The Listener

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

An open ear to hear your story.   
The ones who come see this small, handwritten sign sitting next to me on the broken pavement.
For two days I listen to their stories.  I rarely feel a desire or responsibility to speak.  To be there is enough; it is the thing they all need. 

Some of them tell stories that make them smile or laugh; more people find themselves crying as they force out labored words.  They are overwhelmed by memories they’ve tried to repress.  Some of them feel relieved and unchained from these painful thoughts they’ve suffocated in their deepest corners.  Some of them regret bringing up the things they wish hadn’t happened.
I wait to cry until they’ve walked out of sight.
The first woman who approaches is hesitant. It is this way for most of them.  Few people are bold or desperate enough to tell their personal story to a stranger on the street.  She walks over slowly, eyeing me.  She asks, “May I?”, and gestures toward the ground beside me.  I nod and she sits, sighs, and begins speaking.
She tells me about her brother, who developed schizophrenia in his early adulthood.  She tells me about her best friend, who was murdered in an act of senseless and unnecessary violence.  She tells me of her children, and I see her smile for the first time.  She tells me about her uncle and his car accident.  At last, she stops talking and looks me in the eyes.
I speak for the first time. “What about you?  Don’t you have a story?”

Her expression is strange.  At last she replies.  “I suppose I don’t have a story any more.  I’ve become a compilation of the people I know.”
She smiles sadly, stands up, and walks away.
There is a younger man later that day who approaches and sits without hesitation.  He doesn’t ask me a single question or wait a single moment.  He begins his story and barely pauses for breath until every word is out in the air, waiting for response. 
He was orphaned at age two.  He lived with relatives, all of whom ignored him.  He was deemed brilliant by his teacher, but was never allowed to pass to higher grades or be challenged in school because his relatives didn’t believe that someone so quiet at home could truly be a genius.  They called him a liar.
He finished high school at fifteen and ran away from the home he was living in at the time.  He spent three years staying with friends before buying his own place at eighteen and starting to look for real work.  He was brilliant, broke, and he’d never been more alone.
“You’re the first person I’ve spoken to this week.” he tells me.
He thanks me several times and leaves.
A woman in her fifties talks to me while she eats her lunch.  She tells me about her three failed marriages.  “The first two”, she said, “were for love.”  By the third she had given up on the notion and chose a man who could offer her stability.  He was enamored with her and she assumed it would stick.
“As it turns out, the image of me is shattered the minute I say ‘I do’.  It’s my curse, I suppose.”

I ask where she is living and she responds quietly that she’s staying in the basement of her first ex-husband.
I meet a man who talks about how tired he is for five minutes, apologizes, and leaves.  I meet a young girl and her mother, who tells me her husband is on a twelve month tour of duty.  I speak to a man who tells me about each time he was arrested and cries as he says that he felt more at home in prison.  An old woman stops only to ask for the time. A therapist stops to ask why I’m doing this and a homeless man sits with me for an hour, silently.  He won’t tell his story; he only needs the company.
An elderly man shuffles past with a young nurse clutching his arm.  He pauses to squint at my sign and says, “You want to hear my story?  I’m the loneliest man in the world, and I can no longer remember the time when I wasn’t.”
I cry every time a storyteller walks away. I’m startled by their lives and by their honesty.  I’m startled by these brief connections with faces in the crowd that can disappear just as quickly as they arrived.   More than anything, I’m startled by the fact that at the end of two days I realize I never even knew my own story.

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