Learning to Pay Attention

Part of the academic requirements of SST include journaling three times a week on various topics.  Below is a “free choice” journal entry written by Mary, which she agreed to let us share here.  We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

As I anticipated SST this past spring, one my biggest anxieties was host families:  What if they don’t like me?  What if I offend them?  What if I become a burden to them?  What if I can’t communicate?

Now that I’m here, though, living happily with my family in Jinotepe, my initial worries seem silly – Thelma and Juan fully embraced me the moment I passed through their gate.  Even now, they’re teaching me a new pace of life, one that is centered around relationships.

My mom/ama, Doña Thelma, is an amazing woman.  She’s not quite 5 feet tall, but still holds a commanding presence of authority in the family.  Every afternoon, when I come home from school, dusty, hot, and sleepy, she is sitting in her rocking chair on the patio, waiting to greet me.  We fall into quiet conversation about the day, but this usually turns into “Life lessons with Doña Thelma.”  (today’s lesson:  “I got married at 16, had two kids by 18.  Don’t do that.)  We usually sit outside, talking until the sky darkens and the mosquitoes herd us indoors.  I may miss out on my afternoon siesta, but I’ve come to love this afternoon ritual with Thelma.

Last year, I read a book by Simone Weil – a French philosopher from the early 1900s – and one of her quotes seared me with its clarity and relevance:  “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”  Directly or indirectly, Thelma has experienced her share of affliction.  She lived through the Somoza dictatorship, the contra war, her young son’s death, and now, the steady decline of her body to arthritis.  I can’t offer her much, but I certainly can sit with her on the patio and listen…

…and Thelma has so much to say!  In the bumbling Spanish I can manage, I ask her about her childhood and her early years of marriage.  She settles into her chair, tips her head back – clearly glad for an audience – and launches into detailed memories and fiery-eyed advice.  Sometimes she’ll stumble into a memory that makes her eyes fill.  After telling me about the first time she bought shoes at age 11, Thelma shook her head and told me, “I haven’t thought of that in years.”

Listening/Attentiveness requires a posture of openness, a widening to something new.  This is not easy for me.  All of this world is new and overwhelming at times.  It’s hard to shed your ego, your comfortable ways of seeing the world, even for one conversation because you run the risk of confronting change.  Change, I’m realizing, is definitely worth it.  When I let myself fully listen to Thelma – her life spoken in a language I am still discovering – I’m filled with so much empathy and respect for her.  I close my mouth, I sit on the patio steps, and my world widens.

Mary is an English writing major.