Thursday, January 04, 2007


We worked it out in the parking lot. Elijah would push any buttons that opened the front door to the library. Benjamin would push any buttons on the elevator. Priscilla, who wouldn’t be pushing buttons that morning, would get to enter the library and the elevator first. As soon as Mary started to squirm and squeal in her stroller, all five of us would check out our books and high tail it out of there.

Shockingly, I lost the library events calendar. I wasn’t sure when Ben’s preschool class started up again after the holiday break, but decided we would all show up at the regular time that day, just in case. The children’s section was empty but Miss D, who teaches the class, was there working at the reference desk.
“Hi Miss D!” yelled Ben.
“Well, hi there Ben. Did you have a good Christmas?”
“When is class starting Miss D?”
“Oh Benji,” she explained, “Class doesn’t start for two more weeks.”
My four-year old stared, mouth open, at his teacher while she told him in great detail how many more days there were before preschool started up again, and what exciting activities the new preschool program would entail. Surprisingly, he didn’t interrupt but waited patiently before presenting his next question. Never taking his eyes off her face he asked,
“So what are we learning today, Miss D.?”

Jennifer, a dear friend of mine, is a phenomenal listener. When she sits down to catch-up with you, it is obvious from her body language and gentle feedback that the words flowing out of your mouth are landing squarely in the flattering realm of her undivided attention. With her elbows perched on her knees, she leans toward you, resting her chin in the palms of her hands. Her eyes penetrate, and her expression transforms into one of quiet interest, free from any trace of boredom or patronization. Although my issues for the most part remain unresolved, I am always struck after our conversation by how good it feels to be truly heard.

In the two years that I actually left the house to work in a real office, with cubicles and conference rooms, I attended workshops geared toward becoming more attentive to the needs of clients. There were tricks for remembering names and personal details about family and hobbies. Appealing to the love of self was a surefire way to get a foot in the door - to break the ice and seal the deal. When being introduced, we were told, always repeat the individual’s name out loud in order to remember it later. “Molly, this is Susan” it would go. My response should then be, “Hello, Susan, it is so nice to meet you!” I should also try to pick out a distinctive characteristic and link it to her name. “Silver Susan,” I might come up with if her hair was gray and black, like salt and pepper.

As a kid, it used to frustrate me to no end when my parents would tune me out, offering only lukewarm “uh-uhs” and “mmms” in response to my highly interesting commentaries on four square, friendship pins, and sticker collections. When I finally started my own family, I could hardly to wait to converse with my babies. Like an experienced linguist, I did my best to decode each gurgle, grunt, and groan. “Did you say cat, sweetheart? CAT? Troy, get in here, Priscilla said “cat” or maybe “coat”, isn’t she brilliant?”

Now-a-days trying to follow through on one complete thought in my house is like attempting conversation in a nightclub. The constant vibrations of noise, cutting off sentences and drowning out clarity, sabotage all pursuits of concentration. Becoming a mother has slashed, gnarled, and all but obliterated my listening skills. Every day I keep one ear open while my children tell me their own highly interesting tidbits on Transformers, Barbie Pegasus, and Choose Your Own Adventure books. I do have limits, however, and once their squabbles, knock- knock jokes, and “can I’s” pile up high enough in my brain, it simply shuts down – an age old defense mechanism designed to keep me from going insane, as it did for my own mom and dad decades earlier.

Over the last eight years, I have become quite comfortable with the fragmentation of family chaos. This flexibility has made it possible to actually get a thing or two done around here but it also, unfortunately, has made me socially, somewhat awkward. Every Sunday at Church, I am guaranteed to interact with other adults. While I always look forward to this opportunity, it also reminds me of how entrenched I am in this “other than” existence known as motherhood. I can pretend to be a regular person, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, hair brushed, and wearing mascara, but five seconds in to any interaction I must abruptly excuse myself to stop Ben from licking all the donuts on the platter, or Mary from crawling up the stairs. I can’t be very engaging while constantly averting my eyes and doing head counts. “So, how long have you lived in Portage, just a minute … no, no Mary, stay over here …I’m sorry, what was I saying?

I still resort to tricks for triggering identities but feel dissatisfied with this formulaic substitute for a genuine remembrance, interested and concerned for the life behind the name I just recalled. I think of Jennifer and her God given gift to nurture the souls of those around her just by saying less and hearing more. To what extent, during this season of distraction, can I offer that grace, myself? Just this morning, Troy was right in the middle of telling me about a stressful situation at work when a thought, perched precariously on the edge of my memory, blurted out rudely through my lips, cutting him off completely. “Oh honey, speaking of absolutely nothing you just said, can I order some more vitamins today?” And with that, a chance to serve my husband flittered away on the wings of self-absorption.

Somewhere along the way, I gave up trying. While settling in to my role as caregiver, I pressed the mute button on my senses and never bothered to turn it off again. “No,” “Sorry,” “Maybe next time,” “I’ve got kids.” It is much easier to bow out all the time than to evaluate each request on an individual basis. A cup of tea, a helping hand, a phone call, could be arranged with effort. Carving out moments to listen would require taking my mind off of cruise control. Maybe I can’t head up the PTA, take part in parish council, or volunteer as the art lady in Elijah’s elementary school, but I can make eye contact, resist the urge to speak, or invite my neighbor for a visit.

In less than ten minutes, Priscilla and Elijah will come bounding through the front door full of information and requests. I’ll naturally tense up with the desire to get backpacks and coats hung up in their proper places. “Uh uh” I’ll want to say in response to their announcements. But for the price of seven minutes, I can sieze a passing moment to chip away at my selfishness by actively listening on the couch, surrounded by coats and back packs, soaking in the details of a life other than my own.

Thus it does not pay to come to grips with the hard-to-master great vices and bad habits you have acquired without at the same time overcoming your small “innocent” weaknesses: your taste for sweets, your urge to talk, your curiosity, your meddling. For, finally, all our desires, great and small, are built on the same foundation, our unchecked habit of satisfying our own will.

Tito Colliander from Way of the Ascetics

1 comment:

Mimi said...

That is so true, and some weeks we cling to the grown up role, and some days we are so immersed in mommy we can't be a grown up.

Although, now my kids are older and I miss those days.