Brenda Ueland and The Tell Me More Gesture

I am a latecomer to the party of appreciating Brenda Ueland. I came upon her writings a few years ago while researching and designing a workshop about conflict communication. Her essay, Tell Me More: On The Fine Art Of Listening, astounded and inspired me. Here in literary form was the mantra of good conflict communication that I espouse: Tell me more.

I remember reading the essay for the very first time, rushed and panicked, as if I had suspected I had found my soul mate and I needed to know right away if my hopes were going to be dashed. And then, pushing down my excitement, I tried to read it straight through, but overwhelmed, I would halt when I came to the next gem to ponder in amazement. Then I would start over again, determined to read it straight through. To this day, years later, I’m not sure that I have ever successfully read this short essay straight through from beginning to end. How can you keep reading when the words are hopping off the page into your heart? It’s impossible!

“Now before going to a party, I just tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk; to try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs, or arguing, or changing the subject. No. My attitude is: ‘Tell me more. This person is showing me his soul. It is a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but presently he will begin to think, not just automatically to talk. He will show his true self. Then he will be wonderfully alive.’” (Ueland, Strength To Your Sword Arm, 1993, p. 206.)

As often happens, once you make a discovery, you hear people referring to it, as if the universe is talking directly to you. Was Brenda Ueland always in the air but I hadn’t caught whiff? I learned that she lived in Linden Hills, Minneapolis, Minnesota. That’s MY state; that’s MY city; that’s MY neighborhood. I heard people talk about how she would be seen walking around the Lake Harriet – that’s MY lake.

2720 W. 44th Street, Minneapolis, MN
Photo courtesy of Save Brenda’s House Facebook page

During the year of 2016, I sat at home, writing my book, The Tell Me More Gesture: How (and Why) to Welcome Conflict (manuscript in preparation). In February 2017, I became aware that there was a legal battle going on to save Brenda Ueland’s house at 2720 West 44th Street from demolition. I had no idea that she had lived ½ block from my home! Neighbors, admirers, and historians were trying mightily to save Ms. Ueland’s home – where she “wrote columns, sold advertising, held salons, walked and swam the lake, fought against animal cruelty, championed women’s equality, and kept robust diaries.” (Rosenblum, 2017)

I joined a Facebook group called Save Brenda’s House, and there I saw a reference to one particular essay of hers. So I ran to my copy of Strength to Your Sword Arm, and there on page four begins her wonderful essay entitled, My House On 44th Street. It’s true! We’re neighbors! Yes, well, sort of. She died in 1985 and I moved into Linden Hills in 1995, but it feels like we’re neighbors.

Although she died ten years before my moving to Linden Hills, I felt disappointed, as if I been cheated of the opportunity to think of her every day, even several times a day, as I passed her home while departing from and arriving to my own home. I began doing exactly what I, unknowingly, had been denied. I started thinking of her every single time I went by her house. I considered what her life might have been like and the positive effect she had on other people – writers, artists, and neighbors.

“When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.“ (Ueland, p. 205.)

After just a few weeks of my new awareness of the exact location of Ms. Ueland’s home, I drove down 44th toward home, as usual. There on my left was a vacant lot where Ms. Ueland’s unassuming home once stood – a sad and startling moment.


The empty lot and me. 2720 W. 44th Street, Minneapolis, MN

The lot where Ms. Ueland’s home once stood continues to have meaning for me. As I pass it, I think of how her presence infused the neighborhood with creativity and passion. I love that she normalized these traits – they are not necessarily gifts of greatness, they are a normal part of human existence. The house was physical proof of her living and walking and swimming and being part of this small community. I missed her, but nevertheless, she is a part of me, even if it’s merely my own selfish desire to find commonality and feel connected to her.

“We should all know this: that listening, not talking, is the gifted and great role, and the imaginative role. And the true listener is much more beloved, magnetic than the talker, and he is more effective, and learns more and does more good. And so try listening. Listen to your wife, your husband, your father, your mother, your children, your friends; to those who love you and those who don’t, to those who bore you, to your enemies. It will work a small miracle. And perhaps a great one.” (Ueland, p. 210.)

Please feel free to comment here about your own favorite Brenda Ueland stories or writings. Or other thoughts?

Resources:

Rosenblum, G., http://www.startribune.com/there-s-a-big-battle-to-save-author-brenda-ueland-s-little-house-in-linden-hills/414663393/

Ueland, B., Strength To Your Sword Arm, Duluth, MN, 1993, Holy Cow Press.

 

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