“You just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’ll understand
We all need somebody to lean on”
— written and recorded by Bill Withers in April 1972.

The signs are posted on all the walls of my gym. You are in the home of the “Judgment Free Zone.” I’m thinking about that concept, the idea of a judgment free zone, as I set the incline and difficulty on the elliptical machine I’m about to walk on.
There are two voices in my head, one telling me to play it safe and keep the settings on the easiest levels, and the other voice pushing me to make the workout a little more challenging. I take the safe course, afraid of doing more harm than good. The conversation in my head continues, though, as I look around the room and observe people lifting weights, running on treadmills, pedaling on bicycles and working all their muscle groups in their attempts to get fit. I keep comparing, in spite of the signs that are telling me not to do that.
And I find myself wondering if it’s even possible to be free of judgment, whether it’s about myself or about other people. Is the mind just naturally like a referee, constantly forming opinions? I take this thought process a step further. Do I know anyone who is judgment free?
An image forms, a memory of a person and a place. The person is my mother, and the place is the entry hall of my childhood home. I can see the tiled floor in beige and gold tones, the staircase covered in a plush gold carpet, and nestled in the corner between the wall and the stairs in a little alcove, is a piece of furniture known as a telephone table. It’s actually a chair attached to a table, with the chair part formed of wrought iron, the seat made of a yellow colored material, and the tabletop a marble-like formica. A white telephone sits on it, the receiver placed atop its cradle, with a long spiral cord attaching the two pieces. Underneath, on a glass shelf, are stored an assortment of telephone books providing suburban and business phone numbers.
Mom logged in untold hours seated at that table, both talking and listening, from the time we moved into the house in 1951, until her passing 60 years later. She would give her full attention to whomever was at the other end of the line, a friend, a relative and very often me. There was no such thing as multitasking in those days. I could always rely on her to accept my feelings, to respect my opinions and to listen without judgment. If I asked for advice, she would give it, but only if I asked. I knew I could lean on her, could pour out my problems and could always count on her.
I wish now that I had asked her how she could do that, listen without judging, offering a no-strings-attached friendship. Is there a secret formula to achieving that ability? For me, and perhaps for most people, it continues to be a struggle. I bring my thoughts back to the present, my feet still following the movement of the elliptical machine, and I tell myself I’ll keep trying to remember my gym’s slogan. “You are in a judgment free zone.”