Shy

When I was in elementary school, my teachers described me as “shy.” A few of them commented that I was “creative” and “smart.” It’s strange how these adjectives for character traits came to shape how I perceived and pegged myself, and I suppose I’m not alone in this. I considered creativity to be something positive and smartness a little daunting, but I felt ambivalence around the term shy. In the 1960s, shyness could be an admired trait among girls because it meant we were not disruptive. But I didn’t think that was all so wonderful, when the children I admired were often loud and funny. While teachers might have appreciated shyness in a pupil, children tended to think me nerdy or, worse, standoffish and snobby. Shy was not much of a compliment.

shy (adj.) late Old English sceoh “timid, easily startled, shrinking from contact with others,” from Proto-Germanic *skeukh(w)az “afraid” (source also of Middle Low German schüwe, Dutch schuw, German scheu “shy;” Old High German sciuhen, German scheuchen “to scare away”).

Online Etymology Dictionary

Hence the metaphor of the shrinking violet, the wallflower. I was fond of plants, but I did not necessarily want to be one. The introverted, reflective young person is seldom socially popular in the USA, and my budding self-confidence took a hit in the public school environment. Was I really timid and easily frightened–or was I just dreamy, bookish, unconventionally funny, skinny, tall, bespectacled, and not particularly socially adept?

Elena Elisseeva, Spring Violets @ fineartamerica.com

One trait I developed as a shy child was a capacity to listen to others. I wanted to hear their stories, their points of view, their silly songs, their big ideas. What I regret is that later on, when I gained some self-confidence and began telling my own tales or dispersing acquired knowledge and advice, I lost some of my listening ability. It took hard work and practice on my part to feel secure when speaking to groups, and I started with the hardest practice: reading my own poetry aloud to other people. Eventually the shyness wore off, for the most part.

Then I had to get the listening back. Raising children was a tough balance between saying and listening. I fault myself for not listening quite enough. As an instructor, I found it difficult to listen to a group of students: too much cacophony, too many distractions, hard to gauge where the conversation was headed. I’ve always felt more comfortable with one-to-one tutoring, which makes listening so much easier. As this semester has wrapped, I find I am already dwelling on the fall. What did covid-protocol instruction teach me? Mostly that the listening is even more important than I thought. The students still feel freaked out; overwhelmed by, more than excited about, their futures. I can’t blame them and want to make room for their stories…not to shy away from them, especially if any of them are feeling “timid, easily startled, shrinking from contact with others.”

Hear me out

It’s not a social norm–real listening. Despite the recognition that human beings are social animals that require communication, despite the recognition that “talk therapy” (which at its foundation employs active listening) and writing therapy can heal broken psyches,  even though many studies over decades have demonstrated how relationships rely upon partners’ openness to listening–listening stays a bit unconventional.

So many people think listening is passive. No, it is an active verb. Bombarded with information from numerous sources, the processes of discerning what one should listen to get tattered and confused. Our brains want to chunk information, to ignore, to elide, to suppress and glean and separate the various threads so the mind can prioritize.

Listening is difficult.

~

solomonseal

Not asphodel but Solomon’s seal, also a greeny flower

William Carlos Williams famously claims it’s difficult to get the news from poetry–and, in the same poem, he asks us (by way of Flossie, his wife) to listen:

…Hear me out.
Do not turn away.
I have learned much in my life
from books
and out of them
about love.
Death
is not the end of it.
There is a hierarchy
which can be attained,
I think,
in its service.

the mind
that must be cured
short of death’s
intervention,
and the will becomes again
a garden. The poem
is complex and the place made
in our lives
for the poem.

[I am not html-savvy enough to code the spacing of this poem on my blog, but you can find it here (p. 20) or here; the excerpts are from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”]

~

Poetry :  “A way of happening, a mouth.” It survives, says Auden, in his poem on the death of Yeats.

The mouth expresses the mind and also what we call the heart, the soul. To make a poem is an intentional act.

Is listening a subversive act? is compassion?