My friend recently told me about weekly visits with her aged father-in-law in a lock-down dementia ward. Her husband thanks her profusely for going, but she admitted to me that she goes as much for herself as for the old man. “I’ll go to England with him,” she says. “I ask him what we’re going to see and he takes the lead. Or some days we just talk about how good the banana tastes. It’s kind of a blessing to be with him in his world, rather than racing around in the big world.”
Listening to that, I suddenly understood the guilty pleasure of reading in a whole new way: as a reader, I can take that trip to England, or step into a parallel universe of wondrous creatures, or ponder the secret lives of paper clips. I can be breathless with new love, I can weep over terrible loss, I can be lit up by alliteration.
What’s common to my friend’s experience and mine? We have to press pause and withdraw, even for just a bit, from the commotion and demands. We have to turn our faces toward the story and really let it lead.
It’s not that easy. My life is like most others’ I know: I ping around in a constellation of people who matter a lot to me, navigating schedules and obligations and egos (my own and theirs). When I find quiet, I try to push through the list of tasks that self-seeds relentlessly. It takes an effort, sometimes a Herculean effort, to press pause.
There’s another aspect to this anecdote, though. When my friend visits that old man, she willingly and intentionally goes where he leads her. She turns her focus away from the world she inhabits and places it in his world—she pays attention. Again I think of reading: a sentence here and a sentence there won’t give you the feel of a story. You have to give it some real attention in order to get any payout. All art is like that. Paintings, dance, film—you have to turn your attention toward them before they will share their riches.
When retired Chief Justice Patrick LeSage was asked the hardest thing about being a judge, he laughed and said, “Listening!” Being really present to another’s story requires intense focus, but it also requires releasing yourself from your preconceptions of who they are, who you are, and what is worthy of your attention. Paying attention requests you to assume another point of view, experience another reality. I really believe that mastering that skill increases our powers of empathy and compassion, and moves us forward with more wisdom.
When my friend lets her old father-in-law lead, she is respecting his reality, and engaging with him in ways that animate them both. Together, they improvise a conversation, a meaningful, humane exchange—and they are having fun. That’s the kind of play I see in jazz musicians or in an improv troupe. It’s a mix of discipline and surrender.
As the new calendar year tips into motion, I am entertaining one simple resolution: to be present and engaged more, and missing in action less. Anyone up for a trip?