Friday, August 30, 2013

Needing to Be Heard

One of my favorite young Safeway checkers, whose name is Blessing, was hard at work yesterday, with a growing checkout line, her hands in perpetual motion as she scanned a fragile, very elderly woman's weekly groceries. As Blessing scanned, the woman began a wistful monologue.

"I love your name," she said, reading Blessing's name tag. "My Daddy named me Joy. He was such a loving, wonderful man. The best Daddy in the world. I miss him so much." Her eyes filled with tears at the memory of warm connection and loss of that special love.

Blessing stopped,  looked at the woman and smiled. "Thank you," she said quietly. "What a great way to grow up -- with a Daddy who loved you so much."

The elderly woman smiled, so pleased to be heard. "He was the best. Thank you, Blessing."

There was a little eye-rolling in the line behind this misty-eyed elderly woman, but I was glad that Blessing took a moment to listen and to respond to this woman's story. And it occurred to me that there are so many stories, so many people yearning to be heard. I hear and see them so much around here.

There is a man in his early seventies, still working due to financial necessity, who worries constantly about his health and how long he will be able to carry on. Some people edge away when they see him, unable or unwilling to stop and linger a bit to hear his latest health-related ruminations. But I've noticed that if someone takes the time and cares enough to listen, his shoulders relax visibly and his mood lightens. And he has such sweetness and gentle humor to share.

A group of women in difficult marriages -- one with a man who is allergic to any kind of housework, another who insists on making all decisions without listening to input from his wife, another whose husband is totally addicted to golf -- get together occasionally at a local cafe to laugh at the realities of their lives. None is considering divorce. None has any particular notion of changing their long-time marriages at this point. But exchanging stories, revisiting positive aspects of their marriages with beloved, if occasionally difficult, spouses and laughing the afternoon away does wonders for their spirits.

A woman whose husband divorced her immediately after they bought what she thought would be simply a part-time vacation home here has recently started wanting to connect with others -- after a long period of mourning the end of her twenty-five year marriage. Her neediness is palpable as she talks with anyone who will stand still about the pain of this transition and her hopes for the future. But if someone stops to listen, one discovers that she is quite delightful  -- with a quirky sense of humor and a good amount of courage.

A woman who has never married and is content with her solitude most of the time nevertheless spends Sundays at the local McDonald's -- reading a novel between greeting friends and acquaintances who happen to stop by for a quick Sunday breakfast. "It's just nice to get out and visit with people -- for long conversations and short ones," she said not long ago. "It's just fun to swap stories."

We all have a need to tell our stories, to be heard, to be noticed. Especially for those who are cloaked in the relative invisibility of older age, slowing down in a speeding up world, being heard is such a gift.

What does it take -- especially at this time of life -- to slow down and listen to another?

What does it take to truly hear and understand the life stories of others?

There is so much we can learn from shared stories and feelings and experiences. When we stop and listen, it may seem, initially, that we're being kind and giving attention and encouragement to another. However, when we listen with our hearts and with open minds, we often gain so much more than we give -- with new perspectives, insights and lessons in survival, courage and love.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Choices Considered

Do you remember a choice made -- maybe years ago, maybe yesterday -- that turned out to be so life-changing, so miraculously right, that you're filled with wonder every time you think about it?

Fifty years ago this month, I was preparing to make a life change that had consequences more far-reaching than I ever could have imagined: I was getting ready to leave my parents' home in Los Angeles to go to college -- sight unseen -- at Northwestern University near Chicago.

Looking back, I'm grateful to my 18-year-old self for overcoming the fear of traveling by myself to a place I had never seen, to a place where I knew no one, to a university well-known for its excellent academics, especially in journalism, and for its competitiveness. That was quite a step for a shy teenager who had never traveled, never flown before, never gone anywhere alone.

I'm also grateful to the university, not only for a great education, but also for generous financial aid and work study opportunities.

And I'm grateful to my parents for letting me go. My father was unemployed and they couldn't afford to pay for my college education but they encouraged me to find a way to go nevertheless. Their preference would have been UCLA, my father's and Aunt Molly's alma mater, that was less than an hour from our house. But they trusted me to know what I wanted and needed at that stage of my life. Despite the emotional toll on both in terms of worry, they sent me off with kisses and good wishes.

And what a difference that made in my life: to feel the emotional support from home and to enjoy the mentoring, lessons in academics and in life and wonderful friendships I found at Northwestern.

But for all its benefits, this wasn't a choice lightly made. Late in my senior year of high school -- holding acceptances from Northwestern, UCLA and Stanford (at my high school, we were only allowed three college applications) -- I had brainstormed with Sister Ramona about my choices. Northwestern was my first choice, but I worried about the expense and that I would end up taking out student loans before I was through. Sister Ramona smiled and said "So you take out student loans and you pay them back. No one can take away the education and the experiences you'll have there."

She was so right. It took ten years of lifestyle sacrifices after college and graduate school to pay the loans back, but I never minded. The wisdom of that choice -- to leave home, to live someplace besides California, to put considerable mileage between myself and all that was familiar, to reach toward the school offering the biggest challenge both personally and professionally -- resonates to this day.

It resonates in the writing career I might never have had if I hadn't made the choice to go there. It resonates in memories of lessons learned and a sense of belonging, then and now. It resonates in some of the most treasured relationships of my life.

And so I make donations to the Northwestern scholarship fund on a regular basis to help students with dreams but few resources have the advantage of such a wonderful education. And during my 45th class reunion there last fall, I decided to give back a bit in a different way -- by making a promotional video for Northwestern. This video, just posted a month ago, has brought an unexpected blessing. 

This morning I got an email from another Northwestern journalism alum named Karen Page, class of 1983, whom I have never met. Her name was familiar and I suddenly realized why when I checked her website: She is the two-time James Beard Award-winning author of Becoming a Chef, Culinary Artistry, Dining Out, Chef's Night Out, The New American Chef, What to Drink With What You Eat, The Flavor Bible, The Food Lovers Guide to Wine and The Vegetarian Flavor Bible.

Karen felt moved to write after watching the above video and let me know that, many years ago, I unknowingly influenced her college choice. So she wrote:

"I'm about to attend my first Northwestern reunion (my 30th) this fall, and you are key to my having ended up there:  I admired your writing in 'TEEN magazine back in the 1970s, and learning that you had studied journalism at Northwestern first put it on my map of awareness.

You have my heartfelt thanks for writing so engagingly that it captured my attention, for attending the country's #1 undergraduate journalism school, and for inspiring me to do the same through your example.

It was also one of the best decisions I ever made!"

I was deeply moved.

And I wondered how often we all influence the life of another -- a stranger or a loved one -- without ever knowing.

I felt so grateful to Karen, a busy and accomplished professional, for remembering and for taking the time to reach out and to let me know that one of my very best choices in life was also her own.