On listening

By Vita Forest



Lately, I’ve been thinking about listening.  It’s wonderful to read to yourself and flick back and forth in a story, rereading, flashing back, controlling the pace.  But there is something lovely about being read to.  About having the opportunity to listen.

School has started again, with a new school year, and a new set of little people to teach.  This time of the year is exhausting and a trifle stressful for all concerned.  The kids are getting to know me, I am getting to know them, and we are all getting to know the new 2016 “things”.   So it’s nice to take some time out to listen to a story.  There is something immediately calming about pulling out a book and reading it aloud.  Last year, some of my major fidgetters and fretters would crawl closer, hug their knees and become quiet and calm, soothed by Harry Potter’s latest adventures, or by their desire to hear just how Matilda was going to outwit Miss Trunchbull.  This year, we have started with Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which immediately got their attention with its promise of bears, wolves and wild cats…

While working on the good ship Possession in the holidays, I reminded my own children about how, when they were quite small, I used to read them one of A.S. Byatt’s fairy tales included in that novel.  I reminded them of summer holidays lying three across in a tent and how I read The Glass Coffin to them again and again and again.  Their eyes wide and their bodies still, as they listened to the story of the little tailor, who ventured into a dark forest and met an unusual household who offered him a magical gift.

You have chosen not with prudence, but with daring.  The key is the key to an adventure, if you will go in search of it.”

Lucy pulled out the book and curled up in a corner, now able to read the words herself that before she had only listened to.  (Max remembered the story without needing a refresher – he is older, after all).  Now Lucy reads to me.  As I cook, or sip my tea after dinner.  It is luxurious to be read to, to not always have to do the reading.

And in the holidays, I was reading (to myself) Anthony Doer’s All the light we cannot see where a brother and sister in an orphanage in Germany are enthralled by voices on the radio, and stopping to listen to Radio National while I worked on my boat building, and everything intersected and made meaning.  I listened alone while the kids were at their Dad’s, but I was not alone because the voice on the radio was company, was an intimate presence in my ear.  A soothing presence, like the French gentleman’s radio programs, flying through the air, all the way to a tiny attic in Germany.

I remember hearing about a couple who read books aloud to each other.  Sharing entire novels, taking turns listening and reading.  A way of spending time together, connecting. And I remember too, my lovely friend Mardi, who created an organisation in the U.S. to encourage adults to read to children.  She was invited to speak about her project to the inmates of a prison and was concerned about what she could possibly say to those people with whom she had little in common.  But she ended up sharing with them that reading to someone else was a way of bonding, of showing that you care, of connecting.  These incarcerated men got that, and looked forward to reading to their own children as a way of building a relationship.

And last weekend, my kids and I came across a series of radio stories as we drove to the beach and spent some time discovering the joys of a quirky tale read by a fabulous actor interspersed with sound effects.  When Max was a newborn, I discovered Margaret Throsby‘s interviews on Classic FM, listening in to conversations with artists, writers, scientists and educators, in my sleep-deprived, house-bound new-mother state. A few years later, Max and Lucy and I stayed in the car long after we had reached our destination, until her interview with Monty Roberts the horse whisperer ended.  So enthralled were we.

It’s a primal thing, listening to a good story.  Have you listened to anything wonderful lately?


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