When I was ten, my sister, who was eight years older, had a boyfriend who happened to be renting the spare room in our house. I dont know why we were renting rooms; maybe money was tight, or maybe my parents just liked a busy household. His name was Rick, and he was lean and dark, maybe a little bit brooding. Of course I didnt discover they were lovers until years later, but even at ten, I could see why my sister liked him. She went for the same kind of pony-tailed artsy types that I would also go for eight years later. I dont know what he was really like as a person, because I see now that most adults dont share their inner selves with ten year old kids. But there was one thing that he did that I remember, enough to be the one thing that reserved him a place in my mind even today. When things were chaotic, and they often were, Id slip around the corner to his room and hed listen to me. He was very quiet, and unlike most grownups, actually asked me questions about how I felt about things. He didnt rush me or brush me off or get bored because I often spent as much time chattering about Suzy-Q cupcakes and howdy honey nail polish as much as I did about my feelings about my brother steamrolling right over me with his big personality. It didnt matter. Cupcakes. Fingernail polish. Angst. Whatever. Rick was the gentle presence of listening.
Unfortunately, people dont listen to me much more today than they did when I was ten. At a party last weekend, no one asked me a single question about who I am as a person or what is important to me. They droned on about the politics of gun control or the legalities of this or that or the best way to cut a raspberry cheesecake. But did anyone break out of the cocktail chatter to ask not just the where and what questions, but the why? Sure, I talk and usually they are quiet long enough to nod at me, but I can see their minds wandering to the shadows. Its kind of sad because Im an interesting person, and I bet they are too, if I could just break through.
Im not writing all this to make a case for courtesy going down the toilet - although I think it probably is - but rather how Rick gave me more than just a few minutes break from the cold, he gave me the gift of listening, of being present just for me.
These days, its my friend Alison who warms me when Im feeling afraid. Before my last love affair, Alison and I were just buddies - the kind who go to movies and eat out at Chinese restaurants once a month. But in the traumatic aftermath of my romance, I discovered that Alison is the one person who allowed me to cry all I wanted. She didnt try to solve my problems or give me advice. She just listened and held my hand. It was powerful stuff, because there arent too many people Id cry in front of. Id like to be that kind of person, but more often than not, my need to solve problems kicks in and I offer all kinds of unsolicited advice. Even worse, I can only take about twenty minutes of my friends processing the vagaries of their inner children before my mind wanders to other lists of things to do. Alison tells me that Im a good listener, but she also knows enough to get the critical points in up front, before I break in with a five-step plan to alleviate the problem.
So heres my idea. This year, instead of the baskets of candles and fruit baskets and fruitcake that we give each other for the holidays, how about we give the gift of listening. Without interrupting. Without prejudice. Without thinking about what we want to say. Just for a moment, remember how you felt when someone listened to you, I mean really listened. Just think if you could give that gift to someone else. I bet theyd want that more than just about anything.
In the meantime, Alison reminds me that she still needs to pick up a few real life gifts for her family and friends - so could I perhaps offer a little practicality along with the airy fairy suggestions? Let me just say this about the whole gift thing, because Ive struggled with it for years. Gifts are not about buying what you like or impressing someone or obligation. Better no gift at all than that - its definitely bad karma. Gifts are about seeing who the other person truly is and buying them what they truly want. My second true love, Mark, had a gift (if you will) for seeing who I really was. He wasnt fooled by the artifice of the color and effervescence of my personality. He knew what would make me shiver because he was a good observer. He bought me gifts that I didnt know that I wanted, and even gifts that I didnt want. Not much glamour in this, I often thought as I unwrapped some odd thing or another. But while maybe lacking in surprise or romance or fancy packaging, over time I realized that he knew me better than I knew myself. Thats real romance. The gifts he bought me outlasted not only my fickle twenty year-old self, but in fact, our relationship.
My sister is also a cool gift giver, of both the listening and the gift kind. On my last birthday, I wanted this antique - it was a $75 Richie Rich toy cash register with tin lithography and a wind up mechanical hand that reaches out to grab your coins. She knew this gift would ring my bell, so she didnt buy me something practical, she bought me that Richie Rich toy cash register with tin lithography and a wind up mechanical hand that reaches out to grab your coins. She probably thought her sister had gone around the bend, but did she buy it for me anyway? She sure did. She listens.
I know these gift givers are the superstars of the holiday season, and most of us arent up there in such hallowed places. Many of my friends complain that they dont know what to buy their sister or father or whoever. I think the real problem is that they arent listening enough. People tell you what is important to them every day. If you dont know what questions to ask - just observe. What do they keep in their office? (Mine has 30 miniature toy cash registers). What kind of jewelry do they wear? (I wear a lot of silver and markasite). Whats on their walls at home? (Winslow Homer, cut sheet-metal sculptures). What compact disk is always in the rotation? (Aaron Neville). Listen. Observe. Ask.
Even when you do buy them that thing that brings the sparkle to their eye, be sure to take a few minutes with an empty agenda to give them the real gift - yourself.
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