My brother Greg is everyone’s favorite person. Well, if you knew him he would
be your favorite person. Not just because he is helpful, generous, loyal and kind-hearted, but because Greg looks at people. Or, I should say, when he is talking to people, he sees
them — he looks deep in their eyes and locks in, devoted and dog-like.
Greg doesn’t break contact, doesn’t interrupt. He is off the clock with no pressing agenda. He really listens — a rare gift in a time when what’s on our smart phones seems to be much more engrossing than the warm and breathing human right next to us.
I’m the anti-Greg: a whirling dervish of places to go, things to do, people to see — just not you, standing right in front of me. I do care, but there’s so much to be accomplished. You don’t mind if I wash the floor while we talk, do you? I furrow my brow, talk loud and fast, and get Many Important Things achieved. People have told me that on first meeting, I have an air of imperiousness — of not liking them and being invulnerable. These are not attractive qualities in a person, much less as the entertainer I have become, and the “conduit of God’s love,” I wish to be.
This impression has been troubling, and for a long time I tried to change this. It took performing at a nursing home to discover the dramatically transformative power of truly seeing people.
Frank was in the last row in a room filled with 60 or so elderly residents. He was strapped into a wheelchair, but looked younger than most — in his early 60’s — and had the appearance of a PTSD Viet Nam War vet: ragged, wiry and agitated. As I sang, he yelled things like: “I hate this!” “Noooooo! Stop it now!” “Horrible! Horrible!” while rocking and flailing his stringy arms. Fellow residents, annoyed, but apparently accustomed to his outbursts, yelled right back at him, “Shut up, Frank!”
I tried to ignore him and focus on the rest of the audience — until I didn’t. I tried something different. I looked at him. I made my way to the back of the room with small steps, right and left, making eye contact with each resident, eventually wending my way to Frank. I was singing “Moon River,” a love song written in 1961 — his era. “O dream maker, you heart breaker,”
I crooned as I got closer. “Wherever you’re going, you’re going my way,” while standing three feet away with my arms outstretched to him. I looked intently into his brown eyes wide with fear, and didn’t blink, smiling and serenading him and him alone. A look of calm washed over Frank’s face as he heaved a giant sigh and started whistling along. There were no more interruptions.
In the days since that engagement, I have consciously tried to look at people and actually take the time to see them: grocery clerks; receptionists; sales people; my mother; my husband. I observe their eyes, body language; the turn of their mouth without remark. Often, a hurried transaction slows down and becomes an opportunity to exchange pleasantries and exchange smiles. People ask me questions. Paradoxically, by looking closer at folks, they want to know more about me. In turn, they disclose rare and secret things about themselves in holy slivers of now.
The day itself seems to exhale and I can almost hear it whistling a happy tune.