Now the ears of my ears are awake
And the eyes of my eyes are open. e.e.cummings
They branded me a Listener in the 7th grade, banished to the back row where I was allowed to lip-sync only. It could have been worse; they might have used duct tape. Being so designated I listened harder but it didn’t help me carry a tune. I was probably capable of ruining, Happy Birthday. No wonder I didn’t get invited to parties.
Over time I must have decided to turn it around and wear the moniker proudly. My father was a world-class listener. I watched him in the pharmacy and I saw the faces of customer/patients being received. When I came to my father I always felt heard.
Listening fully is a high art. It requires moving into the other’s space. Being with them, taking on the weight of their words. It also demands attention be paid to their modulations and pauses. It is a kind of communion. Sometimes it asks for no response other than a good ear, a nod or a re-framing and certainly not advice or judgment. Other times it calls for more than that. Knowing the difference is a gift.
My deaf daughter has learned how to listen with her eyes….sometimes even with her nose. During her recent visit she said she heard the burnt toast. She listens watching lips move and fingers dancing as calligraphy.
John Boehner and Lindsey Graham were at the Charleston church in the audience when Obama spoke last Friday. I wonder what they heard. I regard the president’s eulogy as one of the great orations in recent history. He was fully with his audience, laying out the Black experience and had them rocking and clapping responsively.
At the same time he also captured the hearts of all Americans with his perfectly pitched eloquence, both soulful and transcendent. He soared and he sang in phrases of the Christian faith. He spoke of Grace as an open heartedness; that which forgave the assailant and moved officials to finally take down the Confederate flag. A Grace not willed or earned but a kind of receptivity to a larger awareness as if it were that balm in Gilead which healed the sin-sick soul. It would have taken a great effort not to listen. What did Boehner and Graham hear?
There is such an excess of verbiage these days. An avalanche of exhausted, limp words coming at us. We have learned to meet them with deaf ears. When language is charged we know that too. It doesn’t happen often even with so-called poems. It happened last week in Charleston.