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The Joy of Being Known, Being Heard

Rebecca Buell Emerson | Mar 31, 2020
 This afternoon in the sunny confines of my front porch, I am reflecting on a precious friend who for the last five years has given me the very best gifts. In this time of Sheltering in Place and social distancing, as a non-partnered person, connection and community is taking different forms. So, here, ruminating on my dear friend Alan Winslow, I am basking in both the sun and what it means to really be known, really be heard.

Alan came into my life five years ago during my divorce. 92-years-young at the time, Alan was routinely eloquent, gracious and wise in the way he’d enter conversations and share his presence. With the experience of raising wonderful, productive, and well-adjusted adult children, a lifetime spanning military, retail, and nonprofit spaces, and 65-years of marriage history between two women he adored, it would have been easy for him to be an expert in every subject (because he was). But instead, Alan entered interactions with a fervent curiosity, a sense of awe and wonder, waiting to discover what topic his conversation companion might like to entertain. Friendship, life, death, religion, politics, history, life experiences, sex, rock-n-roll, dating, travel, community development, and designer shoes—Alan’s eyes would light up as he engaged friends and loved ones (ranging ages 8 to 88) in dialog balanced with water, coffee, wine, or sometimes an array of all three.

Never one to interrupt or overbear, Alan made space for the experience and the expertise in the room. Sitting with him at a four-star dining table, my then 13-year-old son shared what he was learning in American history class while Alan eagerly and patiently listened, thoroughly engaged, and then shared stories when asked about living and serving during World War II. A living archive, Alan stoked curiosity and growth while maintaining the grace to enter every conversation as a peer, even with my budding adolescent son, the same as if he were sitting with a corporate leader or government official planning a community project.

Over this five-year span, Alan saw such growth and transformation in me. Accepting me as a broken-hearted woman in transition, he was kind, gracious, encouraging, supportive, and building. When I moved to St. Louis, Alan cheered me on in my job and asked for stories from my new adventures in the big city.

My most vivid memory (and there are many) is how his eyes would light up and sparkle as he asked me about you, our organization, and our audacious dream of imagining a society in which people care about each other first. With excitement and pride he’d ask for updates on you, listen to your work, and share in your passion for equipping people with the tools to truly connect as humans. An expert himself in leadership, authenticity, care, and service, he challenged me to grow and push myself in service to you as a leader. Even early last fall when our dinner visits included an extra space for his oxygen tank and tubing, when conversations grew shorter and our six-hour dinner parties diminished to a two-hour lunch, he fully attended, he listened with his eyes, his ears, his facial expressions, and his heart. To whomever he was talking, Alan gave the gift of himself, his presence, and through that he gave the gift of his love.

It is with him in mind on this sunny, pandemic-prompted, shelter-in-place afternoon that I think about connection, and the joy of being known, of being heard. Alan, a connoisseur of conversation and a concierge of connection, took his last breaths yesterday, and for my beloved friend tribe, a portion of our collective heart stopped beating along with him. In this societal moment of social distancing, last night we crossed airwaves and miles to connect hearts and tears, discussing how our friend made us know we were seen, heard, valued, and cared for. Although physically distant, from our porches, patios, and she-sheds we celebrated life as we shared in death.

Life is about knowing others and being known, about experiencing in community the shared laughter, moments, conversations, understanding, and yes, even heartbreak. I am finding from my front porch ponderings that this time of isolation provides perhaps a unique and imminent opportunity for connection like we’ve never seen.  It seems unnatural that we will not gather this week or next, donning dark clothing and our favorite designer shoes (Alan loved shoes), and sit beside one another while we hum his favorite hymns. That’s not possible in this season. But from that shared space of social connection—intentional communion across the miles—the place for understanding and strength is formed.

So I wonder, just as Alan gave the gift of his presence and awe-filled curiosity to me, I wonder who is waiting for or needing that gift to be passed on to them in return? In the midst of our pandemic-induced paradigm shift, who around us needs a moment to be seen, to be heard?

Friends, this is a time of topsy-turvy grief, loss, hurt, and reshaping our understanding of the world. Day-by-day our frameworks for understanding life are challenged and shifted. While we are shifting, we have the gift, the opportunity—the responsibility--to stop, wait, listen, and share in this journey together. Because at the end of it all, together is the space where life is lived, and there is perhaps no greater gift than the joy of being known, being heard. I am grateful to have known Alan Winslow. My life is forever touched because of that gift.

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