Listening from the Heart

 

Why is it that people don’t really listen to each other?  Oh, they hear one another, but not what’s lying between the lines and under the words, not the emotional content, not the things – unconsciously hidden or not – that the other is saying, not the “where is this coming from?” question we should all ask when someone else is speaking to us.

Not all conversations are fraught with emotional content, but all are driven by who the other person really is.

People often just want to have the “last word.” Or they want to prove their superior knowledge of the subject.  Or even humiliate their interlocutor with a “grand slam.”  Some simply reply with an irrelevant acknowledgement that words have been heard, if not really understood.

I have often wondered at the failure of communications between people, especially in personal relationships where the stakes can be so high.  Someone has to “win,” so the words of the other are barely heard.

I believe this is a product of our hurry-up western culture.  We don’t take the time any more to sit quietly and absorb what the other is saying, think about it a bit, and then try to offer some response that will further the discussion in a positive way.  Indigenous cultures do this.  They make a ritual of important conversations, passing a pipe, or a feather or noise-maker of some kind so that the one given the portentous object knows that it is her turn to speak without interruption and that all the others will really hear – and think about – what she is saying.  Then, in a very democratic way, the ritual object is passed to the next person, who may take quite a while in forming a thoughtful response.  In this way, important decisions of the group are made, and every participant is satisfied that he has been heard.

How did we lose this?

It’s a stress-filled world we live in, and all relationships – from the personal to the business – suffer for it.  I am reminded of when I was a young public relations consultant out on my own visiting my first referral, a psychological management consulting firm.  We had a cordial greeting in reception and went into his office.  I took my notebook out of my briefcase and prepared to make notes as we talked.  I asked questions.   We spoke, or rather the potential client responded to my questions, for about an hour.  And at the end of my note-taking, with a fair understanding of what was needed, I shoved my notebook into my briefcase and started to pull myself out of my chair.

“One moment,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me something about yourself?”  I’m sure my face reddened as I planted myself back in my chair.  I had no rehearsed phrases about my experience or expertise and I fumbled my responses for an embarrassing 15 minutes.  I learned that, in whatever relationship, the communication needs to open up in both directions, with both parties listening carefully.  My new client was a psychologist, and I was intimidated (I’ve always believed psychologists have this magical ability to see right through you), so I failed to remember that he needed to know something about me other than that I was a good, but shy, listener.

I later invited a man with superior experience into the firm – a creative guy, who was more entranced with his own creative input than with the client’s real needs or budget.  With my ability to listen, I was able to temper his impulsive responses, but the partnership didn’t last long.

All lessons learned.  Now I know to quiet myself inside when someone else is speaking – especially people I love – so that I can offer the most thoughtful, even wise, responses.  This has taken a lifetime to work on and get right.  And I’m in no way perfect.  I have just learned to leave my own little ego in the pasture while I really hear what the other person is saying.  And sometimes it makes me want to cry, because the process of listening from the heart, as well as the head, activates empathy – a precious commodity these days, and something every writer must cultivate.

© 2018, Sandra Shaw Homer

Photo by SSH

 

 

 

 

The New Dress

Recently published in Ponder Review, Vol II, Issue 1.

 

My grandmother’s hands tore helplessly at the tissue paper surrounding the new dress in its box.  I leaned in and folded back one leaf of the paper, so she could better see what she was doing.

I had bought her the dress, a dark green knit, because in the nursing home all her dresses that hadn’t been stolen were covered with food stains, pilled and frayed. I had taken her to lunch at Peddler’s village, to the Cock ‘n Bull, where she sipped her frozen daiquiri through a straw and ate a ball of butter whole, perhaps thinking it was cheese. I didn’t mention that it wasn’t cheese.

Trying on the dresses after lunch – none of them like she used to wear; the styles had changed, and this was a long way from the dress shop she had patronized in Albany for 27 years – I noticed that her slip was gray and wanted mending. There was an unclean smell about my grandmother, an old, sour smell. I knew they bathed her regularly in the nursing home, or at least I hoped they did. The smell must have been coming from the dirty slip, but I remember hearing that death has a smell, and for many hours, even after many cigarettes, I couldn’t get that smell out of my memory’s nose.

And now, a week later, I was collecting her to take her back to Philadelphia for her 90th birthday party, packing up her meager things so that she could overnight in my grownup house, trying to find her toothbrush, the bed jacket, clean underwear – all jumbled together in the several drawers of the antique dresser we had moved into her room.

I knew that she didn’t know where she was going, or why, but I hoped her mind, long past complete utterances, was also beyond worry. She followed my instructions meekly, like a guilty child.

When she pulled off the sweater and trousers, neither of which belonged to her, I was surprised to find her naked below, the small pale V sandwiched between loose thighs and the hanging flesh of her abdomen – gray, wrinkled, vulnerable. In our great old age, almost 90, we step backwards, I thought, stripped of our minds, our memories, even our dignifying pubic hair.  Why wasn’t she wearing panties? Her bra was in place – someone must have to help her into that; her arthritic hands, once pianist’s hands, could never fasten the hooks of that bra.

There was the faint smell of urine hanging in the air of her room like an acrid fog. And, as I turned away to hide my sadness, fumbling through the few possessions I had gathered for our trip, it occurred to me that she must finally be incontinent. I found some panties – not her style; she had always worn open-leg panties, and these had elastic around the thighs – and held them out for her to step into.

First the mind, and then the body goes, the bare little wedge of pubis now hiding a urethra that betrays her. I helped her into the panties, her swollen hand supporting her weight on my shoulder, and then I made her sit down on the edge of the bed to stretch on the pantyhose. She never used to wear those either, always a girdle with garters. Even if she were staying at home all day with no one coming to visit, Grandma would pull her girdle over her plump hips, slip into her all-in-one, fasten up the nylon stockings, put on a nice dress and the single-strand pearl necklace that was her signature.

She never put a worn garment back into the closet, so that everything there smelled fresh and new.

While she was struggling to get the pantyhose straightened around her hips, I looked in the cabinet under the sink in the bathroom she shared with the occupant of the room next door and found a box of disposable diapers. I packed it to into the bag for home, not certain if I could ever insist she put one on.

Next, I helped her into the slip I had washed and mended, and finally I gathered up the dress and held it over her head. She lifted her arms up straight like an expectant child, and a small uncertain smile touched the corners of her mouth. A new dress. This much she understood. I guided her arms into the sleeves and pulled the dark green knit around her, straightening the shoulders over the narrow bones. I led her to the mirror above the dresser, fished my own comb out of my purse and arranged her fine, pale hair. The eyes reflected back at me were expressionless. Did she know whom she was looking at? Did she remember the music?

I put my arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently, putting my cheek next to hers in the mirror, trying to smile through the constriction of my heart. “You look beautiful,” I said. And, for just the flicker of an instant, the distant memory of a smile in her eyes, I thought she recognized me.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2018

Photo by Roberta Ward Smiley

Creativity Needs Silence

I’m sorry I’ve lost the attribution for this quote — if anyone can help me here, I’d be grateful.  Meanwhile, I thank the nameless writer for some important thoughts about what we need to start paying attention to.

Hello chatter, my old friend.

The sounds of silence are a dim recollection now, like mystery, privacy and paying attention to one thing — or one person — at a time.

As far back as half-a-century ago, the Swiss philosopher Max Picard warned: “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence,” once as natural as the sky and air.

As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.

There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the “cotton wool of daily life.”

“In the future, not getting any imagery or story line or content is going to be the equivalent of silence because people are so filled up now with streaming video,” said Ed Schlossberg, the artist, author and designer who runs ESI Design. “Paying attention to anything will be the missing commodity in future life. You think you’ll miss nothing, but you’ll probably miss everything.”

Photo by Coral Jewell

 

 

A Little Night Music

Published in the Spring 2018 issue of Sky Island Journal, this is an excerpt from the forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Naturalist in Costa Rica. 

Now, in the still, moonlit nights, insomnia has company.

Wup, wup, whoo, whoooo.

An owl challenges the jungle of the quebrada by the house.  Everyone marvels at how tranquil our place is, but they’re used to the noises of cities and towns.  Out here the sounds drop into the night silence like thunder.

It begins with the owl.  From our quebrada he calls to another in the quebrada to the south.  A small echo coming back, saying what?

Crickets playing a triad – two tones perfectly spaced at a third – offer a metallic accompaniment.

The cicadas who screamed at sunset have already exploded and left their empty shells in the crannies of the trees.

A distant dog barks.

Later, no matter what the moon, a pack of coyotes hurls its protest at the stars.  Little Flor – separated by millennia from her sisters – still remembers to howl in tune.

In the ceiling, all night long, the bats are chirping fussily over their busy comings and goings.  There is the muffled beating of wings against the small, dusty spaces.

A gecko rustles across the skylight, and I hear the flat-footed thump of the cat’s paws on the kitchen counter, a better vantage point for contemplating the gecko’s tempting silhouette in the moonlight.

Even later, a small but insistent mew from the cat: she wants out.

The pump decides to gurgle, even though no one is drawing any water.

The breeze, blowing from the volcano, sighs back and forth like the ocean, and the great crossed limbs of the guanacaste tree groan against each other like two quarrelsome lovers in their sleep.

A lamp burns in my tiny room as my pen scratches across the page.  It attracts an abejón that buzzes his frustration against the screen. There’s a hole in the screen, but he hasn’t found it yet.

In the small hours a far-off rooster crows.

Later, at five – right on time – the King of the howler monkeys roars in the dawn.  He knows when the sun is about to rise.  The rooster hasn’t figured it out.

Night sounds in the campo.  I never feel alone.  As I look out the window above my bed, lights out at last, I see the pale moon and constellations swinging through the bowl of blue and, distantly, ever so faintly, I can hear – beyond all the chirping and chatter of nearby things – the music of the planet tilting toward the sun.

(An earlier version appeared on this blog in the series on the use of our senses in writing.)

 

My Poem “Holding” Published in Junto Magazine

Holding

You place the heel of my hand
against your brow
so that my fingers spread out
over the curve of your head
settling down into your hair.
I laugh. Why are you doing that,
I ask. To hold the top down,
you answer. It feels good
To hold your head like this –
large and round like a melon,
you say, solid and field warm.
I want to be your head
under my hand, feeling held,
contained, all there. I am
both me, holding, and you, held –
all one, all the same.
Our bodies shift in the dark
and my hand slips away.
You put it back. We cannot
have enough of this oneness –
and, feeling it, we do not sleep.

© Junto Magazine, 2017

Junto Magazine, December 2017

 

Podcast: Writing Letters from the Pacific

It’s rare to run into a writer and coach living just down the road who gets excited about my travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific.  (I mean, we’re in remote Costa Rica here!)  Happily,  Amy Brooks was delighted to interview me for her podcast , Voice Pen Purpose online, instead of at  her kitchen table (she has three lively boys).  Thus, it is easily available to the anyone in the world who cares to listen, without distractions.  Which I invite you to do.  It’s a fun interview.  Enjoy!

Photo by SSH

Letters from the Pacific Earns Another Great Review

By Amy R Brookson, October 10, 2017

I was stuck in my house during a recent hurricane and the only truly transportive distraction I indulged in was Homer’s “Letters from the Pacific.” I read by candlelight (no power) and forgot about the pounding rain and angry winds outside my hillside home. Her imagery is crisp and clear. The details both poetic and informative. I’m now fascinated by the idea of international travel via cargo ship. When can I go, too? This is an easy book to recommend; to either those interested in an exterior or interior exploration. Keep exploring, Shaw, and then tell us all about it!

Photo by SSH

 

The Challenge of Describing Incredible Things

In one case technical — and I am NOT a techie — but the engine room tour on my first freighter voyage begged to be described.  It was sensory overload — far too many details — and without creating endless lists of things, the challenge was to make it interesting, speed it up and come to a crashing finish.  Tell me if you think it works:

The Grand Event yesterday was our engine room tour, guided by the voluble Chief Engineer, Karlo.  It was one of the most impressive sights any of us had ever seen (although hot and noisy, even with earmuffs).  From the keel to the topmost access hatch, it rises 10 stories high, and aft-to-forward takes up 30% of the entire hull – add in the fuel storage tanks along either bulkhead, and it uses up more space than the cargo hold.

Lila had the good sense to bring along a notebook, and her jottings added to my memory and a further interview with the Chief, produced some remarkable statistics.  The eight-cylinder twin-turbo-charged main engine produces 35,000 horsepower at 91 rpm, and Karlo assured us that newer ships (this one is only nine years old) can produce up to 105,000.  To convey the scale of this monster, we saw two new replacement pistons hanging aft of the engine, still wrapped in plastic, each measuring five meters high, and we were told that the 7.5 meter diameter propeller weighs 45 metric tons.

At full speed, the Louise burns 110 tons of fuel a day, on “economy speed” 70, at $350 to $400 U.S. per ton.  Depending on conditions – currents, depth, wind and weather – it takes an hour and a half to move this fully-loaded ship up to her maximum speed of 23.5 knots per hour.  That’s a lot of inertia.  I didn’t ask how long it takes to come to a full stop.

Because bunker fuel is as thick as asphalt, it needs to be purified by means of an on-board centrifuge and then heated at 145C. to the correct viscosity before it can be burned.  The sludge that remains after purification is pumped into tanker trucks in port.  No unprocessed fuel, oil, or bilge contents go into the ocean.  (Neither does sewage.)  Because of European and West Coast U.S. environmental regulations, in addition to the 3,500 tons of bunker the ship has to carry low-sulphur fuel for use in those ports, as well as gasoline to use dockside.  With her tanks topped up, the Louise has a range of 15,000 nautical miles.

In addition to the main engine, there are four diesel-run generators, producing 440 volts at 60 cycles for a total potential of six megawatts (newer ships can produce up to 6,600 volts) and a desalinization plant that produces 25 tons of water a day.  This multi-staged water-maker, which includes mineralizing and treatment with ultraviolet light, produces all the water used on board for cooling, hydraulics, plumbing and human consumption.  The Louise takes on no fresh water in port.

Impressive also was the workshop and spare parts storage, including every kind of machine tool, a huge lathe, untold numbers of hand-tools – each in its numbered slot on the walls – shelf after shelf of steel boxes filled with every kind of fitting the ship’s engineers could possibly need, paints, chemicals, and numberless drums of oil.  As Karlo pointed out, there’s no handy machine shop out here in the middle of the Pacific.  He described for us, too, all the backed-up back-up systems for running the show, all computerized and far too complicated to recount.

In that vast space amid the hellish din of so many thousands of mechanical parts moving simultaneously at high speeds, surrounded by a labyrinthine complexity of ladders and hatches, kilometers of insulated wires and pipes snaking in every direction, valves, blowers, boilers, turbines, turbo-chargers, condensers, a steering gear the size of two small farm tractors, air compressors, a seawater central cooling system, block-and-tackle for moving heavy equipment around, and a 3,300 volt bow-thruster – with that enormous, panting, thrumming monster-engine at its heart – the steel planks vibrating beneath our feet with the eternal beat of the ship, the three of us stood open-mouthed in awe.

 

Anyone who writes faces a particular challenge with sunrises and sunsets, because it is so easy to fall into the cliche trap.  How to be original?  How to make the reader share in the wonder?  Here’s an attempt:

I woke early and pulled the curtain back from the porthole in time to see the sky just pearling up before sunrise.  I quickly dressed and climbed to my usual perch on the top step to F Deck, facing aft, a little northeasterly.  It was slow in coming.  First a faint pink lined the clouds, then a golden light gradually deepened along the horizon, and puffs of cloud over the indigo water turned from mauve, to rose, to bright pink.  The horizon clouds opened to form a rose-tinged bowl, scalloped like a seashell, and suddenly the sunlight poured into this bowl like molten gold, too brilliant to look at.  I watched for half an hour, at the end of which I fully felt the blessing of this diurnal gift to the planet.

Both these pieces are excerpted from Letters from the Pacific, my first travel memoir.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017

Photo by SSH

New Nonfiction Piece in Cleaver Magazine

In the hall, all is pandemonium. Even the ambulatory patients are incapable of making it to the fire exit on their own. The staff is operating on adrenaline and rote training. At the exit, I hold the door open for the wheelchairs and aides guiding the patients on foot. One grand dame holds up traffic by asking me what I’m laughing about. There is a twinkle in her beautiful gray eyes. Perhaps she sees a joke and wants to share it. Perhaps there really is a smile on my face. Someone from behind gently pushes her forward. Feeling a little useless where I am, I ask one of the aides what I can do to help.

“Check the bathrooms!” she gasps.

Read more . . .

© Sandra Shaw Homer 2017

Photo by SSH

“Writers Live inside their Heads”: Further Reflections

My friend Katherine’s thoughtful and provocative comment on my previous post deserves another post, not just a comment that will get lost at the bottom of the page. She makes a strong case for living from the heart, not the head. I certainly wasn’t trying to suggest that all writers are rational; for many creative people, quite the opposite case might be made!

There is no question now – science seems to be bearing this out – of the strong connection between heart and mind. The heart, in fact, contains about 40,000 neurons which help to regulate, by way of the limbic system, many brain functions. Fascinatingly, the experience of heart transplant patients suggests that memories and feelings are also stored in the heart (as well as throughout the nervous system). So the wisdom of the ancients that Katherine refers to was wise indeed.

Defining the role of heart in the creative process is a daunting challenge. It’s something we feel more readily than we can describe. The first time I felt it was at the piano – the Schubert Impromptu Op. 90 no. 1.  After almost 10 years of piano study, I played this piece very well, so well in fact that I felt I personally could bring something to the interpretation. But there was one evening when I was sitting at the piano in the darkened living room – with just the light over the keyboard – when I became so profoundly involved in the music that it felt for one magical moment as if Shubert were playing through me and I lost all sense of who I was; my heart was full. I now understand this as living in the moment – heart, mind and soul all perfectly synchronized with something much larger than myself.

Some would describe such experiences as divine, but I don’t think it’s necessary to insist on the divine nature of the human creative process. What we do need to recognize, however, is that without that capacity to get inside the moment – the moment of heart, if you will – our art will be missing an important component in our communicating with others; something of the potential connection between writer and reader will be lost.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2015

Photo by Marten Jager

Photo by Marten Jager