This past November, I was traveling from Denver, making a connection from Salt Lake City to Portland. While I waited for my flight to Portland, an older man sat next to me and started a conversation. I put down my New Yorker and listened to him. I asked him his name—Ken Webster. I had a hard time hearing the way he said Ken. Turns out Ken was from a small city outside of Memphis called Bartlett, which explains why my Yankee ear didn’t discern his Southern accent so well.
Coincidentally, Bartlett, Tennessee is the place where, many years ago, I first heard an authentic Southern accent. There are things that I learned back then, and there are things that I learned from Ken, but first I want you to listen to a few things that I have to say.
Since I was a little kid, seemingly out of the blue, people have stopped me to tell me interesting things about themselves. More often than not, people told me the story of their lives. People have told me things that I’ve sworn to secrecy and I can’t share. Even my hair stylists talk to me about what is going on in their lives. (It’s not the other way around.)
I have no idea why I inspire such confidence. I thought maybe people tell me about their lives because somehow they have intuited that I am a writer looking for a good story. Then I realized people talked to me because I actually listen to them.
Most of us don’t listen so well. We are so busy thinking about what we want to say next that we get hung up on our own schmaltzy selfish needs. The protocol for listening is both easy and hard. Try looking someone in the eye and asking: how are you doing? (That’s the easy part.) When the person responds… Listen. Hear. Pay Attention. Keep your mouth shut. (That’s the hard part.)
When we listen to someone, we make them feel respected. Listening to someone can also help to heal a broken heart. If we stop and think about it, listening is a gift. It might be the most important gift we can give because it is indeed a gift, for which we do not expect anything in return. There is no greater gift we can give someone than the chance to be heard.
As for Ken Webster, I learned that Bartlett, Tennessee is rich in history. Bartlett was a lone stagecoach stop by the 1830s. Bartlett is also darn close to I-40, part of the corridor I drove through when I was twenty-one, traveling across country. Ken also told me about the experimental heart therapies that have prolonged his life. Heart disease runs in Ken’s family and everyone died young. Twelve years ago Ken had a heart transplant. He felt as though his own life, living well into his seventies, was a gift.
Ken and his wife are licensed pilots who fly their own planes all over the country. Ken was flying to Portland to meet his wife, who was flying back from Alaska after judging a dog show. Ken and his wife took up flying thirty years ago. Oh, and one other thing, Ken has written a book that is coming out in 2024 called Flying With the Wings of God.
Ken and I didn’t talk about politics or religion, and frankly, I don’t care to have a conversation like that with anyone right now. I’d rather show what I believe by how I conduct my own life. Listening to Ken told me what I already knew about myself: I listen because it is a gift I am willing to give.