Yesterday, as the sunset just begins to flare over the mountains, I pull up to a favorite coffee shop. I am smiling — the anticipation of being with good people always makes me smile — but before I step out of the car, I take a breath and focus.
Listen, I tell myself.
And then I say it like a prayer:
Lord, teach me how to listen.
Inside the coffeehouse, it’s warm, and there’s a pleasant hum of talk and music, with the coffee grinder roaring in the background. That hum forms a safe little envelope for talking, so that a person can feel heard but not feel exposed. I find a comfortable table bisected by a beam of solid gold sunlight, and I sit so that the light can warm my hands as I clutch my coffee cup:
I wait for my girlfriend to show up, and as I do, I tell myself again:
Every now and again, I’ll have someone tell me that I’m a good listener. This always surprises me, because I’m such an intensely visual person that listening is hard work for me.
And so, whenever I sit down at a poetry reading or lecture, switch on a podcast or pick up a phone, I have to make a very intentional decision to stop looking and thinking and just take it all in.
And more and more, I’m learning that that takes all of me.
Maybe, like me, you learned in elementary school that looking was something you did with your eyes. That listening was something you did with your ears.
Maybe that’s a massive oversimplification.
Because yesterday, when my girlfriend arrives, I feel myself leaning in to what she is telling me, and I realize that I’m trying to listen to her with my whole body.
As she speaks, I’m nodding. I’m tilting my head and my shoulders toward her, over the table — literally aiming my whole skeleton toward her words.
I’m watching the direction of her glances, the way she arranges her hands, the way she touches her hair. I’m decoding a thousand little messages at once, and pairing them mentally with the words that she’s speaking. And then I’m saying something back — not just with my mouth, but with my own glances, my own hands.
And somehow, as if by magic, all these little physical gestures and silences combine to make a safe place where my friend can unspool a difficult story right there in front of me.
Where two humans aren’t just talking, but — for a brief moment — understanding each other…
Which is really a kind of alchemy, when you think about it. ❤