June 2020 Newsletter

cherry blossoms

Learning to Listen

For Lent one year, I thought hard about what would be a true sacrifice I could make during the season between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

I was a young mother at the time, staying home with my children. There were so few things that were even mine to give up. I was not eating in fancy restaurants or buying nice clothes — we didn’t have the money for that. I had no time for vices. But I did have a group of other young mothers. We met weekly, sometimes more, for the kids to play and the moms to chat. I never considered giving up my outings. I couldn’t see how losing community could bring me closer to God.

But I wondered: Could I stop telling stories for six weeks? The idea was that in every interaction, rather than me dominating the conversation with my news, my observations, my humorous happenings, I would step back and listen. I would use my time with my friends to hear about their lives, to ask sincere questions about their thoughts and their world and their wonderings.

It would be a way to step away from selfishness for a short while — from pride and envy and greed. And to perhaps help my neighbor, giving her a place to untangle something trying or to share a moment of joy. Our exchange would be about her rather than me.

In the end, I did not give up telling stories for Lent. I couldn’t figure how to go about it without seeming strange. I couldn’t think how to answer people who asked: What did you give up for Lent? Oh, telling stories.

But over the last few weeks, this consideration has come back to me.

As black men and women have been killed by those sworn to protect them, as their sisters and brothers have taken to the streets demanding that our institutions change to keep this from happening again, as white people begin to fathom the injustices that black people have lived with for centuries, one of the recommendations to those who want to help rather than hinder is to simply listen.

There is a phrase in psychology that has gained popularity in the last several years: holding space.

It means to be present with someone and for someone. It means to spend time with another, ready to listen and not judge, ready to hear their truths without offering advice or taking control or injecting oneself or trying to fix anything. It means giving someone the space to be who they are and to work out what they need to. It means having conversations that are not about us.

I had not heard of holding space when I weighed what to give up for Lent all those years ago. But my conscience was somehow tugging me toward it.

Yet just as I couldn’t figure a way to make that meaningful Lenten sacrifice then, it feels awkward and hard and off balance to hold space for black people now.

We’ve been raised from the get-go to perform, to answer the test questions correctly, to stand up and stand out, to fix problems, to make a difference, to leave our marks on the world. To tell our stories.

And none of those actions is wrong in and of itself. But, I believe, there are moments when stepping back, being open, staying quiet can have value too. I’m thinking for me — for white people — this is one of those moments.

So, I am trying. To judge less. To stop framing others’ narratives with my limited understanding. To end the commentary on actions I don’t fully understand. I am seeking others’ points of view through what I read and watch and listen to. I am questioning what I thought I knew.

I am holding space.

I am learning to listen.

It’s not enough. But it’s a place to start.

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My podcast pick this month is a raw, honest conversation between the beloved Krista Tippet and her incredibly eloquent colleague Lucas Johnson. If you’re ready to soul search and are open to contradictions and complexities, this On Being episode is for you.

Founded in 1977, with 27 publications to its credit, Artemis Journal is a showcase for Southwest Virginia’s writers and artists. This year’s edition is as visually beautiful as it is filled with insights and inspiration. I am humbled to have one of my poems included in the same collection as national literary standouts like Nikki Giovanni and Natasha Trethewey. To purchase your very own copy of this treasure, head here.

Do your city leaders publish thoughtful, informative communication? Mine do. Roanoke’s city manager, Bob Cowell, writes a blog post every Monday and our Arts and Culture Coordinator Douglas Jackson sends out an email newsletterevery few weeks that is brimming with information. I learn so much from these inbox gems! I highly recommend searching your city’s website to see if you, too, can connect with your community in this way.

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In my house, there are two parents working from home, plus two teens and a tween studying/reading/chatting with friends/keeping themselves busy. We’ve had a lot of together time in the last three months. Here’s an essay I wrote for Grown and Flown — a website for parents of teens and young adults— about how I’m learning teenspeak as a way to cope and connect.

Leah Penniman has long been a force to be reckoned with, a truth-teller, and a woman who gets things done. Farming While Black is Leah’s story of how she created a path to justice and agency. For a look at what’s wrong with our country’s food system and how racial disparities infect every corner of society, spend a few minutes with this video.

It’s officially summer. Which means my backyard herbs are at their peak, I’m frantically trying to eat all of my kale before it gets buggy, and I’m picking raspberries every day. All the fresh fruits and veggies! That’s why I love this season so much.

I have one last essay to share this month …. This is about how objects contain memories — and how I’m wishing for an attic to store those many objects.

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Last month, I wrote about the impact we can have when we buy local (food, gifts, art, books). A reader reached out to tell me about the new website Bookshop.org. It’s a way to support independent bookstores and authors, a way to keep Amazon from cornering every online market. Their plan was to launch in January and slowly grow over the next several months. In fact, as we all know, a month into their launch, the coronavirus changed everything and for a few weeks it wasn’t even possible to buy books from Amazon. Bookshop.org suddenly had a great business model at a time of real need. My recommendation is to make them your go-to online bookseller even as life heads back toward normal. Yes, you will pay for shipping. No, your books will not arrive in 2 days. In exchange, you can help ensure that your local brick-and-mortar bookstore will still be around to host author events and make your city a more interesting place to live. Bookshop.org also pledges to give a higher percentage of each book sale to authors. Win-win-win, right?