“On winter’s margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe’s broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.
With half a loaf, I am the prince of crumbs;
By time snow’s down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their sire to walk abroad!
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines;
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink the wind…”
On Winter’s Margin, by Mary Oliver
My days begin slowly as I hover in a ritual I call my sacred time. The cats have been fed. I’ve made myself a cup of coffee. The rising sun is cresting the distant hills casting shadows on the frozen fields of stubble. Soon the rust of autumn will be followed by the decay of winter and the flowering of spring. It’s so quiet I can almost hear the rhythm of the season slowing down and the ever present call to an authentic life. A church bell rings, a dog barks, and hundreds of little birds flutter to and from the oak tree. I let their words swirl around me.
Learning to pay attention to the natural world is essential to me. Nature is constantly teaching me to listen. Genuine listening is listening to understand. When you listen to understand you hear the entire message, the subtext, the backstory. You not only pay attention to what someone says, but how they say it. What we want when talking to another is for that person to understand why we feel the way we do.
For most of us, talking is much easier than listening. We don’t make the effort to actually listen to the other person’s tone of voice, choice of words, and what they’re talking about. We hear them, but don’t truly listen to them. By inserting earbuds or burying our faces in our devices our technological environment is busy generating a need for even more stimulation, the content of which is almost irrelevant. What is really worth paying attention to?
As our inner lives continue to become more and more fragmented we have less to think about what really matters. While our brains are chattering away worrying about the chiming pings and tweets on our smartphones or the latest Amazon deals, we allow highly orchestrated commercial forces to step into our lives and grab our attention. And if we’re not distracted by technology, our own thoughts often keep us from listening to one another. We may think we are listening, but more than likely we are just considering how to jump in to tell our own story, offer advice, or make a judgment—we are not listening to understand but to reply.
Communication is more important than ever, yet we seem to devote less time really listening to each other. The Dutch writer and theologian, Henri Nouwen said, “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond…The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends.”
If you close your eyes right now and simply listen to the world, what can you hear in this moment? I can hear the hum of life, the fly that’s buzzing behind the curtain above my desk, the music of one of my contented cats purring next to me while napping on my papers, the distant call of a crow.
Sometimes we come to the edge of actually experiencing real joy, teetering on the brink and then don’t know what to do because the demons of the world circle overhead. Remember to breath. Pay attention to what’s really important. Tell the truth. Deepen the conversation. Listen.
Just listening to somebody else is a gift.
Genuine listening is love.
“I have walked through many lives
some of them my own, and I am not who I was,
through some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray…”
The Layers by Stanley Kunitz
I recently returned to France from a trip to the United States after being away for over a year and a half. I visited, Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina, where my partner’s family lives, then Seattle, Washington for my son’s 40th birthday. While flying 40,000 feet above the Earth, there and back through myriad time zones ( an extraordinary marvel in itself) I looked around at all the other passengers and wondered what makes me “me” and not someone else?
The common idea that DNA determines much of who we are is a misinterpretation, as I was reminded while reading The Biology of Belief. Our DNA is controlled by our environment. It’s our perceptions, not genetic programming, that kindle all action in our bodies: Beliefs act as a filter between the environment and our biology, therefore it’s actually our beliefs that select our genes. Thus, people have the power to change their biology. We are not victims of our heredity.
Reflecting on the many iterations of myself I’ve experienced in my lifetime, I wonder how we maintain a true sense of self? With the exception of photography, there are no fixed snapshots of who we are at any given moment. My life is an evolving, creative endeavor. I’ve been a child, daughter, wife, mother, aunt, gardener, designer, architect, writer, photographer, and friend. I am not who I was then, nonetheless, I am the sum of many lives, a fusion of almost 65 trillion cells, a theatre where biology and quantum physics meet.
The layers of life ebb and flow like the waves of an ocean rippling outward until they dissipate into pure energy. I believe how I’ve chosen to walk in the world determines who I am. Our molecules exist in an operatic drama of flowing potential, nimble, graceful and elegant. As Gandhi said, If you change yourself you will change your world. If you change how you think you will change how you feel. By viewing your environment through new lenses of thought and emotions we can discover an unlimited capacity to create a life worth living full of peace, happiness, beauty and love.
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