Listen. Do you want to know a secret?
In the summer of 1995, I left home for the first time. It wasn’t like I ran away. I was only on that awkward cusp of adolescence between the very worst of my gawky-tweens and the only less horrific time we call high school. No, my first taste of freedom came via “college.” For five glorious weeks, I was enrolled at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff as an undergrad in a National Science Foundation camp called “Summer of Science.”
It was a good summer. I had a really sweet roommate, I sent and received a ton of snail mail, and I learned quite a bit about myself. I found out that yes, I COULD get a tan (a particularly impressive farmer’s tan, but a tan nonetheless). I verified quickly something I’d suspected all along—that scientific field research is not my cup of tea. That’s nothing against people who actually WANT to study fish habitats in the blistering Arizona heat, but I’ll take a pass, thanks! More significantly, I learned about the magic of hot rollers and how they could transform my unruly mop of hair into a mane Rapunzel would covet.
One of my most vivid memories came during the end-of-year awards ceremony, when our counselors gave out superlative certificates. Want to know what I got? “Most likely to host a talk show.”
Here’s the thing—I’ve got this reputation for talking too much, but I don’t think it’s entirely deserved, and frankly, I find the term “too much” rather offensive, particularly because I generally have something useful to say! Can it really be too much when my words impart invaluable wisdom, accurate information, and comfort to all those within the sound of my voice? I’m only kidding. I totally acknowledge it’s true.
The thing is, the counselors were right about my most-suited vocation, but I’m guessing it was for the wrong reasons. While I DO generally have plenty to say, the thing that really would qualify me for stepping into Oprah’s shoes and Sally Jessy’s glasses is actually something else entirely. It’s because for whatever reason, people like to TELL me things. And when I say people, I actually mean strangers.
I don’t know what it is exactly. Maybe my neutral facial expression is sympathetic. Maybe it’s because I’m friendly enough to say hello in the grocery store aisle or make small talk whilst waiting in the long lines at Wal-Mart.
Once I was with my mom in Costco. We’d taken a detour down the small-appliance aisle, cruising for wedding gifts. Though we didn’t see anything that really fit the bill, we did see a woman considering a purchase. I don’t even remember what the item was, but I think I made an offhand comment like, “Oh, I really like mine.” She asked me to explain. I waved my mom on to indicate I’d catch up in a moment. The next thing I knew, I was scrolling through her smart phone, looking at pictures of her kitchen remodel, and weighing in on which tile she should choose. It was clear to me which one SHE liked better, so I told her to go with her gut. She hugged me and thanked me, and told me this was the anniversary of her son’s death.
I’m glad I was in the right place at the right time for her, and I don’t regret a moment I spent listening, but the occurrence wasn’t singular. And it’s not always just someone needing a listening ear. Generally, these strangers want me to intervene.
I’ve been the deciding vote on colors for clothes and bedding when couples can’t agree. After mailing a couple of packages, a postmaster offered me a job. I turned him down, but he asked me for recommendations of possible employees. A man at Sunday’s nativity display told me all about his disappointing son—that the son wasn’t married, couldn’t keep a job, was struggling through law school, etc. I ended up with the father’s card. About a week and a half ago at the Dillard’s Estee Lauder counter, the saleslady asked me about helping her track down a piece of WWII memorabilia (a vest made out of an army blanket, from a concentration camp victim to a soldier that had somehow made it to Poland through a shady rabbi—whew! Breathe!), all while confessing how she’s been breaking Shabbat for years because she always has to work on Saturdays.
Sometimes the confessions are silly, sometimes they are sad. They frequently make me uncomfortable, but then I remember talking to me is certainly cheaper than them paying for therapy, so I oblige. I’ve learned to get pretty good at listening without judgment, though sometimes I do suggest the confessor go talk to his or her bishop or priest (or Rabbi, as the case may be). I don’t seek them out, but I keep their secrets for them. They’re filed away somewhere in my subconscious where they won’t leak out and hurt or embarrass anyone.
Blame it on social media—we’ve all been conditioned to tell close friends as well as practical strangers way more than they actually want to hear (don’t think I consider myself exempt—this blog is evidence enough to convict me). But maybe, sometimes, folks just need to tell a real person whatever is on their mind. Maybe I’m inviting, or perhaps, I’m not so special. Maybe I’m just available to listen.