The art of listening takes effort, but is important

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Drawing on the Arts - Eliza Fernbach

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time. ”

― M. Scott Peck, M.D. The Road Less Traveled.


“Do you have proof Mademoiselle?”

I was staggering in the doorway of the National Fine Art School in Paris. My mother had just been diagnosed with brain cancer. Blinking back tears, I stared at the finely coiffed school registrar.

“Euh…,” I stuttered.

“Proof, Mademoiselle. We need proof before we can remove you from the course and refund you."

Very slowly I repeated what I had just said.

“I am very sorry. My mother has brain cancer. I have to go home. I won’t be able to do this course.”

Time seemed to ache all around us. The clerk remained steadfast-continuing to scribble on a notepad. I had politely knocked on the door and waited for her to acknowledge me before I explained my circumstance. It was her colleague sitting a few feet away who was paying full attention.

“We are so sorry Mademoiselle.” She said nudging her coworker into reality.

This was over ten years ago, before the age of smart phones, texting and whatever else it is that people do instead of listening today.

The art of listening is something that education used to play a large role in nurturing. Now there is the iPad in the classroom, the smart phone in the kitchen, in the bedroom and everywhere else we used to commune intimately. Last year I was actually interrupted in the confessional by a priest who answered his cell phone.

“I heard you the first time,” my mother used to say to me when I came hollering from one room to another as a kid. Those words have informed my work; say it once. Say it clearly and leave it at that. Which is easier said than done.

Truly listening, really paying attention with your whole heart and soul, as the psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck reminded his readers, should make you sweat if you are really doing it. He also says it is an act of love. I like to think of art as an act of expressing what I’ve heard that takes some amount of sweat.

All those years ago, the clerk in Paris certainly wasn’t sweating. With only pen and paper as devices, she was avidly avoiding me in just the way people do today plugged into all kinds of wireless wonders. Her first reaction might have been driven by her training and protocol. What she heard was. “I have changed my mind. I want a refund.”

This is probably what she was used to hearing from a student standing in her doorway asking for some kind of consideration. Once she had become used to the pattern of appearance and repeated instances of reality, she had stopped really listening. Technically, perhaps she was correct to insist on protocol. But protocol isn’t always the thing that saves lives and relationships. Listening is.

It is here in the wilds of Nova Scotia’s Pictou County that I find myself most humanly connected to listening. Long treks into the woods, through the light cast on the roads, heighten my senses and turn up the volume on the interior dialog I strive to maintain. When this power is well tended I can listen with the kind of delight that makes layers of meaning and discovery tumble out of the most tiny circumstances and thrill in the most fleeting exchanges. Like seeing my beloved neighbor who always knows exactly what to say when he notices me on the road. Noticing and listening are inextricably linked.

I didn’t answer the clerk in the Paris art school. I probably could have procured the proof she wanted, but I was willing to forfeit the course fee if I had to. I was going home to listen for what would be the last few days of my life with my mother on earth. Those days stretched out into weeks. By the end of her life, my mother’s ravaged body only allowed her to blink. I blinked back at her. Words were no longer necessary. We were listening so hard we could feel it. In facing my mother’s death head on, I gained something that no device or course could ever hope to replace or improve on. The fruits of listening; new perspectives that spark imagination and inspire creativity.

At home here in Pictou County I often listen to the twinkling skies at dusk. A few days ago, as I listened intently to the sun setting, I heard my mother’s voice echoing behind the evening star.

“Harry,” she was chirping. “How long do we have to point these flashlights down at the earth?”

There was no answer, so my mother continued to herself and my own engaged ear. “They’re not listening to the light anyway and my hands are starting to ache.”

That ache is what I see and hear and feel when I listen to another person. The effort in holding a gaze and hearing every word that is spoken. There is something new in every exchange if I slow down enough to hear it.

“I am so sorry,” repeated the other lady in that Paris office so long ago. “We understand and will refund your fees. We wish you every comfort as you go home.”

A similar sentiment returns every time I really listen to someone and they really listen to me. It is like hearing a light coming on.



Eliza Fernbach is the Vice President of Visual Arts Nova Scotia. She is an Artist and Filmmaker whose focus is on Cinema Poetry.

Organizations: National Fine Art School

Geographic location: Paris, Pictou County, Nova Scotia

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Recent comments

  • coleen macdonald
    April 01, 2014 - 09:52

    Identified with every thought and word expressed in your item. Thank-you