Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.
When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.
– Shel Silverstein
I went out on game drive at Phinda the other evening for the last night drive of my visit along with two couples who’d arrived later in the week – and we all really wanted to see a leopard. I’ve been around long enough to know that desperately wanting something is likely not the way to bring it to you, yet we are human beings and while I’d seen and done all sorts of incredible things that week, it was the longest I”ve ever been there without seeing one. Our guide and tracker, JG and Bethuel, were pretty determined, too.
And yet, after searching for quite some time, we hadn’t seen one single track. So we did something different. We stopped the vehicle and sat still for what seemed like a very long time but was probably ten minutes or so. We got quiet and settled and we listened. And we heard her call, quite clearly, from not too far away. We also realized, in hearing the other vehicle searching for her, just how much noise we make in the bush- it’s a wonder we see anything at all!
Anyway, we followed that sound – one of my favorite sounds on earth – for quite awhile, carefully checking out the thicket with a spotlight. No dice. So rather than continue driving and searching as we normally might, we stopped again. Got still, got quiet, listened to the night sounds, watched the moon through the trees. And we heard her again, that wonderful huffing sound. Clear as a bell. Once again, we were off – this time it took a group effort to lift tree branches overhead in order to get to what we hoped might be the right spot. And it was close but still not right. We could sense that she was close, yet we still could not spot her.
So one more time, we waited and watched and listened in the dark. All of us focused on just this one thing: the listening. And it worked. Before we knew it and in what seemed no time though it had been over an hour, at least, there she was. Lying under a bush, deep in the thicket, gazing at us as if to say “I’ve been right here, just waiting for you.” She was gorgeous. Small and lean, with an exquisitely beautiful coat – eventually she walked out right towards us. We followed her for a little while, taking in the way she moved through the night, silent now in admiration and awe. It felt, as it always does, as if a gift had been bestowed on me – and my guess is that I wasn’t alone in feeling that. In time, we left her to look for her mate or cubs and find a peaceful place to rest. The whole vehicle was filled with happy hearts – and grateful for guides who had the capacity to do things differently, to take the time to let it all unfold. An awesome evening.
I’ve been thinking about that leopard, about that experience, a lot since then. It goes on my highlights reel, certainly, and yet it’s bigger than that. I’ve landed with this, after boiling it all down – it really felt like a beautifully played out metaphor for my life over these last six months. Maybe for my whole life. I hadn’t really thought about it but if there’s one thing that led me to where I am now, to South Africa and this extraordinary life I’m living lately, it is that I’ve finally learned to listen. Which, of course, means I’ve also learned to be still, to quiet myself down – that’s been a lifelong process, for sure. The challenge, though, is in doing that when everything I know is the “right thing” to do is not working. To choose not to follow the standard practices we are all taught to follow in our days, months and years on this earth. To just stop and be until I can hear the call clearly. To be shown that so beautifully, with so much grace and under the African night sky was a lovely and powerful reminder – one I hope I won’t soon forget.
It makes me wonder, as Shel Silverstein writes, what I might create if I can continue to listen this intently, this well, this regularly. What we might all create, how we might expand, what we could possibly discover. If we allow ourselves the privilege of being still, of listening with all our hearts, I can only imagine what we can do. Especially if we can listen to ourselves.