When I was a small child, my mother made certain I called my godmother to thank her for the gifts she gave me. Aunt Frances always gave me a piece of my silver pattern, her generous gifts a bit lost on me at the time. My stomach tightened up like a rubber band ball as I picked up the phone to call her each and every July, after the birthday gift arrived. I stalled and delayed, until Mother prompted me one final time to make that call.

Aunt Frances had a severe speech impediment. It manifested itself with long periods of silence between words. Rather than stuttering, she spoke slowly with long pauses. Elizabeth would be followed by what seemed like a five minute period of dead air on our marigold kitchen wall-phone with the six foot cord. (It was the ‘60s and it was the South.) After Elizabeth, she would say, you’re. And then eventually, welcome, honey, would make its way out.

My stomach tight and tense, we would always get through my thank you’s. This was an important childhood lesson. Being forced to listen. In love. With patience. My tendency is always to talk rather than listen. My nature is to dive in and speak, add something, fill the silence, contribute something to the conversation. Add my story to yours. (As if your story isn’t worthy to stand alone on its own.) And if we are having a conversation, there is a strong likelihood that I will interrupt you.

French philosopher Simone Weil wrote: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” When I give you my time and my attention, when I plant myself in the moment and intentionally place myself into the middle of your words, I am displaying hospitality. And I am expressing and giving love. I am your guest. Your words are my host.

My learning curve is steep, but I am finally learning that love listens. It listens long and hard and well. Love hushes its own words to embrace the words of others. It mutes the noise of self in an act of self-less listening. Paul Tillich wrote: “The first duty of love is to listen.” If this is true, or worthy of consideration, then we would do well to listen more, listen longer and linger over the words of each other.

We gathered as a family recently. Cousins upon cousins. People piled high in grief. My finger to my mouth, I pressed my lips, coaching them to be silent. There were stories to net. Words to linger among. Joy and sadness intermingled; emotions cried out to be honored in the listening. I wanted to speak, but each time I waited, I learned some hidden secret, story or heart-cry of another.

Love walks beside, not in front of. Love holds space in the quiet, listening to the fountain of fear and pain, delight and despair, hope and exuberance of others. I believe we are at risk of becoming tone deaf to others. Do I feel so entitled to speak and be heard, to voice my opinion, that I do it at any cost, by any means? Am I at risk of stepping on my neighbor’s toes by stepping on my neighbor’s words?

If love is patient and kind, is it only patient and kind when it is convenient? When it is not emotion charged. When the stakes are not high and when the topic does not involve faith, culture or politics. If you join me around my table, I am my happiest when the conversation is spirited, boisterous and a little bit loud. I love to hear passion and lots of voices; the voices of my family and friends. I eat up your stories as I dine at my own table.

But if and when I have the discipline to be still, to hush my heart and bite my tongue, I honor you by really listening to you. By hearing you. You teach me in your telling. You show me, guide me, school me, by way of your story. I become the student, the “sitter at your feet.” And often, I am loving you by listening to you. Giving you a chance to pour out what has been pressed down and stopped up. What has yearned for a long long while to find the light of day. To find an audience. To find a friendly landing pad.

Intimacy, friendship and relationships are deepened through the act of actively listening. Love is in the middle, love is the tether, love is the bond.

Perhaps the best way for me to listen more keenly is to prompt myself with a finger to my lips. Hush, Elizabeth. Hush. Others are speaking now. Maybe inviting others to go first, to tell their stories, to tell the hard truth, maybe this is love. Around the table, around the corner, around the world, on social media and in our homes. Loves takes a seat and listens.

My godmother died recently. I saw her at a funeral a little over a year ago, just months before she died. I believe her stutter or stammer, her impediment had mostly healed over the years. She was in a wheelchair, yet so full of life and love and graciousness. Well-loved and well-liked, it is likely that she taught many of us to slow down in love, to slow down to listen.

I feel the nervousness of my little girl self relaxing now as I remember those difficult phone calls. I remind myself now, as then, it is well to listen well. Hush, someone is speaking. Hush, someone is hungry for love. Perhaps we can be the people of the lender of the ear. The listener to the broken-hearted.

Our momentary silence, their salve. Our actions speaking much louder than our words.

Elizabeth Marshall / Posts / Blog
Elizabeth Wynne Marshall is a writer, poet, blogger. A lover of grace & the sea she spends her days living and writing out the beautiful ordinary in a life lived by the sea. Her words may be found at her writing home, elizabeth w. marshall, poetry & prose through a lens of grace. On twitter & instagram, she is @graceappears.
  • H

    Very poetic words, very beautifully written.

    February 6th, 2017 8:08
    • Elizabeth W. Marshall

      Thank you for being here today. For listening, reading and for sharing your own thoughts. I am grateful for your encouragement. And for your presence here. Thank you for hearing poetry. That is always a gift, that there would be a little poetry in the lines of my heart. So glad to have you joining us here at GraceTable.

      February 6th, 2017 10:03
  • Sarah

    So wise, Elizabeth. Thank you for this message

    February 6th, 2017 8:17
    • Elizabeth W. Marshall

      Sarah, you are the dearest. I love being at the table with you. Thank you for reading. What a gift to know you did. Love and peace and grace to you today.

      February 6th, 2017 10:05
  • Meredith Bernard

    Your words are always spot on, Elizabeth – and these are no different. Like salve to a weary soul, really. Weary of not taking the time to listen as I should. Thank you for this gift this morning. <3

    February 6th, 2017 9:21
    • Elizabeth W. Marshall

      Meredith, thank you for walking this lesson out with me. For hearing me, responding to me and having a place in your soul for this tension. One between hearing well, holding a place in a conversation with respect and love and knowing when to speak and when to listen. I have much to learn. Thank you for your warm spirit here and always. Let’s listen well together, shall we. Let’s hold each other account. I love that you are here today. Blessings on your day.

      February 6th, 2017 12:05
  • Mary

    I have no words, Elizabeth…maybe I’m learning from you? This is beautiful, just lovely. Thank you for the reminder to listen and wait before speaking.

    February 6th, 2017 10:50
    • Elizabeth W. Marshall

      Mary, the kindest of words. Thank you friend for your gracious generosity of spirit. For taking time to listen and read. And to encourage me on this journey of listening and writing. You’re a gift. Let’s listen well together. Love to you.

      February 6th, 2017 12:12
  • Susan Mulder

    Simply beautiful. Thank you.

    February 6th, 2017 12:18
  • Elizabeth W. Marshall

    Susan, quite simply…thank you. For hearing, reading, joining, sitting beside and journeying with me. Your words are the sweetest of gifts. Bless your art today and all your very own writing. Listening with you today, ewm

    February 6th, 2017 12:47
  • Beverly Dukes

    This really convicted me this morning, because I am guilty of not listening well, interrupting–I think more because I want to share my thoughts before I forget them, but there’s even pride in that. I needed this reminder and am sharing with the friends that I interrupt, hoping they will help keep me accountable to listen actively. Thank you!

    February 6th, 2017 14:43
    • Elizabeth W. Marshall

      Beverly, so happy to have you here at the table with us. I am always eager to speak so that I connect with people and so that I don’t forget my words, my thoughts, my input on the subject. But listening well brings joy. I am learning. So slowly. I learn when I listen. And I bring a gift. The gift of a present and attentive soul. I am preaching to myself here friend. Thank you for taking time to listen to me. And for responding. Love and peace and grace to you today.

      February 7th, 2017 10:19
  • Gina

    What beautiful–and true–words. What a graceful challenge, and wise words to heed. Thank you for sharing.

    February 6th, 2017 18:41
    • Elizabeth Marshall

      Gina, it’s such a treat to have you here at GraceTable. Please come back again and again. It’s always a treat to have readers take a moment to reply, respond and contribute to the conversation. Grateful for you. Blessings, e

      February 13th, 2017 16:19
  • Theresa

    Thanks for your reminder that real love is listening and letting others speak first. So much wisdom in this piece. My dad used to say, “So many people are lonely because no one listens to them. And that is one thing I can do for them.” He was a good listener. Slow to speak.

    February 6th, 2017 22:48
    • Elizabeth Marshall

      Theresa, what a wise Daddy. I struggle with listening well. But I want to. And yes it is a simple gift we can give. Being heard is such a longing of the soul. Thank you for listening to my words here and to responding. I’m so very grateful. Peace and grace to you, Elizabeth

      February 13th, 2017 16:21
  • Michele Morin

    Thanks for the Simone Weil quote which is coming to me right on the heels of reading Mary Oliver’s words: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
    May we practice the deep hospitality of paying attention to God and to those we love.

    February 7th, 2017 9:55
    • Elizabeth W. Marshall

      Michele, I love that Mary Oliver quote. In fact I have loved it for a long while. Isn’t it lovely. Yes, yes, let’s pay attention to God and to those we love. Therein lies the practice of deep and abiding hospitality. Thank you for joining me at the table and for sharing a quote from one of my favorite poets. I am reading her newest book, her selection of essays, now. She is a gift.

      February 7th, 2017 15:41

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