As the youngest of three, I learned early on how to listen. And by listening I mean eavesdropping on my sister’s phone calls and my brother’s conversations with friends, their endless teasing, and my parents private concerns about broken curfews, disciplinary problems and report cards.
You can learn a lot from listening. I remember loud family gatherings in Providence, Rhode Island where aunts and uncles told stories at kitchen tables, cousins shared secrets, people argued and made up and I sat, just on the perimeter, listening. I never seemed to know how to insert my voice into any of the conversations and felt drowned out by the much louder voice of my boisterous father.
“Why can’t you say something?” he sometimes roared on the car ride home. He didn’t understand that it wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say. There were plenty of conversations rolling around in my head, all of them incredibly witty and insightful, but they were under the lock and key of shyness. It would be years before shyness loosened it’s hold on me. My kids and husband can barely believe there was ever a time I was silent.
Playdates were painful, as were birthday parties, doctor visits, even first dates. Somehow shyness raises suspicions in others, makes them wary, which in turn creates even greater shyness. In my post shyness period, I was always wiling to share an opinion, wage a debate, right any percieved wrong and I could finally give voice to all of those witty, insightful interior conversations.
But years of silence lingers on in ways I never expected. I am still drawn to shy people, respectful of those who don’t feel the need to fill a space with meaningless chatter. There’s nothing I love more than sitting on a train, a playground, a coffee shop, just listening to the cadence, dialect, unique interractions of strangers in their most unguarded moments. And when I read, I always feel as if I am eavesdropping on the way writers speak through the private lives and inner workings of their characters. My own writing is enriched simply by being quiet.
Having children forced me out my shyness. It is difficult to speak up for them if you can’t speak up for yourself. But, I still have moments, often right before entering a roomful of strangers or having to speak in front of a group or when being introduced to someone for the first time, where I get that panicky sensation. But now that I have found my voice, I can tuck away the shy Lesa. I take a deep breath, speak, and always remember to listen.