When Wednesdays roll around, I try to make them a writing day, or at the very least a day to do "writerly" things. I’m not one to fit a little writing into the nooks and crannies of time during the course of an ordinary day…I wish I was that kind of creative. I prefer wide, open spaces of time to do whatever I’m doing, whether it’s, cleaning, shopping, gardening, writing, etc. I’m not sure why-maybe I believe that amount of focus is needed to gain a deeper, broader experience, maybe it’s an inability to transition well, or a dislike of transitions altogether. Whatever it is, it prompts me to spend as much of Wednesday as possible engrossed in some form of creative reflection or action. This Wednesday was no different.
In the morning I got out my little “writing devotional” by Natalie Goldberg called Writing Down theBones. If you’ve attended any type of writing symposium, conference or workshop, someone there undoubtedly referred to or recommended it. It had been awhile since I last read an entry, so when it opened to the present chapter, I was pleased to see the title; Listening, the word I chose in January as my word for the year. The choice has proven to be somewhat prophetic for me.
Before I sit down to write, I usually take a walk with the dog, both to expend some her energy and to energize myself. More snow was falling but so lightly that it barely hit my glasses. I picked up my camera, only to remember I hadn’t charged the battery, blinking low from last evening’s walk. I said out loud, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to listen.”
The soft, wet snow of yesterday had turned brittle from melting and refreezing. It was harder to walk in but easier to hear. My biped footsteps crunched out in half-time compared to the double-time music of my dog trotting ahead. We stopped to listen a few times; a song sparrow, a crow, a blue jay in the distances. I could hear nothing else in the cold, muffled stillness, until we stopped near a small beech tree, still laden with faded, crinkled leaves. There, the soft pelting of snow created a quiet, low tinkling on the leaves. The same could be heard as I stood under a canopy of young oaks further up the trail. After the morning reading, I asked myself, What is the lesson here?
I know the basic science. Some trees, though deciduous, have marcescent leaves, or leaves that remain on the branch even though they are dead. Those remaining leaves, dry and hard, vibrate when the snow hits them, creating sound waves. Those waves travel to our ears and we hear the sound. And there are many theories as to why trees in the beech family retain their leaves; adaptations to living on dry, cold ridges, or deer-infested environments, or just a sign that they are delayed in their evolution, but on their way to becoming fully deciduous. Those are the marvelous and wonderful facts.
But I was interested in the symbolism of that moment. Why only just a few trees in the landscape that reflect back the sound of the snow, or the rain, or the wind? As I stood listening, I wondered if maybe they teach us there are precious few people in our lives we should listen to; people who have stood the test of time, have integrity, and will speak wisdom to the eardrums of our hearts. Or maybe it reminds us that it takes a long time to let other voices fall silent before we can listen to our own.
I discovered one of those precious and few voices through a book club called Souljourners. For the last four years we have explored the inner landscape of our lives through authors such as Richard Rohr, Brene’ Brown, Parker Palmer, and Rachel Held Evans. But for 2016, I wanted us to read something that pointed beyond ourselves, so I chose Parker Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. This is a political book that is not about politics, really. It was a bit of a risk to put forth in the group, but because the byline is, The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, it seemed to fit. And it has become one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read.
"The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?"
This first quote on the first page by Terry Tempest Williams both hooked my interest and bubbled up in me the resounding negative answer, “Probably not!” But there was still enough hope in me that I wanted to try.
Reading and discussing it has shown me that I am more adept at listening to nature than I am to people. Outside, I hear bird calls that others who are with me, don’t. I can differentiate between tonal qualities in bird songs for identification. I can hear the various layers of spring frogs and toads or summertime crickets and katydids, when my husband just hears one homogenized drone. I can also hear people when they talk or write…but now it seems I’m being challenged to listen more deeply to those with whom I disagree and engage, especially around politics. This is a true exercise of discipline for someone who is fairly opinionated, makes judgments easily (ISFJ), cares deeply about many issues, and inherited the “clever wit” gene from her father that, unchecked, can lead to some pretty fluent sarcasm. Yes, a hard exercise of discipline when an array of social media is at her fingertips. Still more work to do on the inner landscape, it seems.
“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles.”
Evidently, the Buddha, agrees. But there is no formula for personal transformation. It is mostly paying attention and responding to truth. Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes it’s birthed quietly out of the will. Sometimes it’s a surrender to the Spirit, and a trust that the surrender, in the end, leads to victory. But like beech trees in the snow, I am listening to Palmer's philosophy on the Five Habits of the Heart, to the women in the group who appreciate the positive side of my negative tendencies, and to the bits and pieces of wisdom that randomly, yet perfectly, drop onto my radar. Like the words from this morning’s reading.
“Listening is receptivity."
"The deeper you can listen, the better you can write.”
Or become a more productive citizen, or empathetic friend, or knowledgeable naturalist, or gracious adversary. Perhaps delayed in my spiritual evolution but on my way to becoming fully receptive…one more pesky, but healthier, transition.