It was Friday, and the #WDS2013 conference hadn’t even yet begun, and I sat mesmerized as the gal next to me  talked candidly, and in thrilling detail, about her body’s change of life. We had known each other for about 20 minutes, and I had learned already about the divorce (they’re still friends), the controlling mother (they’re not), and we were moving on to issues of discernment, self-expression..and hot-flashes.*

That was one of the first candid discussions I had, but certainly not the last. I felt like I spent the whole weekend listening to people forthrightly confessing their vulnerabilities, their tentative hopes, and their fears.

How they came from breakout sessions where they literally whispered their greatest fear into a fellow stranger’s ear, and listened in turn to the come-back echo from their new comrade. What they repeat to themselves as they try to fall asleep, and the things they’ve promised never again to say to themselves – those very promises only five-minutes old and fiercly earnest. The frankness and open vulnerability I experienced was astonishing. And, it came from the stage as well as the seats.

I’m not certain what I thought my biggest challenge would be at the conference, but I’m certain I would not have said it would be to be present and witness. At WDS, people didn’t want my advice or my witticism. They wanted me to listen, and to share in my turn. They wanted me to see them and hear them. And to be careful with them.

But as vulnerable as they were, there was a certain recklessness to their admissions as well. It was like walking into a room and somebody spontaneously handing you this beautiful newborn baby, and you kinda wonder, How do..How do you know that I’m not doing to drop her? And that’s what I wanted to say to my seatmate-confidantes too: How do you know that I’m not going to drop this…precious cargo…you are handing me?

It reminded me, amazingly, of my hospice work. I sit hospice, usually with adults with late-stage Alzheimer’s, and although what I actively DO is minimal, my job is to meet them where they are, and bring dignity to what they’re going through by giving them my full attention.

At WDS, I learned that the need for this is wider-spread than I ever thought, or would have dreamed. We need neighbors, more than we need consultants or mentors or service providers. Connection isn’t because we share a home-town or a b-school, it’s because when you talk, I’ll listen, and I’ll be careful with what you hand me. And I’ll try my best to unlearn what keeps me from doing the same in return.

As I sat at the after-party, before the music started, I had a lovely talk on the stone steps with a native Portlander, and we were sagely summarizing our weekend. I had something else in mind, but when I opened my mouth I found myself saying, “I think I need to be gentler. I think that’s what I learned.”  And to cherish my neighbors.

See you in 2014, if not sooner.


*Details here are gently tweaked to soften any chance of inadvertant recognition. I realize that this whole column is about openness and frankness, but this isn’t my story to tell. Part of being gentle is letting folks speak their stories themselves.