Slowing Down to Listen

Slowing down to listen

I have spent a lifetime learning to do things faster. Early in life I decided I not only wanted a child, I wanted a career as well. Raising kids while going to college and trying to support the whole venture on my own was a race against time.  I was determined to have it all and to make it work and I found faster and more efficient ways of doing things. I found better and faster ways to manage my time at work and I taught the kids to raise themselves. I managed everything right down to which traffic lane I took to the office. I looked for the fastest lane of traffic at the right time to get to work in the shortest period of time. If I could shave thirty seconds off my time in the morning, it gave me thirty more seconds to sleep. I slept hard so I would be ready again for the race when it picked up the next day. I did manage to have a social life, but I squeezed it in between my more important obligations; during times when I should have been working or when I could have spent more time with the kids. When I was with friends, I worried about the kids. When I was with the kids I worried about school and work. When I was at work I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else but at work.

Racing became a way of life for me. It kept me from facing the questions that kept coming up.  I knew that I was unhappy with my job but what else could I do? I was raised to understand that work is hard. Life is not easy. Who was I to complain? I did good things for people in my work. I was reasonably good at it.  I had spent years in college learning my profession. I had never really paid for the cost of college. Who was I to just quit? What would I do with my life if I quit? How would I earn my way in the world? I didn’t know how to do anything else. I could not just quit. How could I justify that? Most importantly, who would I be if I quit?  So I continued to race against time. I didn’t want to stop to face those questions. I saw no answers and the less time I had to dwell on it the better.

Retirement was my light at the end of the tunnel. I could justify quitting when I retired. It was like getting into heaven.  If I worked hard now, the payoff would come when I retired. I could relax and enjoy myself then. When I retired I would know what I wanted to do in my spare time. Everything would somehow, mysteriously be better then.

My body did not wait for me to retire. When the diagnosis came back that I had a tumor on my ovary, the race stopped. Time stopped. I stopped. Everything stopped. The shock of it caused me to hear a voice inside me that I had been ignoring or quieting in some way for a long time. I had to stop the race, not just slow it down. I had to stop it entirely. I had to listen. The word “cancer” woke me up from the frantic race I had been running. I started to listen. I listened hard. The first thing I heard loudly and clearly was that I needed to quit my job. I had to start over, cold turkey and figure this thing out. I heard in a way that I had not heard before that these are my last days. Is this the way I wanted to spend my last days? I was going to die. I may beat the cancer and I may live a long life but the number of days I have left was not the point.  These ARE my last days.

It has been two years since my diagnosis. I continue to slow down and to listen. I practice staying out of the race and I search for answers. It is a process and I practice every day. Cancer gave me that. It keeps me on my toes. These are my last days. I ask the same question often: What do I want to do with my life right now? Then I listen for the answer. For now the answer is always the same: “just listen”.

Listening

I sit outside nearly every morning and listen to the birds in my backyard. Even though I have just gotten up and I have not had time to get a whole plateful of things on my mind, it takes some time to tune into the birds. At first I have to remember why I am sitting outside: Oh yes, to listen for the birds. I need to stop the chatter going on in my head and open up for the sounds. Then the sounds start to come in. At first the sounds are blended and there is a blanket of them. I can’t pick out which sound is coming from which direction. So I quiet myself some more and pay closer attention. Then I pick out the most obvious sounds: the doves are all cooing; the quail are cawing. Sometimes a woodpecker will pierce the air with its screech. Then behind those sounds are the tweets of the song birds; the finches, cardinals, flycatchers and sparrows. If I sit outside long enough the song birds sometimes come closer and sing a chorus for me taking front stage over the bass and trombones of the quail and the doves. On some days I am better at listening than on other days. When I am listening well, I can hear the direction the birds are migrating. It seems that on days that I am really there for them, they come to me. A cardinal will perch in the tree in front of me. A hummingbird will come up and hover; each of us looking at the other for a few moments before he jets off across the valley. On days that I am not there, my mind wonders in and out playing with different thoughts. The birds are just background chatter; I can’t distinguish one call from the next.

Sometimes I think we have given much too much emphasis on talking and not enough emphasis on listening. “You need to speak up more in class!” The people who stand out are the talkers. No one notices the listeners. We like a good story teller. A good entertainer knows how to carry on a conversation. We are a society of talkers.

My experience is that often talkers do not listen. They talk. I notice how many people only listen long enough to be able to think of a good response. I wonder if I am also that way. Isn’t that what talking is all about? I say something which triggers you to say something and back and forth we go. My kids are aware when I am not listening to what they are saying. Daryl will say “Are you THERE?” Or if we are on a phone call she will say “Are you doing something ELSE right now?” When I am not present to listen to her, she always calls me on it immediately and I try to bring myself back to what she was saying. My husband teases me about my delayed responses. Sometimes I have something on my mind and I can hear what he is saying to me but I have to conclude whatever is going on in my head first before I can get to what he just said. It’s a bit like coming through a fog. I heard what the distant voice said but it held no meaning until I could repeat it to myself once I have again arrived in the present.

Listening seems to be more about being present for what someone else is saying. I can only hear the birds when I am truly present and I can only hear my husband when I come back to the present. If I am off in my own little world or even if I am off trying to figure out a snappy response, I am not present. To be present always means I have to stop the chatter in my head.

These days I have a craving to be listened to. Maybe that’s why I like to write. I like to be listened to. When I write I listen to myself for the ring of truth. I listen hard to what is real and what is just mind chatter. Then I write down what I think is real and play with a bit to make sure it is real. It turns out to be a very satisfying thing to really be listened to on that level even though I am the only one doing the listening. I crave writing when I haven’t done it for awhile.

I have a women’s group that I attend. The rule is that when someone else is talking no one else says anything. There is no back and forth like there is when having a conversation. There can be a pause when someone is trying to sort through their thoughts and no one bursts in to fill in the silence. Silence is welcomed. At first it can be a bit unnerving to have the floor in front of a bunch of other women and just go on and on with whatever is going on in your mind at the moment. I have seen though, that often a person comes around to fully hearing themselves when there is space just to say what has been going on for them. It’s like what writing does for me. After talking for any length of time, true feelings seem to burst forth and then the discussion with those feelings happens. What is true comes out. I am addicted to going to women’s group and have been attending for over fifteen years now. I think it has spoiled me. I am less satisfied with the back and forth chatter that usually happens between people. I feel cut off before I have even had a moment to really express myself. I don’t feel heard. In fact I feel invisible in those social occasions. The more people around and the lonelier it can feel.

Legacy

The idea of leaving a legacy was brought to my attention the other day and the whole idea of it rubbed me the wrong way.  I don’t like the idea at all and decided I had a few things to say on the topic.  So here goes!

The idea of leaving a legacy, for me, has a sort of pretentious feel to it.  It seems to me that the world assigns the term only to people who have done something extraordinary.  This separates the legacy leavers from the average person and gives more importance to their lives than to others. It feels phony and overly self interested to think about leaving behind a legacy. It’s almost as if I’d be bragging that I expect something better of myself than I expect out of the average person.  So, you wonder what is so bad about that? What is wrong with thinking you will accomplish great things?

I decided early in my life that I was going to escape my small town existence. I was born in Dorchester, Wisconsin, a town of about 500 people. Our house was out in the country and our telephone was on a party line. This meant that anytime I talked on the phone, my Grandmother and two of my Aunts were likely to be listening in from their house down the road. In Dorchester, you are labeled early in life and you are not likely to escape being associated with the family who brought you into the world and whatever happens in your life will follow you on the party line.

I figured college was my ticket out of town. It worked too: I got out. College seemed to change who I was in the world. I felt that having an education made me a different person from the one I was in Dorchester. Well, ultimately, it did and it didn’t. Even with my fancy college degree I still felt all the many doubts I had grown up believing about myself. I still felt less worldly and not as savvy as everyone else I knew. So I decided to fix the problem the only way I knew how. I got a law degree. A law degree would prove to the world that I was smart and capable. But the doubts continued even after I got the law degree. The worst of it was that I still felt just as inadequate after getting that law degree. I still spent my time comparing myself to others and coming up short. I had to face the fact that the story I was telling myself was wrong.

I was striving to prove something to the world that, as it turned out, the world did not care the least about in the first place. I had to change the direction of my story. It took some amount of time and gravitational pull in a whole new direction to finally realize that comparing myself to others is a complete waste of my time.  I changed my focus to working on who I wanted to be in my life and what would be the best for me in each moment. I had to stop wondering or caring what anyone else thought about what I wanted or who I was.

Once I made that shift, life became so much simpler to figure out. I could factor everyone else out of the equation. Several years into this process, I am still new at this different kind of way of looking at life and it is a continual work in progress but it is never disappointing and I never come up short anymore. Now it is just me figuring things out.

But it brings me back to the idea of leaving behind a legacy. Why would I spend any time considering my legacy unless I cared what someone thought of me after I am dead? If I do not want to care what anyone else thinks about what I am doing right now, why would it matter to me what someone thinks of me after I am dead? If caring about what others think of me now is not helping me, then to care about what people think after I am dead seems extremely counterproductive. The whole legacy thing pulls me right back into comparing myself to others. How will I compare after I am dead?

In any case, it seems to me that everyone leaves a legacy whether they want to or not. My dad graduated the eighth grade and worked blue collar jobs his entire life. He was not considered some type of amazing saint. He never learned to meditate. He was not even the best father in the world; in fact he was not at all good at it. He loved greasy cheeseburgers and fries. He was overweight most of his life he smoked cigarettes and drank too much beer on occasion. He had friends and occasionally he made enemies. He was not interested in endearing himself to anyone or sucking up or whatever you want to call it. Having a Ph.D. behind your name neither impressed nor threatened him. But the one thing that made him stand out from the crowd was that he lived an authentic life. He lived his life the way he wanted to live it. He was always honest about who he was and what he was about. It was clear that throughout his life people admired him for that. To me that man left a legacy. I am sure that the thought of leaving behind a legacy was the last thing that was ever on his mind. If it were, he could not have been the person that he was. So if leaving behind a legacy means that what you leave behind is that you lived an authentic life, that I suppose it is something worth considering. But then why have to consider it? Why not just live your life now in the moment the way you want to live it?

I doubt that Einstein or Picasso or Beethoven or Dante and Michelangelo or Mark Twain or you fill in the blank ever thought a hoot about legacy as they were doing what they did best. Instead, they painted, they wrote, they sculpted, they figured and played what was in their hearts now in this moment, today as they were doing it. People are interesting who follow their dreams and find what in life is worth living for.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to do great things, but do those things because it thrills your socks off and not because it will impress someone after you are dead and gone.  When I am dead it is time for others to live their life. It is their time, not mine. I hope to be playing along with them from the afterlife but I would never suggest that they look back. If they want to remember me at all, I hope it is from a place of being right there as if I never left. That’s the place my Dad has for me.

Peepers

“I just quit my job.” I say to my parents at the other end of the phone. I had nothing else to say but I babbled on about being burned out and couldn’t do it all anymore, trying to explain my rash behavior to them as much as to myself.  “I am thinking of moving back to Wisconsin, closer to home.” I end there. “I’ll send the truck down.” Dad responds. I had not really made the decision whether to move home or not but I was happy for Dad to make the decision for me. I had no plan. I had one more paycheck coming, the rent was paid through the end of the month and the girls would be on summer break by then.  Maybe it was the right thing to move back. How had I gotten 2,000 miles away? I knew the answer: I had been running away from home for as long as I could remember. But maybe family was what I was missing. There seemed no other viable option. The antidepressants I was taking numbed my thoughts. I might just as well let someone else make the decision. I had nothing.

The truck arrived two weeks later, my dairy fed, blond haired, blue eyed cousins taking turns behind the wheel, driving a big Dodge diesel my Dad is proud to own. My cousins are both young, in their twenties; this is their first time crossing Wisconsin state lines and I know that they feel like they have hit the jackpot with this drive to Arizona. I meet them in the parking lot of my apartment. As I walk up to the passenger side door, Rod swings it open spilling empty beer cans onto the pavement. “We saved them all, all the way here,” Rod burst out before I could say a word. “Do you have a camera; we need to get a picture of this. Your dad is going to shit! There has to be fifty of them!” My cousins are laughing and going on about the beer cans, careful to let me know they were not drinking and driving. They just want to see my dad’s face when he sees the picture. “This will be great!” I notice their beer bellies and imagine they probably were drinking and driving but I laugh with them and turn to go get the camera.

With the help of my cousins, I load the truck with everything I can manage to squeeze on. Dad has jerry rigged the truck bed with wooden sides to hold a higher load and has sent along tarps to tie it down. My rock ‘n roll vinyl will melt in the Arizona heat and I don’t bother to load them. I also give a neighbor the pretty antique hat collection I have managed to pull together over the past six years. My two girls and I will leave Arizona in two weeks after Kelly graduates high school. We will drive Daryl, my youngest to LA to fly overseas to be with her father for the summer in Japan. Kelly has decided to see what life with her Dad in Milwaukee might produce for her. I will head to my parents home alone. This will be my first summer without the girls in years.

It is a wet year and the flowage comes nearly as high as the dock. The frogs are hatching like crazy this summer. At night I hear them peeping as they make their journey up from the water and cover the ground as far as they can disperse themselves across my parent’s one acre lot in the north woods. The sound seems deafening at times; the peeps slipping into one another in cascades and torrents like water traveling over rocks but in higher pitches and tiny shrills. The unceasing peeping starts in the quiet of the evening at the same time my thoughts start winding round and round in my head. As darkness falls the frogs keep me company and break into my heavy thoughts waking me up to the night around me.  Then as I drift back into thought the peepers carry my labors along. I am not alone. I have the frogs.

Each morning I step very carefully on my way to my parents’ cabin from my little shack trying not to step on the baby frogs the size of my finger tip. I always flatten a few of the tiny creatures and imagine their little bones crunching under my feet.  They are fragile like me, still making their way in the world. They are small and unprotected from the heavy steps of humans who tread thoughtless of the tiny bodies under foot. They are stomped out so easily, a life ended before it even begins.  I feel like that too: I have not yet begun, or maybe I am always beginning again. Like them I have not gotten past the front yard of my parents’ home to the safety of the big woods and out on my own. I am still here, readying myself for the foot to come down, stomping out what little flame I have left. The peepers and I live life on the edge and yet they keep moving, each night more make it to the safety of the woods. Each night another batch bravely starts their journey. Even though several will not make it, they move forward. Why have I moved back? What am I doing here? Why can’t I find my way forward?