Hearing and listening
You know, I hear everything . . . but am I listening? Life is busy, chaotic, filled with Facebook messages and texts and tweets. Our phones are always at our elbows, glowing and flashing and beeping: an endless stream of information.
I hear, see and read plenty — but what am I really taking in?
Long before cellphones became cemented to our palms, my mother had a trick for getting our undivided attention: start the engine. If you need to have a serious conversation, she’d say, wait until you’re in the car.
There’s no walking away, no skirting or avoiding a topic. Your passenger can’t distract themselves — or you — with television or chores. There’s nothing to do but hash it out and come to a decision. Just time and space.
Mom’s advice comes back to me often. Many a relationship has strengthened or disintegrated in a vehicle. With a captive audience, we can voice our concerns . . . or share the tender words we might not otherwise feel confident enough to say. Eyes must stay on the road, after all.
The car is actually my happy place. I’ve always loved driving. The early days were nerve-wracking, of course; I remember leaving the MVA with my new license feeling like a fraud. How could the state consider me a legal driver? I mean, a log book and one hardly seemed like enough to my credit.
But I’d done it. Alone for the first time as I trailed my dad and sister home, that first sweet taste of freedom snuck up on me. After 16 years, I still love it.
Driving is freeing. Relaxing. With the windows down and a favorite song cranked up? That’s close to euphoria for me.
Traffic is another beast, of course. I see the side-eye you’re giving me, thinking of your dreadful commutes, and I get it. But on the good days? Those sunny, clear, bright and aimless days? There’s nothing I love more than a long afternoon and empty highway.
Now that enjoyment is heavily impacted by my littlest passenger, of course. Co-pilots and conspirators have evolved from high school buddies to boyfriends to kiddos — but like his mother, thankfully, Oliver loves a good drive. In fact, it’s pretty much the only way we can sneak in a solid nap.
The true test is coming, though.
In a few weeks, we’ll be making the eight-hour trip to New York to visit our Johnson family — some for the first time. This is not a drill.
At least the drive and location are familiar. I went to the Buffalo area with Spencer as his new girlfriend in 2010. We flew that first trip, but most that followed have found us shoulder-to-shoulder in Spencer’s car with the whole of Pennsylvania rushing past us.
We chat on these drives: about the past and future, everything and nothing. In our dating days, especially, eight hours in the car together seemed fun. Romantic, even. I remember bringing along a list of “get to know your boyfriend better!”-types of questions, and they were funny and illuminating.
In long relationships, conversation can get harder — but those talks are still important. And it’s not just a significant other that could benefit from the warmth of our attention.
My colleagues and I ask questions for a living, listening and intently noting others’ responses. But I can be guilty of not extending that same attention to my husband, family and friends.
It’s easy to hear . . . but are we listening?
This long weekend, think about someone in your life who could use an ear. A quote from the classic “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” — a film favorite — comes back to me: “Everybody wants to be seen . . . and heard.” A few to get you started: • What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment to date? Your biggest disappointment?
• What is one quality you really admire(d) about your parents? What do you hope your children will admire about you?
• What musician, living or dead, would you love to see in concert?
• How did you get your first job? Do you remember how you spent your first paycheck?
• Where have you traveled, and what city do you love best? Where would you like to go next?
Whether you’re setting out on a road trip, crashing on the couch or gathered for fireworks, create a conversation this holiday weekend — in real time. No Twitter polls, Facebook feeds or emojis. Talk about the old days. Bring up family stories. Drag out yearbooks and faded snapshots. Get caught up in the details.
It can be hard to listen. I’m as guilty as anyone.
But when we do, it’s amazing what we’ll hear.