“Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in — become part of the action.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Last week I dropped by my local Goodwill in hopes of finding some supplies for crafting letters to send out to friends and family members. The last time I was there, I noticed stacks of construction paper of various colors and thought I may have similar luck again. Not so. When I got to the craft supplies aisle there was only one stack of brown paper. Not what I was hoping for. However, I decided to make the best of already being there and stroll the store looking for other creative ideas. As I was considering the alternative functionalities of baking dishes, I was addressed by an older gentleman walking by. He had grey hair and a beard to match, and was dressed in something that reminded me of Mister Rogers and a snazzy suit one would wear to a speakeasy on a blues night. I noticed a frostiness to his eyes as I looked up at him, and he said, “I just can’t help but saying, I just love your bright red hair.”
I thanked him and assumed it was a passing comment one makes to a stranger, so I went back to my activity. Except, he went on and started telling me a story. There was something to the quality of his speech that gave me cause to attend. After all, I was looking for something creative to do and here was a truly spontaneous opportunity. I decided to lean into it and listen.
“One day I was walking on to the train,” he said, “and I felt that tickle on the back of my neck and it was saying ‘look behind you right now’ and so I did, and you know what clouds look like when they are rolling into more clouds? Well, you wouldn’t believe it–” he took out his phone and started explaining that he had been a photographer, “well, these clouds, they were turning into hearts!” He showed me photos of these clouds on his phone. Just as he had said, in the photos the clouds were rolling along the horizon, transforming into hearts one by one.
“That’s unreal!” I said. He brought his hand to his chest. “You don’t know it yet, but you just broke my heart. And I’ll tell you why. For me, life is about love. Let me tell you, life is about love. Everything I do is about love. For example, one day I was walking down the street and thinking of all the people I love and who love me in my life and out of nowhere I felt that love fill me up from my crown to my toes. That’s how magical love is. Love is real. And it’s about being. The most powerful phrase in the English language is ‘I am’. Muhammad Ali knew that. He told everyone ‘I am the greatest’ and they tried and they tried to beat him down, but you know what we call Muhammad Ali to this day? The Greatest. That is why what you tell yourself you are is so important. If you go along in life saying ‘I am an artist’, like I do, then you are an artist! And you don’t know this yet, but it’s true. That’s how powerful words are. Words are magic,” he said. “That’s why it’s called spelling.”
What he said reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin, a brilliant mind who wrote about the power of words. I was introduced to her through her short story “Schrödinger’s Cat”, a story where the perception of words has a direct effect on reality. From there I was drawn to her poetry and nonfiction, finding myself mesmerized by the way she communicated thoughts on a written page. In her book “The Wave in the Mind”, she says: “Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; … They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” I sure felt that way just then. As I’d listened to these stories, I felt more and more inspired in my own sense of being. I felt motivated to see into myself and be who I imagined I was. I felt full of creative energy.
Before I parted ways with my new friend, I thanked him with a hug for sharing with me. My eyes were glossy from the hope he had imparted to me. The idea of being loving, of being who I am instead of focusing on what I do was a perspective shift I needed. I was surprised, because a solo walk through a Goodwill had turned into a creative act: a reminder to me that people can be wonderful, and words are magic.
“So one thing about listening — generous listening — one really simple characteristic of it is that the generous listener is ready to be surprised. You go into [a conversation] with an assumption that you don’t know everything or understand everything, and you’re truly curious — which means you’re open to having whatever assumptions you do bring unsettled, and you’re going to be graceful about that and kind of curious about that when that happens.” – Krista Tippett