed my Facebook status from the bottom of a well, but I can certainly understand why and how it happened the way it did. But I wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near a wilderness, Wi-fi signal or not.

Sam

Someday

What can I say? We’re in. Or we’re almost in. In all the ways that count anyway, we are in. Like Flynn, according to Heidi. The Certificate of Occupancy, the holy grail when it comes to moving in to a new home, came through, signed, sealed, and delivered, on Tuesday. The inspector came, he saw, he said we were all good, and he left.

Then we exhaled.

But of course that was just the beginning of the next phase, not the ending of it all, not by far. So many people have asked me over the course of the past year or so when we will move in. “When are you guys moving in?” “What’s the move in date?” “We can’t wait to have the house warming party.” And I kept telling them things that started with hopefully, probably, possibly, and if we’re lucky. I honestly had no idea, except that the holidays and special anniversaries kept rolling by and we still seemed to be no closer to getting in than we were at the outset.

At first it seemed likely we would be in by Christmas, that the red and green wreath would indeed decorate our door for the first time, but that was not to be. By Christmas we were in a holding pattern instead, fighting desperately to get workers to the site, trying inconsolately to deal with more and more delays as the house sat empty no more than 1000 paces from where we were boarding.

Then I had my eye set on Valentine’s Day, then I was assured that it would be Alexa’s birthday celebration in the new house, but both days came and went without any change in our living situation. To say I was frustrated, that we were frustrated, would be a massive understatement. My 40th birthday, Easter, and both Mother’s and Father’s Day flew by and workers came and went. It was all an acknowledgment that someday would come, that someday would arrive and sweep us into the house on a swell of good fortune.


Someday is today. I sit here in our house, half moved in, the beds secure in their final homes, my children tucked cozily into their separate beds in their separate rooms, snug as bugs in rugs. A crazy grin spreads across my face because after all this time… after all these trials… we are in. Someday has arrived, and even if we are still living from suitcases, even if we have to still travel those 1000 paces to eat food three times a day, that place is no longer where we live. It was never home, but now it isn’t even a place I have to return to when my working day is done.

Someday is today. We are cleaning rooms, painting doors, and situating furniture where it belongs, all while inhabiting the space we’ve looked at for far too long, from the outside looking in. Now I’m looking out, and I’m loving what I see. Because it’s ours, and someday is now.

Sam

Great Expectations

“Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting a bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian.” ~Dennis Wholey

expectationsI used to have no expectations, or at least I used to try really hard to have no expectations, because I decided early on that it was easier to deal with mediocrity than to be disappointed by it. So if the world is mediocre, if there is no expectation of something more, then that’s just the way it is. And if something happens that blows my mind it is spectacular in its nature because I did not in the least expect it.

But that’s no way to live. It’s not good enough to be bland, to not expect the spectacular just because it has a high probability of not coming to pass. So I have begun to look forward to something instead of hoping nothing bad happens. I have started enjoying the good things in life because there are some good things in this life. I have opened my eyes instead of keeping them closed shut against the possibility of devastation.

Because it is only when I’m truly open to that possibility that I can fully appreciate the glory of an unexpected gift.

Sam

 

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