I was asked, “If you could earn money by writing, what would you write, and why?”
My fantasy? To finish my memoir, have it picked up by a major publishing house, eventually making the New York Times best seller list. That would qualify as making money by writing, right?
However, it is not about the money at all. My continuing goal, whether through writing or other means, is to find a way to touch hearts, to soothe aches, and to heal broken places. I’m inspired by the likes of Maya Angelou, Thich Nhat Hahn, Marianne Williamson, Louise Hay, Richard Rohr and Pema Chodren. There are plenty more, too numerous to list.
Like those people, I want to inspire. In…Spire. To cause someone to take a long, slow, deep breath and settle in to something that brings wholeness; that feels solid when the world around them is crumbling. Something like a refreshing breeze on a too warm day or a blanket wrapped snuggly around when there’s a winter chill in the air.
So, now I have a very different question to answer: “How can I be that presence that soothes, calms, heals, and maybe, sometimes, inspires? Writing is an option, for sure.
Today another option arose. Listening. It sounds like such an ordinary thing. We listen every day. Much listening takes the form of generating thoughts to respond with- the second the speaker takes a breath. The first time a different kind of listening appeared, in a deep and dramatic way for me, was almost fifteen years ago. Back then, I had been through a life altering illness and was driving around. No particular destination in mind. I sometimes did that, almost as a meditation, to relieve my anxiety. It was my modus operandi. Drive and look at the scenery; pay attention with my eyes. I’m sure I was depressed, having lost my job and was thinking What is my purpose in life, now that I am no longer a teacher?
That day, an empty stomach directed me to a favorite local Greek pizzaria for lunch. The place was empty. Even the husband and wife who owned the place weren’t around.
From the kitchen area came an older woman to take my order. Dressed in a black dress, her head covered in a a black babushka, wearing black shoes and stockings; she looked like she was from “the old country.” She took my order and disappeared. Ten minutes later she came out with my soup and salad. To my utter surprise, she sat down at the table with me. I had never spoken to this lady before! She began by telling me, in broken English, it was the anniversary of her son’s death in a motorcycle accident. She talked about him and “what a great boy” he was. I had enough sense to not say much. I simply listened. She talked until I was finished eating, then picked up the plates and went back to the kitchen. This unplanned for event, left me wondering.
Was this my purpose: to listen?
The second incident came three years ago. I am a member of the Friends of the Library and we had a meeting that day at one o’clock. I went an hour and a half early to get in some quiet, writing time. The large meeting room was empty. Used books for sale lined shelves around the room. I settled in at one end of a long table, my pens and writing pad neatly set out in front of me. I dug in. About ten minutes later, a fiftyish woman came into the room. She was neatly dressed in jeans and a blue top. I’d never seen her at the library before but thought nothing of it. “I’m here to pick up some reading from the sale shelves,” she said. I pointed out the location of different genres, since I help to price and organize the donated books. Then, I went back to my writing. She picked out two hardcover novels rather quickly and I thought that was that. Nope. She sat down at the end of my table. Ignoring the fact that I was writing, she began talking to me. I heard about her family, her job cleaning houses for rich people, and about a rift with her grown daughter. She wasn’t looking for advice. I knew that right away. She just needed to vent. Again, I had enough sense to listen quietly, offering only an occasional appropriate reaction to her story. She finally got up to leave when people started arriving for the meeting. She never introduced herself. I never saw her again.
The third incident happened a couple months ago, with yet, another stranger. I stopped at a small dairy bar that also offers a fast food lunch menu. It was a spur of the moment thing. My real plan was to go for a long walk at a nature preserve. Hunger drove me to stop for a bite first. Knowing I would be waiting for an order, I took in my writing pad.
After placing the order, I went to sit down at a small table. There were two other grey haired women, each dining alone amongst the scattered tables. Glancing around, I said, “ Looks like it’s retired ladies lunch today.” One woman totally ignored me after a cursory glance. The other immediately started a conversation with me. I set my writing pad down on my table and stood facing her to talk. We chatted until my number was called. I picked up my order and sat down. It wasn’t long before I heard the same woman talking to me again. Mind you, I was sitting with my back to her; so this surprised me. I turned to listen to her, neglecting my food until she was done. Shortly after that, she walked past me to the garbage receptacle carrying her tray. Twice. Stopping each time to chat. By this time I thought, Why fight it? I asked if she wanted to sit with me while I finished eating. Without a second of hesitation, boom; she sat down. My “quick” lunch turned into an hour of listening to a total stranger talk about her family, her neighbors, her education and job history. When she left, she gave me her phone number and address. I’m not sure why, but I can guess. Loneliness makes people want to connect with someone “safe”. I guess I’m safe.
Three times, three strangers. Two never told me their names. Is this what is meant by being in the right place at the right time…for someone else? I’m left to wonder.
There is much to be said about being a good listener. It’s a skill I’ve worked hard to cultivate. I’m gratified that it has given me rewards beyond what I might expect. It is such a simple skill. Not like doing a triple axel on the ice or making a half court shot at the buzzer. Anyone can listen. You smile. Close your mouth. Withhold judgement. Nod occasionally. A couple well chosen interjections or questions can open a floodgate for someone. It can open the door to the thing that needs to be said. Or it can simply be a human connection when there are few available. It only requires a willing pair of ears.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing. I’ll finish that memoir. Even if that big contract doesn’t materialize, I’ll keep these two willing ears ready for the next opportunity that lies in wait. To touch. To soothe. To heal. Maybe, even, inspire someone.