Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.
Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.
In the basement of the crack house I used to visit
as an outreach worker on 121st street in Harlem,
I was convinced He refused
to travel north of 96th. I wrote a letter
to Joanna on her mission in Taiwan, detailed
each irrefutable piece of evidence proving
we are all, in fact, alone.
Told her about the nine-year-old orphan
forced to sell her body
for three years before ending up just off
Times Square, discarded in a dumpster.
I told her about the eldest son
who answered a burglar’s call and was shot,
paralyzed from the waist down. I asked her
about drought and famine and endless
civil wars—what lessons does His book
When her heart rate dropped by half in less
than a minute, the population of our cramped
hospital room tripling in a handful of seconds,
I grasped for anything that would keep me
upright. At first, the wall: cool and steady,
demanding my body ascend beyond what seemed
possible. Then, nothing,
no one. I stood in the waiting room
of the O.R. waiting to be called in,
to find out if my child had survived.
I spent each second trying to pull tiny shoe-coverings
over my too-large feet. I confessed every wrong
of my life to an empty, over-lit room of steel
and sterile instruments that all reflected back
distorted versions of myself. I fumbled
for any prayer I could remember, hoping
that I had all along been mistaken about the hollow
blackness of the infinite sky. I never wanted
so badly to have been wrong
about anything in my life—
and then a disembodied
voice called out, seemingly only to me—
a tiny growl at first that blossomed
into a wail dwarfing any thought my mind
could possibly hold, any faith
I’d ever been so foolish to claim.”
Give sorrow words…
I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.
They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year. It throws a shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard. We said no. Now they’ve hired someone to chainsaw an arm—the crux on our side of the fence—and my wife, in tousled hair and morning sweat, marches to stop the carnage, mid-limb. It reminds her of her childhood home, a shady place to hide. She recites her litany of no, returns. Minutes later, the neighbors emerge. The worker points to our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not me, slide out of view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast table, steam of tea, our two young daughters now alone. I want no trouble. Must I fight for my wife’s desire for yellow blooms when my neighbors’ tomatoes will stunt and blight in shade? Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love. Like the baby brought to Solomon, someone must give. Dear neighbor, it’s not me. Bloom-shadowed, light-deprived, they lower the chainsaw again.
Thus I visited each of my friends in turn, trying, with fumbling fingers, to prise open their locked caskets. I went from one to the other holding my sorrow—no, not my sorrow but the incomprehensible nature of this our life—for their inspection. Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends, I to my own heart, I to seek among phrases and fragments something unbroken…
“Standing at the swell of the muddy Mississippi
after the urgent care doctor had just said, Well,
sometimes shit happens, I fell fast and hard
for New Orleans all over again. Pain pills swirling
in the purse along with a spell for later. It’s taken
a while for me to admit, I am in a raging battle
with my body, a spinal column thirty-five degrees
bent, vertigo that comes and goes like a DC Comics
villain nobody can kill. Invisible pain is both
a blessing and a curse. You always look so happy,
said a stranger once as I shifted to my good side
grinning. But that day, alone on the riverbank,
brass blaring from the Steamboat Natchez,
out of the corner of my eye, I saw a girl, maybe half my age,
dressed, for no apparent reason, as Wonder Woman.
She strutted by in all her strength and glory, invincible,
eternal, and when I stood to clap (because who wouldn’t have),
she bowed and posed like she knew I needed a myth—
a woman, by a river, indestructible.”
Listening is an act of love. An art form. A skill that you can cultivate and practice.
Listening is a gift of silence, of learning, of putting to bed your hungry words so that you can scoop up the voice of another person and hold it in the space between your life and theirs.
What an intimacy this can be. Your ears astute, a person’s story heard, a thread to bind you in a window of time.
Have you felt that before? I have. It’s divine.
Our world is noisy. It’s getting noisier by the day. Peace and quiet often seem out of reach. People feel unheard, left out, alone. The shouting is getting louder. The fences are growing taller. We have created a world where only the voices we are comfortable hearing can be heard and we grow narrow by this apathy. We dismiss each other. We turn our backs. We create an echo chamber that cages us all.
Listening well is a way to untether yourself from this madness. A way to move toward love and a more expansive understanding. A way to grow up and grow wise.
Listening is not passive. It requires your breath and your presence. You must call on your patience and your strength. Listening asks more from you than talking ever will.
Talking is easy and we know it.
But can you be curious and open without shutting the doors of your mind too quickly? Can you sense the fear that lives inside of us all? The love and the longing as well? Can you breathe into the beating heart and expanding lungs? Can you remember that we all have blood and bones and one day none of that at all?
Can you skip a beat? Can you skip two?
There are times to make your voice heard. There are years when your story must be told and when your silence is not a gift. Shout it then. Write it. Paint it. Sing it. Let no one and nothing stop you. And then there are times to prop up those ears and lift your chin. Offer up your beautiful attention.
As we move into the rest of this truly breathtaking year and into the rest of our lives, can you study the art of listening? Can you shake up the talking vs. listening ratio? Can you let this listening strengthen you and not get the best of you? Can you become more than you ever were before?
These are questions I ask myself and so here I offer them to you.
Living is a conversation with no end, a dance with no steps, a song with no words, a reason too big for any mind.
No matter how we turn or are turned, the magnificence follows….
The suffering is what makes you appreciate the joy. The path to joy, like sadness, did not lead away from suffering and adversity but through it.