I’m Listening

I Spy

I’m not a natural born story teller. I wish I was. I envy people who can take an ordinary event and spin it into a hilarious or dramatic tale.

But I can’t do that.

The world I see is more like an ever-unfolding documentary than a blockbuster movie: I mentally record events as unadorned facts, so when I re-tell them it’s generally without the color that might make them even mildly entertaining anecdotes. As you can imagine, I’m not the life of the party.

One way I know I’m not good at story-telling is social media. Every day I see posts from friends whose lives appear to be overflowing with excitement and celebration, while my own seems brutally mundane. Even when they’re doing the very same things as I’m doing, their posts are so much more. In truth, they are going to the same restaurants, celebrating the same life events, seeing the same movies, and standing in front of the same landmarks as I am. They’re just doing it so much better. Not that their lives are better, really. It’s just that they’re better at telling the story.

My life isn’t fabulous! My kids aren’t perfect, my dinner wasn’t a magnificent feast, my vacation wasn’t pure paradise. When I tell about my day, or my family, or my life, I tell the truth: we went here, we ate this, we did that; there was good as well as bad; some things were happy, some were sad. It doesn’t make for a riveting story, but that’s the only way I know how to tell it.

Some people may be natural born story tellers, but I am a natural born observer.

I can’t help it. I watch and I listen.

And I observe a lot of the details that other people seem to miss. It seems backwards, doesn’t it? You’d think that the person who can turn a simple conversation with the checker at the grocery store into a hilarious story would be the one who saw the most detail in the exchange, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe the story-tellers only see what they’re looking for, or more likely it’s because most of details in their story are actually later additions edited in for dramatic effect. Not the facts.

Whatever the reason, I seem to see a lot: in my environment, in people’s behavior and interactions, and in all of the ordinary things that surround us every day. Like those I Spy puzzles, but on a cosmic scale.

And with so much data accumulated over so many years, I recognize patterns and anomalies in history and in human behavior. I see a lot of things many other people overlook or simply take for granted. Or maybe that they’re just not interested in.

People tend to tell me things, too. Things that they don’t tell other people. Things, I think, that they don’t ever plan to tell anyone. It just seems to happen.

Is it because they know I’m really paying attention? I don’t know. But one of the most profound of human needs is our need to be seen. Truly seen: Our story. Our little accomplishments. Our pain. Our fears. Our uniqueness. We want to know that someone acknowledges our individuality, only ever to occur once in all of human history.

Sometimes absolute strangers tell me their most personal stories. Once when I was in graduate school, my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I went to the library to study. I sat down next to a woman. Within five minutes she was telling me about her broken heart. Later on, my boyfriend asked me who she was. I said I had no idea — I’d never met her before. “Then why did she tell you all of that?” he asked. I said, “I don’t know, but it happens all the time.” I doubt he believed me at the time, but we’ve been together long enough, and it happens often enough, that he believes me now.

I think that people sense that I am someone who can really see them, and it makes them want to open up. When they talk, I listen.

Sometimes I think the world is telling me its secrets too. It knows I’m listening and I’m watching, and so it opens itself up to me. Sometimes what the world is telling me scares me, and I don’t really want to know. But it needs to tell its story. And so I listen.


  1. My partner’s a natural storyteller. She’s also from Texas. Her motto is “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Those people with the perfect, exciting lives? Some of them are telling the truth some of the time. Some of them aren’t doing even that much.


    1. We do need storytellers in the world. Imagine how dry life would be without them. Just so long as they don’t believe their own stuff. (Same goes for those people with the perfect lives.) But my experience is that once they’ve told the story, it becomes the truth to them.


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