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.



Brevity of Life

11060329_10206365585243611_3574390560280793056_nWhy do you think it takes someone dying for us to finally realize the brevity of life? I mean, we can be blissfully ignorant most times, can’t we? Someone we’ve known for our entire lives is someone we’ll know for the entire rest of our lives, or so we think without consciously thinking it. It’s just the way things are, but in the blink of an eye things can change. A diagnosis can happen, and we put on a brave face because how can it possibly be? It’s surreal… until the unthinkable happens and we have to cope with the loss of someone we thought couldn’t be lost.

I admit I fall into this trap way too often, thinking that the status quo will always be the status quo, but things change, and I am forced to change with them. People die and I’m challenged to deal with it, to keep on surviving. Because that’s what we all are, don’t you know? We’re survivors each and every single day because none of them are promised to us. The end of today isn’t even promised to us, but we live our lives as if it is. We waste too much time doing nothing of consequence, not spending time with people we love because we’ve slipped into these patterns of taking each other for granted.

Then time is up and the aftermath wakes us up, as if we were the ones who were dead and we’re finally coming alive. The mourning sweeps through us like a wave, toppling us from the ledge where we felt we were safe. Now it’s fair game, and we know we could be next, or the people we love. Isn’t it sad that it takes death to remind us that we should be alive? We go to the funeral, to the wake, to the calling hours, to pay our respects to the family that is shell-shocked no matter how long the person has been dying. We pay our respects to them, so why not pay those same respects to each other when we’re both still alive? Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today. I need to take my own advice.

Because life is short, no matter who you are.


Chatting With Lexi: On Being Grateful

never-let-the-things-you-want-make-you-forget-the-things-you-have_gratitude_quote_rachel-fawkes-fashion-stylistIt’s interesting to me how this time of year can bring out the best and the worst in people, from those who leave packages on strangers’ doorsteps as surprises to those who say “bah humbug,” and denounce everyone who celebrates. In our house it’s a warm and fuzzy kind of time, from nighttime on the 24th through bedtime on the 25th, a magical time that is full of hot cocoa, cookies, and of course presents. We’re trying to teach our children the wonder of the holiday, but also the need to be grateful for what we already have, and for what we get.

Lexi, of course, can be quite blunt when it comes to things she doesn’t like. For example, on Halloween for several years she would go up to a house and when they had candy she didn’t like she told it like it was. “Yeah, I hate this candy,” or “This candy sucks. Got anything else?” I honestly have no idea where she got this attitude from but we have worked hard on it, and now she will simply say, “No thank you,” when offered those candies she detests. Whew. Now, if anyone had just told her the same applied to Christmas gifts…

Grandmother: Open the next one.

Lexi [madly ripping off wrapping paper]: What is it? Oh no. A puzzle! This is a horrible gift. Well, maybe it’s good for Maddie, but I can’t stand it.

Me: Lexi, how do we respond when someone gives us something?

Lexi: I was going to say I accept it. I don’t like it, but I’ll accept it. Whatever.

Me: Not “whatever.” No one had to get you anything. You should be grateful.

Lexi: Well, Maddie can have it. I accepted it. She can put it together. What’s next?

Me: That’s it, Lexi. Look at all the wonderful stuff you got this Christmas.

Lexi: But that’s all the stuff? Why isn’t there more stuff for ME?

Me: You got a lot of great stuff, Alexa. You should appreciate it.

Lexi: I do appreciate it. I just want more of it. I like stuff.

Heidi: Lexi, do you know how many people don’t have anything this time of year, any time of year?

Lexi: Yeah, a lot of people, but I do have stuff, and it’s great, but why can’t I have more?

Heidi: You’re missing the point. It’s not about the quantity of stuff you have. It’s about people thinking enough about you to want you to have something, and having the means to get it for you. It’s the thought that really counts, and spending time with people we love.

Lexi: So I have to pretend to like stuff I don’t really like because someone thought enough about me to give me the stuff in the first place?

Me: You don’t have to pretend. Just say thank you politely. You make other people feel bad when you say how much you can’t stand something they just gave you out of the kindness of their hearts.

Heidi: Yes, how would you feel if someone said something like that about a gift you gave them?

Lexi: I wouldn’t care.

Me: Alexa, I highly doubt that. I think you would feel bad if someone hated what you gave them.

Lexi: Well, they don’t have to accept it. I accepted the puzzle so I don’t see the problem.

Me: Maybe next time she won’t give you anything for Christmas.

Lexi: Okay, okay. I’ll put the puzzle together if that makes her feel better.

Me: Yeah, you missed the entire point.

Lexi: Ooh, there’s a gift I missed earlier. What’s in that box?

Me: Yeah, you totally missed the point.


Wanting Nothing

“Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.” — Sylvia Plath

When I was a kid and my mother would ask me what I wanted for Christmas I should have said:

  • I want my family to stay together
  • I want a solid dream I can aspire to
  • I want real friends who will last a lifetime

But instead I said I wanted a toy train, a Walkman, some Andy Kapp hot fries, or some other whim of the moment that I lost interest in rather quickly, or that broke because I didn’t treat it well, or that I ate up and it disappeared. I didn’t wish for the intangibles because they are intangible, and for a kid it’s all about TANGIBLE. I mean, can I touch it? Can I squeeze it? Can I look at it? I wanted something in my hands because to me that was real, not the things I took for granted. I realized as I got older that my values seriously had to change, that I couldn’t keep taking things for granted because there would be nothing REAL left to hang my hat on.

Now I see my kids being the same way, and I’m working on making sure they appreciate the real things in life instead of what’s on the surface. When the toy catalog came out Alexa decided she was going to go through it and circle all the toys she wanted Santa to bring her. She showed it to me after relinquishing the magic marker, and I realized that most of the items were circled. If she did get all of them from Santa some kids in a town with a population of 1000 in rural Idaho would get absolutely nothing as the tradeoff. When I told her this, about inequity, she seemed to understand, but that didn’t stop her from wanting EVERYTHING.

So I’m trying to teach her, to teach both of my children, about wanting nothing, about appreciating whatever you get, even if you get nothing material, because not everyone is fortunate enough to get new things. Not everyone is blessed enough to get even one of their wishes fulfilled. That’s the kind of world we live in. But she has two parents who love her, who are there for her, and who spend time with her, three amazing gifts that aren’t able to be exchanged, and that not every kid has. I would know. And as much as I hope she never has to be without any of them, I want her to understand that she shouldn’t take them for granted, that anything could happen at any time, and that appreciating what you have and wanting for nothing else is priceless.


The Painter With His Pots

Flower Pots and Stairs 2011
Painting by Arlon Rosenoff

“The delicious singing of the mother — or of the young wife at work — or of the girl sewing or washing — Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else.”I Hear America Singing; Walt Whitman

I like taking pictures, but I know I’m not a photographer. I’m a huge fan of music, but I’ll never be a musician. I appreciate code, but I don’t plan on a career setting up complex website structures. In fact, most people have one strong talent or love, and they hone that until it’s as sharp as a two-edged sword. They are defined by it as surely as if they were born with that ability. A select few are even especially talented at two individual pursuits, but if asked to choose they would still tell you that one is more important to them than the other. It is the nature of selection, of preference, and of design.

If you asked me right now where my talent lies I would tell you it’s in writing. It was my first love, and it continues to give me the most pleasure of anything I’ve ever done in my life. The fun in writing, for me, is the ability to create and live in other worlds, in other people’s minds. Shannon A. Thompson, a fellow author, asked a question on Twitter last night that intrigued me. She said, “Has a reader ever thought you were your characters?” And that’s precisely it. As a writer, just creating characters that resonate with others, that inspire these thoughts and questions, that’s validation.

When I hear most popular rappers try to actually sing, I laugh out loud, not because they sound horrible (although sometimes they honestly do), but because of the shock to the system of seeing them outside of their natural environment. Singing is not their talent area, but they try, and they are uninhibited because they’ve already conquered one area. The same is true of anyone from another walk of life trying their hand at acting, as if anyone can be a good actor, but that’s not true. There’s something to be said for putting all of your focus on one thing and doing that well.

Walt Whitman had a point in his poem above, that every single person has a talent and is important to the overall fabric of his/her country. Everyone is needed to make the larger song flow, like members of a chorus. We need altos, tenors, sopranos, and bass singers to create a melody, just like singers, writers, construction workers, chefs, and every other walk of life are necessary to keep the country going. That makes every occupation important, even the ones we haven’t traditionally counted as occupations, also like in the poem excerpt above. Women (and some men these days too) who dedicate themselves solely to being at home to raise the children and “homemake” are just as important as anyone in any other job.

Do I sometimes wish I could carry a tune better? Sure. Do I dream of being a professional football player on occasion? Definitely. But I know where my focus is greatest, and what I will work toward to continue making that a reality. I know my place in the scheme of things, my individual contribution to society, and that makes me appreciate not only myself but everyone else who is also doing their part to keep the fabric sewn together.


My Two Moms

4b598646d73001cee9ff6ca8d93e9a5aThere was a show in the 1980s, called My Two Dads, about a 12-year-old girl who somehow came to live with two guys she happened to call “Dad.” These two fellows couldn’t have been more different from each other, with the one a sensitive artist and the other a staunch businessman. But neither knew who her “real” father was, and it didn’t even matter, because both were there for her when she needed it, both loved her more than life itself, and they both put away their differences to raise her together. It was a beautiful show.

I remember watching the show and being amazed that this girl was being raised without a mother, and how well adjusted she seemed for the most part (she was a pre-teen and teenaged girl, after all). I could never have imagined living life without a mother, because I never had to, but it made me think about all the people out there who don’t have that nurturing spirit to help guide them. The show didn’t make me sad, though, because it showed that not all families need to be defined as mother, father, and kids to be a successful and nurturing family.

My mother raised me and my sister from the start by herself. Yes, my dad was there at the beginning, and I do have some positive memories with him, but he was gone a lot. An awful lot. Most of my concrete memories, both positive and negative, originate with my mother because she was there. Living a sheltered life meant that I spent a lot more time with my mother probably than a lot of other young kids who were my age. Of course I wanted to explore, to get out more, but I realize now that having that solid force in my life helped to sustain and focus me even then.

When I think of mothers, my mind can’t help but go back to the early ’80s when I fell down my Nana’s steps and scraped my knee up pretty badly. I was drowning in tears and my mother told me it served me right, that I shouldn’t have been fooling around. Then she put on antibiotic and patched me up nicely and neatly and gave me a big hug. See, that was what my mom always provided, what you might call “tough love” today. She knew that just coddling me wouldn’t make me a responsible man, someone who could deal with all life had to throw my way.

My mother also supported everything I was interested in. She knew I was a voracious reader, so she would take me to the library as often as she could, and I would get dozens of books out at a time and devour them. She knew I loved to sing so she would take me to all kinds of church concerts, and later on I helped out by being the 9th caller so many times I lost count on the local Christian radio station. She still has one of the mugs I won from that station. She also knew how much writing meant to me, and she always fostered that love, helping me hone my writing skills.

I’ll admit now that I often took my mother for granted. She was always there and I had no doubt she always would be, but I think back on it, and so many moms weren’t there for their children. They would sit them in front of the television while they did god knew what with god knew who, or they would just let their kids play in the street oblivious to what might happen to them out there in the ghetto. I was blessed, and I didn’t truly appreciate it then. I do now.

The other mother who comes to mind when I think of mothers is a woman who wasn’t a mother when I met her. In fact, being with me, there was no guarantee she ever would be, but she had that spark. You know the one, that spark that says she will fight for what she wants, and she wanted to have children with me. So she went through some horrendous experiences, some devastating disappointments, and some frustrating times, but in the end she got what she wanted, and so did I. Eight years ago, at long last, she became a mother, and I honestly wouldn’t want anyone else to be the mother of our children.

10300038_10203758032816430_9218708593281471047_nShe’ll tell you she’s not patient enough, that she’s not prepared enough, that she doesn’t measure up, but that’s only because she’s always been hardest on herself. She holds herself to an improbably standard, but that’s fine because that makes her an even better mother. She is patient when she needs to be, she does wonderful research, and you could have no better advocate for our children than she is and always has been. I love her perseverance, her attention to detail, and the light in her eyes every single time she sees our daughters. She was born to be a mother, and it shows.

Then, when our second daughter was born with Down syndrome, we were both caught unaware and had no clue until after her birth. But when others were falling apart, my wife was already making calls, doing her research, and preparing herself for a different type of life than the one we had anticipated. She had already switched gears and was making sure even then that our child would have every possible assistance, from the moment we brought her home. That’s just the kind of women, the kind of mother, she is, the kind she always has been, and the kind she always will be.

The two women I call “Mom” are radically different, but they both have given me so much more than I could have ever asked for from them. They take the calling seriously, and yes, being a mother is a calling. They have gone above and beyond every expectation, and they’ve done it without even thinking about it. They are both so incredibly humble for doing so much, and I love them beyond words.

The key, though, is to remember and praise all that they do every day, not just on one day. And I vow to make sure they know how I feel always.


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