All of this listening

By Naseem Hrab

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It was hard to write this column. Like everyone else, I’m all for trying to grasp at normalcy where I can, but I don’t have many writing tips to share right now. (Actually, I do have one writing tip: Eat a bowl of ice cream.)  As we all know, every one of us responds to a crisis differently and while we can freely judge each other’s coping mechanisms (“How can you eat ice cream at a time like this?” “How can you not eat ice cream at time like this?”), all we can really do is take each day minute by minute and hour by hour in our own way.

For those of us who rely on writing to get us through the stress of a normal week and to give us a sense of purpose, it can be hard to find that this outlet isn’t readily accessible to us during these times. Maybe it’s all but disappeared in some sort of existential haze. (I mean, could I ever really write?) But maybe, we should release ourselves from any expectations, except for staying inside. Maybe now’s not the time to write. Maybe now is the time to listen.

Back in January, I gave some presentations to kindergarten and grade one students. At the end of the presentations, I asked the students if they had any questions for me. Several kids raised their hands.

“My cousin’s name is Elizabeth.”

“I like The Little Mermaid. There’s a scary witch in it.”

“I have a question, Naseem: I really like to draw pictures with my dad. And I have another question: My dad is an engineer.”

None of the kids had questions for me. After listening to me prattle on about myself and my books for thirty minutes, they finally and unabashedly had the opportunity to share a bit about themselves. I loved hearing what they had to say. And I hated that it hadn’t occurred to me to invite them to share their thoughts with me. Blargh.

Since that moment in the classroom, I’d been trying to work towards being a better listener, but I hadn’t been doing the best job. Sometimes, I’d think I was too busy: Must rush to next meeting. Must respond to emails. Can’t talk. Other times, I would leave my phone alone, slow down and really try to be there for the person talking to me—and it was nice. My efforts would come in fits and starts. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize that there are other things more important than, well, yourself and the noise around you.

And now, during this especially confusing and challenging time, my resolve to be a better listener is finally getting stronger. I’m genuinely finding that it is helping me cope. I’m trying to really listen when I ask my friends and family how they’re doing, instead of accepting “Oh, you know” as an answer. I’m trying to write more meaningful responses and questions to texts and emails, instead of dashing off terse ones. I’m not really one to listen to music or audiobooks, but I’m trying to explore genres I’d never normally seek out. I am enjoying listening to this sweet start of spring and the birds chirping when I open my windows. I’m trying to listen the news so that I’m aware of what’s going on, but not so much that it consumes me. I’m also trying to listen more to my body. When do I need to move and when do I need to rest? I’m also hearing myself laugh more and loudly at, well, anyone and anything that will make me laugh (If a Naseem laughs in her condo and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes, and it’s deafening.). I’ve really been trying to listen to my heart and mind and it made me realize that, yes, indeed, I do need to maintain my weekly therapy sessions. And I’ve also been taking in the silence.

I feel lucky to be doing all of this listening.

I’m hopeful, that in this impossible-seeming situation, where I am feeling so powerless, actively finding a way to make deeper connections with everything around me might provide a small bit of purpose. So, even though I haven’t been writing much as of late, it’s comforting to be able to return to the act that is really at the core of it all.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Naseem Hrab is the author of the picture books Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend and Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings, illustrated by Josh Holinaty. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Sometimes Naseem likes to get up on a stage and tell true stories. She loves improv and coffee ice cream.

She worked as a librarian for a time and currently works in children's publishing.