In a time when we are bombarded with distractions it would be easy to assume the art of sitting in silence and listening to one another has been lost. National Seniors member Heather Morris argues this isn’t the case at all, but rather we have simply pushed this skill aside due in large part to the constant noise in our lives created by social media, text messages and emails.
Never before have we been so simultaneously connected and disconnected from each other. The New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based writer would know. Her first two novels, the new York Times bestsellers The Tattooist of Auschwitz and its sequel Cilka’s Journey, told the stories of Lale Sokolov and Cilka Kovacova during and after the Holocaust.
The books are a testament to her talent for active listening. Heather’s most recent book, Stories of Hope, builds on this, combining practical tools for reviving the lost art of listening alongside a series of inspirational tales Heather has been told over the years. When asked what inspired her to write Stories of Hope, Heather says it was a passing comment by her London publisher.
"My great grandfather had taught me not only how to listen, but the importance of listening to others, to our environment, to ourselves.”
It was in June 2019, and the publisher and Heather were having dinner in Kosice, Slovakia. It followed a full day of meetings during which Heather had listened attentively for hours to Cilka’s friends and neighbours as they shared stories.
“My publisher commented on how people I was meeting for the first time opened up to me, even through a translator. She asked if I had always known how to ‘listen’ to others,” Heather recalls. "I told her my great-grandfather had taught me not only how to listen, but the importance of listening to others, to our environment, to ourselves. From that evening Stories of Hope was born."
Heather describes her childhood home as one where children were to be seen and not heard. The exception was her great-grandfather, who lived two paddocks away and whom Heather would visit on the way home from school. He would share his stories with Heather, which included his experiences of war that he never told anyone else.
But Heather also learned another vital lesson—that people would tell her their stories if she simply stopped and listened to them.
"Maybe he felt sorry for me being the only girl in a family of five children, or saw something in me that let him believe I would listen to him, spend quality time with him and guard the secrets he often shared with me,” Heather says.
Lockdown - hope and giving
Heather, along with others, donated mightily to the National Seniors Australia’s Melbourne COVID care packages appeal that delivered essential items to isolated seniors in lockdown.
“It was a small gesture. I hope those who received these packages accepted with the love and care given," Heather says. Hope is a powerful subject in Heather’s many stories and her life. In these turbulent times when many of us are separated from loved ones due to isolation or lockdown restrictions, hope can be difficult to hold on to. So, where does Heather find it? It is still her loved ones that continue to bring her hope, with her grandchildren leading the way.
"Without question it is seeing the joy and adventure in my grandchildren. Their lives have been impacted by lockdown, they miss school, their friends, going to the zoo, all the things that made their childhood what it was,” she says.
"But thanks to their parents and, maybe with a little input from me, they are handling the situation better than some adults I know and that gives me hope—that we will get through the pandemic and learn about ourselves and others and make changes in our lives for the better.
"This is a good time, regardless of your age, to take time to reflect on life. In the words of Lale, 'If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day'.”
“He was a quiet, unassuming man who had lived a full, rich life in rural New Zealand. I never heard him make a judgmental comment about anyone.
"I have, because of him, always felt the greatest respect and admiration for the elderly and have been drawn to them."
Social media is proving a fruitful way of 'listening’ to people’s stories and Heather’s publishers have created a website (www.yourstoriesofhope.com) so people can share their experiences.
"Wonderful stories have come our way[which] I have read out on my fortnightly Facebook live event,” Heather says. The tale of Lale Sokolov, in the The Tattooist of Auschwitz, is one of Heather’s best known. They met while Heather was working in a Melbourne public hospital. She was introduced to an elderly gentleman and told he ‘might just have a story worth telling’. As their friendship grew, Lale related his extraordinary life.
"It became obvious there were parts of his story Lale was holding back, so I took him to dinner with my husband and three young adult children. Oh, how they loved telling him stories about me I would rather he didn’t know such as what a lousy cook I was. But it made the difference and I became relatable to him, warts and all," Heather said.
When asked if she came across a recurring theme while listening to the stories that she would later transform into Stories of Hope, Heather says it was actually the differences that stood out to her.
"The beauty of the human race is that we are all different. We look at life differently, approach life differently. If I had to identify a theme, I would say it was the respect for others that these amazing people had,” Heather said.
“They did not judge others, all they asked for was that they not be judged in return.”