18 July, 2010

Zuckerman and Shafak

This past week I listened to two TED talks -- back to back -- and they really made me stop and think. The first was by Harvard's Ethan Zuckerman on the value of connecting -- hearing voices, not all like-minded, from around the world. The second was by Elif Shafak, the Turkish writer, on how listening to stories widens the imagination and allows us to leap over cultural walls.

I don't believe in coincidence. Sure, I listen to TED talks all the time. They're fascinating and I always learn something. But this time there was a deep resonance for me, and the one-two punch of Zuckerman's modern-day take on Forster's "Just connect!" and Shafak's idea that imagination is the suitcase we carry with us, well, they made for a potent cocktail whose lingering effect is still with me.

Connecting. Hearing other voices, other perspectives. Stories. Telling and listening. Crossing cultural barriers, not with treaties or legislation or declarations, but with stories told and heard.

Those ideas thrill me.

I am sitting in my life, learning (teaching myself -- the genuine article in home schooling circles) to sit quietly and listen. Really, really listen. This is way harder for me than it sounds. As you might know from my previous posting, I have never before taken the route of letting the path become known. I have never before committed myself to Tolstoy's wise words: Things will shape themselves. I have never before surrendered. I've planned, strategized and organized.

(There's nothing wrong with that approach. But it has led me to make intellectual, logical choices, and it has widened rather than narrowed that gap between my authentic Amy self and this version of myself that I present to the world. Now I am committed to minimizing that distance, shrinking it down so that there is only one skin and it's the one I live in all the time.)

So, after listening to the two talks I felt excited. Not because I've suddenly come up with some great new business idea. Not because I suddenly know what it is I'm meant to do next. Nope.

The excitement, which remains palpable, grows from the fact that out of the muddiness of my self-imposed silence, I'm beginning to pick up sounds: noise, input in uniquely clear and discernible frequencies. Here's what I mean. Just sitting and trying to surrender has so far felt scary, unknown, chaotic. Hence the muddiness. Like a big black hole. I have been unable to pick up one clear story line, one clear idea. The lone flute? Lost in a gigantic wall of sound.

But something has shifted. I listened to Zuckerman and Shafak -- an odd pairing if ever there were one -- and I heard the words connect and stories. And I felt like I was hearing those words either for the first time or definitely in a whole new way.

Not very long ago, I asked my mother to tell me about myself as a baby/very young child. I asked this because the only things I knew about myself from the pre-memory period were that I was unplanned, I hated sleeping, I got sick a lot and I once threw a dog turd across the living room. Surely, I suspected, there was more to it...

My mother, who was already deep into Alzheimer's, surprised me with her answer. "You loved stories," she said, with uncensored authority. "You loved to hear them and you learned how to tell them at a really young age."

That was a remarkable observation. I held it then, and I hold it now, as a gift from my mother. In her condition, she was beyond trying to flatter. She had no agenda when she said what she said. She was simply reporting something she remembered from a distant past -- the only time period for which my mother was still a reliable witness.

Where does any of this lead me? I have no idea. There will be no neat and tidy conclusion to this posting, no narrative arc that brings it back around to the opening premise. What I know is that I'm homing in on connecting and telling stories. Not sure what that means in less abstract terms. But I'm certain this isn't about intellectual curiosity alone; it is deeper than that.

Connections and stories. Those are the only two clues I have to go on at this point. There will be more.

I am learning to listen.

I will hear the clues.

Here are the links for those who might want to listen:


  1. very nicely done Amy. I particularly like this quote from your Mom: My mother, who was already deep into Alzheimer's, surprised me with her answer. "You loved stories," she said, with uncensored authority. "You loved to hear them and you learned how to tell them at a really young age."

    It reminded me of how you can reach someone with alzheimer's very late in the disease by focusing on treasures that they carry with them from long ago. That she reminded you of something about yourself that you had perhaps lost touch with as your life unfolded -- that truly is a gift.


  2. Thank you. I was really moved by what she said. You are so right -- you CAN reach someone, or some part of someone, even when they're in the throes of the disease.