“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…”
― Rachel Naomi Remen
Miranda, shut up…
you’ll say something dumb!
Her own voice inside her
knotted with threads
of a fourth grade teacher
Sister Mary Faded White Woman
face a hornet’s nest,
threatening to paddle
the small brown girl
into the floorboards
of St. Charles School.
Why don’t you go back where you came from!?!
seeping down, down…
no longer even
a trace of Miranda,
only dust bunnies
along the wooden rails
of hobbled desks.
before the day of her vanishing,
Miranda used to roll an easy tongue
around fluid words as if
they were sun-warmed grapes
. . . revolving . . . purple . . .
her Tía Lucinda beaming
Ay, niña! You won’t have an accent!
Half a lifetime
and still Miranda cracks
her ringmaster’s whip
bringing her thoughts
like errant sparrows
Young Miranda had not responded to a question she did not hear in the hubbub of the new classroom. Bewildered by the nun’s rage and the chortling and hooting of bolder students, Miranda froze. That nun, a harried 5th grade teacher, bristled at the added imposition of having to deal with a tongue-tied 4th grader sent upstairs to her higher-level reading class.
The little girl, at nine, was not yet fully the keen observer she would become –a skill she came by naturally but would hone to hyper-vigilance in the war zone of her home. For her safety she would eventually master the art of becoming invisible, eyes veiled, body shrouded in so deep a silence she seemed to melt into walls. When the time of harsh awakening came and in the years that followed, every pore of her skin would wave its antennae. Plain air –what looked like empty space– would teem with the unmasked desires and intentions, incongruities and fears of those around her. She would learn to burn into her memory and later into poetry what she had seen and heard and felt, knowing –no matter how vehemently her perceptions would later be disputed– that she could and must trust herself. Knowing –long before she could articulate it– that in that balance hung her sanity. The events that would end her childhood were still three years away. At nine, having been in the U.S. only four years, she was learning she was alien and unwelcome. In that world, a figure as familiar as a school crossing-guard could open his mouth and slyly let out, “Careful, get hit by a car, all you’ll be is a spot of grease.” The little girl held her breath and crossed the street in a state of hyper alert. She did not know what he meant –she had not yet encountered the word “greaser”– but there was no mistaking malice. Only much later would she marvel that a grown man could speak with such venom to a child.
As a teenager –having sealed within her the rough passage through adolescence– withdrawn Miranda morphed into an angry, combative young woman confronting the strictures of family and religion. She was never a name-caller, nor a shouter, always drowned out by the bully’s louder voice. But –at home– she questioned everything with contempt. She found respite only in solitude. And for this she became the “designated patient” of her family’s miasma. As such she was tolerated until the silent mask of defiance she wore at her all-girl Catholic high school merited a threat of expulsion. Such a shaming was public –unthinkable in a tightly secretive family where what happened at home stayed in the home. Once a week for months she was taken to see a psychologist at the University of San Francisco. While retaining no memory of those one-on-one conversations, Miranda did not fail to notice that something in her shifted through the mere act of this quiet man calmly engaging her and actually listening.
Miranda made it through high school, upon graduation fleeing into a secretarial job at an insurance company in Chinatown. A new world of people, situations and other ways of being opened up for her, whose entire world up-to-then had been the confines of family, dogma and nuns. Her father had run her mother with such a firm hand that on more than one Christmas Eve Miranda and her three sisters had had to wait in the car while their mother stepped out with the bags of gaily wrapped gifts for her parents, her sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews –all gathered inside amidst the twinkling of Christmas lights. She was allowed only to drop off their gifts. Silently their mother got back in the car. Their father turned the car around and returned home. No one said a word. They had all known, from their mother on down, that to set off their father could turn Christmas into a train wreck.
In contrast, at Miranda’s workplace, her boss Harry was a soft-spoken Asian man, unhurried and ever thoughtful. Judy and her boss Tom were both roly-poly and equally cheery, often laughingly bantering and infecting the others. From the rating pool, Ed was the irreverent jokester with a bawdy laugh and a manic glee that hinted at the more in his mind that he left unsaid… And Steven was the quintessential artist, turning into beauty and delight every painting, every gathering in his picture-perfect apartment, every cup of coffee with its piquant cinnamon hint. Mariko and Miranda became fast friends, her first true hang-out-and-really-talk friend, not simply one of a clique of classmates where Miranda simply went along. Mariko was funny and far from quiet, even boisterous in her own sweet way, but having come from a non-competitive family it came natural to her to listen without jumping in and cutting Miranda off.
When Miranda left that job a year and a half later, she left with skills and friends and a shifting sense of herself. She recalled with almost affection an incident, soon after she had started working there, that at the time had been mortifying. While on her lunch hour, poking around with Judy in a Chinatown curio shop, Judy had wondered what time it was. Miranda, spying a large ornately carved clock, had begun, “The little hand is on the one…,” and stopped at Judy’s great peal of laughter. Judy had assumed Miranda was kidding. Much later Miranda could smile at how naïve and contracted she had been. Still, many more years would pass before she got over her habit of tiptoeing, as if always treading on dangerous ground.
In subsequent decades Miranda never ceased to carefully shepherd herself… always mindful of stepping back from any edge that, for her, loomed perilous. Like a deer in headlights, she could freeze in any mega-dose of sensory input. While she could no longer remember the last time she had splintered –her spirit fleeing her body for safety– the price of being short-circuited by too much noise, information or competing demands remained an instantly draining overwhelm.
She learned to recognize the needs of her brain and to move at its pace. The pathway to retrieve information is longer, brainwise, for the introvert. For an extrovert, retrieval is an immediate shot, from experience directly into the visual or auditory senses, so that, with little thought, information is processed almost immediately. For the introvert the pathway is not direct but tends to go back to where memory is stored and where verbal and thought and problem-solving is settled. Thus, it can take introverts a bit longer when asked to respond as the brain needs to go back over those pathways. Miranda learned to sit quietly, allowing space for the fragile bubble of insight rising within her to reach far enough into awareness to trigger words exquisitely matching the vibration of what she was feeling.
With time she became aware that in any situation where there was insufficient listening for her to take the time needed to retrieve what felt most alive in her, she was impacted to hold back, to say less and thus explore less. This holding back diminished the richness of communication, as it was within spacious, searching dialogues that some of the most deeply shadowed places in her came to light, where inspirations bubbled up, and elusive dots connected. Without the mirroring and cross-pollination that occurred in those sacred listening contexts, such revelations might never occur. With a jolt, Miranda realized that this “saying less” was not benign but amounted to self-censorship. This felt intolerable at some deeper level –something more that at the time she could not articulate. Neverthe-less, the mere realization freed her not only to more consciously honor her process and more gratefully embody what she now wholly recognized were her life‑long gifts of inner seeing, sensing and perceiving, but also to become more publicly open in their expression. Her frequent reminder was the state of awe in which she was so often held.
Eventually it dawned on Miranda why she had been unable to get at the “something more” that lay behind her instinctual rejection of what had suddenly been unmasked as censorship –regardless whether the censorship originated in her or resulted from suppression inherent in any situation where one is not listened to. She now recognized that the adamant “No more!” that had reared up in her was not simply personal to her. It was collective. Within Miranda there was now a living intensity, a force inexorably coming into form, driving a full-hearted determination to bring itself forth, fully formed and in full voice. And there was no mistaking the rising presence of this power in the world. Embodied most visibly by women, it is that animating force within us all, male and female, which for thousands of years has been demeaned, derided, suppressed –and which for 300 years was branded “witchcraft” and burned at the stake. It is humanity’s other wing –without which we are broken– the circularly inclusive, fiercely protective, instinctually intuitive power of the Feminine with her inborn affinity to the Earth. She is the Great Mother Goddess, the bringer of seasons –encompassing all her aspects from life‑giving to death-wielding, from gentle and self-sacrificing to wrathful and avenging in her protection. World-over, she was visible en masse –collaborative and defiant, joyful and bawdy– in January’s global Women’s March.
Like Miranda, much of the world was grappling with a hard awakening. The hardened patriarchal mentality was now institutionalized in a cold, faceless corporate order. In its blinkered and uncompromising winner-take-all race to the bottom, it had sacked our natural world to the brink of depletion. On its own, this ideology could only destroy and enslave. No solution could or would arise from the same state of mind that created the mess. On a social front, America in the era of Trump was more divided than at any other time in Miranda’s life. The racism that had long simmered beneath the surface was now boiling over. The complicated “blessing” in the spectacle of white supremacists with burning torches and Nazi slogans filling our streets was that Americans in their homogeneous bubbles were at last waking up.
Miranda felt the enormity and turbulence of our challenging journey but saw that whether humanity had one month, one year or a century to restore its lost balance, the work to be done was the same –to drop down into our hearts as we reach across to each other with courage and vulnerability and generosity of spirit. And to deeply listen. As if by some magic, listening… and being listened to… heals.
These themes of love, courage, generosity and passionate expression of our essential self in service to our greater healing are richly depicted in the symbolism of today’s Solar Eclipse across America. Eclipses dislodge the old and usher in the emergent. We are in an alchemical moment… for ourselves… for Earth and all her beings… and for the gifts of innovation and wisdom for which our world thirsts.
The Sacred Power of Listening
Walking Across America: Advice for a Young Man