Learning to listen


This guest post is by Lindsay McLaughlin. You can read a bit about her on the “Denizens” page.

Annie Dillard wrote a book called Teaching A Stone To Talk. It’s a trick title. The book is about human beings learning to listen. Stones talk all the time.

In early December, there was a retreat at Rolling Ridge for Advent and the Winter Solstice. We spent some time in the Meditation Shelter tuning our senses and psyches to awaken to the animate, breathing world around us. We gathered by the glowing woodstove in candlelight and read poetry, danced gently, sat quietly, sang a bit, and told stories. Then we went out into the forest, that world, which as Mary Oliver says, “is faithful beyond all our expressions of faith, our deepest prayers”, and listened.

On that misty, rainy Saturday, the trees were tall and dark. Rivulets dripped, trickled, splashed in the bark’s black crevices. Edges blurred; dull browns and grays prevailed. Only the lichen popped neon green on the sides of trees and draped across rocks. Such a beacon drew me to a stone on the far side of the stone pile near Wedding Walk. The pile was the work of farmers long ago clearing the fields, rough and determined hands hauling and hefting, hopeful of coaxing a crop out of mountain soil. The stones there had plenty of stories to tell. But I walked past, to the one lying perhaps ten yards beyond, a small boulder burrowed into the earth, dug in.

I’ve been thinking a bit about place, and belonging. It seems to be something yearned for, even as our restless culture shifts and slides around us. I thought about this, standing in the misty rain, watching the stone with its living pale green mantle. I thought about the fourth Benedictine monastic vow, the one about stability, the promise to stay with one’s community, in one place, for all of one’s life, dug in.

Some of us are reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass. It has a chapter with the subtitle, “…becoming indigenous to a place”, in which Robin ponders the cost of a habitual colonist mindset and whether we can instead learn to live on this earth as if we were staying. This seems to me to be not a vow so much as a matter of knitting a fabric of relationships, stitch by stitch, with the beings who inhabit the place, some of them for hundreds of years.

It was getting colder, the gray light darkening. Time to return to the fire, to the stories, to the human ones who too are part of the fabric of belonging. Time to bow my gratitude, to extend a hand and touch the feathery, crisp surface of the lichen, and the rough presence under it, and thank stone for talking.



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