Are you a listener? I am. I didn’t plan to be one. I guess my status as a listener evolved over years of being a shy child. It’s not that I don’t like listening. I find people’s stories interesting. There are endlessly fascinating things to hear, to learn, when people speak. I’m often surprised by the things they tell me, their deepest secrets given up so easily.
Listening isn’t just about words, is it? Sometimes it’s about listening to the tone of voice and understanding the emotion. Sometimes there’s so much subtext, so much to notice beneath the words. I listened to someone speaking very confidently just the other night and thought that what they were really articulating was need and self-doubt.
I’ve been listening to the soothing sounds of recorded rain to get to sleep lately. For most of this week I’ve been hearing Fleetwood Mac’s gorgeous Songbird in my head as I’ve gone about my everyday business. Today I’ve enjoyed listening to Kate Bush’s crisp diction on the beautifully recorded Hounds of Love album. And the burbling, bubbling splutter of the coffee pot on the stove has made me smile.
As I started writing this, I realised that for 30 years my work has been about listening. This is probably a weird admission to make, but I do enjoy the challenge of playing and replaying a piece of audio, isolating different channels on the recording until I get exactly what’s being said. A colleague once told me I was the best listener they knew. In another job, someone called me “Lynx” (after the pointy-eared cat, not the brand of deodorant…I hope!) Someone even wrote me a letter once praising the quality of my listening.
It is a tiring occupation, though, listening. Last year, for example, I didn’t have the emotional space to listen to people. There was so much talking. It was exhausting. I had to switch off my listening skills and withdraw a bit. I still need to from time to time. That’s upset a couple of people.
And sometimes I want to do the talking but I don’t get the chance to or I feel out of practice or unable to say what I really want to say. Perhaps that’s why I write. It’s a way of telling the stories I want to tell or saying the things I want to say. After so many years of listening, it’s become easier to express myself through the written word.
Lately there’s been another kind of listening going on. I’ve been listening through dance. I signed up for another dance class, in addition to tango. It’s a kind of freeform dance, no set steps, just listening to the music, listening to the way the body wants to move to it. In our overly structured world, with all its layers of etiquette, it’s so freeing to step outside the expected patterns of behaviour and just dance. Sometimes it feels a little crazy to do that. At the first class I did occasionally think, “This is a bit bonkers!” But I still did it. The energy and connection in the room were rather wonderful. And almost no words were spoken.
That dance class led me to this exquisite short film. This is what it feels like, I think, when you listen to your own heart and express it in dance. So I’ll keep listening to all the stories people want to tell me, and most of the time I’ll love hearing them. But from now on I’m always going to make a little space for a different kind of listening.