Sunday, 22 March 2020

Today everything changes

I always hope to use this blog to write quickly and in the moment – writing as process rather than reflection. Somehow, it usually still takes me months to get anything up. But in this moment, I offer this from right here. Because this is a special moment. Things are changing quickly. These words will resonate so differently, even in a week. So here are some thoughts, from where I am right now, March 21st, a marker of Spring or Autumn in some places. 2020, a marker of change on this planet. Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. Alone in my apartment. Falling through uncertainty.


I’ll tell you a secret, something I’ve always been a bit ashamed of. When things fall apart, when projects fail, or plans – even big ones – fall through, a small part of me rises up. I feel excited by change, by the possibiltiies of thinking wider, of cancelling and finding another route at another time, of starting all over again. I think of myself as a good leader in these moments because even as I might feel challenged, I love feeling new futures emerge.

But this time, none of that. Just grief for a whole life lost. My plans this year – to deliver listening workshops and a beautiful symposium, to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday, to be with my family who live in other countries – all cancelled. Universities closing. Borders closing. Everything closing. I am left with some hard decisions about whether I can or should travel to be with loved ones. And even harder decisions to come.

When the wildfires raged earlier this year where I and others were living, I thought: this is a time of reckoning. I wrote the last blog post in response to that moment, while wondering how to write from what felt like the end of a world. At that time, I felt a certain horror that everything kept functioning while the world was on fire. But now I feel the horror of everything shutting down and breaking apart. It is this, it turns out, this virus moving very much like wildfire, that provides the moment of reckoning. And I am not ready for how much that reckoning hurts.

I have a cardboard sign I made for the climate march in Montreal last year. It was the first sign I ever made for a rally. I felt so proud of it. I brought it with me to a performance I did that night, and then I brought it home with me. Ever since, I have looked at it and it has looked at me. A kind of daily impasse has developed. I started to wonder what it even meant.

But now everything has changed. And I have to change.


What I haven’t done yet is slowed down enough to really feel the shifting rhythms of this city, this mountain, to know these birds. What I haven’t done, in a long time, is felt into the rhythms of sleeping and waking without electronic input. What I haven’t done is let go of my plans. Instead, I have postponed them in my mind, to carry on with later.

Some plans will get postponed.

Some plans will get postponed indefinitely.

I want to remember that I have everything I need inside me, now and always – not in a ‘my’ and ‘mine’ kind of way, but in the sense that we are universes. In the sense that looking in is already also looking out, if we let it be that way. In the sense that my inside is not separate from the world. And the world as I have known and lived it is breaking open.


Many years ago my friend Mark Trezona gave me a pack of cards he had made. They were designed to help with running an Action Learning Set, so each had an open question that would help someone think through a problem they were confronting in their lives. I still use this pack often, and treasure it. But there are two questions from the pack that I carry inside me:

What is the most radical thing you could do?
What is the simplest thing you could do?*

I wrote in my last blog post that I have been struggling to argue for listening in a world that needs action. I was thinking about the way that listening in a time of urgency sometimes feels inadequate or even silly. And I still feel it. I feel the trace of those thoughts in here, in this moment. But I also feel something different. I feel that listening is here, right here, urgently and proudly present in this moment. It’s not feeling ashamed any more in the face of activism. Today listening and being are activism. This moment, a deep acknowledgment that we are intricately bound whether we like it or not. That my touch, my breath itself, affect your breath, your capacity to live. The virus and its behaviours are us.

As we find ourselves in global shutdown, breakdown, and the sorrows that come with this collapse, I have a feeling that we must do what is at once simplest and most radical. Take to the roots. Know or trust that we have what we need within us, and therefore without. And listen in before we move forward.

*It turns out the actual questions are: ‘What is the most radical thing you could do to get what you want?’ and ‘What is the simplest useful thing you could do?’ but they have simplified in my head

Monday, 20 January 2020

Listening / in a time of urgency

It seems I have a tradition here of first signalling another blog post that has inspired me to finally sit down and write this one. Today it is ‘umb’ by So Mayer, which – exactly one month ago – flung me into the present moment, reminding me that writing doesn’t have to go somewhere else, be something else. That it can sit right in what is happening, even when that thing is unspeakable, hard to process, unprecedented, and beyond the confines of this language system I have found myself bound to.

So’s words don’t try to move beyond a state of (n)umbness, but to speak from it. The deep strong resonances their words create in my body remind me that the work I am constantly trying to make happen in the world is about just this: providing places and times when humans can come together and do nothing, move nothing forward. Places and times when we can be together without the need to also demonstrate that we are here.

It’s quite hard to say that out loud with conviction. The debate about whether this listening-gathering work I do has any worth goes around and around inside my head, as well as passing between me and brilliant others who do activist work that allies listening with politics in more obvious ways than mine. As I write it, now and every time, I feel ‘need for change’ and ‘need for action’ telling me that I should be doing something different. How can I argue that we should stay still, be together, without action, in a moment like this? The world is quite literally on fire.

“Numb. Succumb. A rhyme lost and found in the silence of an excrescent letter is a signal alerting us to be ready. To hold, open, even as we are going under. To let things echo in the hollow, however uncomfortable and hard – in their complexity, in their absoluteness, in their burden – to speak or to keep silent.

In that strange, held, horrible, heart-hollowing moment between the two – speech and silence – in the –umb, is listening.”


The blog post I began writing back in September was about a series of events I recently organised called Listening Tables – gatherings in which a group of up to 25 people collectively performs an act of reorientation, attempting to meet across difference from a place of listening, while taking on roles that we are not usually assigned within mainstream culture. In other words, an attempt to literally change who gets a seat at the table, who is heard, and how listening happens.

In a document about the project, I describe it as follows.

Each event will take place in two halves:

From 5-6.30pm ten people will drop into a place of listening, and collectively discover the words that arise from there. This is the Listening Table. Audience members who are not taking part in the Listening Table will have the opportunity to listen in via headphones from another room.

From 6.30-8pm we will enjoy a more convivial gathering in which everyone will be invited into a loosely held discussion together, shaped by the Listening Table that has just taken place.

It sounds joyful, doesn’t it? That’s the betrayal of words. The reality of doing this work is that it feels like a full body encounter with the stuckness, stubborness, and confrontedness of human beings facing change. It is some of the most complicated and challenging work I have ever done.

As anyone who has attended a workshop or gathering that I’ve organised in the past few years knows, I like to hold space by proposing parameters that challenge default modes of communicating. Something like:

No questions.
Silence and speaking are equally valid.
Anything is welcome.
Challenge your usual behaviours, so that those who are usually heard might find this a place in which to practise listening, and those who are usually unable to come to voice might find enough time and space to be able to speak.

These parameters always provoke relief/revelation and frustration in equal measure. By which I mean that there are always people who are frustrated by the amount of silence, who find the invitation to listen constraining, challenging, even violent; and there are always people who find the very same invitation a huge relief, a revelation. I have repeatedly been surprised that the ways in which people interpret the invitation fall so clearly down race lines: those who are used to being heard tend to find the experience silencing and oppressive, and are often the people in the room who pass as white and/or male; those who are used to not being heard are more likely to find it generous, and generative, even tender.

(image from Listening Table I)


Listening has a relationship with the unspoken, of course. When a room of people are collectively attempting to listen, there will be things that are not spoken that might otherwise have been voiced. And there will be things that are unspoken because they cannot yet be voiced. And there will be silencing, of self, perhaps, or coming to voice. And these things will be felt in bodies with histories, threaded through with the resonances of other stories from other lives, before and after, and alongside: our peers, mentors, parents, siblings, lovers, friends, and those who we pass by without realising that they changed our lives.

And yet, the invitation to listen is not an invitation to keep things unspoken. For me, it is actually quite the contrary. When we attempt to listen, we can more clearly perceive the extent of what is not heard, what is not said, and how speaking or declaring are only a part of what we share, navigate, and negotiate together with other humans. The things that are unspoken sit in the room with us. In the act of sharing listening, a slower, more careful dialogue unfolds. Unless it is arrested.


Listening  Safety  Whiteness.

Already those three words, sitting next to each other, do so much work. And that work lands differently in our different bodies. What is obvious in seeing those three words together changes as they are read by different eyes or heard by different ears.

When I say that I’ve been surprised that people’s behaviours so often fall along race lines, perhaps what I mean is that I’m disappointed at the impossibility of the task. My goal is not to reorient spaces that usually centre whiteness. My goal is to do the listening work that becomes possible having performed this reorientation. But it is hard not to get stuck reeling at the apparent enormity of the first task. The reorientation is such a surprise for some that they seem to experience a strong sense of vertigo. In response to this sensation, they hold on tight. And it is hard, if not impossible, to hold on tight and listen.

I want to keep safe those who are usually harmed within those spaces.


But I also want to let go of the illusion that I can keep anyone safe.

During the time that I've been running Listening Tables, I have come back to those three words again and again. I've been forced to feel the violences that run through a room when they are brought into proximity. And I've been forced to confront my own limits, my own desires, my own hurt.


I’ve been living and working on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people these past few months, witnessing the immense fires that are beyond my human understanding (though caused by human, and specifically colonial, actions) growing and changing every day. I have been trying to sit with the idea that there is no going 'back to normal'. That we are not okay, we are not okay, we are not okay. How is it possible to sit with these feelings without turning completely inwards with despair?

There have been moments in the last few months when I’ve felt shattered by these Listening Tables, and wondered whether I have the capacity to continue this work. You might think that the recent wildfires would have me turn my back on this kind of thing in favour of something more on the ground. It certainly feels strange to prioritise sitting in a quiet room, listening for what might arise between a group of strangers, while the world ends violently around us. But as it turns out, I believe in this work. I believe that, if nothing else, it reveals the underlying structures that hold us – the histories and ignorances that we would like to think belong in other bodies, somewhere out there. And it asks us to to sit with those feelings, knowing that we are not okay, together.

Trusting that the change will come wider and longer with this pause.