Listening in Hard TImes

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?
—Terry Tempest Williams (Epigraph from Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy) Listening-by-Meganne-Forbes

I’ve been listening a lot lately. In this contentious and uncertain election season, I’ve been riveted and repulsed. I’ve felt my own stirrings of both rebellion and remove as arguments flare and people yell over one another; as true conversation becomes impossible in the face of so much bombast and frank violence. This season is hard on the heart. But then again, every season is hard on the heart.

I understand that a lot is at stake. Our political system is deeply flawed. Money and moneyed power owns our system. This disenfranchises LOTS of people. This leads to full-on disillusionment and a leaning away from politics and toward—what—something else…. Dictatorship? Anarchy? There are voices on either end of the political spectrum calling for revolution. But what I hear in the crackling silence between volleys is an unnerving cultural vulnerability. A turn away from listening.

I think it’s true, as David Brooks pointed out in a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, our founding fathers chose politics, specifically Democracy, as an ordering principle of our republic, they laid a foundation for the messy work of compromise and its evolution within an evolving nation. Fundamental to this is a recognition of deep diversity, competing needs, agendas, and the aspiration that, even if not everyone gets every single thing they want, the democratic process offers the promise of listening to many voices and enacting policies that will uphold our constitution and support and evolve policies that impact lives for the greater good, not just in the interest of the privileged few. Our “process” requires engagement. It requires civil conversation. It requires the hardest work of both speaking and listening.

Some of the most cynical among us might say “Beth, that ‘civil-discourse train’ left the station long ago…, these times require something else.” And perhaps they would not be wrong. With all the injustices we see every day—where black lives, women’s and children’s lives, poor people’s and minority lives still do not matter, within our system—it is hard not to be cynical. It’s hard not to scream. The desire to shout—no, shriek and rail, is powerful.

At times like this, I think about my choice to work in small circles of light. When so much on the world stage seems to call for bigger actions and a fight that overwhelms my nervous system, I re-visit my choices about where I work to make a difference in this messy world.

I still consider myself a part of the sister and brotherhood of legions who spent years working on the front lines with disenfranchised people, the poor, children, the ill, the incarcerated, and within well-meaning systems meant to support them. I know their voices well. I’ve grown up, lived and worked with them, I’ve heard their stories and stood on courthouse steps with them. Some of us left that work in states of physical and emotional exhaustion. Some keep on keepin’ on and for this we should all be grateful, and I personally believe, find ways to stand behind them.

I have chosen the action of bringing women together in writing circles to tell their stories, to drop their assumptions and embrace the deep diversity among us. I continue to choose this work in the world with any group of people who wish not only to find their voice in the world, but to listen—to really listen to the other voices in the room and allow the words we both write and hear to transform us. Believe me, I’m well aware of the privileged position from which this choice of vocation has been afforded me.

Still, I choose what is in alignment with who I am and my native gifts as an awesome listener and facilitator—this: We gather around sacred things, poetry, a candle, flowers, the presumption of goodwill. We create containers to contain our best intentions, our fears, our habituated behaviors-in-search-of-softening where, together and alone we navigate the shadow and light of what makes, sustains, and challenges us to manifest our creative powers in the world.

These circles take place mostly (and purposely) far from the madding crowd. Quietly. For all that is aesthetically lovely, and peaceful about our settings, the community work of engaging with one another is also arduous. Over the years I’ve seen the work we do in our writing circles fortify the engagement each feels called to when she leaves. The listening ripples out. This is my activism, my finger in the dyke, my tiny contribution to fortifying against our present day cultural vulnerability.

Where my own confidence and fear meet up, where the yearning to remain invisible and the yearning to be seen tussle, where curiosity and dread dance together—these struggles amplify in times when the stakes seem high and when more voices of sanity are needed in chaotic times. These are my leadership paradoxes of the moment. I think we all need allies to keep on keepin’ on in spite of looming threats to the exceedingly messy work of democracy. I truly hope each of us can find her own way and voice this season. Still, don’t forget to listen as well.

Beth Lodge-Rigal for the Poplar Grove Muse
Listening, watercolor by Meganne Forbes

A Forecast Feast

What if I took a bite of the sun?
Would it burn the roof of my mouth like pizza cheese right from the oven,
or make my mouth pucker like lemon juice does, a little sour.

What if I ate the stars, one by one?
Balanced them on my tongue,
cracked them like ice,
mashed them to bits with my molars.

What if I filled my cheeks with clouds,
so much so my mouth wouldn’t close?
Would they dissolve like cotton candy,
or fill my body with tear drops-
mine, maybe yours?

What if I sucked the colors of the rainbow up one by one?
Red and then orange, yellow, green, blue.
Slurped up the last drops- indigo and violet.

Lightning, a pretzel rod dipped in Thunder’s chocolate.
Raindrops and snow, sprinkled like the powdered sugar that lands on my french toast.

What if I gorged myself?
Took delight no matter the temperature,
grateful for each moment to taste.

My fastwrite from last week’s homeschool circle- inspired by the poem Celestial Craving by Melanie A. Rawls

– Kelly Sage

In Company

Lately, I have been spending a lot of time alone (well, technically, with our little shelter pup, who is spunky and hilarious and excellent company) at home, reading, writing, and not-working-on-the-clutter as much as I or my dear spouse might have hoped.

I like to think that I am restoring my quiet, working on the writing I have too long neglected in my life, rebuilding inner resources in ways I would be hard put to define, and anyway, my closest friends are mostly far away, busy with work, or investing in their own demanding artisanal creative processes.

Yet, I have simultaneously been exploring new ways of being in company with others that I find refreshing, productive in multiple ways, and enlightening in still others.

I am a huge, lifelong proponent of playing board games (ever since playing sprawling outdoor neighborhood games of Hide and Seek, Kick the Can, Starlight-Moonlight began to seem embarrassing and inappropriate for developing pre-teen girls, a tragic change that bears exploring another time). I don’t mean Scrabble, or the many, complicated new role-playing or nation-building games that a beloved relative wants to teach me, painstakingly and at great, effortful length. I mean simpler, more social games—Checkers, Boggle, Yahtzee, Casino, Hearts, Skip-Bo, Taboo, Balderdash, Connect Four, Password, Monopoly, Pop-a-matic Trouble (both Mean and Nice), to name only a few of our many family favorites—games that allow for some conversation, don’t demand too much effort or competition, and don’t make this word-person feel like a failure at something I supposedly should be good at (Scrabble).

file0002098961681The games I endorse offer chances to be in company and to get to know people, share experiences with them, in an indirect fashion.

But, still, there is only so much time for fun and games.

In recent years, my volunteer and social activities have taken on some of the same delightful spending-time-together-without- having-to-be-in-deep-conversation-or-intense-personal-interaction qualities I have long attributed to and loved about playing board games.

The newest of these is cleaning our communal Poplar Grove Schoolhouse in company with my sister Women-Writers-for-a-Change in Bloomington. A dear older friend, an only child, was delighted to marry into a large family of siblings and in-laws, and has loved taking on group projects and tasks with her now-sisters for many years; I think of this as much like that. We gather and divvy up a flexible set of chores, working around the accreted. treasured, and significant furnishings, large and small, communally contributed to this community, making it an even more pleasant and valued home base for shared events and efforts. But a tidier home is only part of the story. We are a wildly varied group of women, in origins, ages, interests, communication styles and even eagerness to communicate, you name it. I love this shared cleaning, perhaps most of all with the women the very most different from myself, working steadily in companionable mostly-silence, sharing the most onorous tasks as well as the most enjoyable. I leave feeling filled with a sense of companionship, humble accomplishment, and an essential, if not Highly Significant, contribution to a community we all love and value, and have built together. Our motto of “Presume Good Will” seems to me highly embodied and energized in this endeavor.

Another shared activity that allows for coming to know and care for individuals in a less-direct manner, in this case while undertaking a less tangible goal, is brought to life in the Poetry Detectives gathering on Second Saturdays, again at the Schoolhouse. This weekend, four of us appeared to discuss four very different poems, from four very different perspectives, but some months you might meet as many as twelve detectives, even some men, detecting significance and pleasure in an array of poetry some of us are encountering for the first time, some after many thoughtful readings. All observations (for this is largely the extent of what we claim to do) are welcomed and respected equally, entertained, expanded upon, but above all, enjoyed. I could hardly tell you anything “personal,” in a conventional sense, about my fellow word-and-meaning sleuths, but at another, very different level, I feel I have come to know them deeply and meaningfully. Come join us!

My last regular, communal commitment is working Setup Shift for Bloomington’s Interfaith Winter Shelter, now in its 6th season shared among area faith communities, including my own. From the beginning, I have worked setup with my minor daughters, who can work only this early no-contact-with-guests shift due to the Low Barrier nature of the shelter. Tonight, our usual Monday night crew was AWESOME, in and out in just over half an hour, a well-oiled machine. We lay out, most nights, 62 doubled mat sets with cased pillow, blanket, sheet, and a magnetically-numbered folding chair for a headboard/bedside table, in three different rooms for men/women/overflow; thread light-blocking blinds into exit doors; erect a dining area for soup, crackers, snacks, and decaf with salt and peppers on clean tabletops; place signage for restrooms and smoke schedules; set out breath mints, earplugs, and feminine hygiene products; inset tens of plastic bags to hold guests’ belongings for the night; cover congregational postings to protect the privacy of congregants/groups that meet in the building; then bid one another a cheery goodnight, walking anyone unaccompanied to their car. I leave, again, feeling that I have shared something precious with these individuals I have come to know through shared work and the values and beliefs in what really matters that this work signifies. I know their first names, but little else of any particular nature about them.

What ways do you like to “be in company” with others? What communities you participate in are precious to you? How can more of us find ways to bridge the seemingly insurmountable divides of ideology, politics, religion, race, class, age, and more, that Ruth Bader Ginsberg so eloquently addressed in her tribute to Supreme Court Justice and Best Opera Buddy Antonin Scalia?

Mary Peckham for The Poplar Grove Muse

The King of Wands

Prayer Flags“All I have is my love of love “– Bowie from Soul Love

1994. My first David Bowie album – Outside. Before Diamond Dogs, before Ziggy Stardust, before Space Oddity, or Aladdin Sane; before hearing changes, before becoming obsessed, before memorizing every song .  Outside.  Our soccer team stopped for a loud lunch at a forgettable place with a memorable record store nearby.  I evaded lunch, danced my fingers down CD cases, and spent all my money on an album.  Music was my food.  Back on the school bus in a seat alone, a panoply of modulating voice tones etched my mind.   I did not understand what I heard, and so the beginning of love.  Like Edgar Cayce’s books at twelve, things I didn’t understand were the things I came to cherish.  In my 20s, I remember thinking that it would be a difficult moment for me when David Bowie died.  I’m glad I made it into my 30s before he decided to leave.   Bowie was my fist pseudo granduncle stardust spiritual motherfather.  He stood a vessel of valiant, rebellious love.  He crafted a strange and inviting platform for me to sort out feelings of being born with the wrong body, time and place – flipped the world upside down – made feeling wrong, right.

In these last couple weeks of swirling words, album retrospect, and friend inquiries – pieces of my Bowielife mandala have risen to the surface.  Certain days feel completely normal and then like flash an ‘oh yeah’ moment sets in:  the college house on Smith Ave, David Bowie dance parties, rewatching  “I am a DJ” music videocassette over and over, meeting my second boyfriend by asking “do you like David Bowie?”   But before his passing, it’d been several years since I’d thought of him.  I’m not sad that he will no longer be here in physical form – or make any new albums.  Metaphysical Bowie is just as fascinating as embodied Bowie to me.  It’s only perfect of him, to continue his path of influence and magic even without a body.   I have a funny feeling we haven’t seen or heard the last of him.

I think this is part of what he was expressing with Blackstar:  when those who are loved disperse into non-physical those who’ve been touched with their soul love are forever marked in some way.  I’ve only been close enough with one other person who has died to have experience with this type of soul life transmission.  Although I feel more joy and celebration in his transition, I do wish I could remember more details about the two times I saw him live in person.   Both were difficult passages in my life where the toxins in my body clouded my ability to remember except once I was outside and once I was inside.  There are some other fuzzy details that come together as I trace the images of myself back through the glitter costumes and platform shoes I wore in his name.   When I think back, it’s clear that even the shaky moment when I paused playing rock and roll in pursuit of Zen Buddhist studies was highly influenced by Bowie.  Bowie would never compromise his truth.  He was a teacher of impermanence after all.

It seems fitting the way he left was much like ascended Zen masters and yogis who are conscious they are leaving or about to leave the physical plane.  The practice of writing a death poem has its origins in Zen Buddhism.   In Zen, it is tradition for masters to construct their “final verse” upon knowing their death.  It also seems fitting that the thunderbolt (or Dorje) is addition to the symbol for Ziggy Stardust is also the Tibetan Buddhist symbol for enlightenment – awakening.  “The Tibetan Dorje represents firmness and power of spirit; a symbol for the nature of reality, or sunyata, indicating endless creativity, potency, and skillful activity.”  Although the Dorje looks symbolically different than the lightning bolt – I like to draw my own mystical conclusion – that inside of Bowie was the soul of some enlightened gem.  There’s already been much research about David Bowie and his connection with mysticism – – but then again Bowie was a type of being that was connected with everything.  A physical being living as indra’s net, a nexus of interdependent origination.

I think the greatest legacy of Bowie will unfold over time as more stories emerge.  How did this one figure serve as nourishment to so many people transcending race, gender, class, countries, income brackets and status?  His life held a space for generations of people starving for something they could not name.   He existed simulataneously as himself and exactly what people needed to see in a performer.  He was like the devotional fire art dog to tribes of hungry human beasts.    And we’re all hungry for things we cannot name.

Allison for The Poplar Grove Muse


The Passing

grandpainwoodsWhen people die, we tend to want to put numbers on them and mark the moments of their life with dates, like bookends holding a life between them as if it were a real thing that could somehow be measured. I understand that need to mark a significance on a calendar or carve it into a stone – a physical action arising from a deep need to make something seem real and lasting. But life never is. And the moments that knit together to make a life cannot be nailed down by scratching symbols and tracking dates anymore than you can know a human being by reading their name. And yet, there it is: Smith Higgins. April 1, 1920 to December 27, 2014.

He was born on April Fool’s Day. Always an April Fool. Quite a character with such charm and a warm, friendly way with folks. Always respectful. Sometimes stubborn. Always kind. The story has it that he had it hard growing up during the Great Depression and that once he set his mind to something, he did it. No exceptions. No excuses. No complaining. That was the way that he lived. But what is on my mind now, more than that, is the way that he died.

That well-appointed hospice building…god disguised as a staff of warm strangers coming and going from the room, lines around their smiling eyes carved out by care…an IU basketball game on mute…a rough overlapping family schedule…the soggy grey evening outside…chocolate chip cookies from Marsh… a sturdy-voiced minister in a wool newsboy cap delivering the last rites from his pocket-sized bible…and the breath.

Looking back, you can say things like, “in his last moments,” or “with his final breath,” but when you are sitting there watching your mother hold his hand and pat it with anticipation, imploring, “hang on daddy, Sue is on her way;” or see your uncle hold his hand, leaning in close, trying to discern the subtle change in color slowly coming over his face, washing it gently from soft pink to shades of grey and yellow; or listen to the strained, shallow puffs of air drawn in by his open mouth and realize that they aren’t really moving his chest any longer; you realize that it is just one moment and another seamlessly woven together into a single stream of awareness that this…or maybe this…is the last moment life will linger in the fragile human body that is your grandfather. At the time, you don’t know it is the last breath until, pausing, leaning in to the silence with your own breath held, you wait and notice that not another one comes. So, that was it. That was the last one. That was how it happened. And a long pause, still waiting, just to be sure. Then a glance at the clock. 7pm. Where there was a man, now we have numbers.

But time didn’t stop when he stopped breathing or when his heart stopped beating even a few minutes before that. It didn’t stop as we hugged and cried, as his children touched his hands and kissed his head, and a loving, well-intentioned daughter-in-law went on and on about what a great life he had and how lucky he was. Time ticked on as his wife left the airport in a shuttle, making her way toward him as quickly as she could. By the time she rushed into the room, going straight to his side and taking his hand, still warm, in hers, he had been gone for over an hour. She kissed him and looked him over with all the genuine affection one could ever hope for.

As we were watching and waiting for that dying to happen, the departure to occur, that one special moment to take place, I felt the need to sing or to reach out and take some collective action that would unite this room of anxious people into a single entity for the purpose of facilitating the passing and marking the moment. But I don’t sing well, and no particular song came to mind. So, the chaos reigned on for several minutes until I asked if we could have a few moments of silence. I had this idea that the moment of passing should be honored and sacred, that we had a responsibility to hold space for it. After all, it was the end of something, wasn’t it? Something important? But, the truth is that endings are an illusion because if we look closely, very closely, something still moves and carries us forward and on, ever on, even now.


Darci Hawxhurst for The Poplar Grove Muse