Last night, as I sat quietly, a participant in a kibbutz conversation on youth education, I was reminded of how much I’ve changed since making aliya almost two years ago.
More specifically, how my mouth has changed.
Not the thickness or shape of my lips; not the structure of my jaw nor the color of my tooth enamel.
But, specifically, the way my mouth moves. The speed with which it opens and closes. The ease with which it produces sound. And more specifically, the way my mouth doesn’t move…unless the move has been calculated, planned, rehearsed in my mind.
My mouth is less impulsive since I moved to Israel. Less reactive. More thoughtful.
It’s been demoted to a junior level position. While my ears, on the other hand, have been promoted.
Listening, you see, is more required than talking when you are an immigrant in a country whose native language is not your own. Of course, listening is how you acquire a new language, but it’s also a useful skill as you find yourself overwhelmed in a foreign land: startled by new tastes and smells; taken by surprise, and sometimes offended by cultural differences. Listening helps you adapt, and it helps others adapt to you.
Like a preschooler entering the over stimulating atmosphere of a peer-filled classroom for the very first time, a smart immigrant learns quickly to observe first, act later. And just like a preschooler who is still learning language and developing communication skills, the immigrant knows it’s safer to first understand the topic at hand and the person with whom she is speaking before she opens her mouth to speak.
Otherwise, she might get bitten.
Especially in Israel, where the art of conversation is taught in the same classroom as the art of war.
My mouth is not accustomed to staying shut. It’s used to opening first; thinking later. My mouth is well-practiced in putting you in your place – venomously fast. My mouth has always been my greatest weapon. My ears, a useless and ugly appendage.
One of the most-repeated stories of my childhood revolves around my second grade teacher, Ms. Levin. In hindsight, Ms. Levin was quite a character, and I’m pretty sure some of the tactics she used in our classroom to achieve optimum behavior (and to maintain her own sanity) would not be allowed in an American classroom today. And, possibly, could have gotten her fired or sued.
But in 1982, it was perfectly acceptable (I guess) to refer publicly to one of your eight-year-old students as Motor Mouth. Or M.M. for short, as she liked to call me when I interrupted her to answer a question or tell a story. I didn’t really mind the nickname. Though it did put me in my place, a little. But only a little.
Pretty much from the moment I could speak in complete sentences, I spoke a lot and I spoke quickly. I processed the world through language. And as I grew older, I processed my strong opinions through language, as well. And shared them. Often. Out loud. And in your face. And this opinionated girl grew into an opinionated woman, who was sometimes praised and respected for her strong convictions, but sometimes, probably, shunned or avoided for talking too loud and too in your face.
I would have done well growing up in Israeli society, where a shouting match is otherwise known as civilized conversation. But arriving here as a fully grown adult, but without an adult’s language capacity, has been an accidental practice in silence for me. A prison sentence, at first. But, unexpectedly, now a gift.
In Israel, I am not widely known as the wellness bitch. Or “that mindful mama.” I’m not widely known for my opinions at all. If anything, I’m known as that American mom who lives in the red house. Or the go-to gal for a good investor presentation. Admitting this to myself comes with a feeling of loss. Because part of who I am, who I have always been is: Motor Mouth. The girl with an opinion. The girl who just wants you to listen.
But the world that has opened up to me through listening, through my self-imposed silence, is beautiful, and filled with possibilities.
The possibility that he is right and I am wrong.
The possibility that she knows better and I still have yet to learn.
The possibility that silence is golden, not just because of the peace that comes with quiet, but because of the listening of others.
When you become the person that speaks only when absolutely necessary, and only after careful consideration, you become the person that people listen to.
When you ask questions first, and talk later, people listen to you.
When you carefully focus on each and every word that comes out of someone’s mouth – the way one must when one is learning a new language – people repay you by listening back.
And being listened to is the true buried deep desire of anyone with a strong opinion.
This is what touched me when I sat quietly in a room in Israel last night, listening to my neighbors argue their points. Some shouting to be heard. Some shrinking back.
What if they all listened to each other the way a new immigrant listens? Carefully. With pause. With concentration. With care.
What if we come to each gathering, each conversation, each negotiating table with the humility of the confused and cautious immigrant?