From a very small age I liked Henry Moore’s sculptures, and even now, I associate them with childhood. My grandparents would take me to the sculpture park to see them: long peaceful walks, with reverent pauses in the presence of these art-forms. Sculptures many times bigger than me stood beside well-worn paths, like fellow walkers, or lay out, beneath the clouds, in fields surrounded by sheep-nibbled grass. Others hid among trees, surprising the passer-by as they shimmered into view and others peered out over the lake, watching the swans paddle along. Sculptures of bronze shells or stone limbs reminding us of our own bodies, positioning us beside them, exuding and sharing strength with their size, a guardianship, a guide. Sculptures with smooth voluptuous surfaces telling us to touch, skin to skin.
Trees can also be like this, with broad roots bulging from the base, their bark peeling like flakes of paper, layer on layer, branches just out of reach, solid and unmoving, reassuringly still. Grown adults in a forest, when they’re not conscious of being watched, run their fingers along the rough bark. A fingertip trace, reading the world to find a connection.
Interestingly, the benefit of therapy stems not from the words spoken, but from the relationship, the carving out of a safe space, a human contact that is non-judgmental, where forgiveness is not required or solicited. If words sufficed, we could heal ourselves through reading a book. And books are wondrous things, but they are a vessel of human connection, a one to many, not a one to one. Sometimes it’s the being with each other that’s necessary. It’s the presence. Like a tree, the psychotherapist does not move, does not rush. Connection takes time, and time is given with patience.
Meditation is the crafting of stillness, a pause where thoughts are encouraged to flow without sticking, without getting caught, where the body is calmed, and balance is restored to the breath. Time passes, but time is allowed to pass. There is a flow, a curve, an evenness, a beauty in being. Within this pause, there is sometimes clarity, insight. Sit calm and you learn to appreciate your own company. Solitude separates ‘now’ from the haste. Why is haste so frequently harnessed to life? With the harness unclipped, our shoulders lift, we consider the spine and rest in the breath. Listening to our breath unites us with the truth of what we are feeling.
Connection is not complicated, but does have to be given to, it has to be trusted in, it has to be devoted to. But it’s also what makes being worthwhile.
I found myself the most beautiful of places to be, tucked in the corner of an architect-less city, staring out at the sun as it fills the horizon with its yellow. Hidden amid this ordinary, in a block of flats identical to its neighbours, is the little nest I’ve made myself, for a season of a few weeks, a home which belongs to a stranger, a bed which I will soon forget, a view which I will not.
The year swings from one to two. When I write dates, they come out wrong, the wrong months, the wrong years, the numbers jumbled. Often I pick summer months, July, August, to describe this bright December. My body choosing on instinct a reality to fit my circumstances. My body is perpetually upside down and inside out. I fill my rooms with music I don’t recognize and play, on repeat, lists which I will feel fondly for this week and then let fall into the abyss of my memory as I move to explore some other genre. And inside the unknown I find myself and I stop having to be anyone because I already am.
I am living in a dream, but it was a dream I believed into being. I decided I would touch my toes to this sandy beach, and I did just that, as if defying the gods and perhaps in an act of prayer to them, I did just what I wanted to do and delighted myself by the power this act portrayed. Call it being alive. I decided I would write, and here I am writing. I decided I would do work which challenged me and compelled me to care, and that’s what I do.
Twisting my head to the side, I see the waves. Against the sound of Juliet’s death, in the music of the ballet Romeo and Juliet, I hear children playing, chasing each other around the climbing frame. I am the invisible observer, conspicuously foreign. By not belonging, I get to choose how I move. Belonging might be an essential human trait, but not belonging is freedom. I can stand out by accidentally being the only woman in the city wearing a skirt on this hot summer’s day and rather than worry about my lack of fashion sense, know I am merely alien, and hence, my attire does not answer to societal rules to which I do not belong.
If I am a little weird, it’s not easy to explain. I have found no analysis which can dissect a veritable reason for my being this way. I’ve given up trying to hypothesize why. Let’s just accept that following my wild wants makes me happier than denying their existence. And that the sun, setting across the Pacific blue is beautiful.
It’s hard to listen. You risk hearing something that you don’t want to hear. Your view of things might get a little crumpled. Someone might say something that doesn’t align with what you wanted or expected them to say or think. People, it seems, have different opinions. Not everyone sees the world quite like me. Maybe nobody. It’s terribly frustrating.
Listening inevitably reminds us of the gap between us. Listen closely, and you’ll hear how clunky our words actually are. We try to express ourselves but our ten of thousands of words create an insufficient digital approximation of our analogue experience. Body language steps in to compensate. Facial expressions give texture to our meanings. But our noisy biases result in erroneous conclusions.
“Slower,” I say. “Please speak slower.”
As a non-native speaker, you work with a smaller vocabulary and all the noise of your own language and culture. Listening in a foreign language takes a lot of effort. Sometimes you might sit and nod, putting all your effort into understanding, following the speaker’s fragmented, straying lines of thought, trying to congeal some sort of understanding from the words you catch. At the end of the conversation, you realise you haven’t said anything at all. There was no time to compose a thought.
“Give me a moment.”
Normally, in our own language, we can compose our thoughts as the other person speaks. It takes a conscious effort to calm our tongue – the words want to escape. We butt in with our opinions. We thrust ourselves into the conversation, spurred on by the essential nature of our thoughts, our words, our opinions, us. In a foreign language, deciphering the sounds into words and words into phrases and phrases into meanings is an all-encompassing task. The cogs whirr. The opinion doesn’t have time to form.
“Sorry, could you repeat that?”
People might mistakenly believe that it’s good listening not to jump in and interrupt the conversation. My Spanish listening is like this: mostly silent. I don’t think anyone would describe my Spanish listening as good. Or, at least, if they did, we can safely assume that they mean ‘for a non-native speaker with only a few years practise’ or they’re trying to be kind. We should be sceptical of such compliments. How many people want to feel they’re speaking to a bad listener?
Occasionally though I do interrupt and ask for clarification of the meaning of a word. A single word. The more confident I feel, the better I listen and the more I interrupt. Lost in a conversation about Queen Victoria and the Chinese Emperor, I picked up on the word knee, I got stuck on the word knee. Why was the word knee in the conversation, why was it so emphasised? Why knee?
“Rodilla como knee?” I ask, pointing aggressively at my own right knee. Of course, knee. To go down on one’s knees, the emperor subservient to the empress. It makes sense when you know.
The speaker might feel frustrated at my ignorance, but this interruption is actually better listening than my silence. If I don’t interrupt, I won’t understand. To listen, to understand anything I hear, I need to pause and ask for clarification. Otherwise, I’m just sitting and nodding.
“Sí, sí, sí…”
The best conversationalists, for me, in Spanish, are the ones who think about what they are saying and consider how I listen. One of my dear friends actually stops and asks me to wait while he chooses the best to explain his thoughts. He’s one of the few people I feel comfortable having a conversation with, in Spanish, on the phone. He’s not just speaking: he’s gaging whether or not I am understanding and then he’s adapting his language to compensate for my poor vocabulary and need for simple sentences. He allows me to parrot back his meaning in my own words so that we both can be sure that I really do understand what I’m being told. Often though, if I’m being totally honest, I’m tired and lazy and I don’t listen well.
I say, “Sí.”
I’ve written here a lot about listening in a foreign language but listening in a foreign language is not so dissimilar to listening when you’re distracted, when you’re preoccupied with your own concerns or where the content of the conversation is beyond your ability to comprehend.
We’re all lazy. If the content is technically too difficult, say requiring prior knowledge, we zone out. And if we’re preoccupied with our own thoughts, or distracted by something, for example messages popping up on a screen, the conversation often falls into silences. Divided attention leads us to nod, sí, but unlike the struggling non-native speaker, we often mistakenly believe we were following and did understand. Maybe you got enough to keep the conversation flowing, but how deep did those words go? Did they just scatter into the wind? Have we missed the clues? Were the words what was being said, or was there a secondary message we were supposed to hear? Are we just guessing?
When the non-native speaker is asked, they can usually admit that they only understood maybe 80% of what was said.
And sometimes we listen blindfolded because we’re on the defence before we’ve had the chance to begin. We assume we know what other people want, what they think and what they believe. We listen to the words, but we don’t wonder what’s not being said. We don’t take time to understand the motivation behind the words. Why does the conversation matter to the other person? Are they trying to sell you something, convince you of an idea, convince themselves? Do they believe what they’re saying, or are they wishing they believed it? Can we tell when someone is lying to themselves?
How are these words serving?
I think often we rush through conversations. It’s hard to listen. We all so busy: thoughts crashing through our minds, places we ought to be, things we should have read, emails that need attending to. The bathroom needs cleaning. We don’t really want to deal with the inconvenience of our routine being crumpled by something we weren’t ready to hear.
Yet I don’t know there’s much anything more valuable than an honest, open, slow and interested conversation with someone who’s attentively listening. A good conversation creates a space in which we grow, it connects us to the world, and to other people’s words. What’s more human than attending to each other’s choice of words?
The other day, I had a long drive. Not so unusual in general, but unusual enough at the moment that I had to plan my journey. For once, I asked my phone to instruct me, only realizing that it was going to do so in Spanish once I was pulling out of the estate. I had my flask with my tea beside me, the bag of dried apricots to nibble on if needed and could have, if I’d wanted, listened to the radio, a podcast or some music. Instead, I chose to limit myself to the rattle and hum of the car.
When it’s overwhelmed, my brain doesn’t work very well. I find filtering hard. I’m not a natural multitasker. If I try to do anything but cook, the pasta boils over and the onions burn. I like my work – the way I teach is focused and intensive and then done – but thoughts linger, phrases get stuck in my mind. I wonder about dictionary definitions and mouth phonemes as I walk down the hallway and inevitably continue analysing my speech as I step into the next task or sit down for tea.
Overwhelmed me is not a helpful me. Overwhelmed my thoughts are likely to travel inwards. My temper is likely to be shortened. Hence it seems worth making an effort to avoid the point of overwhelm. I would love to be well-informed about what is going on in the world, but all the news stories competing for attention flood my brain with thoughts. Whilst I understand my brain to be an excellent sieve, I also know that if you’re dealing with a lot of flour, you’re better adding it a bit at a time.
The rattle and hum of my thoughts kept me company. To my surprise, I didn’t have any trouble with the Spanish instructions, thanks possibly to my practice navigating a friend around Murcia I did back when I was first learning the language. The standard Spanish voice lacked warmth, but robots aren’t known for their tenderness. I would have felt the same about the English no doubt.
Simplification seems to be my answer to most problems right now. I can’t deal with a complex life. I don’t want to be juggling things all of the time. I want things to be structured and organised. I don’t want to have to go searching for the things I’ve mislaid. I need to know where to find old documents and details. I’m constantly sorting through things, paring back my belongings, limiting my purchases with the exception of books. Thinking ahead.
But this all takes time, and it takes thought. And for my brain to work it needs sufficient quiet. Just the rattle and hum of life trundling along.
My grandfather asks if I am learning anything. I laugh. Of course I’m learning things, it’s just, I have to admit, that there’s a rather chaotic progression to my learning. For example, I know much more about mining and fish than I did a year ago – I know the words comminuation and leaching and that it’s better to buy trout that salmon because trout are more resilient and therefore their little bodies aren’t flooded with antibodies. And I review presentations and research papers in fields that I’ve got no basis in. I look through email correspondence and brochures. I immerse myself in texts that I would not naturally come across and find myself learning what I had never expected to learn.
This cross-pollination is an amazing thing. My comprehension of life as a whole widens. A Venezuelan friend unexpectedly explains to me 20th century European history. An English friend discusses the English (British I suppose) civil war. A student recounts their experience of meeting an author I’ve just read. I’m taught about bitcoin. I try to explain it to my grandfather – people pay me to listen to them speak about their expertise.
This is the beauty of my work, and of my lifestyle – even my deep in lockdown lifestyle. I don’t mean the money; I mean that people generally seem enthusiastic to educate me. They seem to identify a value in filling the gaps in my education. And my education is like a sieve.
I ask people to explain political movements, policies I don’t understand, and I do so, knowing full well that were all my students in a room together they would not agree. I position them as the teacher, me as the learner, and I interrupt to ask questions and suggest their sentence would work better with a subject, a different tense, an alteration of the pronunciation. I push, prompt and pester until my students look at me with those eyes that say, Catherine I’m trying to educate you about something important here.
I am desperate to travel again. I’m desperate to walk unknown streets, to people watch, to feel totally foreign and awkward and feel the crumpling of my cultural expectations as I try to fit myself into a new environment. I want to realise I’m in the wrong, feel my assumptions shatter, watch as from my discomfort I desperately delve into the depths of what I know to make a bridge, a link, a connection to some of the seven billion people on this planet who are not me.
I love this quote. It comes from the Ndebele tribe in the north-eastern part of South Africa and was quoted by Bryce Courtenay in his story in the Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction travel writing collection.
Courtenay goes onto explain that ‘Translated, this simply means that we only recognize and get to know ourselves, who and what we are and may become, by the presence, experiences and observations of other people.’
The other night, my father poured me a glass of whisky
And amid a longer conversation, he expressed his discomfort with correcting my writing, and I found myself wanting to laugh at him. Because of my work, I find myself constantly providing corrections to people’s language. I have done a fair amount of red penning my father’s texts. Heavy-handedly. I tend to ignore his ego and get on with stating my thoughts. If he’s asked me for my opinion, then I’m going to give him it. Obviously, there’s a difference between criticizing and providing constructive criticism and I wouldn’t want him to feel that a criticism of his word choice was a criticism of him. Sometimes, of course, we get a bit defensive and blur the distinction between the criticism of our work and ourselves. This isn’t unusual. Some people aren’t ready to receive criticism of their work because they have confused the two and need to first develop better recognition of the value of themselves before they can embrace feedback. Sometimes in teaching, corrections are ignored because accuracy isn’t the imminent goal. There are times when, as a teacher, I will encourage a student to keep producing language regardless of its accuracy because they need to build confidence and get used to the sound of their own voice.
When my father expressed his discomfort at correcting my writing, I smiled at him and tried to explain that his feedback (even when it was negative) was valuable to me. I wasn’t going to be offended because he points out I’ve used a word entirely wrongly or that my sentence doesn’t make sense. I’m not going to hold it against him if he provides criticism constructively.
What doesn’t work is a vague adjective describing what isn’t likeable about my personality, anything that comes from a place of defence rather than care, anything that comes from a place of jealousy – and pointing out my spots. That much I’m sure of. Some cultures are more direct about feedback, others create indirect ways of getting the message across, but we have to get feedback from each other to grow. Imagine a student whose teacher never provides feedback. How much are they ever going to learn? How well are they going to be motivated?
People are people because of other people
We grow and learn who we are through the interactions we have with the people around us. We need people to learn from and understand ourselves through. Other people show us who we are, and I’m a firm believer in the value of being self-aware.