Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Art of Listening

Just for a moment, turn off the music. Silence the radio and TV.  Remove your earbuds.

Listen . . . listen . . .

I hear the clicking of my computer keys, the heatpump pushing cool air into my house, the icemaker dumping frozen cubes, a motorcycle roaring into the distance, and a muffled buzzing white noise of unknown origin.

If I stepped outside I would hear the night.  Leftover rain dripping from the gutter. The rustle of a leaf or two. A cricket talking.

We often brag about our ability to multi-task. Research has shown that multi-tasking is really a myth.  Scattered focus means scattered energy and scattered results.  The same thing happens with our hearing.  We watch TV and carry on a conversation at the same time.  We text while physically present with someone, claiming we hear what they say even though our attention is elsewhere.

We’ve become accustomed to audio bombardment. We hear in generalities, not specifics. By default we have quit listening — to others, to ourselves, to nature, to words spoken and read, to thoughts and ponderings.

I’m learning from my piano teacher that musical training is about attuning our ears to the specifics of sound and tone and phrase and dynamics and emotion.  Right notes are important, but notes are only the beginning.  It matters how I play the notes, my touch on the keys, the shaping of a phrase, the emotion I bring to the music.  I have to listen, listen, listen for the nuances.  Allowing my mind to wander reduces my practice to mere note playing, eliminating the possibility of real music making.

The same is true for our daily listening.  If we allow ourselves to be distracted and unfocused, all we hear is jumbled noise.  We may hear some of the music or some of the spoken words or some of nature’s sounds. We may miss the sound of the vegetables we’re chopping, or our feet walking on sand. Our audio world is like hash — everything mixed together; distinct flavors are blurred.

How we listen is a habit.  And habits can be changed.  New habits can be practiced and cultivated.

Try listening a little bit each day — to only one thing at a time:

  • listen to your morning before the clamor begins
  • listen to your breakfast
  • listen to your child, your spouse, your co-worker, your pet
  • listen to the fridge humming
  • listen to your breathing
  • listen to water pouring from the spigot

You’ll be surprised — by what you hear and by what you’ve missed.

Until next Tuesday . . .

Temper Tantrums

Our family played lots of games when I was growing up:  Parcheesi, Flinch, Monopoly, Clue, Canasta, Pinochle, Touring, Rook, Chinese Checkers and regular checkers, and others I’ve forgotten.  Sometimes just the kids played.  There were three of us; I was the middle child and only girl. Other times my parents joined in.  A visit with relatives always included a rousing game of Canasta played according to grandmother’s special rules.

We learned life lessons around the game table.  (1) Rules are to be followed, (2) luck is fickle, and (3) skill can be acquired.

No matter the game, I always played hard. I was competitive with my older brother and I certainly didn’t want to be beaten by my younger brother. No one ever let the kids win in my family.  You had to win fair and square, by yourself.

I always played to win.  And when I didn’t, I cried. That’s the mild way of explaining my behavior.  It’s a wonder my family even let me play, considering how I behaved when I lost.

I remember Mother saying, “It’s only a game.  There’s no reason to be so upset.” She did her best to explain that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.  “You can’t win all the time,” she’d say.

I wanted to say, “The hell it’s just a game!!  You don’t understand!!” I knew to keep those words to myself.

Not much has changed with my game playing since then.  I still always play to win. Playing a game is not a social experience for me.  It’s competition.

The main difference now is that I don’t have a temper tantrum when I lose.  In fact, I don’t lose my temper at all.  A loss doesn’t put me in a bad mood even for a moment.  I’ve been known to offer my concession early in a game when luck has seemingly abandoned me.  I congratulate others who played better than I did.  My mother would be so proud!!

The real question is what do we do when things don’t go our way?  As children we may have screamed and stomped and carried on, often becoming inconsolable for a time. Our parents’ hope and plan was that we would grow out of such behavior and learn other ways of coping.

There are adults in our world who throw temper tantrums when things don’t work out for them.  They may not cry but I’ve winessed shouting, abusive language, fist banging, threats, and worse.  You’ve seen such behavior yourself.

So what makes the difference?

I’ve pondered this question for years and have come to only one conclusion. Children copy the behavior they live with.  The adults set the pattern and the children follow along.

Dr. Phil often says that people behave in a particular way because there is a payoff for them.  If my parents had given in to my temper tantrums by fixing the game so I would win, I would still be behaving the same way today. In my family a temper tantrum never got me anything except a miserable time in my room.  Eventually I learned to take my game losses in stride, though I’ve never lost my desire to win.

We need to be mindful of the children in our lives.  They watch what we do and copy our behavior.  Our job is to teach them to cope with the difficulties and the unfairness that life dishes out — to all of us.

Until next Tuesday . . .


August Pool Ponderings

Most mornings I swim laps at the pool.  For some reason I can’t really explain, I’ve always liked to swim laps.

Thirty minutes.  Every morning.  It works for me.

The gift of swimming is that it gives me pondering time.  Some of my friends say I already ponder too much, but they’ve gotten used to me.

Today I was thinking about how unnatural swimming is for us humans.  We are not meant to live or breathe in the water.  We’re not made to do that — we’re not like salmon or whales or jellyfish or clams.

I’ve been wondering who figured out that we humans could swim?  Why did they think it was a good idea?  Perhaps it was necessary . . . How long did it take them to create an efficient stroke that actually propelled them through the water?

Left stroke. Right stroke. Breathe. Left Stroke. Right stroke. Breathe.

I learned to swim at the local pool when I was a kid. As a beginner I didn’t believe the water would actually support me. “Relax,” the instructor said, “just relax.”  Way easier said than done. Eventually I got it. By the time I was a teenager my goal was to swim a mile.  I calculated the length of the pool and determined how many laps constituted a mile. By the end of the summer I was successful.

Left stroke. Right stroke. Breathe. Left Stroke. Right stroke. Breathe.

Perhaps we’re not meant to live in the water.  But we’ve adapted to swimming and breathing and have the ability to travel great distances. And we swim for our own reasons:  fun, exercise, iron man competitions, relaxation.

Left stroke. Right stroke. Breathe. Left Stroke. Right stroke. Breathe.

The water sloshes in my ears and I see my exhalation bubbles. My body stretches to take another stroke.  My feet move continuously in their own rhythm.  The water bids me to relax, to glide effortlessly though its chillness.

Left stroke. Right stroke. Breathe. Left Stroke. Right stroke. Breathe.

Water is not my natural environment. Nor is flying in the sky. Or living in India. Or driving solo 8,000 miles around the country.

Here’s what I’ve learned in my swimming and flying and driving:

Relax into the experience. Find your rhythm. Trust. Breathe.

Until next Tuesday . . .



An Epic Finished

Last February I wrote An Epic Beginning about choosing to read a very long book, The Far Pavilions. At that time I had read some 400 pages of the 1135.

I made no promises of when I would finish.  The reading was put on hold for a month because of cataract surgery.  Then, while the book was sitting in plain view for weeks, I just didn’t get back to it — though I never forgot my commitment to finish it.

I can now report that I finished the book.  The intrigue of India, bandits, treks across India, princes and princesses and principalities, swords and battles, deserts  and monsoons and impossible mountains, horses and elephants, and ancient customs and rituals were enough to keep me interested to the very end.

Reading a very long book may be a no-brainer for you, but for me it was a huge accomplishment.  Exclamations of, “I did it! I did it!”  filled my morning of completion.

My question now is: What’s next?

There are more epics on my bookshelf, some I started long ago, some never opened.  I could opt for a short quick read before I tackle another long one.  What I know for sure is that I am no longer put off by weighty tomes.

I’ve been thinking about other epics in my life — some I completed, some I abandoned. For me, an epic is anything that I have shied away from because it seemed overwhelming, too difficult, beyond my abilities, or would require more commitment than I was willing to give.  Sometimes I am fearful and afraid of a particular venture.

When I think about my own epics I remember arriving at college, sending a child off to kindergarten and college and first job, making a recipe that looked exactly like the cookbook picture, framing my original watercolor creation, playing a piano recital for friends, learning to knit, training for the Peace Corps, forging a life in a new location.  Of course, there are more epics.  Once I start the recall process, many completions come to mind.

What about you?  What epics have you completed? What hurdles have you surpassed in spite of your fears, doubts, and reservations?  What have you done that you didn’t believe you could accomplish?

And what about the epics you have left uncompleted?  Are there some that need to be laid to rest?  Are there some that are waiting for you to continue your journey with them?

The challenge of epics is two-fold.  First, you have to begin (show up and do the work).  Second, you have to move on when a particular epic is finished.

Until next Tuesday . . .