"Damn it, you guys," I more or less shouted into the phone at my three siblings during a recent conference call. "Stop interrupting me, and let me speak!"
Dead silence followed. For a long time. At least a good, solid ten seconds passed before I recovered enough from the force of my own small explosion even to think about speaking again.
The four of us were in the midst of one of our semi-regular conference calls as we work together on the challenging matter of how best to help our nearly ninety-one year old mother. Our calls have worked best when we have followed an agreed-upon process for speaking in turn (rounds of either oldest to youngest, or youngest to oldest). This time we were working oldest to youngest, and I was in the middle of one of my turns to speak, when not one, but two of my siblings interrupted me. (Or maybe the second one interrupted the first one, but . . . you get the picture.)
During that silence, which was actually so potent that I wondered what would happen if I let it go on and on, I felt different. A different sense of my own strength and power and authority, at least in the few seconds before traces of embarrassment and thoughts that I needed to apologize began to arise.
As the youngest in my family, I'm not sure I've ever commanded the attention of all three of my siblings at the same time in quite that way! I'm sure I told them to "Shut up!" or "Leave me alone" or "Stop tickling me or I'll bite you!" (actually, I believe I shrieked the "stop tickling me" part and acted out the "I'll bite you" part without verbal warning. Hey, what else could I do? I was the littlest! I was outnumbered!
But as an adult among adults? No, I don't believe I've ever hushed them up before. At least not so overtly.
Like many families--is it New England families? New England WASP families? New England WASP families of the 50s and 60s? or most human families on the face of the planet?--ours was not exactly a school for learning direct communication. We are all still learning, or at least I hope I am.
David has sometimes observed that at gatherings of my family, we tend to interrupt each other a lot, so he wonders aloud if that's how it always, or usually, was with us growing up. I certainly don't easily recall times growing up when we were together as a family when we actually listened carefully to each other. I remember some playful banter, and verbal free-for-alls. And the end result of more interrupting than listening? A sense that what you have to say isn't really all that important, or at least not as important as the person who has just interrupted. Perhaps even a lingering doubt that what you want to say, if you can even put it into words, is worthy of being listened to.
I remember as a child or adolescent wanting to say things that were on my mind and heart, and mostly I remember not daring to. I remember hanging around near my mother, wishing with all my heart that she (usually--oh, what expectations we lay on our mothers!) would read my mind and ask me if I wanted to say something. Wishing yet also perhaps fearing that she'd ask me, because then I would have to take the risk of speaking, of believing that what I had to say was important enough.
And when she didn't read my mind (perhaps she, too, was wishing for someone to read hers! or for a chance to speak her heart to a listening friend), I would leave again, choosing to stay silent instead of risking trying to say what I needed to say. And I went back to my room feeling all the more lonely, isolated, or sad (and maybe way, way down in there, the banished black sheep of all possible feelings, angry?). Over time, each time I did this, performed my part in this odd, repeated dance, I'm sure on some level I became all the more convinced that speaking up would never be the right thing to do.
Maybe we are all a little afraid to speak, and a little afraid to listen, too. Let me practice being an adult here and rephrase that! Maybe I am a little (and sometimes a lot) afraid to speak, and maybe I am also a little afraid to listen, to allow myself to be stretched by being fully present to someone else's reality, feelings, and opinions that might not feel comfortable or match my own opinions or my own sense of what I need for myself and my well-being.
Listening is hard work, that much I know. When my siblings and I practice it in our phone calls, not only is it perhaps "against the grain our training" but it is also a powerful new way of being with each other as adults, a gift each of us can offer not only to the others but also to ourselves. To stake our behavior on the belief, or let our behavior form the belief, that each of us deserves to be honored and listened to, and each is able to give respect and honor by listening to one another.
But what struck me after we had hung up (and we did go on to talk for twenty minutes or more after that silence) was that it would be too easy to let this be only about my family and let it go at that. There was something about that phrase I had used, "and let me speak", that rang some bells in me. I've used that phrase or something quite similar when I've spoken to people about my writing, about telling the stories of my journey. More than once I have said, "It is time for me to speak."
So I've thought more about the whole of what I said to my siblings--"Damn it, you guys! Stop interrupting me and let me speak!"--and I have let myself wonder how these words might relate to my inner reality. Might they be a clue to the fact that I interrupt myself a lot? Interrupt the flow of my creative thoughts and ideas as they get flowing? Interrupt and talk over myself when I start writing and feel excited about expressing myself and what's dearest to me?
When I sit down to write or stand up with a paintbrush in my hand, a whole host of editors, censors, the religious orthodoxy police, and others start interrupting. If I'm not careful (and aware and brave and quick to act), they will inhibit me, raise doubts about the value of what I have to say. They aren't my siblings; they are in me.
And maybe sometimes I just have to put them in their places and hush them up by saying, "Damn it, you guys! Stop interrupting me and let me speak!"
I have to say I'm actually grateful that I got interrupted by my siblings in that phone call. Look at all that I might have missed if they hadn't done that, and I hadn't popped my cork!
They just better not do it again; the next time I might have to bite someone.