“Pardon me for talking while you’re interrupting.”
This snarky comment was often used in my family of origin as a verbal jab, an aggressive reminder to listen. We were a large, boisterous, loud family of story-tellers and attention-seekers.
One of my father’s favorite phrases was “Stop flapping your jaw and listen once in awhile. You might learn something.” He had a particular conversational style. It was somewhat akin to being on a witness stand. He was interested in the facts. What kind of car do you drive? What’s the mileage? Does it need lots of repairs? What exactly do you do for a job? How long have you had it? And so forth.
He listened carefully, remembered everything and stored it away in his mental file cabinet. To him talking and listening meant the exchange of information and facts.
I must have listened to Miles Davis’ SO WHAT fifty times in Professor Goodman’s jazz appreciation course.
It was one of those January interim course things that happened at my liberal arts college. It was the sort of thing that was an anathema to my blue- collar family; you are paying tuition to sit around and listen to music?
We sat in that classroom focusing on musical lines, the cohesion of the instruments, where they came together and where they deviated, the haunting sound of the trumpet, the expectations created and then re-arranged. The pain and anguish and joy in those notes and the way they were shaded. We discussed these things as individuals in the class.
The students were from all part of the college; from physics majors to painters to football players. Hearing what others felt and experienced added to the wonder of that one piece of music and expanded to all of the music we heard during those four weeks. It was an intensely emotional experience and changed the way I listen forever.
A beloved friend called the other day to let me know she had a cancer diagnosis. This after two years of multiple surgeries and other health challenges. There were doctors to contact, tests to undergo, schedules to change and a whole panoply of decisions to be made. Facts to uncover. And underneath, a raging river of fear, anger, sadness.
Focusing on facts would quiet my own beating heart and silence the alarm bells ringing in my own head. But I realized she didn’t need advice in that moment. What she needed was someone to help absorb her fear, to share some of the burden of her pain, to allow her to feel without judgement.
I don’t always listen with a whole heart. Just ask my husband. I flap my jaw indiscriminately. I interrupt.
But there is a jazz club on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village called, aptly, Small’s. The cover is minimal. But one rule is sacrosanct: no talking while the musicians are playing. You are there to listen.
Kate Fuglei is an actress and singer who divides her time between Studio City and Brooklyn. She has appeared in over forty episodes of television, including most recently in one of the first episodes of STAR TREK/PICARD. She is a published author with two novels based on the lives of the physicist Enrico Fermi and the educator Maria Montessori. The greatest blessing in her life is her marriage to writer Ken LaZebnik and her two sons, Jack LaZebnik and Ben LaZebnik. They inspire her every single day.
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