I’M IN THE middle of the Pennsylvania countryside, not far from Lancaster. It’s July, and fields of bright green corn line the winding roads.
My grandfather has finally died at the age of 96, and I’m driving to his funeral to honor him.
I’m going to talk about him there, the massive impact he had on me, during the Open Mic we have afterward. Most likely, this will worry my large, extended family. They don’t know this story, and my grandfather is already the black sheep of our family.
But then again, I am too.
The car I’m driving is a rental car — ugly and grey. I’m alone, and I’m beginning to realize just how different the American Heartland is from my new world in Los Angeles.
I’ve just begun therapy there.
Maybe it’s my new awareness of boundaries, instilled during the sessions I’ve begun. Or perhaps the lack of boundaries. I can tell my perspective has changed.
I know my family views me differently. Perhaps I’ve shifted in the way I view them.
They don’t like where I live — the Babylon of the world. They don’t like the fact that I have a female roommate. They don’t like the fact that I’m teaching at a private school where wealthy and famous people send their children … all of this makes my family look at me sideways.
Not that they don’t have a reason.
As I drive through the twisting roads, I glance at the map, trying to find my way to the church where my grandfather’s funeral will be held. Suddenly I feel it, the constricting bands, soft but ruthless, beginning to wrap around my chest. It’s like air being sucked out of my lungs.
It feels all too familiar — yet once again, frightening as hell.
I pull my car off to the side of the road, slamming it into park. I focus on trying to breathe, trying to relax, trying to catch my breath.
I think about the crowd of cousins and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles who are waiting for me at the church ahead.
The invisible band wrapping my chest tightens.
That’s when I dig into my pocket, pull out my flip phone, and scroll through the names on the small screen — friend after friend after friend.
No. No. No.
They don’t have the attention to give me right now.
None of them will understand my reaction. None of them will understand how I am feeling. None of them will understand why my family causes such tension, such confusion when I think about them.
None of them will understand, that is, except Alice. She’s the only person who really gets my reaction to my family. She’s the last person I saw just before I left Los Angeles for this trip to the Heartland.
It’s why I need to talk to her. To hear her insights before I face my estranged family, the myriad aunts, uncles, cousins — who seem so familiar, yet so distant right now.
My finger hovers over her name.
It is then — parked alongside the road, feeling stupid for even having this panic attack, but not sure what else to do — I hit Send.
I FIRST MET Alice at the Belwood Bakery located just across the busy boulevard fronting The Archer School in Los Angeles, where I taught. It was late afternoon, and when I walked in the door, a gaggle of eight middle-school girls crowded past me and up to the counter.
Beneath the glass, beautiful pastries crowded the shelves. My students, excited by the impending sugar rush, pointed to chocolate croissants, berry tarts, apple galettes. Behind the counter, the patient bakers answered their questions, slipping warm pastries into small, crisp bags.
I stood watching them, sipping my cappuccino. I would come back later for my own snack, perhaps on the way home to my apartment just down the street.
That’s when Alice spoke to me.
“Are these all yours?” Her full voice, deep and resonant, got my attention.
I glanced over at my questioner. Heavy rings decorated her narrow fingers, which clutched a small bag with its flaky pastry. Curly, auburn hair ridged her carefully manicured face, which was framed by tortoise shell glasses. Bright, curious eyes peered up at me.
“What are you doing with all of them?”
I smiled. “I’m the sucker,” I noted drily, gesturing at a blackberry tart with its fine sprinkle of white powder. “They’re using me to get to that.” Alice laughed, her voice suddenly high, a laugh I would hear many times in the future. “You poor man.”
I chuckled, then reached out to shake her hand.
“I’m their teacher,” I said. “Every afternoon, they try to find a teacher who will agree to walk them across the street. I’m usually in my classroom, grading papers, so they ask me.”
I eyed her, taking in her burgundy jacket. “So who are you?”
“You’re very kind. I’m Alice Aspen March. I live just down the street, and I come here every afternoon. I notice everyone. So when I saw you with all these girls, I had to ask.”
A moment of comfortable silence opened between us as we watched the last girl order her snack.
“So what do you do?” I gestured to her purchases. “You know. When you’re not buying an eclair or a mocha latte.”
Alice smiled mysteriously.
“I teach people about The Attention Factor® — and how it can change their lives.”
I MET PEOPLE easily back then, and in Los Angeles, so did everyone else. Meetings didn’t mean much. But usually, I didn’t run into the same person two days in a row.
Alice was different.
The next day, bringing another group of students — I was a soft touch — I met her once more as I came in the door.
“You again,” she said. She chortled. “We’ll have to quit meeting like this.”
“Yes,” I said, finishing the line. “People will talk.”
It was such an old line, and the fact we both found it funny made us oddly comfortable.
“What do you do?” she asked. “I can tell you’re not just a teacher.” Perhaps I should have resented that, but I didn’t.
“I’m a writer,” I said. “I’m working on a novel.”
“I have a book inside me too,” Alice replied. “What’s yours about?”
By the time I had explained my complicated novel (which would never see the light of day), it was time for me to return my students. Alice decided we should meet for coffee — this time when we had more time to talk.
She wanted to talk to me about her book.
IT WAS SOMETHING I would hear Alice talk about many times, the book she had within her (and is still working on). As I grew to know her, I realized her central concept demanded a paradigm shift — a change in people’s perspectives, allowing them to see and improve their most important relationships.
Parents to children. Spouse to spouse. Teachers to students.
Our cup of coffee several Saturday mornings later left us more to talk about, which led to dinner in Westwood Village followed by a new documentary film. Several dinners and movies later, I realized that although Alice was of an age when most people were long retired, she was just getting started. In fact, she was one of the most driven women I had ever met.
Driven by her mission, that is.
It took me awhile to understand it. I found over the years that’s true for most people. The concept seems too simple. Everyone knows what attention is — trying to explain it is like trying to define air. Why spend time talking about something scientists analyzed over a century ago?
But as Alice and I continued to talk, her concept of attention slowly took shape.
I remember a lunch we had in an outdoor cafe in Santa Monica. We were talking about our families — lingering over a decadent, chocolate dessert — when I finally began to tell Alice about my father’s childhood.
My description of Grandpa Denlinger made Alice especially curious.
He was absent during most of my father’s childhood, I told her. And he somehow managed to “marry” a second wife without telling his first. Essentially, he forced my father to become the Man of the House at the age of 12.
“So he stole your father’s childhood,” she told me. Absentmindedly, I crossed my arms over my chest, my shoulders pulling in.
“You might say that, yeah.”
“This all makes sense.” She considered me, her gaze thoughtful. “Did your father ever realize what he lost? Does he know why he was so angry all the time?”
I had told her more than I realized.
“I don’t know,” I said, reticent. In spite of the warm sunshine, I suddenly shivered. “I’ll have to think about it.”
Alice watched me for a moment, then rose to her feet, clutching her purse.
“There’s a wonderful documentary on blind children playing in Westwood Village,” she said. “How about I take you to see it?”
IT WAS SEVERAL weeks before I was ready to return to our conversation. Alice didn’t pressure me. But when I finally did bring it up again, Alice told me something new.
“I think your father never got the kind of attention he needed. And for that reason, he wasn’t able to give it to you.”
It made sense — god, so much sense. This time, I wasn’t shivering. The world around me suddenly seemed warm, beautiful. Watching me, Alice laughed.
It was a rollicking laugh of sheer happiness.
“I think there’s a reason we met,” she said. “You needed to learn how to give to others the attention your father never gave you.”
But that was several days ago. Now I was all alone in Pennsylvania, far away from my network of friends in Los Angeles, far away from the support Alice offered. I needed to figure out why I was having such a meltdown. And right now, the only person who could help me do that was Alice.
I LOOKED AT my cell phone. I remembered too late the time difference.
“Hello.” It was Alice’s voice. “Is that you, Steven?” She sounded half-awake, but she was there.
I tried to explain — through jerky, short breaths — what I was feeling.
“Oh, Steven,” she said. The empathy in her voice was clear. “You must be feeling so isolated.” She was wide-awake now. “Your family doesn’t understand you. They don’t know how to respond to you.”
A momentary pause.
“You’re nothing like your family, you know,” Alice said.
“I know,” I said. “Looks like I take after my grandfather. Another black sheep.” I was trying for humor, but my voice broke.
“I remember his story.” She laughed. Her voice was clearer now, warmer.
“Alice” — the pressure in my chest was starting to ease — “I’m at my grandfather’s funeral. But my family doesn’t really understand him. I mean, he never shared anything really personal with anyone. So all they know is that he raised two families, neither of them knowing about — I mean, my father didn’t even know he had three half-sisters until he was in his 50s.”
“Your grandfather never got the kind of attention he needed,” Alice mused.
I bristled. “My grandfather was the center of attention when he came home —”
“That’s not the kind of attention I mean,” Alice shot back. “I’m talking about the right kind of attention. Everyone’s need for attention is different. People need to listen to each other in order to discover this.”
I stopped trying to think of a response.
“Your grandfather didn’t get the right attention,” Alice said. “So he wasn’t able to give your father the attention he needed as a child. And now, you’re facing the same problem. That’s the reason you feel the way you do right now. You know in your bones that when you face your family at the funeral, nothing will have changed.”
“Of course I’m right,” Alice said. “I’ve been watching this play out in people’s lives since 1980.”
I suddenly realized that I was breathing normally again. Something had happened. I took a deep breath.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” Alice said. “So what are you going to do at your grandfather’s funeral?”
“I’m going to tell them a story.” I glanced over at the map, then out at the Holstein cow grazing its way towards the fence. “They’ve invited his children and grandchildren to talk about their memories of Grandpa. I want to talk about the time my grandfather bought me dinner just before I left for London.”
“It sounds like he gave you the kind of attention you needed,” Alice said. “You’re okay now, aren’t you.”
It wasn’t a question.
OVER DINNER WHEN I returned, Alice explained to me The Attention Factor®, telling stories from the seminars where she had taught about it.
“I try to give people an opportunity to know that attention is our primary need,” she said. “It runs the world. When you don’t get it, you need to act out. People will do anything to get it.”
She had listened to the story I told my family after the funeral.
I had told them about how my grandfather met me at Dulles International Airport when I was leaving for London for a year of study. In reality, I was fleeing my Amish-Mennonite faith culture.
I told them about the way my grandfather bought me an expensive steak dinner at the best restaurant in the airport, proudly introducing me to the waiter as his grandson, bragging to everyone about my prestigious Rotary Foundation Scholarship.
I told them about the stories from his own life he shared — perhaps realizing the deep fears I was experiencing about the future — in order to calm me and boost my confidence.
“He had to know how isolated I was feeling,” I told Alice. “That’s why I’ll never forget that meal. That’s why I love my grandfather, no matter how screwed up his own life was.”
Alice’s eyes never left my face as I told that story. At the end, she sighed.
“Your grandfather finally got it,” she said. “He offered you attention. It’s our core need. You know it was also your grandfather’s need, don’t you? That’s why he knew how to give it to you.”
She chose her next words carefully.
“Your family doesn’t understand the importance of attention,” she said. “That’s why you’re struggling.”
It was still several years before I would write about my grandfather on HuffPost, but for the first time — after talking to Alice about that moment — my grandfather’s story finally made sense.
ALICE CALLED IT The Attention Factor® — she had trademarked the phrase — and she said it was a key requirement for someone’s health. She’d studied it all her life, she told me. It was her life’s work. According to Alice, she had done enough work for a Ph.D.
“When did you first figure this out?” I asked Alice. She finished her bite of chocolate, wiping her mouth carefully so as not to disturb the lipstick.
“I’ve been talking about attention since 1980 when I realized my youngest son wasn’t getting the attention he needed,” she said. “He had begun to act out. He had gotten into trouble at school.”
It was obvious to me the moment still caused her pain. “I wasn’t being a good enough mother,” she reflected.
ALICE’S GREATEST GIFT is her ability to listen, to make a person feel like they are the most amazing person on earth. It’s the ability of a star. When Alice enters a room, people pay attention. They want to know who she is.
Her ability to help me see my family, to understand my grandfather, made me trust her. The fact that I could call her, the fact that she was able to talk me down off the ledge of a panic attack, told me she was a friend I could trust.
She practiced what she preached.
Over the next few years, I spent a lot of time with Alice. Even though she was 32 years older than I, we had a lot in common. She led an active life, she loved to drive, and she loved attending cultural events, especially documentary films.
Wherever we went — whether it was at a museum, or an original show, or just another fine restaurant — I saw her connect with people on every walk of life.
I remember one evening stopping by her spacious apartment in Brentwood after she returned from a weekend with her family in Austin. She pulled out a photo of herself looking up at … who was that? Yes, it was. Presidential candidate Barack Obama.
One of her sons had introduced her to him at a political event.
Alice wasn’t afraid to talk to anyone. And when Alice couldn’t find someone to go with, she didn’t stay home and pity herself. Instead, as she put it to me, “I took myself out for dinner and a movie.” More often than not, she’d meet someone, strike up a conversation, and voila — suddenly, she had a new friend.
Alice still loves to name-drop — as I look through her Facebook pages, I see pictures of her with Arianna Huffington, Bill Clinton, Carlos Santana. When I first encountered this, it annoyed me, but eventually I realized she just loved talking to talented, interesting people.
Perhaps it’s the kind of attention she needs.
IT’S POSSIBLE ALICE might have become just one of the many interesting people I knew in Los Angeles — however, she won my eternal friendship by supporting me during one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made.
It occurred in January 2007.
That was the month I decided to leave The Archer School. The key conversation occurred with my assistant headmistress. The resulting decision — familiar to anyone who has ever had to leave a job they loved — still makes that day one of the most painful in my life.
My choice was complicated, and it involved school politics, a clash of strong personalities and deep misunderstanding. The end result was a feeling of betrayal, rejection, and devastation. I had loved working there, I decided, but I would leave at the end of the year.
One of the first people I called was Alice.
“I’ll pick you up at 6 p.m. tonight — be out in front of your place,” she ordered. “I’m going to buy you dinner.”
Over a succulent dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Alice listened, asking questions.
As I told the story amid quiet service, white linen, and gleaming silver, Alice listened carefully, her eyes focused on me. I felt her empathy. And at the end, she made a prediction.
“You’re going to land a much better high school teaching position. Wait and see. Archer doesn’t deserve you.”
It wasn’t true. I knew the mistakes I had made. I knew the choices I could have made. I knew — and this was the most difficult thing — that I wasn’t even sure I ever wanted to teach again anywhere.
But by then, I trusted Alice.
Alice was a little off on the timing. It took me four years to return to teaching high school — I tried teaching part-time for an online university — but eventually I did.
WHEN I FINALLY left Los Angeles, I came home for a year to Hartville, Ohio. I spent that year with my parents, who had begun their final years.
My mother was suffering from congestive heart failure and in hospice. But my father had just turned 80, and was working at a nursing home — rather than living there, like so many of his peers. As the entertainment director, he played his guitar at the bedsides of dying patients. People asked for him, specifically.
They loved my father.
More specifically, I saw how much he loved my mother. I saw the way he focused on helping her through her illness. He gave new meaning to his vow, “In sickness and in health.”
I’m not sure I would have realized this five years previously But now with Alice’s teaching infusing my consciousness, I saw a completely different side of my father.
No longer was he the angry parent, screaming at his children when they made a mistake. Patience had become part of his character. His voice was soft now, gentle. He played his guitar for his grandchildren, for me, for residents of the local nursing home. He had slowed down, a lot.
I noticed other things.
At noon, my father would arrive home — his whole body alive, his eyes alight — to have lunch with my mother. I saw them play games together late into the evening. I saw my mother’s ability to pay attention to others and saw the love people had for her.
I saw the attention my father paid to God. He spent hours on his knees in the morning, praying. I saw the long list of people he prayed for. I saw his need for attention as a musician, and I spent time singing with him.
And I saw his eyes light up whenever one of his children or grandchildren chose to spend time with him.
Perhaps he had moved beyond the damage he had experienced as a child, abandoned by his father. Perhaps he was allowing people to give him the attention he needed.
SOMETHING TRANSFERRED THAT year to me.
In 1997 at a Halloween party, when I first met Laura — the woman who would become my wife — I was teaching in North Canton, Ohio. She was living in Washington, D.C. I fell for her, hard. She still remembers the moment she saw me for the first time.
We dated off and on for three years.
But in April 2001, we admitted we didn’t have it, whatever it was. We simply couldn’t go the distance. When Laura was offered the chance to become deputy director of a diplomatic mission in Moscow — and I seemed uncertain about whether I might want to come visit — she accepted it.
I remained behind. Later that year, I moved to Los Angeles.
When she married two years later, she sent me the pictures (which I hated). Then she reached out to me, asking for my help as a writer: she had decided to publish historical romance. And so we worked together as fellow writers for six years.
Several weeks after I moved home, Laura called me. Two of her books had sold. I congratulated her.
By January, she had called me several times more, the last time to tell me her marriage was dissolving. She would never love again, she told me.
I didn’t believe her.
Instead, I decided a chance at love had landed in my lap. And I knew what I needed to do. This was in part thanks to Alice’s mentoring. Relationships fail, she had told me many times because they don’t get the right kind of attention.
I needed to learn what kind of attention Laura needed.
Here I needed to change. For example, Alice had told me once — straightforwardly, but gently and with humor — that during our many conversations, there were times I drifted in and out of focus, probably thinking of other things. She understood, but Laura might not. If I intended to build a marriage, I needed to make Laura the center of my world.
Just like my father did with my mother.
I carried with me now every conversation I’d had with Alice. Together, they had given me a new paradigm through which I viewed the world.
This time with Laura, I didn’t make the same mistakes. We met in Columbus at a writer’s conference. Then I flew out to Pasco, Washington, where she was living. In August 2010, she flew to Ohio to meet my family. Somewhere along the way, we met in Seattle.
Eight months after connecting, we created a home in North Seattle.
NOW THOSE CONVERSATIONS I’d had with Alice began to make sense.
I remember one night after I had moved to Seattle, and I was feeling stressed. I left my sleeping partner and padded out to the Great Room, which overlooked Lake Washington. The sky was black, the water still.
I was struggling to come to grips with my new life. I would soon to be Laura’s husband. Having so many new responsibilities, having a family to care for, giving up my own preferences for my fiance’s — it all made me realize that love meant valuing someone else’s needs over my own.
I turned to the example of my father. During my year at home, I had seen the way he made choices, always guided by his love for my mother. As a married man, I would now have to do the same.
I thought back to the conversations I had had with Alice. In my head, I could hear her voice.
Your fiance needs your attention, Steven. How can you best give her that?
It was then I knew, looking out over the lake, that giving Laura the kind of attention she needed was the kind of love my father tried to give my mother every day of their married life. He didn’t always succeed. But I never doubted he tried.
It was then I realized the true power of The Attention Factor®.
The power of attention, as Alice put it, was actually the power of love.
ALICE ASPEN MARCH is a true Soul Teacher because of the paradigm she created. Thanks to that paradigm, I’ve learned to view the people in my life differently.
Recently, I was chatting with a close friend of mine, someone who has worked with me for 25 years. I was talking through this column, explaining once again Alice’s idea of attention and its importance. My friend agreed.
“You’ve changed a lot since your marriage,” she remarked. “You’re easier to work with. You notice people in a way you didn’t before. You pay attention to me differently.”
It was a remarkable tribute to the transformative power of Alice’s work.
Today, Alice lives in a comfortable apartment in Manhattan. She still flies around the world to see friends and family, or to teach seminars about her work. Last year when I was in at Columbia University with my journalism students, I met her nearby for lunch. Recently, she was a major speaker at NYU Hospital in Manhattan for a Heal the Heart Lecture Series.
As far as I can tell, she hasn’t slowed down a bit.
I recently interviewed Alice by Skype, and at the end of our conversation, I felt moved to tell her something important.
So I stopped taking notes.
“Your work changed my life,” I said to her, looking at her on the screen as I leaned forward. “What I’ve learned from you about The Attention Factor® has changed my relationships — especially the one I share with my wife. I’m truly grateful for that.”
Even on the video screen, I could see in Alice’s eyes that she was moved by my remark. It made me realize how few times we stop to express our appreciation to others.
It’s the sort of thing you wish you could do more often.
You can reach Alice Aspen March to email or book her as a speaker at alice